Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, Rashomon, opens in the middle of a torrential downpour.  Two men huddle beneath an abandoned and deteriorating city gate. The imposing height of the gate offers a sense of the power that created it . . . and that power’s absence that has left it in disrepair. The two men, a poor woodcutter and a poorer Buddhist priest, mutter about their lack of understanding. Their confusion could easily be aimed at the sorry state of the world immediately around them, but when a third man approaches, we soon learn of the specific cause of their bewilderment.

The bulk of the film recounts the story at the source of their confusion—the rape of a young woman and the murder of her husband by a bandit. But what could have been a standard crime story set in medieval Japan becomes something special as Kurosawa takes the viewer through the same crime story multiple times, each according to the perspective of one testifying at trial. This multiplicity of views creates indeterminacy about what really happened that day in the forest. The opening shot the first time through the story—from the woodcutter’s perspective, he being a secret witness to the whole crime—is a tracking shot looking upward through the canopy of trees. As the sun darts behind leaves and then back out again, the stage is set for the confusion to follow.

The varying stories play out in not entirely unexpected ways, as each version tends to fulfill the storyteller’s best vision of themselves, undercutting whatever baseness may have inspired certain of their actions. In this we discover a great deal more give and take between the bandit and his two victims, each of them with opportunities to act freely at certain moments. However one comes down on what actually “happened” during the incident, Kurosawa uses the three men at the city gate retelling this story as his way of commenting on the proceedings. When faced with the complex problems of the world and a lack of certainty about “what happened,” where do these three men—representative of society as a whole—go from here?

For the priest, the story has called his faith in humanity into question. Once a believer in the essential goodness of people, he begins to understand through the retelling of these stories that humans have a propensity to lie. This fundamental weakness in humanity brings disillusionment for the priest, possibly even calling into question his own mission as a servant of something beyond himself.

The visitor, hearing all the stories for the first time, is the most cynical of the three. He questions the very existence of goodness at all, and seems to live according to this philosophy himself. This visitor believes that the only way to survival is through embracing our own selfishness. Thus, when the three men hear the cries of an abandoned baby in another part of the gate, the visitor quickly runs over, not to give comfort to the child, but to take its blankets for himself.

Finally we have the woodcutter. He is the prime example of weak humanity, initially telling a false version of the story to protect himself. However, the very fact that he told a false story once even calls into question his “authoritative” version at the film’s end. Is that how it actually happened? Who knows? And Kurosawa seems uninterested in solving that problem for the viewer. Instead, Kurosawa creates tension: this woodcutter is a liar on the one hand, but on the other, he reproves the visitor for stealing the baby’s blankets, and in the end, takes the baby home himself, to care for alongside his other children.

Rashomon’s greatness comes in its frank portrayal of the human situation: we are weak and uncertain creatures. What will we do in light of such circumstances? Will we pull back from the world, like the priest? Will we take whatever we can get, like the visitor? Or will we try to overcome our weakness and care for others, like the woodcutter? When the rain finally stops and the woodcutter walks off, baby in hand, it’s clear that Kurosawa’s heart is with the woodcutter, even as he knows the very existence of people like the priest and the visitor will continue to tempt us toward some lesser life.

Red Beard (1965)

Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard, a story of deep compassion and transformation, made in 1965, marks the end of the most active phase of his career. Kurosawa is at the height of his powers here, combining the two greatest strengths of his career: his exquisite use of the camera, and the powerful presence of his favored star, Toshiro Mifune in the title role. In what would be their final film together, Mifune dominates every moment he is on the screen, and many that he is not. These two elements serve to enhance its story of a young, educated doctor coming to work at a hospital, unwillingly at first, with an old and experienced veteran who is set in his ways

Kurosawa’s strengths are immediately evident in the film’s opening sequence, about eight minutes long, which depicts a tour through a hospital. Dr. Yasumoto has just arrived at the village hospital to pay a call on Dr. Niide (who we find out everyone calls Red Beard, for obvious reasons). The camera follows the young doctor into the hospital, and then through it, as he receives a tour from an outgoing and rather cynical young doctor, Tsugawa. More often than not in this sequence, Kurosawa holds the doctors in a two shot, giving us only a view of the immediate surroundings – enough to see sick patients and workers, but not much else. In this decision, Kurosawa creates a cramped and overcrowded feeling in the hospital. Since Tsugawa is handling the tour, Yasumoto’s picture of this place immediately becomes tainted. And Kurosawa communicates the transference of this attitude beautifully by the amount of time these two spend in the same shot together. It’s as if Tsugawa is passing on his legacy of cynicism and angst to Yasumoto in this rather brief opening sequence. The genius of Kurosawa is that we would probably know that even if we removed the dialogue. He is using his formal decisions to contribute to the narrative.

The most interesting shot during the tour comes after they have passed the poor patients, the pharmacy, and the clinic itself. Kurosawa places the camera at the far end of a darkened hallway leading to the men’s ward. Initially, the camera looks as if it’s at a low angle, so that if the doctors were to venture into the hallway, they would literally be descending into darkness. This of course fits beautifully with their current mindset as they hesitate and gaze down it. Yet when they finally step into the hallway, the camera now behind them, we see an area full of activity and light. It’s at this point the two doctors encounter a room of sick men, and we viewers get the first sense this place may not be as bad as it seems. The sick man Sahachi is devoted to Red Beard, realizing that while his rules may require some extra discomfort, they are always in the best interests of the patients. In an otherwise one-sided presentation of the hospital by Tsugawa, this moment stands out, signaling that all may not be as it seems.

