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It Happened One Night: Influences on Kurosawa

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    Ugetsu

    As Vili notes in his excellent introduction to It Happened One Night, this film has been quoted by several sources as an influence on One Wonderful Sunday, but this may say more about film critics than about either film or Kurosowa. Like so many supposed influences on specific Kurosawa films (most notably Ford films), the similarities seem to fade away the closer you look, as we have seen in our discussions on other films.

    The two obvious similarities between It Happened One Night and One Wonderful Sunday would seem to be that:

    1. The two films follow a young couple over an eventful short defined period of time (although the Capra film of course doesn’t strictly stick to the ‘one night’ format, unlike Kurosawa).

    2. Both films use the device of a romance to show the background of a society in trauma – post war Japan, and Depression era America.

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but I find that even these links are very tenuous and not terribly convincing. Since It Happened One Night was hugely influential on the genre of screwball comedy, the influence on One Wonderful Sunday could easily have been second hand or indirect. In so many ways, they are very different films, in style, tone, narrative and atmosphere.

    As Vili (via Richie) notes, Kurosawas usual listing of Ford, Capra, etc., when asked about influences seems very generic and half-hearted. But of course, when writers on Kurosawa talk about influences, this is exactly what they discuss – and as we have been discussing on other treads, these influences seem very tenuous and often misleading when you look at his films closely. It is difficult to find more than individual shots or edits – such as the samurai coming over the horizon in Seven Samurai (Ford) or the use of a romance to make wider points about society (Capra). As we’ve discussed with those films, the fundamental themes are usually firmly rooted in the Japanese experience and Kurosawa’s own personal interests at the time.

    Which leads me to think that it is almost a habit for film writers to assume that film makers are influenced by other film makers. Of course, its impossible for any director to be any good without analysing carefully what those who went before him did right – but this is largely a technical matter – how to edit a fight scene, for example, or how to heighten the emotional impact of a lovers tiff. For me ‘influences’ should go deeper – into the sources of the directors thematic obsessions. I wonder if the habit of assuming that every director is influenced by other directors is not just incorrect with Kurosawa, but actually deflects us from seeing his real influences and the aims of his films.

    This leads me to a fundamental question – was Kurosawa in fact influenced by any film makers in a thematic sense or intellectual sense? It is striking I think that when asked about his advice to aspiring directors, he told them to read and read the classics (i.e novels). And when you look at his films, almost all seem to have their roots either in novels, drama, or short stories – and often, even more significantly, more than one literary source. In fact, I can’t think of a single Kurosowa film that can be directly associated with an earlier film, even as a minor element (except insofar as he used genre elements). And of course when Kurosawa worked within specific film genres, he invariably did so to either undermine the genre, to satirise it, or to push it in a direction nobody had done before. Kurosawa never seemed to make a film that could be described in any way as a ‘tribute’ so some other film maker he admired.

    So… I would like to put it out to you all out there that it is entirely wrong to talk about Kurosawa being influenced by any other directors. He admired some of course. He studied their work closely for ideas in how to make his films better. He would often take ideas for shots and scenes from other films. But thematically, he seems to have been entirely uninterested intellectually in other films and directors. From my reading, he talks about other peoples films in terms of their technique – or their emotional impact (when, for example, he said that everyone loved a Western because they were so exciting). So I’m suggesting that, in thematic and intellectual terms, his influences were entirely from the world of literature, drama, philosophy or history – Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, crime novels, the Japanese theater, etc.

    I’d go as far as to say that the overall aim of Kurosawa’s films was to achieve what he may well have believed no director had achieved – to create the density and complexity of a great novel into the form of cinema. Kurosawa’s reference to other directors as an ‘influence’ may well have been nothing more than politeness – he simply wasn’t interested in what other directors made, he was interested in how he could make better films.

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    lawless

    While I agree with you about his having admired rather than being influenced by other directors, I think what you’re saying is true of many, maybe even most, directors, especially considering the primacy of the auteur view of a director’s role. I think other directors are an influence on them in terms of technique but not in a thematic or intellectual sense.

    In fact, perhaps the only directors who are influenced in such ways are those who work in genre; horror is still influenced by Hitchcock, for example, and I think action movie directors influence each other, though largely through technique. Kurosawa’s still an influence there; he paved the way for much of what is done in action movies now. Peckinpah had to have been an influence on Tarantino. The violence of Tarantino’s films wouldn’t have been possible without Peckinpah paving the way; Peckinpah, from what I understand, picked it up from Kurosawa. Bottom line: trailblazing directors like Kurosawa are more likely to be influences than to have been influenced by other directors.

