Discovering Akira Kurosawa at the Jerusalem Cinematheque

Over the years I have effortlessly “bumped into” Akira Kurosawa a number of times hearing about him from Jay, (my companion and fellow movie devotee), or reading about him in articles written by or about George Lucas and Mario Vargas Llosa.    Kurosawa is one of Jay’s favorite directors and when the Jerusalem Cinematheque screened “Dersu Uzala” (USSR/Japan 1975) back in May, 2008, we attended my first Akira Kurosawa film.

 “Dersu Uzala” a Russian language, black and white film, was Kurosawa’s first non-Japanese language work. All of the technical aspects that Jay had excitedly spoken about: the brilliant camera work, beautiful cinematographic direction, tight editing, and pacing of the movie far exceeded my expectations and anything else I have seen on film. But what really turned me into a Kurosawa fan was the manner in which Kurosawa painstakingly and attentively developed the working relationship between Vladimir Arsenyev, the Russian explorer, and Dersu Uzala, the nomadic aboriginal Nanai tribesman.  The movie showed me how a respectful cross-cultural experience can develop and enrich the lives of people from vastly different backgrounds.

Our next “meeting” with Kurosawa took place in August 2009 when we went to see “Dodeskaden” (Japan, 1970).  This is Kurosawa’s first color film it is a bold cacophony of muted color pouring out from the screen, a gentle glaring frame for the lives of a group of Tokyo slum-dwellers.  Once again we were impressed by Kurosawa’s ability to find points of human commonality with his characters and film viewers. In one segment he depicts the attempted suicide of an older man who wants to die because all of his family is dead and he is alone. After he drinks the poison he realizes that if he dies he will no longer be able to dream about his dead family and so they will die too.  This realization causes him to go on a frenzied search for an antidote.  As I watched this segment I remembered the line from Satre’s “No Exit” – “You die when no one speaks about you.”  I also thought that perhaps Paulo Coelho had seen this movie and this segment may have served as the conceptual basis for his book Veronika Decides to Die.  In another memorable segment Kurosawa gives all of us a lesson in what is truly valuable.  When a thief breaks into an old craftsman’s house, the old man says something like, “take whatever you want but don’t steal my tools they are my livelihood!” And surprisingly the thief complies with the old craftsman’s request leaving his tools behind.  However, what has remained with me from this movie was the Jerusalem audience’s reaction.  At the end of the film we all felt that we had been through such a surprisingly difficult emotional experience that as we left the screening room we were all silent.  No one spoke a single word, that is truly a rarity for Jerusalem movie going audiences!

After “Dodeskaden” Jay and I found ourselves longing for more opportunities to view Kurosawa’s work “big screen”.  We must not have been the only ones because this month and next (November and December 2010), the Jerusalem Cinematheque, in co-operation with the Embassy of Japan in Israel and the Japan Foundation, is screening an Akira Kurosawa Retrospective.  The Cinematheque is providing us with the opportunity to see 19 of Kurosawa’s movies, just over half of the body of his work.  Oh! To have all the time in the world to just go and enjoy screenings of Kurosawa’s movies!

Within the framework of this retrospective we have been able to see “The Bad Sleep Well” (Japan, 1960), “Kagamusha” (Japan, 1980) and “Madadayo” (Japan, 1993).  Of the five Kurosawa movies we have seen together, “The Bad Sleep Well” most closely resembles Western movie making trends of its time.  Jay and I found ourselves absorbed into the painful drama/trauma caused by the evil father who selfishly spoils his children so that he can control their lives.  The movie engaged our minds and hearts encouraging us to empathize with the characters and their difficult situations.  However, despite its Western patina the movie has a very non-Hollywood and very Kurosawa ending.

This past Saturday night we saw “Kagemusha”, quite frankly we were disappointed!  Never mind that George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppala, both great admirers of Kurosawa, are credited as executive producers of the film.  It seemed to us that this movie, unlike the other three movies we’ve seen at the Cinematheque, didn’t encourage us to engage in a relationship with any of the characters.  There was just no one to fall in love (or hate) with!  Despite the beautiful cinematography and good directing the movies last 40 minutes dragged us along on a forced visual march which lacked tight pacing and editing.

“Madadayo” was the last film we saw within the context of the Kurosawa Retrospective,  and since it was also the last film he made it seemed to us to be a fitting swan song for a career that spanned 57 years during which Kurosawa made 30 films.    It wasn’t until we returned home and I started doing a bit of on-line research about the movie that Jay and I realized that it is in fact a bare-bones “bio-pic” which has as it’s main focus the annual birthday party held for Hyakken Uchida (writer and academic) by his students.  “Madadayo” (“Not Yet!”) is the response given by Uchida each year after he finishes drinking a large glass of beer, it means that even though death will come or may even be very near life still goes on!


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