Today is the 100th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s birth, a centennial that’s already been celebrated with a good deal of pomp (retrospectives, articles, a very expensive Criterion box set).
As part of the small group of foreign auteurs recognizable by last name alone — alongside Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and, honestly, not many others — Kurosawa made films that became de rigeur viewing. And, as Christopher Campbell points out at MTV, his legacy lives on in a mutated way, with sturdily archetypal plots that can be shorn of cultural context and reused — the “what is truth?” film, the men-on-a-mission and so on.
It’s a curious fact that Kurosawa’s popularity has waned — as, indeed, has the stock of most of the international directors who briefly made foreign film viewing a mandatory part of many people’s college experience. Bergman’s death prompted a bilious Jonathan Rosenbaum obit, and most Fellini (“8 1/2” aside) seems to have been downgraded in importance. Antonioni’s particular brand of ennui seems more prescient than ever about the rhythms of the contemporary arthouse/festival film, even as his movies (undeservingly!) seem to be less-watched than ever.
In Kurosawa’s case, pretty much everyone I know under 30 who cares about such things has almost no use for him. Any day now, it seems he may be downgraded to the ranks of some old-school Hollywood triumph no one watches anymore. This despite the fact that his career is anything but a 50-year march of self-recycling. My personal favorites are from the ’40s — a weird and exploratory time in his career — and the magisterial one-two ’80s punch of “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” which pull off the rare trick of combining epic spectacle and a crawling pace that draws attention to the pleasures of its slow groove.
In between comes a lot of mixed work, including — and where I think the problem lies — the landmarks perpetually paid lip service: “Yojimbo,” “Ikiru” and the rest of the gang, showcasing the manic scenery-chewing of Toshiro Mifune, whose particularly voracious brand of masculinity was extensively (and accurately) parodied by the late John Belushi. There are issues of cultural specificity as well — try unpacking the argument of a relative bagatelle like “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” and you’ll see what I mean. Kurosawa’s standard reputation as the most “Western” of Japanese directors is a total crock.
When it comes to Kurosawa, what it comes down to, I suppose, is this: Kurosawa’s films often veer erratically between the “well-made” (in a way that anyone can recognize) and very specific ideas about acting and cultural traditions — an unstable, heady mix that, now that the initial shock of discovery has worn off, can often seem unresolved. Or maybe the cultural tides are just arbitrarily shifting again.
Here’s Belushi’s spot-on Mifune. That’s Buck Henry (writer of “The Graduate”) as the hapless customer:
[Photos: “Seven Samurai,” Criterion Collection, 1954; “Kagemusha,” Criterion Collection, 1980]