Film Preview: Akira Kurosawa Season, 22 – 30 August, Filmhouse, Edinburgh

23 Jul

The Akira Kurosawa season at the Filmhouse, which runs from the 22nd until the 30th of August, features thirteen classics from the great Japanese filmmaker. Kurosawa (1910-1998) was the first Japanese director to attract international acclaim, his historical drama Rashomon winning the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival.

The season starts with 1985’s Ran (meaning ‘chaos’ or ‘revolt’), a historical saga strongly reminiscent of King Lear. Kurosawa’s perfectionism and obsessive attention to detail earned him the nickname ‘Tenno’ (‘Emperor’) from his colleagues.

Seven Samurai (1954), which Kurosawa not only directed but co-wrote and edited, is among his best-loved works. In sixteenth century Japan, six masterless samurai and one enthusiastic farmboy (Toshiro Mifune) band together to defend a village from bandits. The direct inspiration for The Magnificent Seven and indirect inspiration for countless westerns since, not to mention The Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life.

Drunken Angel (1948) and I Live in Fear (1955) directly address contemporary anxieties in a post-war setting. In Drunken Angel, the first of Kurosawa’s sixteen films starring the great Toshiro Mifune, Mifune plays a gangster dying of tuberculosis, in a tense thriller set in the swampy atmosphere of Tokyo’s docklands.  Mifune again takes the lead in I Live in Fear, as an industrialist obsessed with the danger of another atomic attack on Japan.

The season also includes The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Stray Dog (1949) and Ikuru (1952). In The Bad Sleep Well, Mifune plays a young executive embroiled in a closely-observed saga of corporate corruption and nepotism, and in Stray Dog he plays a detective whose pistol is stolen, triggering a sequence of disastrous events set against the backdrop of a sweltering Tokyo summer during the US occupation.

Based on two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutegawa (1892-1927), Rashomon explores the events surrounding a pair of brutal crimes in a desolate spot near Kyoto’s Rashomon gate from a variety of differing and conflicting perspectives. Both a compelling historical drama and an investigation into the nature of truth, the film launched Kurosawa’s international reputation.

Apparently influenced in part by the unreliable narrators of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, the film in turn provoked a memorable exchange between Marge and Homer in The Simpsons (Marge: ‘Come on Homer, Japan will be fun! You enjoyed Rashomon.’ Homer: ‘That’s not how I remember it…’).

Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro (1964) have been described as ‘samurai films noir’, although this hardly begins to cover their seamless blend of influences including Japanese traditional drama and literature alongside elements drawn from American westerns and detective novels, topped off (perhaps surprisingly) with a heavy dash of humour.

Kurosawa frequently acknowledged John Ford’s Westerns as a key inspiration, although accounts of an encounter between the two directors in person suggest the meeting of minds was somewhat underwhelming. ‘You really like rain,’ Ford is said to have observed. ‘You’ve really been paying attention to my films,’ Kurosawa allegedly replied. If some critics in Japan disapproved of Kurosawa’s assimilation of foreign influences, his subsequent shaping effect on world cinema has been immense.

Famously, George Lucas credits The Hidden Fortress (1958) with inspiring Star Wars – with C3PO and R2D2 modelled on Kurosawa’s squabbling pair of peasants bickering their way through a feudal war as they help a princess escape her enemies. Throne of Blood (1957) transposes Macbeth to medieval Japan, and ends with an impressively prolonged and unforgettable death scene, with Toshiro Mifune (again) stuck with so many arrows that he ends up staggering around like a grimacing porcupine.

In Red Beard (1965), set in the late nineteenth century, a young and ambitious recently-graduated medical student is sent to work in a free clinic in the remote countryside under Toshiro Mifune’s red-bearded senior doctor. Slowly, the arrogant younger man comes to respect his aloof superior, becomes part of the community and embraces the unglamorous responsibilities thrust upon him.

It shares several thematic concerns with Doc Hollywood, the lightweight 1991 Michael J. Fox vehicle, but only one of these two films is a moving, beautiful, thoughtfully-paced masterpiece directed by one of the true giants of cinema. When Red Beard does finally explode into a brilliantly-choreographed fight sequence, the effect is astonishing.

The film also marks the end of Kurosawa’s most productive period. Widely seen as old-fashioned and difficult to work with in Japan, and with the Japanese movie industry badly hit by the rise of television, Kurosawa would direct only five films over the next twenty years.

The Kurosawa season at the Filmhouse offers an unmissable chance to discover or rediscover these films on the big screen. Discount deals are available for those seeing more than three films in the season (see the Filmhouse website for more details). If you’re planning to go along, Kurosawa’s own account of his career, Something Like an Autobiography (published in English by Vintage Books) is a fascinating and valuable introduction to his work. The season in full is as follows:

  • Kurosawa Season, Filmhouse, Edinburgh (22nd-30th August):
  • Ran: Friday 22nd to Sat 23rd August
  • Seven Samurai: Friday 22nd August
  • I Live in Fear: Friday 22nd to Saturday 23rd August
  • Drunken Angel: Saturday 23rd to Sunday 24th August
  • Red Beard: Saturday 23rd to Sunday 24th August
  • Rashomon: Sunday 24th to Monday 25th August
  • The Bad Sleep Well: Monday 25th to Tuesday 26th August
  • Yojimbo: Monday 25th to Tuesday 26th August
  • Throne of Blood: Monday 25th to Tuesday 26th August
  • Sanjuro: Tuesday 26th August
  • Ikiru: Wednesday 27th to Saturday 30th August
  • The Hidden Fortress: Wednesday 27th August
  • Stray Dog: Thursday 28th August

Preview by Paul Vlitos

Visit the Filmhouse website for full details.

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