An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Let me start out my take on Akira Kurosawa with a little story from my youth.
In 1994 I had my first taste of bitter poverty, living my aunt for the summer in a Missouri backwoods, one-cow town. Just 14 years of age, my entertainment at that time consists mainly of two separate but equal camps: Nintendo and film. (Sex, skateboarding, drugs and guitar were still a few years off on the horizon.) My aunt, too poor to cough up the scant few bucks it cost to rent a movie, opted to instead drop us off at the local library where the movies and books were free, dusty, and out of date.
Little did I know what a great gift this lack of modern cinema had brought upon me. Instead of watching shitfests like Mario Brothers or It's Pat, I was exposed to the likes of Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, and The African Queen. Did I know that these were all cinema classics that I should worship and drool over? Hell no, all I knew was that watching an old, black and white film was better than having to sit through another one of my aunt's long winded stories any day of the week. Sure, there were some woofers in there as well like Ernest Goes to Camp and the collective works of Benji, but for the most part it was all Hollywood gold.
After watching every single Hollywood movie (sometimes I would sit through 2 or 3 a day) that the malnourished library had to offer, I was left with two choices: Dorf Goes Auto Racing and an odd looking Japanese flick titled The Seven Samauri. Well, I picked the Dorf movie, but then again I was only 14 and as every kid knows: Midgets + Cars = Hilarity. Besides, the Japanese movie was a whopping 3 hours long and subtitled. Subtitles are like the kiss of death for movies when it comes to young teenagers. Hell, if I wanted to read then I would have checked out one of those books long ago. But now I had no choice, I had to check out the Samauri movie. Time to bite the bullet.
The big surprise was that within fifteen minutes of pressing play I was riveted to my screen. Being 14 and all I didn't quite understand why I enjoyed this movie so much, all I knew was that it kicked some serious ass. I didn't comprehend Kurosawa's masterful use of space, his complex, conflicted characters, his wonderfully choreographed action sequences. I just wanted the Samauri to win, the bandits to lose, and the villagers to live happily ever after. When the movie was over it seemed like 3 hours had passed in half an hour.
And that's part of the genius behind Kurosawa. Unlike some directors who feel like they need to hit you over the head with a titanium sledgehammer to show how great they are, Kurosawa's cinematic brilliance is transparent. He doesn't have to make grand statements to prove himself. Rather, he lets his workmanship speak for itself in the nuances of his films, like the ways the actors contort their faces or the how he uses camera angles to balance out the scenes. His ingenuity is so unobtrusive you hardly know it's there, yet in the end you always feel like you've just watched another great Kurosawa film.
So who exactly is this Kurosawa cat anyway? First of all, he's probably the most well known Japanese director of all time, at least in the West. He's been the architect behind a quintessential collection of materworks that every movie buff worth his weight in DVD's know, including but not confined to Red Beard, High and Low, Ikiru, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, and of course, his magnum opus, The Seven Samarui. Even his bad films, like Drunken Angel and Sanjuro, are worth checking out, if only to catch a glimpse of a mastermind on his off day. Rashomon, his meditation on the subjectivity of reality, was the flick that broke him through to the West and made him into the really, really big figure that he is today, yet in Japan the movie went widely unnoticed. Like many Japanese directors that are worshipped outside of their home country, Kurosawa is seen as just another director by his own people.
Why is this? Probably
because, unlike his contemporaries, his style is seen as distinctly "Western"
and therefore inaccessible to most Japanese audiences. During the golden
age of Japanese cinema, when Ozu was
directing minimalist films with static camera angles and Mizoguchi
was making 30 different variations of the same snoozefest story (the
Japanese woman in peril), Kurosawa was forging new groung and making kickass
flicks that dealt with contemporary Japanese predicaments (the everlasting
conflict between traditional and modern, the fatalist preoccupation of
the Japanese populace, etc.), filtered through a "Westernized" window
that let the rest of the world peer onto Japanese stories and aesthetics.
He was definitely a free thinker in what was at the time a very conformist
I guess I could go into all the theory behind his style, the way he took the Japanese method, turned it on its head and filtered it through Western influences like John Ford's classic Hollywood westerns, American pulp crime stories, and even Shakespeare's plethora of plays, but in the end these points are pretty boring to read. Besides, this is Acid Logic, not some pansy cinema theory rag. Go buy a Donald Richie book if you really want to know about Japanese film. He knows more about the subject and says it better than anyone else I've read. In the end, all you need to realize is that Kurusawa movies rocked, pure and simple.
But before you run out to Blockbuster and whip out your rental card, a word to the wise: If you've never seen a Kurosawa masterpiece, check out the films with Toshiro Mifune in them first. Not that the others aren't worth watching, it's just that the ones with Mifune are better. Mifune was the most famous of Kurosawa's stock actors, a rabid alcoholic, and a superb performer. He was the real McCoy. Plus, he could kick dropkick your ass up and down and not blink twice. Like Forbis says in his Mifune article:"The Japanese actor who starred in 130 films from 1947 - 1996 would've had no problem eating Clint Eastwood for breakfast and poopin' out Charles Bronson." Next time you find yourself cornered in an alley, surrounded by muggers with switchblades, just ask yourself "What Would Toshiro Mifune Do?" and start the butt kicking.
There's just something about seeing Mifune act in Kurosawa's films; it's like you're watching reality itself. The relationship between the two was definitely mutual because without Kurosawa, Mifune's career never really went anywhere ("I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him" were his exact words) and without Mifune, Kurosawa's films difinately took a dive in quality. Sure, he managed to pull a few more classics out of his ass (like Kagemusha and Ran), but in general his films seemed to lack that certain intangible quality without Mifune at the helm.
Not that the decline in his films' quality had any effect on his status as a legend in the industry. The classics from his salad days were enough to influence just about every prominent director in today's craptacular Hollywood landscape. Says George Lucas: "Kurosawa was one of film's true greats. His ability to transform a vision into a powerful work of art is unparalleled." I don't think anyone's going be saying that about his weak directing in Attack of the Clones, but it's the thought that counts. (Publisher Wil Forbis butts in: Alert movie watchers will notice that the the bar brawl scene from "Star Wars" in which Obi-One slices off a dude's arm, is lifted directly from a Kuwusawa flick - "Yojimbo," I believe.) Says Steven Spielberg: "He was the pictorial Shakespeare of our time. What encourages me is that he is the only director who, right up until the end of his life, continued to make films that were recognised as classics." Hell, that thick browed Martin Scorsese even made a cameo in one of Kurosawa's final films, Dreams, and dude can't even act! This, along with the plethora of Hollywood remake (A Fistful of Dollars was a nod to Yojimbo, The Magnificent Seven was the wild west version of The Seven Samauri) only goes to show the lasting effect his genius had on directors for generations to come.
In my mind, the true test of his universal appeal comes from the fact that his 3 hour long Seven Samauri was able to keep the full attention of a snot-nosed teenager with the attention span of a gnat. This is no easy feat. Don't believe me? Try taking your 14 year old little cousin to an Ingmar Berman film and see how fast he wants to get back to capping cops on Grand Theft Auto 3. 'Nuff said.
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