Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Stuff of Dreams

By Mark Jordan

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998: 

A dream is the utmost possible means of expression for those pure desires. A human is a genius while dreaming. Fearless and brave, like a genius.” – Akira Kurosawa

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who died on September 6th at the age of 88, was a genius in his waking and sleeping life. In fact, his particular genius lay in bridging the two worlds through the flickering light of the motion-picture camera.

An Academy Award-winning filmmaker with more than 30 works to his credit, he was one of the most celebrated directors in the medium’s history, a huge influence on directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas, and one of a handful of artists whose work elevated a onetime amusement-park attraction to the status of world literature.

Kurosawa, originally a promising painter, started his directing career in 1943. He directed about a dozen features – each more mature, complex, and assured than the last – until in 1950, he became an international celebrity with the release of Rashomon. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s on-screen collaborator throughout much of his career, this groundbreaking film relayed the events of a rape and stabbing in a secluded forest spot from the perspectives of four characters involved – a thief, the dead man’s ghost, his wife, and a woodcutter who witnessed the events from afar. Rashomon’s central theme, that “truth” is necessarily subjective, is now a commonly accepted maxim, so much so that Rashomon’s narrative structure has worked its way into our contemporary story cycle.

Though all his films are firmly rooted in the highly stylized traditions of Japanese drama, Kurosawa was one of the most accessible of foreign directors for American audiences. His films tell simple, emotional stories full of broad humor and – perhaps most significantly for America, a country that was forged largely with the business end of a gun – violence.

It’s no mistake that Kurosawa’s films have often been remade by American directors. His Seven Samurai (1954), a kinetic, brilliantly staged epic at once an adventure yarn about a band of swordsmen who come to the rescue of a small village and a portrait of a vanishing warrior class, found resonance in the dying gunfighters of America’s old West in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960). His 1960 comic samurai film Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro (1961), both featuring Toshiro Mifune as a lone, cunning master swordsman, were the direct inspiration for Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and indirectly gave rise the spaghetti Western movement and that towering late-20th-century American icon, Clint Eastwood. (Yojimbo was most recently remade in 1977 as Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis, a lesser actor with a terse, no-nonsense screen persona in the Mifune-Eastwood tradition.) And 1958’s The Hidden Fortress, the tale of a hidden young princess in exile, her samurai protector, and two bumbling friends, gave George Lucas a loose framework for Star Wars (1977).

In large part, Kurosawa’s ability to make films that talked to both sides of the Pacific (much maligned by critics in his own country) was a result of his extraordinarily diverse cultural upbringing. As a young painting prodigy, Kurosawa studied Western art for a time and often cited American film director John Ford and the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevski as major artistic influences. In 1951, Kurosawa even directed a version of Dostoyevski’s novel The Idiot, which in its current mangled, edited state, is an intriguing but ultimately disappointing work.

Another Western artist to loom large in Kurosawa’ imagination is Shakespeare. The Bard has enjoyed a rich tradition of film adaptations, including masterpieces from Olivier, Branagh, and Zeffirelli. But possibly the two greatest film versions of Shakespeare come from his unlikely Japanese interpreter.

Kurosawa’s first stab at the Bard was 1957’s Throne of Blood, a stylish take on Macbeth which ends with the treasonous warlord played by Mifune – his face hollowed and heavy – being shot full of arrows.

Almost 30 years later, Kurosawa returned to Shakespeare for inspiration in the visually stunning epic Ran, his version of the tragedy King Lear.

Necessarily, neither Throne of Blood or Ran uses Shakespeare’s lauded dialogue. Instead, Kurosawa translates the essence of the stories. Freed from being a slave to Shakespeare’s brilliant writing, Kurosawa is able to use his unparalleled skills as a filmmaker to tell the tales in his way, in the process becoming what more than one observer has called the the cinematic equivalent to Shakespeare.

With Ran – and at the age of 75 – Kurosawa had confounded critics by producing his third undeniable masterpiece – Rashomon and The Seven Samurai being the others – in a world where one masterpiece often seems too much to ask.

After Ran, Kurosawa went on to make three more films, including 1993’s little-seen Madadayo, Rhapsody in August, a memory-film of the atomic bomb featuring a cameo from Richard Gere, and 1990’s Dreams, a self-indulgent but beautiful and hallucinatory collection of eight vignettes all based on the director’s dreams.

In “Village of the Watermills,” the final sequence of Dreams, Kurosawa’s alter-ego “I” has wandered into a small village and is watching a traditional Japanese funeral procession march by. “I” doffs his hat in respect and says goodbye to the village.

Now, “I” has said farewell for good. He has joined the procession himself and gone to the place where geniuses reign, dreams. Fortunately, he has left a few of them behind for us to follow.

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