When it comes to filmmakers (or even artists in general), perhaps there was no one who was better able to bridge the gap between entertainment and art. While I still love many of his films, I’ve noticed certain aspects of his films that have worn a little thin for me. I’m thinking specifically of his moral position—particularly with regard to social commentary—in some of his films (e.g. High and Low and Red Beard—two films that I otherwise thoroughly enjoy). I feel more and more that his humanism and moral sense in these films are simplistic and not very subtle. In many ways, Kurosawa reminds me of John Steinbeck. Both are great storytellers who could create reach a wide audience; both were terrific at their craft (filmmaking and writing), but I find the moral/spiritual aspects of their work a little lacking in depth. I wonder if anyone feels the same way.
The other criticism I have is that I think he lingers a little too long on certain scenes. I feel some of his scenes could be shortened without hurting the film and maybe even improving it.
The only problem I have with Kurosawa is his dubious depiction of women, which stands out next to the feminism of Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse.
I don’t understand how Red Beard is lacking in moral depth at all, could you please explain?
high and low is a very simple, straight-forward narrative. like many detective/ticking-clock movies the morality is painted with broad strokes. Too much focus on morality and the train runs off the rails.
Thanks for asking because I know realize that my thoughts are a jumble. OK, lay me try and lay out these thoughts and get them organized. With Red Beard, I think my problem stems from the characterization—the saintly old doctor, the young, selfish intern who eventually takes the path of a saint and finally a kind of romantic and glorified portrait of the poor. The film seems to want us to sympathize with the plight of the poor, but the approach is sort of cheap and not very substantive. So, I guess, what have made the film stronger might be more complex characterization—showing maybe a less positive portayal of the poor. Or maybe my memory is faulty.
Re: High and Low
I like the structure of the film, particularly with regard to its relation to upper and lower classes. but like Red Beard the characterization and depiction of both classes seems a little too simplistic. The ending of High and Low seems a little too obvious and heavy-handed. I’m thinking of the way the film seems to suggest that the villain’s madness stems from his lower class status—i.e. how society is more to blame than the individual. Now, I sympathize with that point of view, but Kurosawa’s approach seems a bit heavy-handed and simplistic in making this point.
First off, let me say that I love Kurosawa.
For me, there is one major fault in his work: the way that he conveys his humanism. It’s not subtlety that I demand, but proper integration into the narrative. The problem is most prominent in Rashomon.
Here we have a film that is a cynical portrayal of the nature of perspective. A story is being told and retold from the conflicting perspectives of the participants. It’s complex, energetic, and intellectually stimulating. And then Kurosawa drops a bomb at the end. The framing device of the story has involved three men who are waiting to get out of the rain. They convey (or frame) the different perspectives. After everything is done, they find a baby amongst the rubble and somehow humanity is all better. What? Wait…hold on, Akira. We went from a deeply cynical examination of perspectives and the nature of truth to…praising humanity because of a crying baby. What does this baby have to do with anything that has come before?
Kurosawa didn’t know how to properly integrate his philosophical standpoint into his narratives. He’d tack some junk on (usually at the end) that either didn’t connect with the previous narrative at all, or only connected in the most superfluous ways. He should have looked more closely at Renoir, a filmmaker that knew how to convey his ideas through narrative structure.
Despite this, Kurosawa is such an energetic talent that I’m wiling to forgive him. His films are thrilling, and for the most part his philosophizing doesn’t get in the way too much.
Kurosawa is one of my all time favorites, but I agree with Allan: the fact that he never really delivered a strong female character in 50 years of moviemaking is the biggest flaw with the master’s work as a whole. (Though I would argue that supporting female characters in Ran and Ikiru come close).
Regarding morality, Kurosawa’s films are all underscored by a basic humanism, which is actually one of the reasons I love his films. But what this worldview lacks in depth, it makes up in feeling. The basic ends of the Kurosawa spectrum are the joy of mankind at its best and the despair at how men can be so horrible to each other. Both the joy and the despair always seem to me to be very deeply felt, so I’ll go with it.
As for complexity, a lot of Kurosawa’s work is very simple. Ikiru, for instance, makes its point early on but then keeps at it. But a lot of his films do add shades of complexity. I’m thinking of the seen in Seven Samurai where Toshiro Mifune is sitting next to one of the bandits, and the bandit laments, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s like we’ve switched places…We starve, and the farmers chase us away.” And for a brief moment, in this action film, you’re given a glimpse of sympathy for the enemy: after all they’re in the same boat, trying to survive in a land where there isn’t enough food to go around. I think this empathy adds shading that goes beyond what we normally see in a good guys vs. bad guys story, and you can see it very subtly in some of Kurosawa’s lesser known films (Stray Dog, Sanjuro).
