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Kurosawas influence on the Raging Bulls and Easy Riders

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    Ugetsu

    Last weekend I caught up with the documentary on the 1970’s Hollywood generation, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Its entertaining, although not quite as good as the brilliant book of the same name.

    Its a while since I read the book, but from memory, it says pretty much the same as the documentary, which is that there was a direct line of influence from the French New Wave to the great generation of Hollywood filmmakers of the 1960’s – Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, etc., etc. Although obviously neither book nor documentary were concerned with detailed analysis, a clear argument was made that it was the freshness of the New Wave, and the way they combined a serious cinephilia with a desire to entertain and grip, that was the primary influence on the New Hollywood auteurs. If I remember correctly, Kurosawa was only mentioned in passing in the book, while Japanese cinema is never mentioned in the documentary.

    Now I know that being a huge Kurosawa fan, I’m likely to see his influences everywhere, but it seems to be both from reading about Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas and Spielberg directly, they were hugely influenced by Kurosawa, and in terms of cinema style, he was perhaps their primary influence. When I see films like Taxi Driver or the Godfather, the direct influence from Kurosawa’s later contemporary dramas and thrillers seems very obvious – not just in cinema style, but also in narrative and theme. In particular, Kurosawa’s work seems to me to have a directness and muscularity lacking in European cinema at the time, and this is reflected in the best Hollywood dramas/thrillers of the time. While there is an obvious overlap with French New Wave, the connection with Kurosawa seems to me to be much more direct and obvious. The fairly direct connection between Kurosawa’s samurai films and Star Wars is very obvious, and I think Spielberg has said that Ikiru was a huge influence on his work. On a more indirect level, I don’t think its overstating it to see a distinct thread from Yojimbo via Spaghetti Westerns and Roger Corman to the B-movie strand of later Hollywood films.

    I’m aware of the dangers of confirmation bias when looking at influences and links between film makers, and I’m certainly a lot more familiar with Kurosawa than I am with the French New Wave or Italian Neo-realism, etc. But for me the connections with the key new Hollywood directors seems very obvious. And yet, in so many ‘general’ books and documentaries on the period (I’d include David Thompsons writings), the constant reiteration of the French New Wave = New Hollywood seems the dominant theory. Is this simply because it represents an easier narrative? Or is it the case that Kurosawa’s influence was more secondary than appears at first sight?

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    lawless

    I don’t know that much about Italian neo-realism, but after seeing some examples of French New Wave in the same series of foreign films that PBS showed when I was a teenager that featured the first Kurosawa films I ever saw (Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Rashomon), I agree with you. I see as much, if not more, of Kurosawa’s influence as the French New Wave’s. In fact, the reliance on effects, emotion, and action in New Hollywood movies is far more reminiscent to me of Kurosawa’s dynamism than the cool, more detached realism of French New Wave.

    In addition to Yojimbo‘s contribution to the spaghetti Western genre by being the unacknowledged source for Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, I suspect that the outbursts of violence in late 60s and early 70s films like Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch, and Bonnie and Clyde would not have been possible without the example of Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

    That said, I think Kurosawa is head and shoulders above even the most talented of the New Hollywood directors, although I have to admit to not having seen much of their output, especially Scorcese’s — I’ve only seen one movie of his, The Last Temptation of Christ.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    Scorcese’s — I’ve only seen one movie of his,

    I can’t believe that! His films are fantastic. They remind me of Princes (I think) comment on Kurosawa that while he may occasionally have made bad films, but he was incapable of making dull films. Goodfellas is my favorite.

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    Vili Maunula

    It could well be that the European influences represent an easier narrative, as you say Ugetsu. I would think that most authorities on Hollywood acknowledge their lack of understanding of Japanese culture and history, and are therefore less eager to jump into that particular discourse. From an American perspective, it seems easier to understand European film than it is to understand Japanese film.

    Could it additionally be that while these New Hollywood film makers were influenced by Kurosawa’s film making spirit and technique, the subject matters of their works remained fairly detached from Kurosawa’s, and possibly closer to European new wave / neorealism? Most film studies concentrate on the content more than they do on the form, which might explain their silence on Kurosawa’s influence.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I knew you’d be surprised. As it turns out, I was slightly off. I’ve also seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, though not at the movie theatre. I didn’t realize that Scorsese had directed it. (And I don’t know why I misspelled his name in my earlier post.) Of the group mentioned, Scorsese’s the one I have the most respect for, but his films cover ground I’m usually not all that interested in.

    Vili – Oddly enough, I find most of Kurosawa’s films more accessible than many classic European films, especially the further away they get from German expressionism. I’m not so sure about the congruence of subject matter either; the subject matter of most of the so-called New Hollywood directors’ movies resemble Kurosawa’s more than the the movies coming out of European new wave/neorealism. I’m thinking of films like Saving Private Ryan, the realism of which wouldn’t have been possible, in my mind, without a movie like Seven Samurai preceding it, and the various gangster movies Coppola and Scorsese made that may owe an indirect debt to Kurosawa’s depiction of the yakuza.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Could it additionally be that while these New Hollywood film makers were influenced by Kurosawa’s film making spirit and technique, the subject matters of their works remained fairly detached from Kurosawa’s, and possibly closer to European new wave / neorealism? Most film studies concentrate on the content more than they do on the form, which might explain their silence on Kurosawa’s influence.

    There may be something to this, even though I don’t think there is a big difference in subject matter between, say, The Bad Sleep Well and The Godfather. But I think there may well be an assumption among some critics that Japan is so ‘different’ that there can’t be a thematic link. I think a lot of commentary on Japanese film is led astray by an assumption that, for example, Japanese power structures are inherently ‘different’ to American ones in a way that French or Italian ones are not. Martinez I think wrote a little on how a simplistic notion among post war critics that Japanese society was based on ‘shame’ and not ‘guilt’ led to many misinterpretations of Rashomon, to give one example.

    Another reason that occurred to me as to why the Kurosawa connection may be overlooked is that there does seem to have been something of a distinction among the new wave of Hollywood directors between the more ‘artistic’ directors such as Arthur Penn (Bonny and Clyde) who were very influenced by the French New Wave, while the more commercially oriented directors (Spielberg, Lucas etc) were perceived to being influenced by Kurosawa. So there may well have been an element of thinking that far from being a positive influence, he had a somewhat malign influence. Not directly malign, but since the narrative seems to be that Lucas in particular screwed it up for everyone by showing the blueprint for blockbuster movies, then his influences can’t have been ‘positive’.

    On a related note, I’ve often wondered why Kurosawa isn’t acknowledged more for his prescience about the need for blockbuster films. His idea that the way to counter the decline in cinema attendances was to create ‘event’ films such as Red Beard was i think an unintended prediction of modern commercial film making, with its emphasis on familiar stories and characters. Of course, I doubt if he would have been pleased to see endless comic book adaptions, but his central point that cinema is inherently a medium that needs to be grand in theme and execution to really be successful is one that was correct (at least, in commercial terms).

    Lawless

    I’ve also seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, though not at the movie theatre.

    I’d always seen that film as curious, as it had good female characters, while Scorsese is usually notorious for not being very interested in his female characters. But in the documentary it is said that Scorsese was reluctant to make it, and essentially allowed Ellen Burstyn (at the time, a very big star) to co-direct to help him with those aspects.

    btw, I always have to check the spelling of ‘Scorsese’ too!

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