American Gloom

Category: Japanese Cinema

Kurosawa’s Forgotten Gem: Dersu Uzala

by Ezekiel Fry

Dersu Uzala is a very unique film within Kurosawa’s body of work. Unlike previous ventures such as Throne of Blood or The Bad Sleep Well, Dersu Uzala is haunting not in a foggy and obscured manner, but in its gutturally bright brilliance. Nature, when seen through Kurosawa’s lens, and captured on 70mm film takes on an almost ethereal beauty and transcendence that has the same evocative presence that scenes in Spider’s Web Forest or the dirt pit have in the previously mentioned films. Kurosawa has always been adept at capturing the strength of nature in his work and exploring humankind’s relationship, be it directly or indirectly, with the wilder elements of the world. With Dersu Uzala he takes this process one step further, placing humanity beneath nature, this is not a relationship of equality—humankind must bow to nature at every turn or be buffeted from the land of the living. There is a brooding quality to the presence of nature that only truly appears perhaps (and only to a much smaller degree) in Throne of Blood’s forest scenes. From the initial scenes with Arseniev looking for Dersu’s grave, to the final scenes with the same connection, the body of the film is fraught with peril and tension. The wilds of Siberia are unforgiving.
The menacing presence of nature is felt most tangibly in the scene in which Arseniev and Dersu must create a hut out of grass on the darkening steppes or face the harsh reality of freezing to death. Dersu continues yelling at Arseniev, “Must work fast, Captain!” This simple statement, in addition to the maniacal voice of the wind and the men’s fervent motions give incredible weight and gravity to the struggle. We do not question whether this is truly a life or death moment. Everything hangs in the balance and Arseniev must pluck up whatever inner reserves he has left in order to help Dersu save his (Arseniev) life.
There is no bombastic moment, no great battle scene, no brutal fights, merely the men trying to survive in the cold, and yet stunningly beautiful, frozen lands of eastern Russia. Although the structure is intensely formal, with the bookend scenes of Arseniev and the two major flashback expeditions as the body of the piece, this is perhaps as close to a meditation as Kurosawa ever reached in his work. The film simply flows. The characters meander through a world which changes seasons but never actually gives up its true identity. We never get over the mystery of the woods or the chilling silence of the steppes. Dersu has initiated us into the world that he understands (at least better than we) but there is no piercing that final layer and seeing things in a familiar light. Perhaps that is why Kurosawa’s lighting on this film is so strikingly different from any of his other films. He is attempting to create an alien world out of the one that we live in, or at least live next to. Such a beautiful film, even if it doesn’t pack the wallop that many of his other works do.


The Compassionate Kurosawa (Ran)

