It would be hard to overstate the impact of the importation to the West, and particularly to America, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, which opened up a whole new cinematic world to moviegoers. We suddenly became aware of one of the most productive, vital, and creative cinemas in existence. (The Hollywood studio system, already in its death throes, was at that time contending with television and the European influx following World War II.) There were many important directors besides Kurosawa, of course, most notably Kenji Mizoguchi, perhaps film’s greatest visual stylist, and Yasujiro Ozu, creator of family dramas more poignant than anything Louis B. Mayer ever imagined. Both Mizoguchi and Ozu were avid followers of American movies and, especially in Ozu’s case, of broader American culture. In Kurosawa’s case, as we shall see, his debts to Hollywood were openly acknowledged. I can’t think of a foreign-language film title that entered the English lexicon as pervasively as Rashomon has. (The title actually refers to the “castle gate” separating the two ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, but it is commonplace now to refer to a situation as “Rashomon-like” when various witnesses to an event have differing points of view on what actually transpired—highly cinematic, in effect.)
Kurosawa (1910–1998), who died 15 years ago last week, had been directing for nearly a decade before Rashomon, and a surprising number of his films to that point dealt with contemporary social issues (alcoholism, gangsters, syphilis), although the two parts of Sanshiro Sugata and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail provided a foretaste of the period/samurai films to come. (Many of the early films of Kurosawa and other key Japanese directors were not available to us until Donald Richie curated a massive retrospective at MoMA 20 years after Rashomon. Our upcoming exhibition The Aesthetics of Shadow, based on Daisuke Miyao’s recent book, is dedicated to Richie, who died in February.) For his Drunken Angel (1948), Kurosawa stumbled upon a barely experienced young actor named Toshiro Mifune (1920–1997), who was possessed, in the director’s words, of “remarkable sincerity and truth.” This doesn’t begin to describe the uniquely raw animal energy and magnetism Mifune brought to his roles. Perhaps James Cagney or Jean Gabin might be considered rivals, but at times, as in Yojimbo, he seems to be a species unto himself, perhaps from a less mundane world. Rashomon made him a star, and before Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro, he was Kurosawa’s muse in films as diverse as the masterful epic Seven Samurai, I Live in Fear, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, and The Bad Sleep Well.
Kurosawa’s genius for visual rhythms, camera movement, composition, and editing often prevented a single character/actor from dominating a film. The notable exceptions would be Takashi Shimura in Ikiru and several Mifune performances—especially Yojimbo. The film was inspired, according to the director, by Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, a novel that was, needless to say, filmed very differently in Hollywood, in versions starring George Raft and Brian Donlevy. (It was, of course, later turned into Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti Western” A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood.) Yojimbo was beautifully photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who had done Rashomon and several of Mizoguchi’s late masterpieces. Yet the seminal influence on the film, for me, was a hard-drinking Irishman from Maine named John Ford, who made Westerns.
Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s devoted longtime assistant, tells, in her Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, of two encounters between the two men, both limited by a seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Ford had visited Kurosawa’s set for The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail at the end of World War II at the Toho studio. Their second meeting was in London in 1957, where Ford was making Gideon’s Way (Gideon of Scotland Yard). Kurosawa visited the set, and Ford introduced him to his crew with much applause. Both of these films were atypically studio-bound. What Kurosawa admired and tried to emulate were the Ford Westerns, mostly made with Ford’s homegrown “samurai,” John Wayne, ranging from Stagecoach to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In his recent MoMA exhibition Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, my erstwhile colleague Doryun Chong included a 1965 painting showing Yojimbo surveying a stylized recreation of Monument Valley, the location of several of the Ford/Wayne epics, including The Searchers, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. (One of the sweetest of my guilty pleasures occurs in a 1953 film called Fukeyo Harukaze [Spring Breeze]. It was directed by Kurosawa’s friend Senkichi Taniguchi, and the two collaborated on the screenplay. Mifune plays the driver of a yellow taxicab, and he repeatedly sings a variation of the title song from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in tribute to his yellow cab and John Ford.)
Kurosawa told Nogami: “John Ford is really great…. When I’m old, that’s the kind of director I want to be.” In many respects, he came damn close. His 1985 Ran (Chaos), his riff on King Lear, is a strong candidate, in my judgment, for being the best film of the last 50 years. When Ford died, 40 years ago last week, Nogami and her associates “couldn’t bring [themselves] to tell Kurosawa the sad news.”