Utpal Borpujari

October 4, 2009

Kurosawa: The Master of the Visual Narrative

By Utpal Borpujari

Akira Kurosawa’s cinema always had that panoramic feel, the kind the impact of which can be best enjoyed only on the big screen. The highly-stylised screen compositions, the long shots, the grandeur that the “Tenno” (Emperor) of cinema was known for are all things the magic of which can come alive only when we, the viewers, watch them unfold on the giant screen in front of us. But the tragedy is that one can be almost sure not to get to watch the Japanese auteur’s creations on the large screen, on celluloid, in the present times, unless some film festival curates a retrospective of the maestro.

 

So, the next best option is to try and get hold of DVDs of his films. Till recently, the only answer to this quest too was a path strewn with illegality, as one had to trudge to that rare vendor who would sale pirated CDs of films made by greats like Kurosawa. But now, things are changing, and two sets of his films, marketed under two different labels, have made it possible to build your own Kurosawa collection legitimately, and have a home-festival of the greatest of his creations. And it is one sure-fire way to learn and re-learn why Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one who has inspired modern-day greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese,  George Lucas, John Woo, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone and Zhang Yimou.

 

What was the greatest Kurosawa film? The director, the seventh child of his parents whose interest in cinema was fuelled by elder brother Hiego, a narrator for silent films, their soldier father who believed cinema had positive educational influence on minds, and a teacher named Tachikawa who firmly believed in educating the young in the arts, himself once said the international blockbuster “Ran” (1985) was his best creation. But legions would dispute the maestro on this. For many, his best creation is “Seven Samurai”, which got remade as “The Maginificent Seven” in Hollywood and “Sholay” in Bollywood, apart from numerous other acknowledged and unacknowledged remakes. For many others, it has to be “Rashomon”, the film that created a new cinema language by giving four viewpoints to the same story. Equally strong would be the argument for “Ran”, “The Throne of Blood” and quite a few of his other films. But there is no argument that getting to watch a whole bunch of Kurosawa films at one go could be a great emotionally therapeutic exercise. And that has become possible thanks to Shemaroo World Cinema’s four-DVD collection (Rashomon/Ran/ Madadayo/The Quiet Duel) and Palador/Moser Baer’s five-DVD boxset (Red Beard/High and Low/Yojimbo/Throne of Blood/Seven Samurai). I undertook this journey over a couple of nights, and yes it was once again hard at the end to decide on the internal debate in my mind if “Rashomon” or “Ran” of “Seven Samurai” is my absolute favourite.

 

The reason for this is not very difficult to seek. Kurosawa is one filmmaker who made more than one – in fact, several, masterpiece. And doing so, he created a cinematic idiom of his own, with each film as distinctly different all of his other films, straddling genres, treatment and narrative style, while maintaining that special Kurosawa stamp. And each of these films in these two collections are proof of this.

 

Take for example the “Rashomon”, the film through which Kurosawa gave the world of cinema the storytelling technique called multiple narratives, through its narration of one single story from four different viewpoints. This is a film that probes the intricacies of the human mind, and with a towering performance by Kurosawa’s alter ego Toshiro Mifune as the thief who is at the centre of it all. The story, set in the 11th century, is about the probe into the rape and murder of a noble woman, and Kurosawa’s masterly hold over the medium, along with Kazuo Miyagawa’s superb photography that makes the jungle backdrop itself a character, makes it among the best of his works.

 

Or “Ran”, the last epic by Kurosawa which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear (as his “Throne of Blood” was one of Macbeth), transposing the story to a backdrop steeped with Japan’s history. What makes this film really special is the way the master director has combined emotional drama and war scenes seamlessly, with the visual design of the film making it an extraordinary experience. A little known fact, mentioned in the well-designed booklet that comes with Shemaroo’s set, is that Kurosawa had treated this film as a metaphor for nuclear warfare, highlighting the fact that whether it was in the 16th century or present times, the man has only used technology to kill one another more efficiently.

 

Another film that is hailed as an all-time classic universally, is “Seven Samurai”, which also probably is the film that has had the maximum number of remakes ever for any film. Anyone who has watched either “The Magnificent Seven” or “Sholay” would know the premise of the story of this film, but the sweep and scale of this film made in the heady days of black & white have yet to be surpassed by any of the remakes, however grand they themselves might have been. This film also reflects Kurosawa’s affinity to Hollywood Westerns, and in a way it is his own tribute to that genre of films, just as his epic “Hidden Fortress” was, the story of which was in turn used to George Lucas to make “Star Wars” in later years.

 

In total contrast to these epic films is “Red Beard”, another film with Mifune in the lead. This contemplative film about the responsibility of individuals towards the society at large.; The setting is a rural clinic headed by a doctor known popularly as the Red Beard, and his successful transformation of a young doctor from an arrogant man to a compassionate human being who learns to understands the responsibilities that come with his profession.

 

“High And Low” also explores the complexities of human mind. Once again with Mifune in the lead, this film is about moral dilemmas that one faces in life, and how difficult it is to sacrifice one’s self-interest for the sake of others. The story itself is set in a backdrop of the world of business, with the protagonist having to decide whether to keep the money he raised to get control of the company he is associated with or to spend it to get the son of his driver released, whose kidnappers mistakenly think the child is actually his son.

 

The master that Kurosawa was is proved again and again, through his other movies that may or may not be in these two collections. As always, a Kurosawa festival, even if it’s on your television, and not on the big screen, is a treat that you can have for yourself, anytime. I did that, and am asking for more.

 

PS: The Shemaroo set is accompanied by a comprehensive booklet on Kurosawa, compiled by Praba Mahajan and presented by Whistling Woods International, enhancing the value of the experience.  And yes, both the sets come with additional short films, though all DVDs of the Shemaroo set contain the same student film from WWI, while those by Palador has some really tantalising stuff – FTII student films by people who later have become stalwarts by themselvers, such as “Awashesh” by K G Girish (whom we all know as Girish Kasaravalli), “Bonga” by Kundan Shah, “Murder At Monkey Hill” by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and “Teevra Madhyam” by Arun Khopkar.

(A slightly curtailed version was Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 04-10-2009)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/28485/master-visual-narrative.html

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1 Comment »

  1. Be careful of the Palador release of Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. The subtitles are taken from a bootleg Hong Kong release and are unintelligible. The Japanese characters have Chinese names!

    Comment by Gourab Roy Chowdhury — November 3, 2009 @ 5:22 pm | Reply


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