by Ezekiel Fry

Almost thirty years after creating his first grand adaptation of Shakespeare, Kurosawa returns to the Bard of Avon’s canon and selects perhaps his greatest tragedy for representation on the screen, King Lear. By this time in his career Kurosawa is a secured master of cinema. He has gone through the ups and downs of life and arrived at a place where he can, with full confidence and individual vision, tackle a subject as lofty (or low) as the tragedy of King Lear. Ran is certainly Kurosawa’s most self-assured film since Red Beard, and this level of surety shows through in every frame. The subject matter is Kurosawa’s own. The basis may be in Shakespeare, but everything that needs to be said is straight from the heart and mind of the auteur himself. Much like Throne of Blood, Ran is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play, not an adaptation in the true sense. The skeleton remains the same, but the body has been changed drastically.
Where Kurosawa found his voice to create a truly “Dostoevskian” work with Red Beard, as Donald Richie points out, Ran takes Kurosawa’s “Dostoevskian” voice one step further. While Red Beard, Richie writes, is the most compassionate of all Kurosawa’s films, I disagree that it is the single most “Dostoevskian” of all Kurosawa’s works (85). Certainly the level of compassion is consistent with characters such as Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov, but there is a key element of Dostoevsky’s vision lacking from both Red Beard and The Idiot. This is the ultimate danger of denial. The most striking quality of a character such as Alyosha is that he appears human in his doubting and searching. There is nothing saint-like about either Alyosha or his mentor Father Zossima. They both embody the frailty of humankind, but from a perspective of acceptance, much like Mifune’s character in Red Beard. This being said, the enigmatic and engaging brother, Ivan, and the complexity of his character type is completely lacking from Red Beard. It is in Ran, which translates as “revolt” or “chaos”, so very similar to Ivan’s great treatise against God’s world, “Rebellion”, that Kurosawa creates the other side to man’s spiritual stance. For the acceptance of Red Beard, we see the revolt of Ran. The contrast is striking.
The level of suffering in Ran may initially appear Shakespearian in nature, and in many ways it certainly is, but the melodrama—the sheer scale of misery—that occurs within the film is much more akin to the works of Dostoevsky. Hidetora may mirror Lear, and his sons mirror Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, but they also mirror the Karamazov family from The Brothers Karamazov. Hidetora, like Fyodor, is not the loving and pure father that Lear appears to be in Shakespeare’s play. Kurosawa gives back-story that shows the brutal nature of Hidetora, giving him a darker edge than Lear ever had. This added element to the central figure of the drama echoes Dostoevsky’s description of Fyodor, “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too” (6). This statement can be applied to either Lear or Hidetora, but given the grisly back-story for Hidetora it seems so much more fitting for him. Dostoevsky’s subtle lines give some indication why a shrewd old man might suddenly give up his wealth to those he may only love conditionally. This generosity of course is not congruent with the miserly character of Fyodor, but the general tone fits well. Also Dostoevsky’s lines “He was sentimental. He was wicked and sentimental” give some indication of Hidetora’s true self (23). The duality of wickedness and sentimentality is shown brilliantly in Hidetora’s dealings with Lady Sue and his subsequent fear at the sight of her blind (by his own hand) brother. His own wicked behavior has created a life for Lady Sue that, from Hidetora’s wicked perspective, ought to have resulted in her hating him. He finds being near her even more difficult because she does not hate him, but in fact loves him. This affection touches his sentimental nature, but the wickedness of his life will not allow him to accept her love in full. He cannot embrace with tenderness, merely the illusion of tenderness. Hidetora’s difficulty to love is in step with Fyodor’s description of “the shadows of hooks” in Hell (23). A man who knows only his selfish way sees the rest of the world in shadow, and as Fyodor fears the imagined punishments of Hell, Hidetora fears Sue’s judgment that exists merely as a shadow on his soul.
In the third act of the film Kurosawa begins to tackle the harsh ideology that powers Ivan Karamazov. Initially the subject is approached by Kyoami and the now mad Hidetora when they discuss man’s likeness to a worm in the ruins of Sue’s family castle. Hidetora does not want to be crushed like a worm. Kyoami tells him that there is no other alternative. He says, “Man is born crying. He cries and cries, and then he dies!” This line shows the first glimpses of Ivan’s world negating philosophy. The idea that man is born crying and remains crying indicates not only that man does nothing save suffer, but also that perhaps man does not live long enough to break out of infancy. We are born crying and before we can reach a position of maturity we are swept away into death. This view of the situation makes everyone in the world a child, thus placing them within Ivan’s list of the unaccounted for sins of god against innocent humanity. Couple this with the later lines from Kyoami concerning the cruel nature of the Gods and Ivan’s tortured soul seems quite well represented here in the world of Shakespearian Kurosawa. There is something as well to be said about the fact that these lines of rebellion are spoken by the Fool, or child. Kyoami is quickly silenced by Tango following his curse against the gods. The adult silences the child, but the child is within all of us, as the adult is as well. The warring nature of humanity’s belief in both itself and the gods is fully represented in these two contrary statements of faith and doubt. All this leads to the disconnection of humanity, in this world of woe, from the power of the gods, who may or may not desire to see us suffer, in the tangible form of Tsurumaru attempting to navigate his way on the edge of an abyss without the image of the Buddha. It remains unclear whether the gods have forsaken humankind or vice versa, but either way the world is one of absurd suffering with no end in sight.
Unredeemable as it may be, the world of Ran reflects one half of the spiritual belief to be found in most of Dostoevsky’s works, and The Brothers Karamazov in particular, while Red Beard reflects the other. Taken together they are wonderful complementary pieces and create a tapestry of cinema as rich as that great final novel of Dostoevsky.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (The Lower Depths)