I don’t think the crying baby is supposed to make it all better. I think it’s supposed to be just a glimmer of hope and decency.
I do agree that the philosophy of Kurosawa films can be a bit simplistic. In his adventure films or Shakespearean films, it doesn’t bother me, because a simplistic worldview is a part of the storytelling style. But, in his films like Ikiru I think a little more subtlety would make the movie say the same thing without coming off as preachy.
Jirin – Maybe “make it all better” isn’t a good way to put it. Whatever the case, it felt tacked on. It definitely didn’t seem to work organically with the rest of the film.
the fact that he never really delivered a strong female character in 50 years of moviemaking is the biggest flaw with the master’s work as a whole.
Machiko Kyo in Rashomon is why the film works so perfectly and meticulously. The film would have been a typical detective story without her performance.
…of course Kurosawa’s screenplay had nothing to do with it….
^ The screenplay is the source but not the penultimate factor of success. Films have the theatrical inspiration and the primordial heart of theatre is acting. Film is not just images and plot but acting as well. Had Kyo been like a drenched cat, the film would have lost points for me.
A lot here base their opinions on how the script looks like at the beginning and it kind of pisses me off. Rashomon, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Chinatown, uummmm….is this how the canon becomes a starting point for new cinephiles? So City of Sadness and Earth Entranced don’t have “strong screenplays”?
What I’m saying is that the fragmented screenplay is what sets it apart from a typical detective story. How does it differ from typical detective stories? In structure and theme.
“A lot here base their opinions on how the script looks like at the beginning…”
I’m not sure what you mean by that.
I’d say the point of a lot of his movies is that they AREN’T subtle. I’ve never personally looked towards Kurosawa for his subtlety, but for his ability to really drench a movie in emotion. It’s about displaying really sincere human emotion colorfully. I understand that might not be for everybody, but I personally find something really beautiful and provocative about his work. The simplicity of it is what makes it, is what I guess I’m trying to say. The simplicity allows for a very pure emotional charge that’s capable of hitting home with just about anybody. That’s not to say that the same can’t be achieved with subtlety. That’s just my view of Kurosawa’s intentions.
am i the only one who finds his work kinda sexist?
maybe a product of his society at the time, but still
The problem is that the emotional approach you speak of can weaken the social critique some of his films try to make, and it doesn’t have to be that way, imo. You can have the emotion without it weakening the insight and power of a film’s moral message.
What are some examples of Kurosawa’s sexism?
The best way I can think of Kurosawa is as a ship pilot. A master pilot that could steer boats so big that only a few could do it. He wasn’t perfect but he could do big things. Remember that Seven Samurai and many of his masterpieces were not written by him. The fact that he didn’t write as much as a Bergman or Takovsky is something that absolves him of some sin so to speak.
Pardon me, I should have added after “at the beginning of their reviews towards a film”. In other words, a lot prioritize their sensibilities over how the screenplay looks when they watch or have watched a film and then they’re criticizing the rest of its elements. The script is not the alpha and omega. It’s part of the process. I don’t love Rashomon because of the script at all. Innovation my ass, I’ve seen better written scripts by Satyajit Ray and Glauber Rocha without the need of “innovative” storylines.
am i the only one who finds his work kinda sexist?
@Jazz: I like your comparison of Kurosawa to Steinbeck. I’d have to really ponder it, but on the surface it sounds right to me in how these artists were representative of the rustic lifestyle of their respective countries. Of course Kurosawa strayed from the rustic setting at times, but he always seemed to retain (and emphasize) the chaos of the natural world. There’s also that moral center that’s ever-present, as you already mentioned – this is really the only recurring “flaw” I’d cite in Kurosawa’s work (a “flaw” in my opinion, not according to convention probably), he wasn’t always transparent in his methods, as virtuosic as those methods might be.
