Kurosawa’s Birthday Month, Day 9

Mar 11, 2010

We were so impressed with the thoughtful, articulate answers supplied by so many Criterion fans in response to yesterday’s giveaway question that we felt we couldn’t pick just one favorite. We decided on seven winners (reproduced below). Congratulations to all of them!

Rob made the case for the Coen brothers as heirs to Kurosawa’s legacy:

Kurosawa, throughout all of his films, explored one thing: human nature.

What makes us do the things we do to each other. Why do we love, dream, hate, kill, kidnap, heal, avenge, lie to, protect, pursue, flee, betray, honor, rebel against one another. Sometimes he looks at man optimistically as in Ikiru or Red Beard, other times pessimistically (Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well). These ideas he dramatized arguably better than any filmmaker before or since.

Having said that, the current filmmakers that come to mind as “heirs” (even though there cannot be such a thing) are the Coen brothers. Just as Kurosawa worked with westerns and noirs, the Coen brothers also tend to gravitate to the same genres. Stray Dog had a man looking for his gun, The Big Lebowski, a man searches for his rug. Ikiru, a man searches for meaning in life. A Serious Man, a man searches for meaning in his life. High and Low, a search for a kidnapper. Fargo, the same. The Bad Sleep Well, a man jumps out a skyrise window. The Hudsucker Proxy, the same. As the Coen brothers release their version of True Grit (a western), we can only expect to add to the similarities.

Even with those congruences, the biggest reason why the Coens are most like Kurosawa is simply because they are the best storytellers we have today. At the end of the day, AK told the best stories, which is what film is, after all. Both combine comedy with drama masterfully. Both have the actors they use, the genres they use, the styles they use, etc. But beyond that, the Coens’ mastering of filmmaking sets them apart from their contemporaries, just as AK’s set him apart from his.

We also liked Charles’s piece on Steven Soderbergh:

In my opinion, I would have to say Steven Soderbergh. Looking at both Kurosawa’s and Soderbergh’s body of work, I can’t help but see how similarly they overlap. Both Kurosawa and Soderbergh’s use of elliptical storytelling have become practical boilerplates for style and form with Rashomon and The Limey, (and to a lesser extent Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and his HD films). Kurosawa and Soderbergh have played in many genres and every film showed a measured confidence as well as playfulness with the genre constructs. I also think that Steven Soderbergh, even when playing in lesser substantive genres and films (Oceans, etc.), he still manages to infuse a core of humanity within his characters and is always curious about them. His passion and love for his characters show in every slightly lilting camera frame. Soderbergh is, has always been, concerned with finding the core of his characters and thier motivations. And I think Kurosawa did too.

And A_Bord on Martin Scorsese:

Scorsese’s oeuvre shares a remarkable number of traits with Kurosawa’s. The most significant is each filmmaker’s ability to refashion a genre in order to study the intricacies of a respective culture and leave a powerful, unique stamp on those that followed.

Kurosawa didn’t invent the samurai genre, nor did Scorsese author the tropes of the gangster film. Significantly, each artist was able to mine the characteristics of a genre they admired and infuse their films with themes, characters, and ideas that both modernize and transcend the rubric they were working under. There is no question that Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai were both inimitable reflections of the artist, their influences, and the culture in which the films were made. So much so that there are entire generations of filmmakers that have co-opted that auteur spirit as their own.

How many non-Kurosawa Kurosawa films have you sat through? How many non-Scorsese Scorsese films saturate the market? And yet with all the imitation, there is no mistaking the originals.

