Kurosawa, There and Back Again

by Aaron West

This article is part of our Japanese Films Journey.

As we’ve launched these journeys, what I didn’t expect was how much our format has impacted my tastes. Most of the films that we’ve programmed are films that I’ve seen before, and while there’s a lot of value rewatching films, there’s also a yearning to watch something new. That’s how I’ve felt about Akira Kurosawa over the years.

Like many, or perhaps most, cinephiles, my gateway to classic Japanese film was Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, and eventually Ran became instant favorites, and many are still among my favorite films of all time. Over time, however, there is a distance. There are certain parts I’ll never forget, like the ending of Throne of Blood, or the entrance of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. There were other treasures waiting, some of which I liked more than others, but I wouldn’t ever consider any Kurosawa vehicle a ‘bad’ film. Even at his worst, he was well above mediocrity. He delivered special experiences in various forms.

While I would not equate taste in Kurosawa with stray relationships, I’m reminded of the meme with the man looking over his left shoulder, ignoring his girlfriend. For me, for awhile, that meme was Kurosawa, and I was looking at Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi, Kinoshita, Naruse, Suzuki, Oshima, and the list goes on. I became well versed in Japanese cinema, and have a sincere appreciation for the golden age that will always be with me throughout my lifetime. Kurosawa, while amazing and I’d always be grateful for him as a gateway, fell out of favor. The grass was greener on the other side.

This month with our Japanese Films Journey, I had the opportunity to revisit High and Low and finally catch a decent print of Dersu Uzala. High and Low is a film that gets better with rewatches. There’s always something new to cling onto, which is quite a feat given that the class distinctions are very on the nose, and it’s mostly a procedural where the action happens at a single location, often with people talking or on the phone.

This time, High and Low resonated even more, and it was already on my top 100 list. The last third of the film, where there are cross-cuts and eventual meeting of the protagonist and antagonist, really struck a chord with me. Even if I had slightly drifted away from Kurosawa, he was unquestionably one of the great master filmmakers of all time. The blocking, editing, and the performances in High and Low are a clinic across the board.

Dersu Uzala could not be more different, but yet again, the master director ushered me away into a new world — one I never would have expected that a non-native Russian director could have captured. The titular character was one of the most unique and endearing I’ve seen in Kurosawa’s filmography. Like the pair of actors from Hidden Fortress, I get why George Lucas “borrowed” this character as Yoda in arguably one of the most successful franchises of all time. But I did not love Dersu because of Star Wars. I loved it because of the magical sequence where Dersu and his Russian companion are caught out in the wilderness in life threatening conditions. There were many other breathtaking scenes. Even though this was not my first time seeing the film, I barely count the first viewing because of the terrible condition of the print and transfer. This was like watching a new (to me) Kurosawa.

Eventually we will revisit Japanese films. We’re thinking about either Japanese Dramas or Japanese Samurai films, or most likely, both. The former might not have as much Kurosawa, and I’ll probably drift back to the lovely and intricate characters and stories that my other favorite Japanese directors have created. With samurai films, I’ll be back in Kurosawa land, and will be eager to return to another chapter in Kurosawa’s repertoire. Deciding which films to revisit will be the hardest part.

Thanks to all of those who participated in the Japanese Film Journey. While I was technically a “Guide,” and provided context for the history of the country and the film eras, I also felt like an “Explorer.” Revisiting such wonders and seeing them through the lens of others, who were finding their gateways for the first time, was a special experience.

2 thoughts on “Kurosawa, There and Back Again

  1. As someone who went on this journey as a participant, it’s great to hear your thoughts as a guide. Kurosawa was a gateway for me, in ways, to Japanese films, Criterion, and international cinema itself. Seven Samurai was my first. I’ve seen 11 since then, and while I take that film for granted, I need to revisit it after the 18 years since.

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