by Ezekiel Fry

The Lower Depths is somewhat of a departure from Kurosawa’s earlier adaptations and is certainly a dramatic shift from Throne of Blood, his previous adaptation of a play for the screen (done earlier the same year, 1957). Where Throne of Blood is a free, although structurally faithful, adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Lower Depths is to the letter in its representation of Gorky’s play. Throne of Blood is a play adapted into a film, and The Lower Depths is a play that is filmed using cinematic techniques. (This may be due merely to the substantial stage and set directions that Gorky includes, where Shakespeare is largely ambiguous.) Kurosawa even goes so far as to retain the original four acts and two sets that Gorky’s play uses. This technique further establishes for the audience that this is a play. This may be Kurosawa’s rendition, or styling, of Gorky’s work, but it is still very much indebted to the playwright. The film does not break away from the source material in the way that Rashomon and Throne of Blood have previously. This is not to say that The Lower Depths is a less original creation than the aforementioned films, but instead it shows yet another development in Kurosawa’s ever changing approach to creating cinema from literary works.
Kurosawa’s main set is a ramshackle tenement that lies within a large ravine, or pit. The location of the tenement is established in the opening sequence of the film which pans around the walls of the pit from below. By showing the view from below (and there will never be a true view from above) initially Kurosawa creates a feeling of imprisonment. It is almost as if the audience is looking up to the rim of the pit and cannot see a way out. From the very outset there is a sense of separation and claustrophobia. As the shot completes its pan the camera stops on two unknown characters that dump garbage into the pit and onto the roof of the building. They say it is merely a “rubbish heap” anyhow. This is the last time the building will be shown from this elevated perspective. The scene shifts to the interior of the “rubbish heap” that has just been symbolically showered with filth, and it becomes apparent that there are indeed people inhabiting the dilapidated building. This quick sequence of establishing shots illustrates the precarious and fallen nature of the building and anyone who may dwell within. It is unclear who is dumping the garbage on the roof, but they certainly do not look like aristocrats. This, coupled with its location in the pit, shows that the characters which are about to be introduced are the lowest of the low. They have fallen beneath poverty, into the literal pit of despair.
The scene shifts to the interior of the tenement which looks no better from the inside. The general feel is that of a large barn or stable, but instead of housing livestock this barn shelters humanity in many forms. The first shot inside the building has an almost voyeuristic quality to it. The audience is dumped into the middle of a conversation between the former samurai and the candy seller. The camera has crept into this hovel and arrives in the middle of life. The viewer is forced to catch up on the fly as each resident of the house is introduced. Kurosawa lays out his set so that the camera, or view, is in the foreground and the set spreads out from this central position. In this way there are only three walls of the tenement that will ever be visible. The “front” wall will never be seen. This is where the film is typically shot from, giving the whole production an intensely theatrical feel. The camera sits where the audience of the play would. The viewer sees the film very much as one would see it as a play. The action spreads out from the foreground and a row of cubbies which serve as beds to the right. Bubnov sits in the background against the far wall and the tinker sits in the foreground. Everything that happens in the tenement will happen within these boundaries, although the shot may shift to show the room from a different angle. It is in the shifting of the camera that Kurosawa is able to truly put his directorial mark on the proceedings. There are several times when this cinematic quality bursts through the softness of the stage play and creates amazingly powerful moments.
The first of these cinematic bursts comes at the end of act one. In Gorky’s play the scuffle between the sisters is heard and not seen. With the ability to shift scenes and sets at will Kurosawa shows the actual fight itself. Osugi (Isuzu Yamada!) chases Okayo out of the building and down a stone path set against the wall of the pit. Here again Kurosawa shows the upper world from the perspective of a pit dweller. The shot shows the two sisters struggling with one another from a low angle. The top of the cliff is visible and sunlight streams over from the edge, while the path itself is shrouded in shadows. The two women are briefly illuminated against this flash of sunlight but quickly sink back against the shadowy wall of the pit. It is at this point that Osugi is pulled away by her husband and she spits on her sister, all the while the distant sunlight is present. This amazing sequence erupts from the stillness of the first act (much in the same way that it would occur in a staging of the play) with ferocity and immediacy. There is even an out of control quality to the camera work. The women move through the frame frantically and the camera does its very best to follow them. They careen forward, often times coming so close to the camera that they are almost lost from view or completely obscured. In this way the camera mimics the viewer’s eye, startled into motion from the sedentary events that lead up to the fight, attempting to gather balance and bearing. Add to this the blurring aspect of the sunlight directly hitting the shot and the result is utter chaos. The explosion is punctuated by Osugi’s spitting, a visceral exclamation mark on the event. By placing the camera at such a low angle Kurosawa is able to show the contrast of the darkness of the pit and the light of the outside world. The inhabitants of the depths can see the light of fellowship, but are trapped in the shadows of their own horrific deeds. The first real view of the sun is seen through two violent shapes. Where there would be warmth and hope there is despair and rage. Everything is thrown on its head and the result is an extremely powerful and jarring sequence that subtly shows that this is in fact a Kurosawa, not a Gorky. Amazing. [36:30]
The second example of this standout cinematic artistry within the film occurs when Rokubei walks in on Sutekichi and Osugi conversing alone. These two former lovers have been in deep conversation and the entrance of Osugi’s husband bursts their insular bubble. His entrance itself is unnerving as he is more discovered than actually enters of his own accord. The shot of him leering in the tattered window is particularly disturbing. Events progress quickly and end with the pilgrim stopping Sutekichi from strangling Rokubei. Prior to the choking incident Osugi rushes out of the building and leaves Rokubei and Sutekichi standing next to one another. The initial shot of the two shows them up-close, from the waist up, and then dramatically cuts out to show their full bodies standing in tension, side by side. Kurosawa lingers on this still shot for more than several moments, pitting the wills of each man against one another. Out of this momentary pause comes the violent attack from Sutekichi. This outburst is in the same vain as the eruption of the sisters’ fight earlier on, but there is a more brooding tone here. Showing these two men next to one another is a foreshadowing of the murder which will occur at the end of act three. Kurosawa carefully paces this sequence with quiet (the conversation), outburst (the entrance), quiet (the “stand-off”), and outburst (the choking) giving the viewer little time to recover before hurling a powerful interaction outwards full force. [102:40]
In this way, amongst others, Kurosawa subtly displays his art as a film director while allowing the play to exist in and of itself. The two things do not exist apart from one another, but are carefully melded into one piece of electric cinema that is unrelenting in its portrayal of the human condition. The final scene works in much the same way that these other scenes do, except in reverse. The scene moves from madness and revelry to quiet introspection, giving the viewer one final unsuspecting jolt. Truly, Kurosawa was the director who was made to adapt Gorky, he seems to understand the playwright’s pacing so very well, and use the pre-existing material to craft a work of tremendous gravity.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (The Bad Sleep Well)

by Ezekiel Fry

NOTE: as the kids say, SPOILER ALERT!!!

