Japanese cinema is notable – discounting other numerous issues – as being stigmatized by an intractable
miscomprehension held by Western audiences. It is recognizably observed that those disciples of the bastions of Western idyll
perceive Japanese cinema as being either wholly disposable, or simply popularized entertainment – that modernist Japanese
directors “trace the continuities and shifts in the dominant archetypes as manifested in a variety of popular media
(comic strips, popular literature, theatre, radio, film, oral story-telling), bringing out the rich intertextual texture of
Japanese popular culture.” (Freiberg: Ch. 23,
Hill and Gibson, 2000, pp. 183). Albeit this is imbued with some quiddity, it is
nonetheless a fallacy when held as a truism for the entirety of Japanese cinema.
It is the works and texts of revered and venerable late filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that capably define the contemporary
cinema of Japan as both distinctively commercial, certainly, but also of significant
contextual and aesthetically artistic value. Scholarly film critics lending themselves and their deconstructionist cinematic
analyses to this aforementioned Western tradition of regarding Japanese films as mere vacuous commercial exploitation can
be debated as incorrect when these critical theories are applied to Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa is considered with some stentorian authority by most Japanese-appreciative cinephiles as being wholly
responsible for the burgeoning auteurist New Cinema now accepted as an artistic and expressionist mainstay within Japan. “…Kurosawa was the first Japanese director
to be ‘discovered’ abroad. He achieved worldwide prominence when [his] Rashomon
(1950) won the grand prize at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival, thereby opening the way for the appreciation of
the Japanese cinema beyond the border of Japan.”
(Sato, T., 1998, <http://www.asianfilms.org/japan/kurosawa.html>).
This perennial acceptance of Akira Kurosawa’s work might be discursively associated, to some extent, with the
nature of his films; their highly accessible, though – not to be overtly reiterative – simultaneously artistic
and visually distinctive portrait of universal themes. Much has been stipulated and theorized regarding Kurosawa’s (post-)modernist
cinematic canon, relating multitudinous correlations between the discourses of their subject matter and the historical context
in which they were respectively manufactured.
Of this profundity of sources, it could be postulated that the majority of knowing critics divide Kurosawa’s
works into two separate and perceived thematic filmic traditions: that of the jida-geki
or period film (sometimes self-referentially subverted into sardonical and satiric chambara,
or sword-fight / action films, ala his 1961 Yojimbo); or, alternatively, other Kurosawa works lend themselves to an oblique social realist movement, in which the focus
is not on the splendour of Japan’s feudal history but the more-reserved realms of the Murakami-like docu-drama, pursuing
questions of truth, humanity, and identity.
Nevertheless, it is equally true that Kurosawa’s works sometimes share a capacity to convey both theoretical
heritages, and it is thus this union of concepts present within his films that will be analysed with specificity to The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai; 1954), Kagemusha (1980), and arguably the last film imbued with greatness before his lamented passing, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Yuke; 1990).
Kurosawa, Something Like An Author:
these cited works of Akira Kurosawa’s can be ideologically addressed, it is perhaps pragmatic to explore the generic
connotations that are present conveying Kurosawa-as-auteur. These positions are
intransient within contemporary analysis of Kurosawa, and will facilitate a reasonable foundation for the critique of his
The term auteur relates to both a film-maker’s discernible stylistic
tendencies through the augmented utilization of mise-en-scene, and to the metaphysical “signature” a director
is responsible for proverbially stamping on a piece of cinema. Its process of evolution has developed from the instigation
of theoreticians such as Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Andre Bazin to the publication of the meteorically-launched film
review Cahiers du cinema (1951) – and now remains well-engrained within filmic
institution. American theory-practitioner Andrew Sarris further revised this term slightly, by espousing that it attach itself
to a larger auteur(-ist) theory, which fundamentally suggests that the director
should be identified as the subjective and unique originator behind the creationism of a film. “A cult of personality
in some respects, auteurism gives priority to the coherence and uniformity produced by the director’s centralizing subjectivity.