Like my favorite films by him would be Rashomon, Ran, Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai
Rashomon, Ran and Throne of Blood all have the lead female character being a decietful, manipulative bitch who is intially quiet but is revealed to be a puppet-master
and in Ran and Seven Samurai, the “positive” females seem like weak, powerless women
Mizoguchi was able to avoid these ugly stereotypes (as well as Ozu and Kobiyashi), but Kurosawa seems to put down women more than have a positive viewpoint of them
There are strong female leads in THE MOST BEAUTIFUL and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and in what remains of THE IDIOT, as well as in IKIRU. But it is hard to disagree with the idea that Kurosawa’s women tend to be either monstrous (THRONE OF BLOOD, RAN, YOJIMBO) or downtrodden (SEVEN SAMURAI, BAD SLEEP WELL, LOWER DEPTHS).
There was a strong article written in Cinema Scope last year by Andrew Tracy about the position Kurosawa holds in regards to cinephilia and film history…I wonder if it’s online?
Here it is: The Poetics of Departure: Kurosawa at 100
Gauging an artist’s relevance is always a highly subjective affair, particularly as there are any number of ways in which such measurement can be made. The lure of the new—or rather, the previously undiscovered or underappreciated—has been a potent force in cinephilia over the last several years, yielding up scores of hosanna-ready auteurs ripe for fanatical study. Yet the Big Three of mid-century cinematic modernism—Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa Akira—nevertheless still hold pride of place in cinematic currency (or at least North American cinematic currency), if only by virtue of the institutional scale on which their work is celebrated. With the exception of Hitchcock, there are likely no other filmmakers who have maintained such a degree of general cultural presence even distinct from their actual films, their names developing into a kind of lingua franca of film culture, providing instant mental images as vivid as they are unspecific. While even such celebrated contemporaries as Rossellini, Resnais, Antonioni, and Godard signify, to the vast majority of readers and viewers, certain moments in film history—moments that often handily obfuscate the voluminous remainders of their respective careers—each member of the holy trinity has been granted something of a transhistorical unity, a completeness largely denied the others.
I love Kurosawa for the amazing and memorable characters in his movies and his fluid narrative. His films may lack moralism and subtlety but they have many other things that work in its favor and make them immensely enjoyable. Most importantly, I am grateful to Kurosawa for getting me into Japanese cinema :D.
Great article by Tracy. He’s very critical of Kurosawa’s work, placing it below Ozu and Mizoguchi. I don’t know enough about any of the three filmmakers to comment properly.
Kurosawa’s style was unsubtle (as compared to some of his contemporaries like Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi), but the themes and emotions contained within were never simplistic and were often developed with great authority. The finale of Rashomon does not praise humanity but instead suggests a possible way forward from the evil and the pettiness that we have seen before. Inside a dilapidated gate with dead bodies lying on the top, a cynical no-gooder stealing from an infant and a priest struggling with his faith, a small ray of humanity comes through in the form of the woodcutter walking away from this shambles with a new life in his hands. It’s possibly sentimental, and Kurosawa might have occasionally fallen into this trap, but that is because he has always strongly resisted the urge to accept, let alone blindly embrace nihilism as the ultimate wisdom. Though as Rosenbaum observes, Throne of Blood is one of few exceptions which “manages to avoid sentimentality only by running the risk of ruling out humanist emotion altogether”.
Some of his lesser-known films (by Kurosawa’s standards, anyway) are actually among his greatest. For example, I Live in Fear and Drunken Angel feature two vastly different characters and performances played by Mifune, but they both are brilliantly nuanced portrayals of individuals trying to clutch onto an authority that is no longer theirs, and paralyzed by an utter inability to come to terms with their own weaknesses and mortality.
Just because the word “subtle” is coming up in this discussion a bit, I want to make something clear: It’s not Kurosawa’s lack of subtlety that bothers me, but his inability to integrate his concerns into his narrative. Some films are better than others when it comes to this issue, but it is my biggest problem with him. Otherwise, I’ve enjoyed his films immensely.
Re: depictions of women. Uh, watch The Most Beautiful. I don’t think Kurosawa has much of a problem with women.
It’s not Kurosawa’s lack of subtlety that bothers me, but his inability to integrate his concerns into his narrative
can you elaborate on that Nathan? Above you mention that the baby in Rashomon as an example of this. Do you mean you can too-easily see the machinery of the filmmaker laying out the narrative?
I think High and Low is perfect as it is. It didn’t need to plunge the depths of morality of each type of class depicted, it had a very tight focus on the kidnapping and the reactions of those surrounding the situation. Not every movie has to have profound depth filled with subtleties when it comes to morality.
There is a time and place for depth/subtlety and a time and place for a focused, fast paced and tense narrative.