The Bad Sleep Well departs from Kurosawa’s previous adaptations in several distinct ways. Firstly, this is a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That is to say that, unlike Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well takes elements—key themes, plot devices, and characters—from Hamlet and throws them into a completely new and unique narrative. This is the first of Kurosawa’s adaptations that is truly Shakespearian in its creation. Certainly Throne of Blood is Shakespearian in nature, but its creation (even though it departs from the original in significant ways) is essentially based on the framework of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Although it takes place in 16th century Japan it retains narrative qualities directly from the original play. The Bad Sleep Well on the other hand is a based on the source material, but is a completely new narrative, with many differing elements. With the exception of The Tempest, all of Shakespeare’s plays were based on pre-existing material (be it legends, plays, historical documents) that he altered dramatically to create an artistic vision that is often times unrecognizable from the original. With the creation of The Bad Sleep Well Kurosawa takes Hamlet and uses it in the very same manner. Nishi is certainly “Hamlet-like,” but he is not Hamlet, and the same can certainly be said of all the other characters that populate the world of the film. Every film that has been examined thus far (and will be examined) was written by Kurosawa, it is his vision that ends up being turned into the final product—he is directing his own work. Every adaptation is his own creation, and The Bad Sleep Well is a creation that stands alongside Shakespeare. It is almost unnecessary to even mention that the film is based on Hamlet, as it creates such a different atmosphere. This is, from a literary perspective, the most impressive film that this study has uncovered thus far. The Bad Sleep Well is not an adaptation—free or otherwise—but instead an original creation of the highest order.
The opening shot of the film sets the rigid tone of the world that will begin to be unveiled. Servants stand milling about, until from off screen, from the direction of the camera, a bell rings and the relaxed servants spring into tense action. The shot shifts to show these servants now lined up on either side of the source of the bell, an elevator. They await the arrival of their betters. In the very first moments of a film, which is quickly becoming a strong theme in all of the examined work, Kurosawa artfully displays the main theme of the entire film, firmly establishing the proceedings. Loyalty and hierarchy (and betrayal of this order) will be the main themes of the film, orbiting constantly against the overwhelming gravity of revenge.
Nishi, unlike Hamlet, is not an ineffectual spirit of vengeance. The story begins with perhaps Nishi’s first machination of revenge—the suicide-referencing wedding cake. This is certainly not the first action that has been taken by Nishi in his quest to topple—rather completely destroy—the men who brought his father (and numerous others) to the final breaking point. It is his wedding that is taking place, and he is marrying the grand villain (in essence). This event itself is in medias res, there have certainly been many steps in Nishi’s plan to reach this place where truly hands-on revenge can begin (which we will learn more of as the story progresses), but the wedding cake is the first event shown in the film. The wedding also poses some tricky questions for Nishi, and his abhorrence of the kill or be killed corporate world.
In order to set himself up in a position to truly exact revenge on the men he hates so fully, Nishi must in some ways become one of them. He must also become well studied in the arts of deception and violence. Much in the same way that Hamlet struggles with the similarities between himself and Polonius, Nishi struggles to remember his purpose and to focus his energies in the direction of the men that he now—albeit superficially—owes his allegiance (and fortune) to. The complexity of this situation creates an interesting question: have hate and vengeance driven Nishi into his somewhat desirable position amongst the corporate elite, or has an unknown desire for power and fortune lead him to this point? There are no definitive answers to these questions given within the film itself. Certainly Nishi and his co-conspirator hate the men at the top, giving testimony as to how their fate was intertwined even from their jobs at the old factory (which is where they tell the story, and the setting of the penultimate moments of the film), but does Nishi begin to doubt whether he need truly destroy these men? Is his hatred dulled by the love of Yoshiko? This latter question seems rather likely.
Nishi’s partner, Itakura, warns him against falling in love because it will derail the purpose of their mission. Wada, although understanding the evil nature of Iwabuchi and his lackeys, is shocked by the visceral means (and the over-riding hatred) that Nishi employs to gain his revenge. Wada attempts to intervene by placing Yoshiko in Nishi’s path to her father. This plan is only half successful. Nishi does feel genuine love for Yoshiko and is hesitant to hurt her, but his hatred wins the day and he proceeds with his plan of destruction. Even so, her inclusion in the scheme starts the cogs of destiny and Nishi’s fate is sealed. Iwabuchi uses his daughter to discover the hideout and has Nishi killed, effectively ending the threat. But has Nishi’s plan truly failed? Iwabuchi will not face official punishment and disgrace, but his punishment will be something far more damning. In the final scene of the film he sees that his daughter has become mad with grief, and his son wants nothing to do with him. He has saved his corporate soul while sacrificing his human soul. There will be no sleep for Iwabuchi in the future.
Kurosawa deftly shifts from this family shattering event to Iwabuchi fawning and scrapping before his superiors in the last action of the film. Although he has damned himself, created a rift with his children, and destroyed countless lives, he continues to adhere to the strictures of corporate existence. His lust for power and position is absolute. It is unclear what his final fate shall be, but, whatever happens, this is an intense indictment of both the Japanese corporate world and the fickle heart of humankind in general. There are no ties that bind completely. The film begins with a wedding, a social show of union—that is nothing more than a revenge motivated farce—and ends with the dissolving of a seemingly close-knit family. Blood, bonds, and oath are no match for greed and revenge. Iwabuchi grovels in front of his superiors, keeping his oaths to them, but only in a desire for power. If the pragmatism of this desire dictated that he betrayed his superiors he would not hesitate to do so. Man is in his finest state subject to the impulses of his nature.
Outside of Yoshiko there is no character in this film that does not function—feed—off the most base of emotions. Her purity and altruism is perhaps the final piece that shoves her into irreconcilable madness. While the other characters of the film see the evil of others within themselves, she has worn her defect as a physical illness from an early age—her soul is pure. Crushed as her brother and Itakura may be, they see that this is the way of the world. Evil things will always exist and sometimes (perhaps most times) win the day. The fate of Nishi, a man who truly loved all of her, is unfathomable. She shrinks inside herself and her dulled visage is the final piece of Nishi’s posthumous revenge. It is the sight of his daughter’s suffering, and the knowledge that he inflicted it upon her, that puts Iwabuchi in a mental prison for all time.
The Bad Sleep Well stands as a sort of turning point in Kurosawa’s career. His first great upward rise is beginning to decline and there will be bleak years in the not so distant future. Never the less, the film stands as a testament to the growth of his adaptive abilities, his skill as a writer and an artist. What would happen if Hamlet possessed a steel will and tremendous spiritual vitality? The Bad Sleep Well answers that question quite beautifully, while standing apart from Shakespeare’s play as a unique criticism of modern capitalism and the dangers of greed.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (Red Beard)