In Sarris’s application of these standards to works of the Hollywood era, only those
directors gain the status of auteur who imprint their films with a personal worldview in the face of the dictates of production
chiefs, writers, and movie genres. Resolution to all the contradictions inherent in the collaborative process and business
of moviemaking is achieved through the auteur’s style, which functions as both a private vision and a professional virtuosity.”
(Goodwin, J., 1994, pp. 18).
It is therefore generally and symptomatically feasible to conclude that Kurosawa and classic auteur theory are somewhat interchangeable; there is a definitive paucity of evidence to suggest that Kurosawa’s
directorial capability was not also that of an artist, and it is also justified to opine that all Kurosawa films are emblazoned
with a pervasive sense of origin, of artistic and progenitive integrity. Akira Kurosawa’s films are replete with a visual
language and noted codes / conventions that are communicated entirely throughout with visual originality and consistency.
In every example of his work, Kurosawa depicts a readily identifiable affinity for artistic self-expression, for which is
summarized most concisely by his former mentor Kajiro Yamamoto, “Akira became and remains completely engrossed in separating
what is real from what is false [through film].” (Perry, R., 1997, <http://www2.tky.3web.ne.jp/~adk/kurosawa/essay/No3_DAMNED_SAMURAI.html>).
However, there is also a veritable quantity of evidence to suggest that Kurosawa’s works exemplify some non-auteurist characteristics, in that they are indicative of a self-proclaimed rejection
of prior Japanese cinema; it is this argument that the aforesaid film theorists would seemingly vouch when denoting the commercial
nature of Kurosawa’s cinema.
This assertion, then, that his films bear little elegiac reference to the
antecedent films of old, pre-war Japan is largely resultant of the then-Western alliance’s opposition to Eastern communism
– historically, the archetypes of primitive Japanese culture that had long been cultivated were abandoned quite resoundingly
with the landfall of American infiltration. “…One must also consider the ideological constraints of government
interference, as Kurosawa’s career began during the Pacific War and continued under the American Occupation…”
(Goodson, S., 2002, pp. 57, <http://www.bfi.org.uk/16+>).
Additionally, this institution of thought problematizing Kurosawa’s auteurist
lineage, as it were, is furthered by his own personalized self-assessment at age
seventy-one which denies the application of “auteur” in the original sense of the term: “I did not –
and still don’t – have a completely personal, distinctive way of looking at things…” (Kurosawa, A.,
1983, pp. 88).
Ostensibly, though, there is evidence enough to assuage these alternating viewpoints, for it is contextually acknowledged
that the arrival of Kurosawa and his filmic predecessors Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu signified a time of artistic breakthrough
for contemporary Japanese film-making. This equated to the established perspective in the West (and for those indifferent
or ambivalent within the East) that for such a minute amount of prominent directors, the triumvirate of Kurosawa / Mizoguchi
/ Ozu all must hold tremendous significance for the rebirth of Japanese cinema. “…The discovery of the Japanese
cinema also coincided with the rise of auteurism in film studies, so that the idea
of Japanese cinema came to be conflated with the work of a few directors, those who were accorded the status of ‘auteurs’,
true authors.” (Freiberg: Ch.
23, Hill and Gibson, 2000, pp. 178).
In collaboration with this precept of Kurosawa-as-auteur are the reverberating,
recurring discourses conveyed within his films, including primarily the theological affectations of the bushido, the metaphysical and ethical samurai. Rudimentarily, such discourses innate to Kurosawa’s films
include a moralistic vision striving for an individual’s ability to exercise responsibility, and also for heroism in
an increasingly corrupt, disconsolate, and uncompassionate world. It is thus that film deconstructionist Tadao Sato, upon
summating a central theme for Kurosawa’s post-colonial modernist works, demonstrates that for Akira Kurosawa, “the
meaning of life is not dictated by the nation but is something each individual should discover himself through suffering.”