    In part this comes down to an issue of semantics: What is meant by “influence”? I tend to agree with you that it rises above the level of technique, but I can see the argument the other way, too. And by calling his repsonses half-hearted, you seem to imply that he wasn’t honestly impressed by these directors, which I doubt is what you meant.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: (although the Capra film of course doesn’t strictly stick to the ‘one night’ format, unlike Kurosawa).

    Capra’s certainly has a curious title, all things considered! Apparently, the film was originally titled Night Bus.

    Ugetsu: Perhaps I’m missing something, but I find that even these links are very tenuous and not terribly convincing. Since It Happened One Night was hugely influential on the genre of screwball comedy, the influence on One Wonderful Sunday could easily have been second hand or indirect. In so many ways, they are very different films, in style, tone, narrative and atmosphere.

    This is very true. For one thing, I wouldn’t call One Wonderful Sunday a screwball comedy, or really even a comedy.

    Earlier this week, I watched Capra’s Mr Deeds Goes to Town during a flight (I seem to watch most of my films on airplanes these days), and I think that it is actually a little bit more directly relevant to Kurosawa than It Happened One Night (although it’s not quite as good a film). In particular, in the latter half of the film, the story takes a turn that is very strongly and to be honest quite naively promoting values that Kurosawa engaged with throughout his career — things like what is fairness, in what ways can property and possessions damage us, and how could we all live happily together.

    Now, while my understanding of Capra’s works is quite limited, I wonder how much the way Kurosawa is interpreted is influenced by his proclamation of Capra as being one of his primary influences. It sometimes puzzles me how Kurosawa is dismissed as someone with brilliant technique and impeccable style, but also lots of unrealistic and naive “humanism”. I now feel that if these critics have been watching Kurosawa’s films with Capra’s films at the back of their minds, this view of Kurosawa is sort of understandable, even if it is (in my view) not at all justified.

    Then again, I may well also be underestimating Capra here.

    In any case, as you mention in your post, and you have discussed before, Kurosawa was really good at mixing sources and appropriating things that worked for him. I can definitely see Capra in there somewhere — especially after having watched Mr Deeds Goes to Town — but those influences are taken into a very different place, and onto a different level. It’s a bit like him reading King’s Ransom and then coming up with High and Low. Is the source in there? Well, definitely yes. Is it a derivative work, then? Not really.

    Ugetsu: This leads me to a fundamental question – was Kurosawa in fact influenced by any film makers in a thematic sense or intellectual sense? … thematically, he seems to have been entirely uninterested intellectually in other films and directors.

    You make an interesting point here. I don’t think that I am quite as ready to dismiss the possible thematic influence of directors like Griffith or Chaplin, however. Additionally, I know too little about the cinema of the 1920s and 30s — Kurosawa’s formative years as a film viewer — to really say how much he was influenced by directors of that particular era. You are right that many of Kurosawa’s works appear to have a stronger literary feel to them than films made by his peers, but I think that many early films, which I think are more important if we are talking about Kurosawa’s influences, did employ rather book-like narratives — works like Broken Blossoms, Greed or Les Vampires come to mind, for instance.

    Speaking of influences, I’m now trying to get hold of D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful, which based on what I have read about it might actually be a more direct match for One Wonderful Sunday than Capra’s film. Unfortunately, the only copy that I can locate is an Archive.org one, which is only the first half an hour. (It’s also available on YouTube.)

    I think I’m also going to buy me some more Capra, as I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen from him now.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    In part this comes down to an issue of semantics: What is meant by “influence”? I tend to agree with you that it rises above the level of technique, but I can see the argument the other way, too. And by calling his repsonses half-hearted, you seem to imply that he wasn’t honestly impressed by these directors, which I doubt is what you meant.

    Ah, yes, even a term like ‘influence’ needs to be defined. I’m not really sure how to define it, but for me it means more than using a shot, or getting an idea for a scene – that there was a deeper theme to the film that made the director want to make a particular film, a particular way.

