Arthur Penn on Akira Kurosawa
American film legend Arthur Penn, the director of The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, and Little Big Man, and other classic movies, died this week at age eighty-eight. When we heard the sad news, we thought of this short reminiscence about Akira Kurosawa that Penn contributed to our 2006 DVD release of Seven Samurai. Penn was a friend as well as an admirer of Kurosawa’s, and as he reveals in the piece below, Seven Samurai was a “perception-changing event” in his life, and Kurosawa’s techniques influenced his work greatly.
In the early 1950s, a film from Japan burst on a filmgoing world that was becoming increasingly conscious of film directors. It was a film by Akira Kurosawa.
Rashomon told the story of an event, possibly a rape, possibly a romantic adventure, from multiple points of view, each of them persuasive and each, as witnessed, seemingly the truth. It was a film in all aspects original and compelling. Certainly, we had never seen a work that seduced and tantalized in such a cinematically unique way.
It became clear that Kurosawa was a major figure in the world of cinema. His influence was apparent almost immediately in Western films. In addition, Kurosawa reached into the great literature of the world. He drew from Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Throne of Blood, Maksim Gorky’s The Lower Depths for his film of the same title, and American chase thrillers for his High and Low, a particular favorite of mine.
In 1954, he made Seven Samurai, which proved to be a perception-changing event for me. Perhaps because it was in a language I didn’t understand, I was engaged by the extraordinary imagery. The visual language it spoke was so vivid that comprehension seemed more immediate and riveting. (It was later remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven, which was popular but not nearly as rich as Kurosawa’s original.) It is a perfect story of a poor town that is held hostage by ravaging bandits and slowly and painfully liberated by seven samurai.
In Kurosawa’s hands, film is realized as the magical medium it is. He uses speed changes, light and darkness, black-and-white and color—color so fiercely vivid that it seems to spill off the screen, over us—to move the story forward without excessive dependence on language.
Here is a true story. When Mr. Kurosawa made Kagemusha, a masterful work, the financing studio in Japan feared that the film would fail there. Kagemusha was expensive. Ironically, Kurosawa, revered throughout the world, was not held in high esteem by his own countrymen. The studio decided that one way to help the film was to invite several American directors who enjoyed recognition and a successful reputation in Japan.
In addition to myself, William Wyler and Sam Peckinpah were chosen. The intention was for us, at a large press conference, to express the world’s esteem and to offer our individual indebtedness to Kurosawa and his genius. (I certainly have been strongly influenced by him and used so many of his techniques in The Miracle Worker and Bonnie and Clyde.) The night before the press conference, Sam Peckinpah, who was considerably drunk, said, “Hell yes, I’ll be there. I owe my reputation to you two guys.” That was an alcoholic exaggeration. Sam was a hell of a talented director.
The press conference started. No Peckinpah; he never showed. Willie and I sang Kurosawa’s praises, and I hope we made a difference. I’m proud Akira became my friend.