(Goodson, S., 2002, pp. 57, <http://www.bfi.org.uk/16+>).
This nostalgic philosophy pertaining – to some degree – to the experience an auteur emotes and the suffering enforced in the creationism of a film, directly alludes to Ulrike Sieglohr’s
observations concerning author-directors: “[They often] foreground the struggle over an embattled national identity,
negotiating the past and present, not as heritage to be preserved, but as sites for investigation and excavation.” (Sieglohr:
Ch. 10, Hill and Gibson, 2000, pp. 86).
Conversely, albeit Kurosawa can consequently be verified as having redolently displayed an auteur approach to film-making, his specific films cannot be – entirely – critically analysed without first briefly focusing
on the issue of Japanese national identity. As it is Japanese nationalism that informs all Japanese films, the strata of the
Japanese identity requires brief discussion here, and so too the way in which such concepts have come to be illustrated in
Questions (and Problematics) of National Identity and Bushido in Akira Kurosawa’s Films:
It is generally conceded by theorists that due to decolonization, ensuing migrations and diasporas of dispossessed
natural entities, and the subsequential weathering of an influx of globalization, the “nation-state” as a reality
(and not merely a conceptualizing) is historically breaking down. “Nation-state” cinemas detailing these ideologically-engrained
national phenomena elaborate upon the amorphous death of identity, and the death of so-called national “Dreams”.
Modernist Japanese film-makers have endeavoured to provoke questions concerning nation / “nation-state” identity,
namely by concentrating on the exploits of these (aforementioned) disenfranchised, following from the contextual rape of nationality
as instigated by the American coalition in WWII, and later from the inhumanities performed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In relation to the artistic practice of film production, discourses derived from the national and historical occurrences
penetrate the innermost premises of innumerable Japanese screenplays (and therefore, Japanese films). “The discourses
in circulation about film, as well as hidden cultural discourses in the nation-state, clearly affect industry and audiences,
and also inform – and are articulated within – film texts. Given cultural hybridity, these will of necessity include
foreign orientated ideas…” (Crofts: Ch.
1, Hill and Gibson, 2000, pp. 3).
To these themes of national pain and anguish, certain filmic discourses rely also upon the inaugural manifestation
of Japan as that of a “nation-state” governed by distinct, polarized classes; to reduce it to the most simplistic
of expositional summaries, contemporary Japanese cinema evokes representations of both the historical courtly culture of the
shogunate and the Heian period, as well as the warrior classes, the samurai, the
In distributing this traditionalist envisioning of archaic Japan
through film, Kurosawa has ensured that the thirty works comprising of his canon explore and extrapolate upon the nature of
the mythic nobility, the samurai, and the proletariat bourgeoisie, whilst attempting to query the validity of “old Japan”.
His films (essentially, his jida-geki) determine new envisionings of ancient Japanese
cultural identity, whilst re-contextualizing accepted perceptions of historical fact: for example, the Japanese samurai is
widely regarded as having the capacity to invoke seppuku, or ritual disembowelment
by short sword, but Kurosawa prefers not to attribute this to his cinematic amalgamations, as he has never felt it necessary
to have “scripted such a scene.” (Goodwin, J., 1994, pp. 37).
To recapitulate, Kurosawa’s cinema is undemandingly rife with examples of Japanese culture as it is nationally
accepted, that ambiguous Oriental temperament in its totality, whilst still capably maintaining unique notions of what it
means to be a disaffected, emasculated member of historical Japan.
In short, Akira Kurosawa is appropriating elegies of his modern, eroding 1950’s Japan,
and re-contextualizing these avant garde, existential beliefs into films about
The discourse of identity is approached through the integration of Mifune’s ungainly protagonist, Kikuchiyo.
