Monday, March 30, 2015

Reflections on Akira Kurosawa

I didn't watch many films as a child. Perhaps this was because I didn't like them. It was after much wrangling and arm-twisting (by my mother) that I saw them. That was a time when there were classics which were shown on TV every other week. My mother, who wasn't really a film connoisseur but had taste when it came to these things, recommended watching them. I didn't take it to heart of course, but eventually relented. Some of those films impressed me. Some inspired me. The rest didn't. Naturally.

There was one that moved me, though. Its story petrified me. Four witnesses to a (samurai's) murder are brought to court. Each of them has a story to tell. At the end of it all, while neither story gets us any closer to the truth of what happened, they are told in a way that makes whoever tells them the hero of the incident. So when the samurai's wife tells her version of what happened, she is a paragon of virtue. When the samurai himself (through a "medium") tells his version, however, she is a betrayer. No one gets it right here. Ever. Predictably, we are left with no answers.

That film is loved for quite a number of reasons today. It has since become one of my favourites. And it wasn't too hard to see why or how. There probably were a hundred different ways of telling its story. For me, though, there could not have been a better way that it could have captured heart, mind, and soul. At the end of the day, if a film does that to me, I admire it. Unconditionally.

Rashomon was directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa directed other films. Other masterpieces. Having discovered my love for films, I dug into them all. At the end of my little journey, while I wasn't any closer to discovering him, I got to realise some essential truths about the cinema. I also got to know him. He wasn't just a director or a giant. He was a figurehead. And like all figureheads, he guided us.

He would have been 105 last Monday. He was 88 when he died. Tissa Abeysekara, in his essay "The Only One of His Kind", tried to judge the worth of the man. I can only quote what he wrote:

"No other director in the history of cinema has covered so much of life, observed so much, probed so deeply, and in such a variety of forms. From the sweeping tracking shots which open Rashomon... to the impressionistic visual rhetoric of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa has moved from one act to the other with the greatest of ease."

Rashomon
Some directors change. Some others, very rarely I should think, change so quickly that it's hard to keep track of them. Kurosawa was such a filmmaker. No single theme or subject-matter can sum up his career. At once fiery and reserved (he never talked about his films), he probed the depths of the human soul in so many ways. To list and examine them all here is beyond my task. For now, a few reflections would do.

Kurosawa was not at home in Japan. He took to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky with the "greatest of ease", though he understood neither language. It was as if he were venerating a higher language here, one that wasn't spoken, read, or written. The language of the cinema.

And yet, he was never happy with what he filmed. You could see that with the way he progressed. Take his earlier works and compare them to his last few films to see the difference. As the years went by and the world grew darker, there was a pessimism in them that couldn't be defined. Unlike that other giant of the cinema in Asia, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa couldn't maintain grace under pressure. True, his films were austere and free of frill. But as time passed, he couldn't handle that simplicity. He electrified us. And sometimes, as in Kagemusha, we were electrified so deeply that we just couldn't handle his world: cruel, savage, with no room for goodness.

Sometimes, gently and happily, he swerved. In Ikiru, his most moving story, there was that same goodness which seemed to elude his stories. Kanji Watanabe, the lonely hero in that remarkable film, is unloved. To him, there is no meaning in life. In his quest to find it, and to help others, he sacrifices and ends up ridiculing himself, to the point where everyone realises his worth only after death. His act of sacrifice serves as a lesson to his colleagues, until, towards the end, we realise that no matter how triumphant in death he was, Watanabe's moral is taken to heart by just one person.

Kurosawa didn't have room for stories like that, sadly. In his universe, there were very few Watanabes and too many samurais. There was evil, intrigue, war, and bloodshed. Out of them, in one or two sequences perhaps, there was also comedy. But in the end, this comedy deteriorated into pathos, leaving behind a shell-shocked world where good pitted against evil and evil won. Not that this absolved the "good", for even Kurosawa's heroes had their faults. Even Watanabe.

I think he realised this. Being the stubborn man he was, however, he persisted with his vision. While there were no set themes that defined the man, he always went for historical epics that ran well over budgets and frustrated his producers. After Red Beard and Dodes'ka-den, there was a period of exile. His return to the cinema, with the quiet, reflective Dersu Uzala (in 1975) was symbolic, hence: it began his last phase, one that would be marked by financial woes and creative lags. Inevitable, considering how stubborn he could be.

In Madadayo, his last and most personal testament, he tried to reconcile himself to the world outside. The attempt succeeded, well beyond what was expected. The story of a lonely professor, spanning over 80 years, was unusually calm, even comical. It reflected him in a way: formidable, stubborn, yet essentially well-meaning. In a world as far from Rashomon or Kagemusha as it could be.

Madadayo ends plaintively, almost innocently. The professor lies dying in hospital. He remembers one day when, as a boy, he played hide-and-seek with a group of friends. After hiding in a haystack, he exclaims "I am ready". No one answers. After a long time, where we see or hear nothing in particular, the boy crawls out. He sees a purple sky, as though from a fairy-tale. His friends are there, moving against the sky, looking for him. And the credits roll. Nothing is said about the professor. Maybe he's dead. Maybe he's not. In any case, through this memory, there is something of an apotheosis.

I'd like to think that this was Kurosawa's apotheosis. I'm sure it was. In any case, Madadayo was a fitting tribute to a master. A master who rebelled against the changing face of the cinema, at a time when several younger directors, George Lucas included, were borrowing and adapting his stories to fit their canvas. While these stories did bear some affinity to Kurosawa's world, they seemed too fast and nimble. Even for him.

But he didn't bother. He just went on. As he always had. Tissa Abeysekara put this best: "The ecology of film was changing, and he was the last of the dinosaurs".

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 29 2015