    Oddly enough, I was thinking of this over the weekend when I went to see a new Japanese film, Cold Fish. Its one of those smart exploitation films that the Japanese have always done so well. There is a long, and very gruesome final scene which reminded me of one of my favourite Sopranos episodes – the one where Tony and Christopher have a uncle/nephew bonding over the dismembering of cousin Ralphies body. Like that episode, it is hilariously gruesome. I think it is a clear reference by the Japanese film maker, as there is a similar joke involving a toupee involved.

    Anyway, the point I’m trying to get to is that I don’t think the Sopranos in any way was an ‘influence’ on Cold Fish. They are very different films (although both are blackly comic). But I’m pretty sure the scriptwriter/director got the idea for the method of body disposal, and its potential for black comedy from that Sopranos episode. But it doesn’t count as a major ‘influence’ for me, as there is no deeper thematic links between the films, the connection is simply that the Japanese director lifted that scene as it worked well for the type of film he was trying to make.

    Vili

    Now, while my understanding of Capra’s works is quite limited, I wonder how much the way Kurosawa is interpreted is influenced by his proclamation of Capra as being one of his primary influences. It sometimes puzzles me how Kurosawa is dismissed as someone with brilliant technique and impeccable style, but also lots of unrealistic and naive “humanism”. I now feel that if these critics have been watching Kurosawa’s films with Capra’s films at the back of their minds, this view of Kurosawa is sort of understandable, even if it is (in my view) not at all justified.

    I think this is the core of the problem I have with so much writing on Kurosawa. Because so many of his scenes and techniques were influenced by identifiable American directors, there was this automatic link made by many writers (specifically, American critics) to Ford, Capra, etc., and so there is an assumption that there is an ‘influence’ there, when I think that influence is purely superficial. What I find interesting is that film scholars have shown clearly that Ozu was directly influenced by foreign films – for example, he acknowledged Leo McCareys ‘Make Way for Tomorrow‘ as providing the inspiration for Tokyo Story. And yet, he is still described unerringly as the most ‘Japanese’ of directors, on the basis of his style and pacing. But Kurosawa is consistently associated with the stock names of Hollywood despite (for me) the absence of any real evidence of specific films having any direct influence on anything made by Kurosowa.

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    Vili Maunula

    Influence, I would say, is a rather slippery thing to get a proper grip of. I was recently asked who I thought my greatest influence as a teacher or public speaker was. My answer was Eddie Izzard. Not that he has anything to do with teaching as such, but watching him has somehow taught me a great deal about performing in front of people.

    Those unfamiliar with the man, to the YouTubeMobil!

    Anyway, my point is that while it may be difficult to point out in Kurosawa’s works influences that are direct one-to-one correspondences, not to speak of homages, I would still say that there probably was plenty of influence from the US. As there was from the USSR. And Europe. And Japan. As I have suggested before, I think Kurosawa took out what seemed to work, processed that, and rearranged the bits to use them in his own works. Art, while also being about inspiration and imagination and such, is after all very heavily also about craftsmanship. Perhaps Kurosawa was much influenced in the latter domain, but not so much in the first one, i.e. when it came to imagination and the subject matter of his films.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Please excuse me, Vili, for jumping the conversation from a tag phrase you wrote earlier and not reading through all the posts in order. I hope I am not uttering things already discussed, but my urgency is to address a core concept eluded to in the following you wrote addressing influences and flimmakers:

    Vili said,

    …He studied their work closely for ideas in how to make his films better. He would often take ideas for shots and scenes from other films. But thematically, he seems to have been entirely uninterested intellectually in other films and directors.

    I think we are talking about the old form and content issue here, and the relationship is key. Parts are not so easily separated. In fact, so much of our discussion in other threads deals with just how complicating (and interesting) the form can impact our understanding of content. When we look at Setsuko Hara’s face in the last shots of “No Regrets…” and we try to discern from her expression her attitudes toward her reality, future and past…well…that’s an excellent example of how form impacts content. It also illustrates (to me) the fascination of Hara as an actress and Kurosawa as a director.

    So, I think it is the wisdom of Solomon-we should understand that we cannot split the baby in half and expect it to live. Content needs form, and form is content.

    I want to circle around to Donald Richie’s idea that Kurosawa was not capable of “small talk” and that he also never discussed theory-quite reticent in fact to talk of anything but the making of the film. He appears to be a man for whom meaning was embedded in the creative act itself-the writing of a story or screenplay, the making of a film or painting. I have always felt he was one of those who found his meaning as he created-and, though I have harped on this in other threads, I think it is essential to understanding his work. The “art” of Kurosawa is exactly in the details, and the details help to create the meaning.

