Friday, January 9, 2009

Akira Kurosawa: East and West

It was Kipling who wrote:

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

I don't know what Kipling would think today if he saw the many Japanese and Korean cars parked in driveways and parking lots in Western countries, or what he would make of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean singers, violinists, pianists on the concert circuit playing those exotic "Eastern" composers--Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Perhaps he might think differently today.

One of the most fruitful and interesting "meeting places" is in the work of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest of Japanese film directors, and arguably one of the twentieth century' s great film directors, regardless of race or nationality.

I don't claim to be an expert on Kurosawa, and what I know about him comes from viewing many of his films, the bonus features on the DVDs, and the Wikipedia page about him. But, even a cursory glance at material about him reveals the West's influence on him and his influence on the West.

For example, at least four films directed by Kurosawa are directly or indirectly inspired by Western texts. There are others, no doubt, but these are the ones that I've been able to identify.

Ikiru, Kurosawa has been quoted as saying, was inspired by Tolstoy's novella "Death of Ivan Illych." Both the story and the film concern a man who realizes he is dying, without ever really having lived. Illych is able to accept only near the end that his life has been empty and wasted; the novella therefore focuses on his struggle to achieve a true picture of his life. Kanji Watanabe, on the other hand, comes to the same conclusion about his own life much earlier, and the film explores the various ways he attempts to make his life mean something at the end.

Kurosawa's film The Idiot is a faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, in which he changes the setting from 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia, to post WWII Hokkaido. The subplots in the novel have been dropped, and the film centers on the interrelationship among the Japanese counterparts of Myshkin, Rogozhin, Nastasya, and Aglaya. Kurosawa's winter scenes are a clear reminder of Russian winters.

Ran tells the story of a warlord who tires of the responsibilities of rule and divides his territory among his three sons. He, however, retains or attempts to retain, the privileges and benefits of power without actually possessing it. The plot is based partially on actual events from Japanese history and, of course, Shakespeare's King Lear.

Throne of Blood opens with two men returning from a great victory over their king's enemy. They meet three "weird sisters" who foretell that one of them will be greatly honored and rewarded by the king and eventually will become king himself. The film is a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, including the forest that comes to the castle.

However, the influence or inspiration has not been entirely in one direction. Kurosawa's films have influenced a number of Hollywood directors.

For example, The Seven Samurai is a film about a small village, repeatedly attacked by bandits, that decides to take action and hires seven samurai for defense. John Sturges moves the setting from Japan to Mexico and casts Yul Brynner as the leader of a group of seven gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven. It is interesting to view the two back-to-back and see what Sturges kept and what he dropped. What is also intriguing is that Kurosawa has said that this film was inspired by US westerns--perhaps a full circle here.

Another of Kurosawa's films that made it to Hollywood is Rashomon, the story of the death of a samurai as seen by three people: his wife, a bandit, and the samurai himself (as revealed by a shaman who went to the underworld to get the husband's version). Director Martin Ritt also moved the setting from Japan to Mexico and cast Paul Newman as the bandit, Claire Bloom as the wife, and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The film, The Outrage, did not gain the same recognition as The Magnificent Seven. It will finally be released on DVD next month, and while I haven't seen it yet, the list of characters does show some resemblance to the cast list of Rashomon.

George Lucas has been quoted as saying that one of the sources of inspiration for Star Wars was Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. In Kurosawa's film, a young woman is trapped within enemy territory and must make her way back to her homeland in order to rally the people to resist the coming invasion. Accompanying her are a wise old general and two mostly cowardly and greedy country bumpkins, included apparently for comedic relief. If we add two young men to this group, we have Ben Obi-Wan Kenobe (the wise old general), Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia (the perky princess) , and R2D2 and C3PO as the two country bumpkins.

My last example seems to be one that is best described as a full circle. Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest is a 1920's novel about a nameless private eye who is hired to save a small town that is being destroyed by two gangs of bootleggers, struggling to gain complete control. Kurosawa's Yojimbo is the story about a wandering samurai who enters a town that is being torn apart by two gangs in their struggle to eliminate each other. Sergio Leone transported the setting from Japan to (where else?) Mexico where the sword-wielding samurai is replaced by Clint Eastwood with a short cigar, a serape, and a six-shooter. In 1996, director Walter Hill decided the world was ready for yet another version, and the result is Last Man Standing, starring Bruce (these guns never go empty) Willis. Both Leone and Hill kept the plot very close to Kurosawa's, but both, especially Hill, focused more on the violence and less on character development.

One last point that I would like to make is that these are all excellent stories which, no doubt, is why Kurosawa borrowed them from the West and why Western film makers adapted his films. I would recommend that those who are interested should read the stories and see the films, both Kurosawa's efforts and the Western adaptations and the various sources.

I suspect there are numerous others that reflect a Western influence on Kurosawa and his influence on Western film makers. But the ones I've discussed give some idea of the interrelationship that existed even half a century ago and is probably even more true today.

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