And Stuart Collier on Werner Herzog:

Werner Herzog. A strange choice, but one which has yet to be said. Both filmmakers have a profound interest in the individual, be it in his ruination or his triumph. Kurosawa either celebrates the individual (Ikiru, The Idiot, Seven Samurai) or detachedly surveys his downfall (Throne of Blood, Ran). Herzog is also interested in the sociological dynamics between individual and society (Woyzeck, Stroszek, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), but like Kurosawa, is also attracted to ambitious men, be it the monster whose egoism seals his demise (Aguirre) or the businessman whose audacious plans fail after much effort. Both directors place their individuals in confrontation with larger forces; for Kurosawa it is bureaucratic politics or rigid social norms, and for Herzog it is the savage wilderness or exclusionary village society. Both directors are attracted to ambitious on-location shoots and narratives of epic scale, but they allot just as much care on smaller, more obscure and personal projects. While each director is associated with different modes of filmmaking—Kurosawa is more classical and marketable, while Herzog is an offbeat art-house director—each one has an almost romantic fascination for their individual protagonists, be they hero, villain, or oddball.

Billy Ritchie on Quentin Tarantino:

Quentin Tarantino. The name first came to me because their music choices are identical (I watched Yojimbo yesterday and realized his theme would be right at home in one of the Kill Bills). But the more I think about it, the more it fits. First, there’s the obvious fact that Tarantino loves to do throwback tributes, not the least of which were the Kill Bill movies, love letters to the samurai films of the 50s and 60s. But what’s more, as Tarantino has come into his own, and his pulpy ultraviolent entertaining romps have developed into more well-rounded excellent movies, the thematic range he is able to cover is approaching that of Kurosawa. Take Inglourious Basterds. He’s able to combine period war epic, hilarious dialogue, intensely personal moral quests, and beautifully tragic romance, all with his trademark style. Is this really so far from Seven Samurai? Are the Kill Bill movies really that far off from the Yojimbo movies? Sure, the plots are completely different, but they both are still hilarious adventures about a lone swordsman overcoming tremendous odds, with surprising bits of brilliant emotionality thrown in when you least expect it. Tarantino. The next Kurosawa.

Green Rahman on some of Kurosawa’s many heirs:

I don’t think that to carry a legacy one has to be just like that. So I don’t think Brian De Palma is carrying Hitchcock’s legacy just because he makes“Hitchcockian” movies or Terry Gilliam is carrying Fellini’s legacy just because his films are “Felliniesque.” It goes much deeper than that. To be an heir to a legacy is to digest the “ideas” of the filmmaker that he so densely packs into his films from whose DNA strand an entire dinosaur can be made. Films are the ambers that carries“ideas.” Ingmar Bergman said that he makes utilitarian products that, just like tables and chairs, should be useful to people. So Satyajit Ray was carrying Renoir’s legacy and Abbas Kiarostami is carrying Satyajit Ray’s. But there were many others whom Renoir inspired, including Kurosawa. So there are several filmmakers that are heir to Kurosawa’s legacy but talent like that is very very rare. Steven Spielberg and Hayao Miyazaki (whom Donald Richie calls“that cartoonist fellow”) come to mind. Kurosawa would be proud of them.

And Chris Martin on why Kurosawa has no heirs:

Let’s draw some parallels . . . The next Jimi Hendrix? Beatles? Stanley Kubrick? Alfred Hitchcock? Of the greatest artists that question always seems to be asked, yet the answer remains the same. No one. Whomever is named in this thread as an heir by thematic, technical, or narrative comparison is simply someone who has borrowed elements of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and deserves no such title. One who is named due to their ability to create film to a degree so powerful and unique as Kurosawa would deserve to have the same question asked of themselves. Such an artist would be worthy enough not stand in the shadow of another. To say that Kurosawa has an heir is to diminish and belittle his artistry. He deserves more respect than that from us, his fans.

March is Akira Kurosawa month at Criterion. On the twenty-third, the great Japanese filmmaker would have been one hundred years old. For this centennial celebration, we will be posting trivia questions and other contests all month, and giving away a different prize every weekday.

Today’s prompt:

What’s your favorite behind-the-scenes fact about the making of a Kurosawa film?

Please respond by commenting below, and we’ll choose a winner tomorrow. You must leave a valid e-mail address to be eligible for the prize (a Red Beard DVD).