by Ezekiel Fry

The plot of Red Beard is lightly informed by a specific character from Dostoevsky’s little known novel The Insulted and Injured, but the narrative—the body of the film—owes more to Shuguro Yamamoto’s work. Kurosawa stated, Richie writes, “The script is quite different from the novel [Tales of Dr. Red Beard]. One of the major characters, a young girl, is not even found in the book. While I was writing I kept remembering Dostoevsky and I tried to show the same thing that he showed in the character of Nelli in The Insulted and Injured” (171). This statement is in direct opposition to Kurosawa’s initial handling of his favorite author’s work in The Idiot. Kurosawa takes a piece, a beautiful idea, from Dostoevsky and handles it in his own artistic manner. It is in the same manner that he handles the difficulty of adapting Shakespearian drama without the use of poetic language. Kurosawa’s genius lies not in retelling, but in taking that which excites his mind and using it as a springboard to create in his own fashion. The slavish dedication to the script found in The Idiot, although respectful to Dostoevsky, severely hamstrings Kurosawa’s own artistic voice and vision. With Red Beard this difficulty has been removed. The result is a film that embodies both Dostoevsky’s philosophy and Kurosawa’s. There is a magical sense of harmony in the composition of the film.
The initial resistance of Yasumoto is perhaps the only true road-bump in the course of the film. The fight at the brothel, Choji’s struggle for life towards the end of the film, and Otoyo’s initial illness and shyness, all seem a matter of course. Once Red Beard has planted the seed of brotherly love within Yasumoto’s heart (which truly happens from the moment his name is uttered in Yasumoto’s presence, but more on that later) everything proceeds exactly as it must. The influence of Red Beard is electric. In their initial meeting, Mori tells Yasumoto that he aspires to be like Red Beard one day. This sentiment carries through the film as Yasumoto begins to adopt the same feelings concerning his tutor. Red Beard himself has that powerful personality that demands to be seen and heard. He, in a much less tragic sense, resembles Melville’s Ahab in this regard. Moby-Dick’s monomaniacal captain holds sway over those around him, capturing their spirits and hearts in the wake of his giant persona. Red Beard does the very same thing. Both men are obsessed, monomaniacal, and exacting in achieving their ultimate goals. The difference between the two arises in what that ultimate goal might be. Ahab sees the nature of man’s existence and denies it. He lashes out at the mortality of man; he cannot abide the system under which he lives. In much the same way that Ivan, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, denies God’s world, Ahab denies the system of things—the fact that we must die and never know ultimate truth. Red Beard instead accepts the system of things to the utmost. He understands that all things must die, all things must suffer. It is what we do to combat this inevitable suffering that makes the difference. His ultimate goal is to truly heal, to ease the unstoppable force that is pain. This is a goal that can never be completed. That does not change the necessity of working towards this end however, and Red Beard is equally purposeful in his quest. Red Beard functions much in the same way that Camus’ Dr. Rieux does in The Plague. He takes compassionate action—the humanist thing—not out of duty to a religion, or a belief that humanity can be cured, but simply because it is the right thing to do—the only thing to do. Red Beard does not believe that his actions will change the way of the world, as he states that poverty is not a political problem, and that illness is a spiritual as well as physical condition, but instead hopes to do his part to fight back the overwhelming tide that will never cease so long as human beings walk the planet. Viewed from a caustic perspective Red Beard’s quest is as insane and misguided as that of Ahab, but if we remove ourselves from the pessimistic stance of eternal suffering we can see that Red Beard does not hope to attack the problem head on. Not exactly. He takes each case as it comes, working on each little piece, each sliver of the great suffering mass as it comes into his sphere. He ventures out to work with the outpatients to be sure, but it is within the confines of his peaceful, harmonious clinic that his work truly progresses. He does not attack the entire world. He does not even attack the entire city. He is happy to have carved a small piece of land out to shelter humanity from the pestilential winds of the world. He does what is within him to do, nothing more. This is perhaps the great truth that Red Beard hands to his younger disciples and they in turn hand to those who they come into contact with. Humanity has an immense capacity for good, there lies an untapped reservoir within each of us that can change lives, but it must be directed and maintained, harnessed and controlled. To overstep one’s own capacities is to cause serious damage even though intentions are aligned with the good.
Yasumoto oversteps his capacities in his initial dealing with “The Mantis”. He intensely desires to save her, but his abilities are not up to the task of tackling such a serious case and he is very nearly destroyed. Red Beard admonishes him but understands that his intentions were indeed aligned with the good. Red Beard carefully directs Yasumoto to bite off less, but still demands the utmost—everything that Yasumoto can offer—and at first this is too much to ask, but our capacity to look at suffering and act in a noble manner grows as we become accustomed to it. As Kurosawa stated about Dostoevsky, Donald Richie writes, “He has this power of compassion. And then he refuses to turn his eyes away; he, too, looks; he, too, suffers” (81). This is the same way that Red Beard treats Yasumoto, and the very same way that Kurosawa treats us as viewers of Red Beard. It is no coincidence that this is the only of Kurosawa’s films to feature nudity. He, like Dostoevsky before him, cannot look away. He is filled with compassion and hope. With what some might term blind, or ignorant, optimism, faith in the human spirit that seems rigidly unshakable, he looks into the face of death, sickness, injustice, and does not avert his eyes. In the hands of someone less optimistic this would result in terror and grief, but Kurosawa, again like Dostoevsky, lifts up the collective corpse of mankind and reinvigorates it with youthful hope.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (Throne of Blood)