Finally, they arrive. Kurosawa has Red Beard’s back to us as the young doctors enter his room. They kneel before him in a perfectly symmetrical shot, the parties in the room forming a triangle, an arrangement Kurosawa returns to time and again both in this film and in others. Here, with Red Beard at the center of the triangle, the attention is all on him. As he turns though, Kurosawa cuts to a close-up of Mifune, glaring powerfully at the new young doctor. He is in charge of his domain, and he is not to be trifled with. In the next cut, Kurosawa pulls wider and to the right. Dr. Yasumoto is now in the center of the shot, under the gaze and questioning of Red Beard, the pressure and focus is all on him. He eventually breaks away under Red Beard’s piercing gaze, which places him at a disadvantage in the relationship, even if he doesn’t recognize it yet. What’s so great about this whole sequence is the way Kurosawa uses the camera and the framing of the shots to communicate narrative details, significant moments, and the personalities of his characters. That he is able to communicate so much in just the images is one of the things that make his films such rich experiences. The dialogue is only one layer of meaning in the film. The framing is another; the editing another. And so on.

Which leads me the biggest reason why I appreciate this particular film of Kurosawa’s – the images themselves are the most beautifully framed he has ever put to film. I think of that introduction to Red Beard. Or during Yasumoto’s angry period, as he reclines in the garden, near the nurse, Osugi, and they are separated by a twisting tree branch cutting through the middle of the frame. So much is communicated there, in the contrast of her worry and his carefree spirit to her selflessness and his selfishness. They may be together, but they are further apart than one might think. I also think of what could be viewed as a throwaway moment, when Masae comes to visit him at the hospital, and he refuses to see her – she stands alone, outside the hospital, on a lonely stone path. She has made a sacrifice to come, made herself vulnerable to Yasumoto, and he refuses to even acknowledge her presence. Even in this brief moment, we are given a glimpse, sans dialogue, of the character of Masae.

The most striking images in the film as a whole occur when Yasumoto is confronted by an insane patient, called only The Mantis, for she likes to kill the men she’s involved with. We first see a lit candle just below his foot, as he reclines in his typical, lazy fashion. She enters his room meekly, immediately kneeling, hardly taking up any space. He, full of himself as usual, taken in by her humility, and thinking he’ll be able to cure her, seizes the opportunity and faces her, the single candle lit between them. The fire is there lighting the space, providing the opportunity for conversation, yet as he moves closer to her, and the candle, we sense the fire taking on a more dangerous, even menacing character. When he finds himself virtually on top of it, we know for sure he has entered into a terrible situation, merely waiting for what must surely be a tragic conclusion.

It is these kinds of images I love in Red Beard. Of course, the film itself isn’t half bad either. The clash of personalities between young and old, inexperienced and experienced, arrogant and compassionate, takes on a complexity not unlike Kurosawa’s previous film, High and Low. In Red Beard, you have two people who both have a kind of “highness” and “lowness” about them and it is for us to sort out just who is who and what is what. No doubt if we look closely, Kurosawa’s beautifully framed images will offer many riches to that end.

Sanjuro (1962)

I’ve long admired Akira Kurosawa for his skill at combining so many of the elements of filmmaking into a cohesive and compelling whole. His photography is top-notch, as each scene is painstakingly situated. I am often struck by how he frames his shots, placing characters in relation to one another, using the foreground and background to reveal things even as the scene progresses, and returning to certain shots throughout a film for one reason or another. Also, I admire his use of music, his dramatic sense, the suspense in many of his films, the detailed characterizations, and even some laughter in certain films.

None have made me laugh though, as long and loudly as Sanjuro, which I finally caught up with recently. Toshiro Mifune is a known commodity, of course, and I figured that in the spirit of the earlier, Yojimbo, that the film would elicit some chuckles. How surprised I was then, with the portrayal in this film of the unnamed samurai played by Mifune. The most obvious is the sarcasm, which comes out from Mifune’s “Sanjuro” with regularity. But comic moments arise with the hostage, with the nine inept swordsmen, with the city officials, and even with the key villain, Muroto, whose forehead appears larger and more pronounced than anyone in the film. Of course, why wouldn’t it be, since he is known as “the brain” of the operation? The level of irony here is almost stifling, as Kurosawa pushes the conventions of the genre. It seems as if he’s poking fun at what his partnership with Mifune is based on. No doubt, the public had expectations, when such a popular team worked together and Kurosawa seems to be intentionally subverting those expectations. Yet he does so in such a brilliant manner, than one cannot help but appreciate the craft on display.

This irony climaxes in the final exchange, as the two swordsmen face off. The audience has no doubt had their fun, yet now, our hero is met with a master, and we fear for him. As they face off, many seconds pass without action, and then it is over quickly, but not without a last jab at convention – the dying man spews blood at an inhuman rate. It is clearly overdone, and yet, even through the irony, a moral weightiness lingers in that final scene. As the samurai walks away from the battle, he is clearly tired of the killing and recognizes the deep flaw in himself to constantly finish disputes with his sword. Yet he is a samurai, a man who lives by the sword, and it’s almost as if he is doomed to that fate, a wandering, sword-fighting existence. So in the midst of the comedy, we are left with the sobering reality of this character. What a great tension that is.