The U-M Kurosawa Festival
Learning from the master
by Michael Betzold
Scores of arrows come flying out of the woods, propelled by unseen men, and pierce again and again the samurai warrior's bare chest. When I first saw Throne of Blood I was no big fan of Shakespeare, Akira Kurosawa, or movie violence, but the scene in which Toshiro Mifune becomes a proud pincushion is indelibly etched in my mind's eye. It was just about the coolest thing I'd ever seen on film--and a half-century later it remains so.
You can have your crouching tigers, hidden dragons, and Bruce Lee stunts, but all those are cheap tricks compared to what Kurosawa did. The master is way better than his imitators, and in his prodigious body of work Kurosawa laid the groundwork for much of modern cinema--not just Japanese film. By the time that swarm of shafts buzzes out of the trees, all the dramatic tension of Macbeth has been mounted in a way both faithful to Shakespeare and entirely appropriate to a new setting and unique story.
Kurosawa's films have a universality that grows out of human struggle and a specificity that is rooted in time and place rendered with painstaking accuracy. The U-M Center for Japanese Studies is showing a seven-week-long series of Kurosawa classics on Friday nights this fall, and all of them are worth a new look (if you've never seen them) or a fresh look on a big screen. Watching DVDs of such exquisitely constructed movies is not the same.
In early classics shown in this series such as Ikiru, Hidden Fortress (the inspiration for Star Wars: A New Hope), High and Low, and the samurai comedies Yojimbo and Sanjuro, you can witness how Kurosawa uses the iconic Mifune and other actors in character-driven stories that are complexly plotted and highly watchable pleasures. His most famous early films, Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, are staples of cinematic studies, the latter copied in the American western The Magnificent Seven. (Director John Ford in turn was Kurosawa's idol).
It's too bad the series does not include The Bad Sleep Well, a dark modern tale of white-collar crime, or any of his later films like Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, and Ran, in which the landscape itself becomes a major character.
Though Kurosawa has tackled more Shakespeare, Mifune, and the land itself in other films, nothing beats the sight of his star lacerated with arrows yet fighting on against all odds. The films are at Lorch Hall every Friday through November 12. Throne of Blood will be shown October 15. No bows will be allowed into the theater.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]