by Ezekiel Fry

Throne of Blood is a film that speaks quietly, and yet when it speaks the ground shakes with powerful tremors. Kurosawa’s first foray into the world of Shakespeare is one of his most bleak and meditative pieces. In handling a work as timeless as Macbeth Kurosawa faces many obstacles. How does one faithfully convey the emotion and sentiment of Shakespeare’s brilliant words when working in another language? Kurosawa’s answer to this dilemma is one of the most ingenious adaptive techniques ever used by a film maker. Where Shakespeare uses soliloquy to expound his characters’ emotional state and motivation, Kurosawa instead incorporates the Noh Theater. This quintessentially Japanese art form relies on lengthy periods of inaction followed by sharp and sudden brief movement. The characters use their bodies—both actively and passively—to convey the full depth of their emotions. In this way Kurosawa is able to circumvent the language problem and create moments of tension as powerful as those elicited by Shakespeare’s dialogue. Add to this the shift in setting from Scotland to the tumultuous 16th Century in Japan and not only does the use of the Noh seem appropriate it becomes inseparable from the story itself. The integration of the Noh is not a hasty addition to the work but instead exists harmoniously within the piece.
Much has been written regarding Kurosawa’s use of the Noh in Throne of Blood as a way of conveying meaning without dialogue, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Noh within the film is the effect that it has on the story as a whole. Viewing Throne of Blood, in conjunction with a reading of Macbeth, a keen eye will immediately notice the striking differences between the two pieces. The story of Macbeth is concerned with the lust for power, the road to ruin, and the overwhelming battle between freewill and fate. Certainly there are aspects of all these themes present in Throne of Blood but there is something else at work, or, perhaps more accurately, something less at work. Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a world of conflict and change, but there is still an element of stability to be found. The steadfast character of Macduff, the dues ex machina like intervention of England, the necessity of using charms and witchcraft to entice Macbeth and Banquo, and the minimal involvement of Lady Macbeth, are all elements that are not to be found in Kurosawa’s vision of the Scottish play. There is a void in the world of the film and it is through the use of the Noh that this void is truly explored and brought into being.
Each of the aforementioned alterations or negations in the telling of Macbeth creates a world in which freewill does not exist. This is not a world where choice even enters into the discussion. This is not merely because of the lack of these steadying elements but more so due to the lack of a key sentiment so commonly present in Kurosawa’s work: compassion. From the very outset the world of the film is one completely devoid of this most integral human trait. Everyone exists solely for their own selfish gain and it matters little who must fall before them, or how, to arrive at that ultimate destination. This is illustrated early on by Lady Asaji’s reference to Washizu’s lord gaining his standing by slaying his previous lord. This, coupled with the bleak wasteland of inevitability foreshadowed in the haunting Noh opening sequence, creates a world in which each character is merely fulfilling their role. Without the quality of goodness embodied in the show of compassion there can be no balance. The actions of the characters cannot be dubbed evil as there is no good to counteract, or throw light upon the darkness. There is no will to live, merely the struggle not to die. This is a struggle which each participant, no matter how powerful, insightful, or ruthless, will eventually lose. Death is an inevitability, but in a world where the power of life—the soul of humanity—has been negated little can be done to slow down the horseman’s ponderous steps.
With this element of the inevitable firmly in place the characters which inhabit Throne of Blood cease to truly exert themselves on the structure of reality. Their actions seem mechanical and preordained. They become less human and more caricatures of themselves. This is in keeping with the tradition of the Noh in which each actor plays a character type, or template, rather than a singular person. In creating these caricatures rather than individualized characters not only does Kurosawa allow the tragic fate of Washizu to become universal but he creates a world devoid of true feeling. This further emphasizes the void within the world of the film—that lack of compassion and goodness—that makes all events push toward the already existing conclusion. When Macbeth describes life as “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing” his lines are fully envisioned in the imagery of Washizu’s desperate attempts the escape the arrows of his men (5.5.26-8). There is nothing at the end of it all. For Macbeth and Washizu both there is no escape from death. Prior to those famous lines Macbeth utters “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death” (5.5.22-3). This is the cyclical nature of Kurosawa’s vision as well. Each man treads the path set up for him before he was even born—the path towards death. Without goodness in the world there will be nothing left to remember that “brief candle” which only exists for such a short time.
The presence of the forest spirit, also presented in the traditional Noh manner, presents yet another aspect of the fixed and pointed fate of each of the characters. The spirit seems to spin out the delicate thread of each life involved in the tale, as she sits speaking to Miki and Washizu initially. If the wheel has not yet begun to spin in a fixed direction it now does so. Perhaps, as in the case of Banquo and Macbeth, there is the possibility that these men may throw aside the prognostications of the spirit, but with the doleful foreshadowing that begins the film it feels even less likely that these mortal men might shake the yolk of destiny than the doomed soldiers in Macbeth. Where Macbeth and Banquo may feel noble allegiance towards the benevolent Duncan, it seems less likely that Washizu and Miki would feel deep emotion, beyond the necessary fealty, towards their lord. A lord who lives by the sword, going so far, the Lady Asaji quickly points out, as to slay his previous lord and take his position. The wheel on which the spirit spins out each thread has been spinning for some time. The world, a world of amoral power grabbing, will always come back to that which has come before. There is no belief in the ability to change.
In this complex manner Kurosawa examines the necessity of compassion and tenderness by completely removing them from the events of his film. The result is a tragedy as crushing as any ever penned by the hand of Shakespeare. Throne of Blood, through its use of the Noh, creates a landscape so barren that it serves as a cautionary tale that not only warns against avarice, but also against living life without feeling. The unfeeling man does not truly die, but will return again and again, because it is unclear whether he was even alive to begin with and being only half awake will never see the error of his ways. Even though Spider’s Web Castle is destroyed the cycle continues unbroken.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (Rashomon)

