86. Thoughts On Kurosawa

86. Thoughts on Kurosawa

My favorite TV channel, Turner Classic Movies, after a dull month (of “Oscar winners,” movies I had seen, some of them more than once, and didn’t want to see again) has returned to more interesting offerings, and is featuring this month a Kurosawa retrospective, showing all his films. Last night his three big “hits” were on: Rashômon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yôjimbô (1962). I rewatched Rashômon for the first time in many years, skipped Seven Samurai (seen too recently), and saw some of Yôjimbô. These brought back lots of memories—Kurosawa wasn’t my first Japanese-movie enthusiasm (that was Mizoguchi, see no. 19 above). But Rashômon was the first Japanese film to have a big success in the U.S., and aroused a lot of discussion. I was in Ann Arbor then, studying with Max Loehr. I used to recommend films for him to take his family to see (on one occasion disastrously—the film, which I hadn’t seen myself and knew only by reputation, was Rosselini’s Open City, which portrayed the Nazis in Rome as dreadful beasts—Max told me next morning, accusingly, about how his young son Thomas had asked, “Father, were we Germans really like that?”) Rashômon struck me as forcibly as it did everyone else. It inspired arguments about what the real meaning of it was. Most viewers thought its point was, like Pirandello’s “Right You Are If You Think You Are,” that there is no real truth, only different versions. Yes, but: I made the point that each of the three principals, in telling the story, was the one who killed the man—what people cannot bear to remember, and so need to falsify in their memory, is not being the one who takes decisive action. (In the “true” version as recounted by the woodcutter, none of them really dominates the situation.) Some liked the musical score; I didn’t—the music that accompanies the woodcutter’s walk through the forest near the beginning, and comes back when the woman tells her story, is too obviously a rip-off of Ravel’s Bolero, and the whole score seemed to me poor pastiche, well below the standard of what any good Hollywood composer would have done. It still sounds that way. Kurosawa went on to use better composers for his later films.

One effect of the film on me was to inspire a passion for Kyô Machiko, and a strong desire to meet her, talk with her (in my poor Japanese), and—dream—interact with her. As a Fulbright student in Kyoto in 1954-5 I pursued this aim, coming close to success—the wife of old Professor Mori, who acted as  mentor and guide for art history students in Kyoto, was a minor film actress herself, knew Kyô Machiko, and promised to introduce me when the right occasion came. It never did; I continued to pine (and lust) at a distance, while enjoying her films: the 1959 Kagi (The Key, or “Odd Obsession”) after a novel by Tanizaki Junichirô; the unfortunate collaboration between Mizoguchi and the Shaw Brothers that produced Yô Kihi (Yang Kuei-fei), 1955; and others.

Turner Classic Movies’s genial host Robert Osborne (who doesn’t take the trouble to learn how to pronounce Japanese names—not all that difficult) made much of the many Kurosawa films in which Mifune Toshirô stars. This is true for quite a few of them; but I would like to see more credit given to Shimura Takashi, who plays the woodcutter in Rashômon. Osborne introduced Seven Samurai as another starring Mifune; but it doesn’t—he isn’t even one of the seven, just a low-class hanger-on. The real star, the organizer and leader of the seven, is Shimura Takashi. He is also the minor bureaucrat who is the central figure in Kurosawa’s great Ikiru (To Live), 1952—his heartbreaking performance in that eclipses, for me, anything Mifune ever did—glowering and swashbuckling isn’t great acting. I once met Mifune and talked with him when he was in California, introduced by Audie Bock. (I knew Audie because her mother Felicia Bock, like myself, took a Ph.D. in the Oriental Languages Department at Berkeley. Audie’s course on the films of Yasujiro Ozu, given while I was at Harvard in 1978-9, permitted me to see most of his films and really introduced me to that third of the great three. For me as for most others, then, Ozu was the last of the three whom I came to fully appreciate—but perhaps in the end the most rewarding of the three. That’s for another Reminiscence.)

Yôjimbô still holds up as a fine film, however, and presents Mifune at his best, along with the sequel Sanjûrô (1962). (It is in Sanjûrô, if I remember right, that our hero impresses onlookers by, while seated eating lunch, catching a troublesome fly in the air with his chopsticks—a trick copied by Pat Morita later in one of the Karate Kid movies.) In introducing Yôjimbô, Osborne mentioned several Hollywood films inspired by it; he didn’t mention the American source for its basic plot idea. (I see by looking at the web that I’m not the only one who knows this—it’s given in one entry as a bit of “trivia” information. But it’s not common knowledge.) The real inspiration goes back to the late 1920s and to the pulp-fiction magazine Black Mask, in which Dashiel Hammett published four episodes featuring his anti-hero the Continental Op (an operative for the Continental Detective Agency)—a heavy, fortyish character featured in many of Hammett’s early stories, long before he invented Nick Charles and Sam Spade. These four stories were pulled together and published in 1929 as Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest. In this, a particular favorite of mine in those days, the Continental Op goes into a mining town called Personville, nicknamed Poisonville because it is dominated by two rival gangs of criminals who had been brought in by the mine owner to put down strikes, and who had stayed to take over the town’s crime operations. The Continental Op, like Mifune, moves back and forth between the two gangs, playing them against each other, causing massive mayhem while somehow surviving himself, and walking out at the end, again like Mifune, leaving the town cleaned up. I think Kurosawa somewhere acknowledged his debt to Red Harvest.

Thinking about how I was a Hammett fan long before my Ann Arbor years brought back another incident. Max and his wife Irmgard were both working hard on their English (we had a play-reading group in which they took part, laboring over, for instance, the elegant language of my special favorite Congreve.) I helped coach Irgard and gave her readings, one of which was a Hammett novel. She came to me once asking, “Jim, what means bell yaching?” I was non-plussed—bell yaching? and asked her to give me the sentence in which it occurred. It turned out to be one of Hammett’s characters saying to another, “Quit your bellyaching!”

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