He has braved – with much witticism and arrogant narcissism – the fašade of the bushido, to transcend the penurious existence of the farmer. For, in a further scene of reverberating importance,
Kikuchiyo clasps an abandoned baby in his pained embrace, weeping openly as the child’s mother (a peasant) is discovered
dead by the dictation of the ravenous bandits:
She was speared. What enormous will she had to come this far afterwards… Well, bring the child,
let’s go back… What is this matter with you?
KIKUCHIYO (looking at the baby in his arms, crying):
This baby. It’s me. The same thing happened to me. The very same thing!”
corresponds then that Kurosawa’s application of Kikuchiyo within Shichinin
is employed to reassert an empathy with the characters of the farmers, despite their gradual misleading of the samurai; Kikuchiyo
ingloriously embodies the effulgence of the farmers, and consequently, the observer cannot but feel for their situation of
desperation, as well.
in this use of Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo, Kurosawa is further detailing the struggle of the auteur in Japan, as he “wrote
his own scripts with a core of collaborators, and worked with a regular troupe of actors (most notably, Toshiro Mifune and
Takeshi Shimura).” (Goodson, S., 2002, pp. 57, <http://www.bfi.org.uk/16+>).
years later in the manufacturing of his sprawling, technicolour epic Kagemusha,
Kurosawa had stopped utilizing or communicating with Mifune, whilst still surrendering his subjective sentiments by exploiting
them commercially through his art.
Forgotten Altruism, and the New Expression of Bushido
as “Shadow-Warrior”: Kagemusha –
Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior was Akira Kurosawa’s apparent revival into the realm of grandiloquent historical adaptations,
as well as being his first true high-production, ensemble epic after a hiatus of approximately twenty years. It also adeptly
displays his commendable ability of having an auteurist eye for decadent art direction,
and is permeated by a personal lightness of touch, akin to his Shichinin no samurai.
The discourses of truth, humanity, and identity are once more explored throughout the film’s resplendent, almost reverent
narrative, and semiotics is applied with the incorporation of the cultural stereotype of the bushido samurai.
advocate Sieglohr’s notion of a “struggle over an embattled national identity” it is perhaps ironical that
Kurosawa battled with withering perseverance in order to secure the finances to ensure the actualization of his vision for
This veritable effort to witness the birth of the magnanimous realization of Kagemusha
came with the stalwart assistance of executive producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Copolla. In exchange for foreign distribution
rights, Kurosawa’s film-making company Toho sponsored the creation of his gratuitous but delicate epic, which consequently
fed off rather fortuitously into the attainment of rights to produce Kurosawa’s next scintillating (though bleak) historical
drama, 1985’s Ran.
Kagemusha conveys the historical happenstances
in which an entire army of taisho (generals) was inhumanely slaughtered, and the
diplomacy involved behind defending the Takeda federation after this eventuated. The film focuses on the duration spanning
the years 1573-1575, the obstinate and questionable reign of Shingen Takeda.
In deference to Shichinin no samurai, Kagemusha:
The Shadow Warrior depicts the sixteenth century samurai as being empowered with the invention and mass manufacture of
the battalion musket, therefore signifying a committed declination from the bushido
of the pre-1500’s, the bushido mythologized within Kurosawa’s Shichinin. Kagemusha, specifically, concerns the rise and dispirited
fall of an anonymous Kagemusha (“shadow-warrior”, or doppelganger;
portrayed here winsomely by Tatsuya Nakadi), as he devotes himself (at first with distinguishable caution) to the provincial
responsibility of being the late Shingen Takeda’s double (once Shingen is tragically murdered – though inconspicuously
– by gunshot) for the period of three years following Shingen’s untimely death.
This results in a tragicomic atmosphere within Kagemusha that is entrenched
in Nakadi’s layered performance. Nevertheless, the sensationalized concept of there being a double that replicated Shingen’s
role after his death is cinematic causality on Kurosawa’s part; to re-address what has been previously postulated, his
films are illusory equivalents of the past instilled with a wisdom derived from the present. His “period films make
such fictive interventions into the documented record to dramatize the nature of historical transformation within Japanese
political power and warfare. His jida-geki function as interpretative hypotheses
about the course of history.” (Goodwin, J., 1994, pp. 193).
