Lecture Note: The Art of Akira Kurosawa: An Appreciation — Prof. James Goodwin of UCLA, May 18, 2010

Nibei James Goodwin

Prof. James Goodwin of UCLA

Nibei Foundation Japan Study Club

Dr. James Goodwin, who received a PhD from Rutgers University, is a professor of English at UCLA where he teaches in the areas of modern drama, film, and American literature.  His books include Eisenstein, Cinema, and History (1993) and Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema (1993).

Prof. Goodwin presented his lecture on The Art of Akira Kurosawa:  An Appreciation.  Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest of modern Japanese film directors and film makers.  Through his cinema, he gave insights into both East and West civilization in the whole scope of human history.

Kurosawa had an early love of art and as a young art student, his fantasy was to someday hold a Paris exhibition of his works.  His father was a military man, who stressed the Japanese traditional arts of kendo, calligraphy, and haiku poetry.  In the 1920s, this training served as a base for his discipline of mind and body.

As a child, he saw small silent movie productions, much of it Western comedy. At the age of 13, he experienced the Kanto earthquake.  In Yokohama, on September 1, 1923, Kurosawa was just ending his school vacation period.  When he witnessed the fires, it looked to him as if the end of the world had come.  It seemed to be ash from hell.  He saw firsthand how nature could cause such a tragic burden on humanity.  But by the age of 25, he decided to give up on the painting medium and began to concentrate on film.

Kurosawa’s films were many times great adaptations from Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Therefore, several of Kurosawa’s works were adaptations of great works of Western literature.  He was able to combine European and Japanese cultures in an international and most unique manner.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth was a dreamlike adaptation into Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and King Lear was reworked in Ran. In addition, Kurosawa also collaborated and played a major part in the creations of the film scripts of most of his films and closely supervised the editing of his films as well.

In Kurosawa’s films, through his artistic talents, he was able to capture the visual in extraordinary ways.  His number one priority was the visual; the visual was even more important than the script and storyline.  This visual element took three forms:  sketch, diagram and storyboard-painting.  In his films, he was always careful to take special care in the selection of setting, location, psycho, camera angles and costumes in order to attain his most superb visual product.  The end result was a finished canvas caught on film.  Therefore, this visual conception and his picture texture, not the narrative, was the most important artistic element.  In Roshomon, this “textual” quality was most evident.  Text was the composition made from closely related elements of setting, costume, angles, screen, and actors.  In addition, through the medium of film, Kurosawa’s love of European paintings can be clearly seen.

Kurosawa’s love of Western and European oil paintings and post-Impressionism played a major influence on his films.  Some of the paintings that had a profound effect on his films were from the French artist Cezannes’s “Forest” (1885) “Mont Sainte Victorire” (1900); Paul Gauguin’s “Mountains in Tahiti” (1891); Van Gogh’s  “Bridge at Arles,” (1888); and French painter Vlaminck’s  “Restarant de la Machine” (1905) and “Potato Pickers,” (1907).

Kurosawa had a close link to the Baroque artistic style of the 16th through the 18th centuries.  This can be seen in the surface and density of the canvas pieces.  Many of Kurosawa’s films play much on the use of color and shadows.  In Kagemusha (1980), he used very bright colors.  Dreams and nightmares seem to create a dream scape environment set in a fully painted art piece.  Here the set is fully painted.  In this film, Kurosawa returned to the large-scale historical epic, which he continued in Ran (1985).

In the 1920s and 1930s, grays and black and white were dominant colors.  Kurosawa saw the rich black and white in Van Gogh’s colored pictures.  Kurosawa’s study of the black and white medium as an art technique can be seen in “Music without Walls.”  In the 1940s, his devotion to the black and white medium continued.

In the 1940s and 1950s the American painter Jackson Pollock and the American Robert Motherwell showed the influence of calligraphy through oil on canvas in the abstract expressionalistic style.

In the 1950s Hollywood gained dominance at the box office.  During the beginning of this period, Kurosawa produced Scandal (1950).  The Japanese actor Toshio Mifune plays an artist in this film.  Here Van Gogh’s and Cezanne’s influence is quite dominant.  Cezanne once said, “to paint is to record the sensations of color.”