by Ezekiel Fry

Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon is based in very large part upon the story “In a Bamboo Grove” by early 20th century Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa’s work is heavily informed by American writers Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane. This is fiction that attempts to see the world exactly as the author believes it to be (What some might call “Naturalism”). There is no moral equivocation or justification, merely the harsh events seen through an almost cinematic lens. Bierce and Crane both showed an uncaring and unmoved world, filled with absurd and sometimes horrific coincidences. There are no answers in stories such as Crane’s “The Open Boat” and Bierce’s “A Baffled Ambuscade” merely the events as they occur. Taking this idea to the next logical step, with “In a Bamboo Grove”, Akutagawa creates a world completely devoid of truth. There are facts in abundance, but that fleeting oracle called Truth is unknown. It may very well be that it does not exist at all.
The murky world of “In a Bamboo Grove” is fully realized in Kurosawa’s film, but Kurosawa adds his own perspective as well. The film begins in a downpour. The world is obscured by blankets of rain, setting the stage for the half truths and skewed facts that will be unfolded in the body of the film. This body is essentially the single event from different perspectives that are described in Akutagawa’s story, it is the skeleton—the framework of the tale—that is wholly Kurosawa in thematic and narrative structure. Huddled in the dilapidated Rashomon gate (which references another Akutagawa story slightly) a woodcutter and a priest sit disconsolately. The woodcutter states bleakly “I don’t understand. I just don’t understand” and the priest later states, concerning the “strange story”, “I may finally lose my faith in the human soul”. Soon the priest and the woodcutter shall retell the events, as they see them, to the third man who is devoid of any of their moral questions. This opening scene is not from Akutagawa. Akutagawa’s tale is a mere documentation of seven perspectives on one event, there is no introduction or conclusion. The testimonies must stand on their own, in much the same way that any discussion concerning the nature or validity of death is absent from the chronicling of the shipwrecked men in Crane’s “The Open Boat”. The reader must decide what, if any, truth or justice is available to man in an uncaring world. It is from this model that Kurosawa departs in his filmic version of “In a Bamboo Grove”.
The aforementioned lines from the woodcutter and the priest set the parameters for Kurosawa’s telling of the events in the forest. It is shown before hand that there is a good chance the proceedings that are about to be documented end poorly, or in doubt. There is a clinging sadness, an incomplete quality that is emphasized by placing these statements of confusion prior to the telling of the tale itself. The viewer is left wondering before there is truly anything to wonder about. Kurosawa effectively places the viewer on guard, raises the level of skepticism, before anything has even happened. This also works in reverse, as nearly everything that is to be held up to close scrutiny has already passed. As the film moves into what appears at first to be a narrative progression it becomes clear that we are actually viewing dead events—events of the past. The highly stylized, and yet strangely impotent performances of the three parties directly involved add to this static quality. Each time the tale is told we are not seeing the actual characters themselves but a caricature created in the retelling. They are templates of what the storyteller wishes each individual to convey. There is no more depth than what the teller says. Tajomaru, the samurai, and the wife, each act as creators of half-life through the hollowness of their words. As events accumulate things are obscured rather than brought into focus. Looking backwards it is easy to see why the woodcutter and the priest are so distraught in the present. The woodcutter’s lines “I just don’t understand” seem to echo throughout the film.
There is another purpose to these early lines from the woodcutter and the priest. Where Akutagawa is content to leave questions unanswered in any form, Kurosawa puts the unanswerable question forward in order to attempt a resolution. This device, seen here in one of Kurosawa’s earlier films, will recur prominently in all his work. There is no bleakness in Kurosawa’s worldview. His lens does not capture suffering for the sheer sake of documenting man’s abysmal condition, or our collective inability to do right. There is always purpose—a road to redemption—in Kurosawa’s viewing of the fragmented and evanescent nature of humanity. This purpose is fully realized in the final scenes at the Rashomon gate.
