Having long been deemed a Great Master, Akira Kurosawa’s legacy becomes even more astonishing in light of the mere decade it took for him to establish himself as one of film history’s few undeniable titans. Following an auspicious debut in 1943, Kurosawa came into his own after WWII with gritty, fast-moving genre films investigating the harsh negotiations of Japan’s reconstruction. Drunken Angel (1948) features the arrival of intense, tic-possessed better-half Toshiro Mifune as a dissipated gangster, while Stray Dog (1949, the fitting opening film of Film Forum’s nearly complete centennial retrospective) displays flamboyantly textured mise-en-scene, audaciously complex montage sequences, and unrivaled extremes of environment and landscape. It was Rashomon (1950), however, that put not only Kurosawa but Japanese filmmaking on the world cinema map; though a sentimental denouement gracelessly undoes much of its inquiry into multiple, clashing perspectives, the film’s sumptuous and mysterious sylvan imagery continues to astound.
Following the solemn existentialism and labyrinthine storytelling of Ikiru (1952)—another landmark—the pinnacle of Kurosawa’s virtuoso multi-camera shooting, telephoto compositions, and frenzied action came with Seven Samurai (1954), a 16th-century epic of cooperative samurai-farmer triumph over the forces of savagery. Though it would endlessly influence the Western (and Western filmmaking) as a defining civilization-defending myth, one of cinema’s most enduring movies also announced its director’s growing abandonment of selfless, steely heroism. A disillusioned cynicism soon surfaced from the apolitical humanist in films haunted (claustrophobic atomic nightmare I Live in Fear, 1955), fatalistic (brooding Macbeth adaptation masterpiece Throne of Blood, 1957), outraged (class conscious kidnap thriller High and Low, 1963), and nihilistic (scruple-less dark samurai comedy Yojimbo, 1961). The bitter tone carried a bitter irony: Kurosawa’s withdrawal from cinema as a medium of social change occurred during the emergence of a Japanese New Wave and radical student left. But in a sense his response fueled deeper work; too often in earlier films post-war optimism is founded upon a simplistic and sentimental wishing away of bleak realities.
A three-hour master-pupil medical drama whose sober, literary rhythms couldn’t have been more out of fashion in 1965, Red Beard marks an undervalued transition into the wholly pessimistic late-period films, with the title character’s practice standing as a moral yet isolated haven in an irredeemable social void. Thereafter things would alter drastically. Mifune, black-and-white photography, and a passionate engagement with contemporary issues were jettisoned for long take-structured tableaux and fabulist (Dodesukaden, 1970) or despairing (Ran, 1985) narratives. An artist of once-enormous stature had become anathema to the cautious Japanese film industry; not a little self-pity can be read into tender noble savage wilderness elegy Dersu Uzala (1975), the finest and saddest of several infrequent, uneven international co-productions, and the first Kurosawa directed after a failed suicide attempt.
Like so many other filmmakers in their twilight years (Fellini, Godard, Bergman), an octogenarian Kurosawa took to looking back on his own personal mythology before passing away in 1998. The final films can be pedantic and mannered, though controversial penultimate statement Rhapsody in August (1991) offers a poignant, lasting metaphorical image of Kurosawa’s defiance against a self-destructive, unyielding modern world that once seemed to him so full of promise: an elderly Nagasaki survivor raging against a typical Kurosawan howling storm she takes to be an A-bomb attack, her frail body wielding only a ravaged umbrella against the driving rain.
January 6-February 4 at Film Forum