After WWII, Kurosawa dealt with the effects of the war upon his country and changes in post-war Japanese society.  In 1948, he produced Drunken Angel.  The actor, Toshio Mifune, plays a gangster named Matunaga, as a man who is inflicted with TB.   In this film, the death scene is in the baroque and theatrical style; the human body is seen in physical strength and motion, and then rest at death.  The storyline fight scenes also show artistic abstract expressionalism.

Kurosawa gained international fame with his great series of films in the 1950s and 1960s.  This was a mix of Eastern and Western styles and established him as one of the world’s leading film makers.  In 1951, Rashomon won the first prize at the Venice Film Festival.

In Roshomon (1950), there is a physically and emotionally charged rape scene set in shadows and scenes where the nature elements of wind, rain and typhoon are at battle with the human individual.  In this film, crew members actually threw on addition black ink to give a further charge to the scene.  Also, devastation and ruin are strong themes reminiscent of King Lear.  Madness battered by storm; nighttime slaughter visions of kamikaze.

In Ikuru (1952), the film star Takashi Shimura, who plays Kanji Watanabe, is dying of terminal cancer.  The character struggles to find meaning for his existence during the last months of his life.  In other words, what does it mean to be truly alive?

The movie Seven Samurai (1954), started Kurosawa’s samurai series and is the most popular of all of Kurosawa’s films in the West.  Again in the baroque style, extreme physical brutality and finality can be seen in Seven Samurai (1954).  Kurosawa’s artistic technique in the use of motion and stillness can clearly be seen in this film.  First there is stillness, then words, again silence and then a violent stroke into the chest, and again stillness returns.  In this film, there is a dual scene which ends with a sudden death stroke in slow motion.  Man’s fragile attempt to hold on to life can be seen.  In the backdrop is a monsoon and the climatic elements help intensify the clash of bodies and horses.

Yojimbo (1961) is a jidaigeki , or Japanese period drama starring Toshio Mifune.

Red Bear, i(1965), shows the end of the black and white era.  Toshio Mifune is seen in this film in tones of red, orange and grey.

In Ran (1985), another jidaigeki or Japanese period drama, is based on Shakespeare’s Kin Lear., there is a nighttime slaughter .  The color of blood is in black and white.  The main character, Matunaga who has TB, spits up dark clots as he coughs.  There is a baroque appeal to the emotion, rather than to reason.

Prof. Goodwin also showed a clip from the film Throne of Blood (1957), in the similar Baroque style.  The main character in this film meets his death in an excess of a barrage of arrows and ends with an arrow through the neck.  There seems to be a fascination of “death by a 1,000 cuts.”  This film was a dreamlike adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The presentation ended with a visual of two beautiful paintings done by Kurosawa  for Kagemusha and for Ran. These paintings were done in the visual Western Baroque and post-Impressionist style.  The impact to the visual and to the imagination is quite intense.

The lecture ended with a question and answer session.

Question:  Did Kurosawa have an exhibition of his paintings?

Answer:  Kurosawa took in the paintings of art work as it connected with his film production.  The paintings, therefore, were not the final product, but seen as part of film-making process.

Question:  Why did you, Prof. Goodwin,  get interested in Kurosawa’s films?

Answer:  When I was a teenage of 16, my parents took me to see Japanese films at Toho La Brea Theater in Los Angeles.  It was there I saw Seven Samurai, as well as Jimbo. There was also an original appeal of the martial arts as seen in the action sequences of Kurosawa’s films.  Also, as Kurosawa’s father was a liberal man, yet with military values, there was in intertwining of the martial culture and society.  Kurosawa later showed great diversity in his films which made a comment on character and society in general.  This all interested me into Japanese films.

Question:  In Dreams, did Kurosawa select the pictures ?

Answer:  Yes, he collaborated them as a writer.  At each stage, Kurosawa actually help write the script.

Question:  When did Kurosawa die?

Answer:  In the 1990s.

Question:  How well received was Kurosawa with the Japanese audience?

A:  In the 1940s, he studied film and later released some contemporary films, but his reception was not extraordinary.  Then in 1948 with Drunken Angel, he was more recognized.  Roshomon got an award at the international film festival and with that the Japanese people began to appreciate his work more.  Then in 1954 with the Seven Samurai, he started to influence Hollywood.  Also, his brother was a film interpreter.

The lecture ended with the audience most appreciative of an informative and interesting presentation of how Kurosawa’s love of art influenced his great film career.