The hopelessness that bears down on the woodcutter and the priest is momentarily compounded when the third man attempts to steal clothing from an abandoned baby found in another part of the Rashomon gate. One can almost feel the priest’s faith in man’s soul shattering. It is at this crucial moment, when everything hangs in the balance, that the recently besmirched woodcutter rises to the occasion and takes the baby from the third man and promises to take care of it. The priest is renewed in his hope for mankind’s future. In this redemptive act the woodcutter answers the unanswerable question. There is no resolution concerning the validity of anyone’s story, or the grand nature of Truth. There is merely the strength of compassion. Through perseverance and faith in the good, mankind may find hope, or at the very least the illusion of hope—the illusion of Truth. This original ending is completely separate from the tone of Akutagawa and writers of his type, Kurosawa has his own vision of humanity and it must be present in his work. There are Akutagawan ways of viewing Rashomon to be sure, but the initial and final appraisal of the work will always bring us back to the vision of Kurosawa; a vision that does not see the world as hopeless. In some ways the conclusion to Rashomon feels rushed and out of place. There is a jarring quality, a sort of after the fact feeling, to the resolution and reaffirmation of the woodcutter and priest’s faith. Kurosawa seems unable to take Akutagawa’s view of things, but at this point in his career the film-maker does not tackle his overarching theme of compassion in the face of suffering from a position of negation. It will not be until Throne of Blood that Kurosawa effectively examines the need for compassion from a perspective where compassion is completely lacking. Even so, Kurosawa places his stamp on “In a Bamboo Grove” and transforms the contents into Rashomon, a tale of mutable reality, suffering, compassion, and hope. Akutagawa writes in the priest’s testimony, “This is so sad, so sad. What can I say?” (11). The priest cannot answer this question and the answer, if there is one, is left floating in the void. Ambitiously, Kurosawa attempts to answer the question.
Kurosawa works from a perspective first put forth by the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin that James Goodwin discusses in his book Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Goodwin writes, regarding Bakhatin’s theory on the language and world of the novel, “the novel’s literary language is not a consistent, unified field nor the writer’s private province but rather a dialogue among mixed and opposing ideologies, voices of authority, genres, and social idioms” (57). This statement defines the relationship Kurosawa will continue to have towards his source material. The literary world is mutable and forever changing. The word, whether it is in the form of a play, novel, or short story, is constantly open to reexamination and creative interpretation. The story does not begin and end with the first and last lines written on the page. Kurosawa will come to understand this idea more fully as his career progresses, but Rashomon shows many of the important methods and themes that will color the artist’s work in the future. It is truly a foundational study in Kurosawa’s imagery and thematic imperatives, particularly when working with adapted material.

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.

The Compassionate Kurosawa (Introduction)

by Ezekiel Fry

A few years ago I wrote an extended study on Akira Kurosawa’s work and the source material that inspires his greatest originality. Here, in American Gloom, I would like to present this series of essays. By presenting this I hope to (perhaps merely by association) contrast the notions of the world, and those who inhabit it, put forth by Kurosawa to those of the gloomiest disposition: Americans. In the introductory passage to the last essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I intimated that there is a piece of our humanity that America shudders to examine. We need characters like Judge Holden, we need monsters that are somehow “inhuman” (although this “inhumanity” is always far too human, what else would it be?). It appears to me that this desire to mythologize attitudes and actions we find truly abhorrent arises from a desire to push aside the human experience, to deny human frailty, to believe that humankind is perfectible. In short, to push onward with the great blind eye of American Positivism. From my vantage point this is far from a good thing. We are nothing more than beautiful beasts. It would behoove us to remember this, to never shrink from the dark corners of the soul, and to embrace compassion in the spirit of Kurosawa. Kurosawa drew so much of his artistic outlook from Dostoevsky, and to begin this study here is a passage, perhaps my favorite, from Dostoevsky’s greatest work, The Brothers Karamazov (Garnett translation):

She had died quite suddenly in a garret, according to one story, of typhus, or as another version had it, of starvation. Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife’s death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: ‘Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,’ but others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the revulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too (6). [End of chapter one]