Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Kurosawa Test

Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa's debut work, Judo Saga (1943). For five years, Kurosawa would make six pictures that demonstrated the master's seemingly congenital gifts of a magnificently skillful craftsman, including one sequel to his first film. With the meditative but crackerjack crime thriller Drunken Angel (1948), however, he reached a certain zenith as a brilliant filmmaker whose still-budding themes and abilities demonstrably gained traction and weight. The man himself knew it. "In this picture, I finally found myself," he said.
Taking the Kurosawa template for filmmakers, past and present, at which point do you think certain directors found themselves? Is it an intrinsically different process today, or does the increased freedom only muddy the line of progress? Certain directors, it seems, only needed one picture to find themselves, but what does such a pronouncement mean, precisely?
Drunken Angel is a certain culmination and beginning for Kurosawa. Playing out in a benighted, unsightly slum in Tokyo, the story focuses to a great degree on a drunken doctor whose crusade to drain a stagnant pool that engenders the conditions for mosquitoes to prey on people in the pool's proximity, and like a number of Kurosawa masterpieces, details the grinding, exhaustive experience of the unfortunate poor in Japanese society. As is the case with so many auteurs, Drunken Angel's importance becomes clearer in the hindsight of Kurosawa's later works. The violent ferocity of Stray Dog, the crusading spirit of Ikiru, the depressed milieu of The Lower Depths and Dodes'ka-den and many other touchstones familiar to those who have traversed the fascinating arc of such a rich body of work.
Judo Saga features many intrinsic thematic concerns that would haunt Kurosawa's films, and which may perhaps be boiled down to, why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there injustice, in all of its myriad forms? How does the human soul sometimes become corrupted? How does it find redemption, or at least some measure of it? What is the place in the modern world for the values of ancient and medieval Japan? Is modernity (the film is set in 1882) all that it is made up to be? Kurosawa may not have found himself yet but he had taken his first step, and an interesting one, with a film that sparks more curiosity today because we are privileged to see the development, to note the nascent technique, to find the artist before he found himself.


Sam Juliano said...

How great is Kurosawa in the pantheon of Japanese cinema, which is the greatest national cinema behind France (and only by a small margin).
Well, it all depends on who you ask. With me he finishes third behind Ozu and Mizoguchi, and ahead of Naruse, Shimizu, Kobayashi, Kinoshita, Ichikawa, Yamanaka, Shindo, Oshima, Matsumoto. Perhaps the shattering emotional humanism which defines all of Ozu and most of Mizoguchi--the three GREATEST Japanese films of all-time are the work of these two---SANSHO THE BAILIFF, TOKYO STORY and LATE SPRING--is what floats my boat, but ask Davis Bordwell, Audie Bock and Donald Richie what they think--the answer won't be much different! But Kurosawa, whose is of course more conventionally Western than the others, has made masterworks too...i.e. THE SEVEN SAMURAI, IKIRI, RASHOMON, RAN (I know Alexander has been haven trouble with this Shakespeare adaptation. LOL.) and THRONE OF BLOOD are undisputed masterworks, and as Alexander explains with teh debut film, DRUNKEN ANGEL and the famed follow-up, that his style at that time was powerful and singular.
As Alexander rightly points out in a superb sentence, Kurosawa has a rich and diversified body of work, and in the early films he did chronicle the plight of the poor. He remains with the other two giants, among the most influential of all filmakers.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for that terrific and sweeping comment, Sam.

I find it difficult to rate Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi against one another because they're so remarkably different from one another, and yet they do share some similarities (surely more exist between Ozu and Mizoguchi, however). It's a bit like rating Ford against Welles and Chaplin. Or maybe not. Or maybe so. In any event, I am an avid admirer of all of the elite Japanese filmmakers you point to here. Naruse and Ichikawa tend to stick out a great deal as well, and I love all of their films.

Thank you again, Sam.

joel said...

Interesting post, Alexander. To get back to your initial question, I'd say that Scorsese (one of my personal faves) found himself with Taxi Driver but didn't trascend himself until Raging Bull.

Taxi Driver is a great movie, don't get me wrong, and it could easily be counted as a masterpiece (i count it as one). But where Taxi Driver is self-aware in so many respects (it's always felt "directed" to me rather than organic in its storytelling), Raging Bull feels at once natural and unnatural, literary and cinematic. It transcends simply being a movie about Jake LaMotta, or even a study of self-destruction.

What do you think?

Farzan said...

Interesting post, overal a very good read.

p.s cool blog, keep up the great work

Alexander Coleman said...

That sounds right to me, Joel, and thanks for that very interesting example and analysis.

Scorsese, I believe, has seen Taxi Driver as fundamentally a Paul Schrader picture that Scorsese was able to direct. As such, it's ultimately a film from both men, as Schrader's screenplay is made cinematically whole by Scorsese's instrinsic understanding of New York City, in this film cast as a kind of nightmarish urban cesspool. Nevertheless, I agree that Scorsese "found himself" with Taxi Driver and then transcended himself with Raging Bull. I love both of those films dearly, they're two of my absolute favorite motion pictures, and I agree that they function as the blossoming of a masterful director.

Farzan, thank you for stopping by and I hope to see you around here in the future. And thanks for the kind words.