Nakadi’s Kagemusha enables the Takeda kingdom to function well until
Shingen’s demise long-kept-in-secrecy has been revealed to Takeda’s lustful rivals after the period of three years.
This then concludes with the ostracization of the Kagemusha – a scene in
which once-respectful and esteemed members of the empire pelt him with stones and faeces at the threshold of the kingdom is
particularly potent – and gradually the massacre of the entire Takeda clan.
The bushido here, seemingly, is the now-extinct hero; Kurosawa’s disheartening
outlook here is perhaps related to a real-life failed attempt at committing suicide, for it is after Kagemusha that Kurosawa’s filmic works begin to become increasingly morose in tone. The false identity,
the substitution of truth for deception, and the absence of humanity when in the throes of war complement a slightly more
His Dreams or Yuke is the distillation,
the quintessence of the gently more positive Kurosawa of old (earlier in his career) coming full circle with this “new”
Kurosawa; a film of poignancy and anger, of aspiration and sadness. It is therefore reasonable that Japan’s national identity within Dreams
– represented thus far by the integration of the samurai – is manifest through no real hero. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is the most contrasting work of this celebrated canon.
Life in Capturing On-Screen Visual Splendour: Briefly Considering Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams –
In departing from his miscellany of more ambitious works, Akira Kurosawa’s
Dreams symbolizes all the polemical fury, atrophy, and forgotten joy that had accumulated over a life in capturing on-screen
visual splendour. Its story is an anthology of eight separate filmic vignettes, each representing an individual dream Kurosawa
is said to have experienced throughout the length of his adult life. It “doesn’t really run so much a story as
it does as hauntingly beautiful and loosely related interstitials.” (Williams, D., 2003, <http://dvdmg.com/dreams.shtml>).
These various “dreams” detail a suppressed collection of life
experiences, just as Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai and his Kagemusha provided an illumination on life sentiments. Dreams relates,
resoundingly, two influential events within the life of Akira Kurosawa: the episode entitled “The Crow” self-referentially
dictates a story of Vincent Van Gogh (Martin Scorsese) conveying the artifice of artistic practice to a curious existentialist
Van Gogh aficionado; and the episode entitled “Mt. Fuji in Red” is a threnody to the arrogance of nuclear sciences,
as dormant volcano Mt. Fuji becomes “activated” once more with the melt-down of an adjacent nuclear power-plant.
“The Crow” acts as an exercise in youthful reminiscence, demonstrating the nostalgia attached – for
Kurosawa – to being an artist: for, he was initially an art student allied with the Proletarian Artist’s League,
and later a devoted master of Van Gogh and Cezanne homage. This, then, verifies the use of subtle intertextuality replete
within his films. (Kurosawa later assesses his function as an artist by stipulating, “Are they worthy of being called
art? My purpose was not to paint well… But when I concentrated on delineating the ideas for my films, I unconsciously
produced works that people find interesting.” [Kurosawa, A., 1986]).
“Mt. Fuji in Red”, however, is less an enthused or wistful harking
back, and more a pained catharsis as Kurosawa is attempting to illustrate the emotive torture he felt at age thirty-four when
the Nagasaki abominations occurred, and also earlier memories of childhood, staggering about with brother Heigo through a
destroyed hospital facility where the institution had been bombed and corpses lay strewn across the desolate city street.
In this way, Dreams is Kurosawa’s most personal (and therefore, most
mature?) work, replacing the oaken custodianship of Japan
as instigated by the samurai with a confused perception on the modernist world. In Dreams
there is no closure, and no sense of heightened or glorified victory, just a feeling of contemporary angst, but it is harmonious with everything prior that Kurosawa has directed, and represented.
