One of the highlights of this semester, if not the past year or so, has been sitting in a classroom, watching Japanese films--for bloody credit. Supplemental readings and lectures are provided too, but it's the films I find the most remarkable.
Director Akira Kurosawa garners a lot of attention in North America. He's influenced the likes of Sergio Leone, George Lucas (king of crap), and Spielberg, so maybe that's why. I haven't seen all of Kurosawa's work, but I shit you not, what I have seen pales in comparison to the other Japanese films viewed this semester. What makes Kurosawa films sub-par, in my mind, is their inability to present their themes or moral compass with subtlety--something I think can arguably be considered Western influence. Unlike Miyazaki, who infuses his themes directly into the story, leaving the viewer to draw from the scene what he or she can, Kurosawa beats us over the head with heavy-handed dialogue and obvious imagery. The films are entertaining, sure. But so is Bloodsport--and there's nothing great there by any stretch of the imagination.
Case in point, after viewing Sanjuro and Yojimbo, I decided to try of Kurosawa's more recent films, Dreams. Experimental in comparison to the linear story-lines of his Samurai epics, Dreams tells eight chapter-like tales through the form of dream sequences. Sounds inventive, I know. And to a certain extent is is. I mean, what other form for story-telling is so unrestricted? To a degree, Kurosawa uses this to his advantage. Visually speaking, this film is astounding. Each scene is careful and lush, drawing metaphor from setting as much as from the story nuance (what little there is). Why then does the director insist on falling into what I like to call the Spielberg trap?
Spielberg weakens a lot of his own films by assuming his audience is stupid and spoon-feeding them the "just in case you didn't quite get it" explanation at the end. Watch Minority Report and tell me otherwise. Great film right up until the last half hour or so. Same with A.I. In Dreams, Kurosawa goes the same route. A beautiful village, along a river dotted with water-mills, is a useful enough metaphor for pastoral elegy without having a protagonist lectured to about the perils of modernity by an old wise man.
There are exceptions. Two of the chapters are simply gorgeous. Kurosawa's indictment of war, told though the eyes of a soldier confronted by the ghosts of all his dead comrades, is a work of art. So is the following chapter where an artist steps literally into the world of Van Gogh's paintings, walking through their landscapes and conversing with the artist himself (played by Martin Scorcese). So it's not like Kurosawa doesn't have the knack. He's just too influenced by Western stupidity. His films embody what is wrong with American cinema.
I'm not saying avoid Kurosawa. Far from it. All of his films have something redeemable about them. But you can't consider yourself reasonably knowledgeable about Japanese film-making until you've sampled from the truly great. Directors like Ozu or Takehashi. Try the following films and see if you disagree:
The Taste of Tea
Always: Sunset on Third District
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