The Compassionate Kurosawa (Overview)

by Ezekiel Fry

The art of translating the world of literature into the world of cinema is something of a tricky business. There are few artists capable of stepping beyond the simple process of converting a written work into a cinematic work. Most adaptations are just that, mere retellings. The artist who can successfully take literary source material and painstakingly remold, re-envision, and create anew a literary work into their own fresh piece that stands apart from the original, while still being informed by it, is something rare indeed. The world of cinema certainly affords a wider range of storytelling methods than the world of literature, but the massive amount of creative options often leaves the work stilted or dry. The potential for greatness is always there. William Shakespeare, in Henry V, seems to foretell the growth of techniques in the dramatic arts as he writes, “Can this cock-pit hold/ The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/ Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt” (prologue 11-14). These lines ask the audience to forgive the meager display of battle that the stage affords the actors of the play, but also harkens towards a future in which the “vasty fields of France” shall easily be crammed within the “wooden O” of a modern film house. The Chorus also indicates an important piece of advice that all too often the cinematic re-interpreter fails to remember, “And let us, ciphers to this great account,/ On your imaginary forces work” (prologue 17-18). Within these two prognostic statements lies the balance that creates remarkable literary cinema: firstly, the use of cinematic technique and capabilities, and secondly the careful remembrance, or perhaps reverence, of the ability of mankind to create through imagination. This second piece is perhaps the most important of all. To fully re-envision a literary work in a cinematic way the spark of imagination that first made the source material great must remain intact, and yet how does one create a masterful original without the weight of the source crushing it into oblivion? It is truly a fine line that the artist must tread. Akira Kurosawa is an artist who consistently walks this tightrope with, more often than not, amazing results. The ability of Kurosawa to take an established work and make it his own is a feat perhaps never equaled in cinematic history. The question then remains, how and why is it that Kurosawa’s films work on such a literary level? What techniques and themes are constants? And perhaps most importantly, how does his adaptive technique become fuller and how do his past approaches inform each new work? These are the questions which we shall endeavor to answer here.