Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Emperor and the Wolf

I continued reading Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune’s biography last night, rushing through the pages of the dense 600 + book, flicking the sheets with delight, wondering why no one has ever written a biography of these 2 cinema legends before, possibly because they are both Asian artists with no one in the West willing to devote time to their achievements until now, so intrigued I read their story and felt like discovering a lost secret.  The output and range of Kurosawa is monumental, the only other director I can think of is Ingmar Bergman (but Bergman still pales in comparison), where Kurosawa completed so many good pictures that it staggers the mind to think that one could achieved so much, wondering if people can believe that such productivity is possible from a single man, much less someone from an Asian country foolishly deemed a copycat of Western culture. Kurosawa is a giant when compared with any director, physically imposing himself standing more than 6 feet in height, delving in so many aspects of film making as story or script writer, director and producer, putting to shame any other auteur with his prodigious and brilliant output.

Great directors have showered praise on Kurosawa, legends from both East and West like Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Milius, Satyajit Ray, Takeshi Kitano, John Woo and  Zhang Yimou, acknowledging the seminal influence of the Japanese sensei in their own work, like being in the midst of a master craftsman who exists in a higher plane, strangely not appreciated in his native Japan or in the general western public except for cinema buffs or lovers of Japanese cinema. Kurosawa comes from samurai ancestors, the warrior spirit instilling his no nonsense work ethic, pushing him to heights and productivity without thoughts of fame, following the Zen principles of simplicity and naturalness, rising from the destruction of war with his bold vision. Perhaps it’s the feeling of re-birth after the death and destruction that enveloped his country that spurred his martial spirits, continuing the innovative push to modern times by his ancient land, following the bushido spirit in an attack of cinematic seduction to conquer the world, not relying on the tactics of an imperial army.

Japan has conquered the world with soft power, rushing forth with their cool electronic gadgets and gas saving automobiles, with the innovations in their manga comics, cinematic originality and Edo paintings filled with geishas and samurai, satisfying the world’s palates with exotic cuisines like sushi, tempura and sushi, a complete world that developed independently of the West.  One wonders why Kurosawa is not as famous as he should be with all his achievements, lost somehow from every day discourse unlike known legends like Spielberg, Eastwood or Coppola. Perhaps it’s the naturalness of his talent that people mistakenly believe he had copied most of his work, ignorantly unaware of the ancient culture and originality of Japanese culture. Kurosawa completed about 30 films where 8 films are considered masterpieces based on Francis Ford Coppola’s point of view, an achievement hard to find from any film director, where most can claim to only 1 or 2 masterpieces. His ideas have filtered through his many admirers until his innovations become common place, where the everyday moviegoer does not realize the pervasive influence of Kurosawa, such is the tragedy of the situation.

Kurosawa has won many awards like his actor friend Toshiro Mifune, having collaborated in about 16 films together, a significant portion of which are great films if not masterpieces. Mifune is the quintessential Japanese actor, portraying timeless Japanese characters, from the ‘ronin’ samurai, yakuza gangster, military leader, rickshaw man, industrialist, policeman, ‘shogun’ and so on, completing an estimated 170 films that his output is insanely prodigious. There is no other actor that can claim to have worked on great films as well as acted in so many others in either leading man roles or supporting roles or cameos, embodying an ideal of a nation in his portrayals. From any standard, Mifune is a giant, perhaps the other actor that can claim a similar distinction maybe the Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni but he does not come close to Mifune’s productivity. One wonders how these Japanese giants can achieve so much that it seems superhuman, working without regard for rest and relaxation, working well into their late 70’s like Mifune or 80’s like Kurosawa. Both from middle class families, embodying the Japanese work ethic, living up to the principles of Zen, perhaps trying to erase the shame of their country’s militarism. One thinks that their ilk is gone forever, replaced by hedonistic voyeurs, living the Hollywood life of indulgence and decadence, wasting the potential of their creative genius, forever driven by monetary gain, Orson Welles or Marlon Brando come to mind.

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