When Akira Kurosawa began making films, the West was not interested in Japanese cinema. But Kurosawa made them compulsively interested. At a time when the Western audience couldn’t differentiate between one Japanese actor and another, Kurosawa was giving birth to an international star in Toshiro Mifune (who acted in classics such as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood).
Pioneer: (left) A still from The Seven Samurai; and Kurosawa (right) with Mifune (right). Toho / The Kobal Collection
Within the ambit of the Japanese film-making tradition, what Kurosawa was doing wasn’t unique or new—he was carrying forward the legacy of YasujiroOzu in creating and making Orientalism into an international property. Which is why a House of Flying Daggers or a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would not have been possible without Kurosawa.
He showed us that Orientalism is about minimalism, and it was also about a certain grandeur—it did not have to look poor. There was an epicality to his films which reminded you of Andrei Tarkovsky—they were a continuation of one consciousness. Kurosawa’s too is a continuum of a saga, involving all the emotions. This came through most beautifully when he adapted Shakespeare in Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth) and Ran (based on King Lear). The films didn’t look or feel European—he took away all traces of Europeanism and Occidentalism from them. They comfortably fitted the Japanese scheme of things and Kurosawa’s own perspective.
Would it be fair to say that he was more feted and appreciated in the West than in Japan? After all, that happened with Satyajit Ray too—we have this terrible nature where we don’t acknowledge the talent of our contemporaries. Then we immediately bestow fulsome praise on them after they are dead and gone; and make their works archival.
But Kurosawa wasn’t a Western phenomenon. They wanted to place him in a niche ethnic box—the Best Foreign Film category—but that wasn’t big enough for him.
I don’t see Kurosawa’s legacy as having been carried forward in terms of the philosophical content of his films—that hasn’t been replicated. Just as I don’t think we have been able to put Rabindranath Tagore to celluloid; not even by someone of Ray’s stature. Look at the last scene of Ran—the blind prince stands on a precipice at the edge of a deep gorge. And then he stumbles. The Buddhist Thangka painting which he was holding slips from his hand and falls into the gorge and, as it falls, it unfurls, revealing a picture of the Avalokitesvara (the bodhisattva who embodies compassion)—here Kurosawa revealed the crisis of civilization. That is Tagore for me. I find spirituality (not religiosity) slipping out of our hands. It is a very important component of Eastern philosophy and this point comes through beautifully and effortlessly in Kurosawa’s cinema.
I don’t see any perceptible influence of his in Indian cinema—his legacy is all pervading and can’t be compartmentalized or pinpointed. As far as his influence on my own film-making goes—Kurosawa is the teller of a saga and not all of us make films of that proportion. While his legacy has been carried forward superficially in terms of visuals, I haven’t seen a reflection anywhere of the deep philosophy which he addresses.
Rituparno Ghosh has made many critically acclaimed films, including Bariwaali, Chokher Bali, Dahan and Antarmahal.
As told to Himanshu Bhagat To mark the launch of Kurosawa’s titles on DVD in India, Shemaroo World Cinema has organized a four-city Kurosawa film festival that began on Friday in Kolkata, and will run through September at venues in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. For details log on to www.shemarooworldcinema.com
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