    Themes, then, in Kurosawa’s work grow organically from aesthetic choices. I cannot believe that things he had experienced and seen were of no import. If you believe that theme is solely created on the latticework of something written, then, maybe you are not really interested in film.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco, it was actually Ugetsu who wrote what you responded to here. I suggest that you read the other posts in the thread, as the topic has been discussed somewhat further since his first post. (It’s usually a good idea to read the entire thread before replying, as we are in no particular hurry here anyway. :smile:)

    In any case, while I agree with most of what you write here, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that “If you believe that theme is solely created on the latticework of something written, then, maybe you are not really interested in film.” While you accuse Ugetsu (well, me :razz:) of cutting the baby in half, I think that you yourself are in danger of throwing out the same baby with the bath water. Surely, there are different types of films, and different types of film makers, and some are more textually oriented than others.

    Kurosawa navigated masterfully both the visual and the textual domain, and as you say, the two are strongly interlinked in his works. (However, as far as I understand Ugetsu’s original argument, I don’t think that this visual-textual dualism automatically means that he was thematically influenced by film makers — not that I fully agree with Ugetsu here.) And like you, I also see his films not so much as statements as meditations on a subject — he indeed seems to have been searching for the meaning while creating!

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    lawless

    I don’t have more to add to the previous discussion other than to say I think I agree with all of you to some extent and that it’s more about semantics than you might think. I figured this would be a good place to pose a question I asked on another thread but didn’t get an answer to, which is who are the Soviet directors who influenced Kurosawa’s films? Ugetsu has made the point, with which Vili agreed, that they’re as big an influence on him (however you define that term) as the American directors often cited as influenes and mentioned above.

    But who are these Soviet directors? The only one I know of is Eisenstein, and while the scene on the steps in Potemkin is clearly an influence on a similar scene in The Hidden Fortress, I can’t think of other evidence of his influence on Kurosawa’s films. Then again, I’ve only seen two Eisenstein movies decades ago and don’t remember them that clearly.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    The “art” of Kurosawa is exactly in the details, and the details help to create the meaning.

    Dead right of course – it is what elevates him above other directors in my view.

    I’m afraid I can’t put it as elegantly as Coco, but I’ve always thought of Kurosawa as a maker of Russian Dolls as a film maker – all his films have this series of levels of complexity, from the initial emotional one (‘wow, what an exciting film’), down to layer upon layer of psychological, historical, emotional and philosophical detail. He seemed content to allow the audience to delve into the layers according to their wishes. From my (admittedly thin) reading of standard theory for film students, they are taught that successful films are more like a short story than a novel – you focus on one idea, one theme, and keep that focus. I think Kurosawa’s greatness was that he started with a simple thematic idea (e.g., what happens if a group of ronin get hired to protect a village?), and then allowed it to blossom through both script writing and shooting and editing process, rather than do what directors are supposed to do – maintain a disciplined focus on the ‘theme’ and narrative. Kurosawa stopped his films from sprawling into incoherent messes by his great editing and narrative skill, rather than clutching to some notion of auteurial vision.

    Perhaps this is one reason for the relative (arguable) failure of The Idiot – for once, Kurosawa started with a sprawling, complex narrative, and had to turn it into cinematic form, rather than (as with almost all his best films), work in the opposite direction.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu wrote:

    I’ve always thought of Kurosawa as a maker of Russian Dolls as a film maker – all his films have this series of levels of complexity, from the initial emotional one (‘wow, what an exciting film’), down to layer upon layer of psychological, historical, emotional and philosophical detail. He seemed content to allow the audience to delve into the layers according to their wishes.

    This is why I love Kurosawa so much! It’s particularly true of Seven Samurai (IMO, anyway; I know not everyone agrees with me). As I said of Seven Samurai here, it functions at many different levels and genres: action movie, war movie, comedy, romance, social commentary, philosophy, and viewers can like it for one, all, or any number of those reasons.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I figured this would be a good place to pose a question I asked on another thread but didn’t get an answer to, which is who are the Soviet directors who influenced Kurosawa’s films?

    Not an answer to the question, but it does seem that much of the availability issue for old Soviet films will not be a problem in the future – Mosfilm have done a deal with youtube to make hundreds of old Soviet films available online for free.

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    Vili Maunula

    Wow. Tarkovsky, and everything. I wonder if Dersu Uzala will be included!

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