In the current issue of The L, Michael Joshua Rowin discusses the films of Akira Kurosawa, on the occasion of Film Forum’s major centennial retrospective, which began this past weekend. Rowin closes with a “a poignant, lasting metaphorical image” from Kurosawa’s second-to-last film, Rhapsody in August: “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.”
Society itself is a character in Kurosawa’s films, to an extent perhaps rivaled only by Ford: the way people go about building their worlds, their values, and the internal and external threats to them—this is the grand subject to which Kurosawa returns throughout his samurai origin myths and historical revisions, and contemporary crime and medical dramas. Many of his characters are pitted directly against cruel or indifferent nature, as surely as the elderly woman facing the rain: humanity, in Kurosawa films, seems to wage a bullheaded war against the elements, into which we always seem in danger of sinking. (In this, Kurosawa is something of a forerunner to Werner Herzog.)
I’m thinking of the murky bog at the center of Drunken Angel‘s urban slum, which gets as many menacing close-ups as Takashi Shimura as the angry doctor who hopes to elevate the lives of the slum’s residents; and of the cop and criminal scrapping, rather primally, in the mud at the climax of Stray Dog, the film whose current weeklong run kicks off Film Forum’s series. Heavy weather is a given in Kurosawa’s films: the torrential rain in defense-of-civilization epic Seven Samurai; the mugginess and swarming mosquitos of Rashomon; and the oppressive heat of Stray Dog—Toshiro Mifune, as the novice cop who’s lost his gun, struggles to fulfill his social-guardian responsibilities while sweating profusely through his white suit.
And there are moments even more direct, like that final howl in Rhapsody in August, which seems of a piece with Kurosawa’s King Lear adaptation, Ran, with its harsh landscapes as backdrop to its monarch’s descent.
Which brings me to Shakespeare, whose fatalistic plays about gods and kings provided a natural source of material for Kurosawa; in the spectacular climax of Throne of Blood (pictured above), the director improved upon Macbeth by having Birnam Wood fashioned into the arrows which impale his usurping warlord—the natural world spring up to pin down and destroy its hubristic hero. (The actual Japanese title of Throne of Blood is “The Castle of the Spider’s Web,” or “Cobweb Castle,” in either case a suggestive melding of the natural and man-made.)
My favorite moment, though, comes again from Stray Dog, as Mifune’s cop tries to trace his lost gun: a bullet lodged in a tree trunk may hold a clue, so before you know it he’s down on his knees, digging into the stump with a penknife, just a panicked man stabbing again and again at an unyielding tree.