In regards to this consistency of vision, the Japanese national identity is again
present through the truth / humanity / identity issues expanded upon within the “dreams”, and Kurosawa finally
employs authoritative manipulation of his medium to offer forth his affectations on “reality” (and all that this
entails) in the ultimate episode, entitled “Village of the Watermills”. This segment is not overly didactic, but
merely interspersed with the observations produced from Kurosawa’s sixty-year career as an ambassador for the Japanese
“Watermills” evokes a conversation held between a hiker and a wizened, elderly resident of a riverside
villa. It enacts a dialogue directed towards the external audience, discussing the necessity to celebrate death, the passing
of humanity into infinity, and suggests a departure from the bushido philosophies
tributing the so-called “Man of Action”.
Collectively, the content of Dreams is universally applicable, and able
to be appreciated by an international film-going public. It transcends cultural specificity and nullifies theoretical disputes
that Japanese cinema is over-inflated commercialism. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams
invokes Kurosawa’s own humble pretension that he – up to this point – was still an “incomplete”
person, struggling to convey this problematic of identity throughout the course of his films. Arguably, Dreams achieves this objective best, despite being, contextually, a lesser work.
Decisively, with The Seven Samurai (Shichinin
no samurai; 1954), Kagemusha (1980), and Dreams
(Yuke; 1990), Akira Kurosawa highlights an embarkation to question Japan’s nationalism through the painstaking art of cinema: “His cinema
has the power to restructure our perceptions of Western and Japanese cultures and to make us recognize a new domain of intercultural
meanings.” (Goodwin, J., 1994, pp. 233).
As an auteur, Kurosawa has epiphanously declared, “take ‘myself’,
subtract ‘movies’ and the result is ‘zero’.” (Kurosawa, A., 1983, pp. xi). These movies, though,
are a fund for investigation and cultural commemoration: his jida-geki operate
as new histories for an old Japan, and
they embrace more than one culturally determined film-making process. His ethics
are exemplified in every low-angle close-up shot of Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s iconic bushido samurai, as Mifune smirks ruefully despite the imminence of blood-engorged battle.
Subjectively, in all the technical mastery of Akira Kurosawa’s films, there is
also a truth, a humanity, and a modified identity that is instantly recognizable – and culturally adaptable. His films
are debatably timeless, and this timelessness has evidently effected (post-)modernist cinema in present Japan, and ineffably pervaded the evolution of Western film-making.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, 1990. Produced
by Mike Y. Inoue and Hisao Kurosawa. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Australia
Broadcasting Commission. Video recording.
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Goodwin, James. Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Baltimore
and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 18, 19-20,
37, 193, 233.
Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London
and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Hill, John, & Gibson, Pamela Church. World Cinema: Critical Approaches.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 3, 86, 178, 183.
Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior, 1980. Produced
Kurosawa, 2001. Produced by Sonoko Aoyagi Bowers
and Margaret Smilov. Directed by Adam Low, Australia
Broadcasting Commission. Video recording.
Kurosawa, Akira. Ran. Trans. Tadashi Shishido. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like An Autobiography. Trans. Audie E. Bock.
New York: Vintage, 1983, pp. xi, 88, 188-89.
Nobuji (2004), “Akira Kurosawa Biography: Part 1 (1910 – 1942)”, Nobuji’s
Home Page, <http://www2.tky.3web.ne.jp/~adk/kurosawa/biography-1.html>.
Perry, Robert Michael (1997), “Damned Samurai”, No. 3: DAMNED SAMURAI,
Pronko, Leonard Cabell. Guide to Japanese Drama. Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co., 1973.
Shichinin no samurai, 1954. Produced by Sojiro
Motoki. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, Madman Entertainment. Video recording.
Sato, Tadao (1998), “Akira Kurosawa (1910 – 1998)”, <http://www.asianfilms.org/japan/kurosawa.html>.
Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592-1598. Great Britain: Cassell & Co., 2002.
Williams, David (2003), “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)”, 19/3/03, <http://dvdmg.com/dreams.shtml>.