December 10, 2007


The Good, the Bad, and the Japanese: The brilliant director Akira Kurosawa, of ‘Seven Samurai’ fame, helped bring a new kind of hero to the American movie screen. Not so much film noir as film gris. (James Bowman, December 10, 2007, The American)

It’s no surprise that heroic war movies such as those that continued being made in Hollywood for another quarter century stopped dead in Japan in 1945, when, at age 35, Kurosawa was making his second film as director. Already, the assurance and visual richness of his style prefigured that he would do in film what the European and American modernists were doing in painting—make the artist the hero of his work.

No longer was artistry meant to be kept out of sight and in the service of its subject. Now, the subject was reduced to an excuse for the artistry. Watching a Kurosawa film is a fatiguing process because there is always so much going on, so many ways the artist has of calling attention to his artistry—which always exists on a plane superior to even the most exciting of the stories he has to tell.

In addition, Kurosawa always adapts his stories to suit his method by giving the pride of place in them to the outsider, the observer of the action. His distinctive style is to insert the outsider—this detached figure who is a stand-in for the filmmaker himself and who provides the gray in a black-and-white world—in the middle of the story.

This perspective is apparent in Stray Dog (1949), in which a criminal and the detective pursuing him become, in true noir fashion, something close to moral equivalents—as do the revenge-seeker and his victim in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet.

The Olympian detachment of the filmmaker from the point of view of his characters was the fundamental organizing principle of Rashômon (1950), the movie that first brought Kurosawa to the attention of an international audience. There, the same story (of a rape and murder in 12th-century Japan) is told from multiple points of view as a way of illustrating the importance of the observer’s situation—and of the essential Kurosawan datum that there is no “true” or “real” story independent of one’s point of view. The brilliance of his filmmaking and its endless geometrical variation, like a kaleidoscope, reflect the point he has to make—that the storyteller is the hero of his own story.

Though skeptical of heroes, Kurosawa always aspired to work on the heroic scale, and he got his chance in 1954 with Seven Samurai. He took as his subject an obvious tale of bad guys (bandits preying on peasant villages) and good guys (a ragtag band of selfless warriors)—which it largely remained in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), the American remake—but he drew back from it to create his characteristic Kurosawan perspective.

He achieved the effect partly through extraordinarily subtle camera work, which shifted between telephoto close-ups and deep-focus pans and always managed to pick out of scenes of frenzied action the significant detail. As usual, the prominence Kurosawa gives to the intelligent observer has as its dramatic analogue the outsider in the midst of the action. In this film, the role of outsider goes to the bumptious ex-farmer and would-be samurai Kikuchiyo, played by the greatest of all Kurosawa’s stars and collaborators, Toshirô Mifune.

The most memorable moment in a three-and-a-half-hour film full of memorable moments comes as a mother, one of the bandits’ victims, hands her child to tough-guy Kikuchiyo as she dies, and suddenly he breaks down in tears. “The same thing happened to me,” he says. “I was like this baby.”

The samurai chase the bandits from the village, and the fact that life then continues normally is meant to be seen as being as much a defeat for the samurai as for the bandits whom they so uncomfortably resemble. As they stand watching the villagers’ ceremonial rice-planting at the end, Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), one of three samurai still alive after the fighting, says: “I can’t believe we survived again.” The wise samurai leader, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), replies that they are also defeated again: “The farmers have won. We have lost.”

Kurosawa refuses to allow the samurai—or the viewers—a moment of satisfaction in their successful defense of the helpless villagers. They were only doing what they were professionally trained to do, which is not significantly different from what the bandits were doing. There’s no nobility among the peasants, either. They are cunning and treacherous, even murderous when given the opportunity. But at least they represent life and hope and possibility.

Even as Seven Samurai was being remade as The Magnificent Seven, Kurosawa was already at work on the film that would be even more influential in shaping the American movie hero that would succeed the still-chivalrous John Waynes and Gary Coopers who reigned supreme in the 1940s and 1950s. That film, Yojimbo (1961), had its biggest influence on Hollywood indirectly, through Sergio Leone’s remake of 1964, A Fistful of Dollars, and its sequels, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), starring Eastwood in the role Mifune played in Yojimbo: a warrior for hire, selling his skills to the highest bidder in the midst of a gang war.

Kurosawa’s original was superior to Leone’s imitation, but in Clint Eastwood the latter found the sort of charismatic figure who could stand comparison with Toshirô Mifune. Both heroes were meant to be seen as morally compromised characters who, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, emerge as heroes only because of a single act of chivalry or idealism that stands out prominently against the background of moral desolation that each inhabits.

Kurosawa’s Mifune and Leone’s Eastwood were among the first cool heroes, self-contained like the ronin (independent samurai) or, in American movies, the private eye. Kurosawa’s cool heroes owe a lot to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who also operated against a background of vice, violence, and treachery, but somehow managed to stand just enough apart from it to retain a solitary, quixotic kind of heroism.

A surprising mistake by the estimable Mr. Bowman, but the model is quite specifically The Continental Op, not Spade or Marlowe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 10, 2007 9:25 AM

Specifically, "Yojimbo's" story-line is base on Hammett's "Red Harvest."

Posted by: George at December 10, 2007 3:17 PM