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Reasons Why You Like or Dislike Kurosawa

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    Jeremy

    Curious as why people enjoy or not enjoy Kurosawa’s works. I find it interesting and its also a attempt to jump-start the forums.

    I am in a bit of a writing spirit, so excuse the rambling, I’ll avoid getting carried away as I could fill a book on why I like Kurosawa.

    As with any master director their directing is easily over-looked, the involvement with the film is so deep and the camera so well integrated at times can appear the director has done nothing to present himself. The camera moves because it should, the characters move as they have reason to do so, everything is neat and purposeful. The camera never becomes obvious, we become part of the movie viewing from afar judging, approving or disapproving what we see.

    Its Kurosawa blocking (the way characters/items move and position themselves in a frame or the way a camera frames itself to the characters/items) that I find interesting. He is responsible for many first and the perfection to many techniques. Kurosawa manages to capture large battle scenes, maintain the confusion of war with no use of crazy camera moves or special effects, yet present everything to us in a clear and streamlined fashion. At the same time Kurosawa captures the most tranquil and potentially uninteresting images and presents with great curiosity, interest and respect. All this effort goes unnoticed for the most part, as it truly should, but its all very important.

    Kurosawa’s writing. Although some works resemble many aspects to Shakespeare, the writing is original, unique, and simply well thought out. With some movies having large amounts of important character, they are all able to behave,talk and act completely different, yet all are able to connect with the audience in many personal levels. The characters are authentic to the story, never forced, they are truly part of the world they are in and never just dropped in. The situations are often push to the extreme, while maintaining realism and believability to how the characters would react to them. The subject matter, deals with some very insightful elements that are dramatic and yet completely entertaining.

    The greatest element to Kurosawa is that he didnt just know how to make films, he completely understood them, a rarity today. Kurosawa put great effort in his work but never felt he had to show it off.

    Most directors today that like to make the camera obvious to let everyone remember the person behind calling the action. Its when the camera gives attention to itself, makes moves for reason unknown, the characters move with free will and no reason. We no longer are part of the movie but someone watching one, the art is lost and it just activity to pass time. We lose the emotion and experience that can be gained from experiencing something we never really experienced. After all that what movie making is really all about.

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    Vili Maunula

    I like Kurosawa for much the same reason as you do: in some ways his technical brilliance is best acknowledged only when you realise that you haven’t actually yet noticed his technical brilliance. He also had, like you wrote, that uncanny ability to push stories and situations to their limits without sacrificing in realism, something that I have personally always found extremely difficult to do in my own writing.

    And then there is of course the one aspect I cannot repeat often enough — (most of) his films to me are simultaneously extremely high art, complex sociological and philosophical exploration, as well as jolly good entertainment. Very few directors I know of have been capable of combining two of these, let alone all three.

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    JohnVFerrigno

    As far as why I like Kurosawa, I agree with your post totally. His directing and camera movements are so brilliant, et so subtle. They never draw attention to themselves, they way most “name” directors tend to these days. It’s kind of like the curse of being a superior actor: the best actors are so outstanding that you forget they are acting, which is why they are rarely winners of major awards. it’s the more “showy” performances that get the critical aclaim. but I digress.

    I also like something about Kurosawa that some people might see as a flaw: i love his use of extremes. When it rains in a Kurosawa movie, it is POURING. When there is an old person on screen, it is the oldest person you could possibly imagine. It’s something that I just enoy, I don’t even know why.

    the ONLY criticism i have of Kurosawa would have to be his tin ear. Many of his soundtracks are not as complex or subtle as they could have been, because of his insistance on them being the way they are. I think it was the downfall of his ttal controling nature: he didn’t have the ability to just let his composer do their best and trust their judgements. he needed total authority over every aspect of his films. While this allowed him to completely create his unique artistic visions in film, I feel the music suffered as a result. however, it is really a small price to pay for the brilliance of the other aspects of the films.

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    Jeremy

    You make two points that, I never really thought about, but completely agree.

    Its almost funny now that you mention it, but his old characters look like they should fall in a grave at any minute. They also tend to be a bit stereotypical with the old wise man or questionable sane old lady.

    I think the general theme music for the movies works well, but some of the music to help set a certain emotion during a event can at times over done, and even distracting.

    Its true what you mentioned about actors, that the really good ones, in which they disappear into their roles get ignored often. Its the showy actors that get the attention, that is not deserved.

    As the saying goes: “When people think you havent done anything at all, you know you done everything right”.

    Unfortunately it tends to be mostly a curse

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    Vili Maunula

    I’m not sure if I personally agree with the bit about music. I quite like most of Kurosawa’s soundtracks, and I think that his use of music is sometimes quite innovative as well.

    I’m also not entirely sure about Jeremy’s comment about the stereotypical “old wise man” image in Kurosawa’s works. As far as I can see (although I must admit that this is a gut-feeling), Kurosawa has very few old men who are genuinely wise (the only real examples that comes to mind is the old man from the last Dream, and maybe Dersu), while he has a number of older men who are anything but (Lord Hidetora in Ran, Nakajima in Record of a Living Being, Doctor Sanada in Drunken Angel, for example). I think Kurosawa’s old men are quite equally balanced, and not really that stereotypical at all.

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    Jeremy

    I agree my comment about the old people being stereotypical was not well thought out and mostly wrong. I think the old farmer in the windmill house from The Seven Samurai came to mind, but even that was unfair. Kurosawa never made it appear that the old man was all knowing, but simply a elder that the villagers came to for advice. The old lady that came to mind was the one from The Hidden Fortress (I could be confusing movies) but again upon second thought its not fair to call it a stereotypical role. To be honest I dont know why I wrote the stereotypical comment and admit am wrong.

    I’ll stand by my music comment, but I didnt mention that the music was not great or innovative. I just think in some areas the music gets too loud. The emotion or mood that has already been setup is driven unnecessary deeper with a loud, overpowering music score at times. I wouldnt call this a problem, its merely personal opinion and hardly anything that effects the movies negatively . This use of music however was very common in most movies of the 40-60’s, more modern films tend to downplay the score into a subtle background, the music doesnt loose its effectiveness but it also doesnt bring unneeded attention to itself. The more modern use of movie scoring is how I prefer it.

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    Vili Maunula

    I agree that Kurosawa’s scores are indeed sometimes too loud. The situation is probably not helped by the fact that he uses a lot of percussion instruments in his scores, and those sometimes actually irritate me quite a bit.

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    yippee

    I love Kurosawa’s films, and find thinking about them absolutely fascinating, and of course, that often leads us to want to rank things.

    RANKING FILM AND FILMMAKERS

    In another forum a friend wrote: ” Ranking implies preference. If you have no preferences in this life you must be a Buddha. But as my favorite Zen master once said, “You cannot live in the Buddha world for even one day.” The usual habitation for humankind is the realm of distinctions.

    Furthermore, the game of distinctions is one of life’s entertainments. If I prefer Dostoevsky and you prefer Tolstoy, we have no disagreement. But after a few beers I might get into the mood to declare the former to cast a greater shadow in the Platonic cave than the latter. The most reasonable way to settle the matter is to keep drinking until one of us is unconscious. The one who remains standing has the right to declare his choice to be the better novelist.

    I hope this space will continue to host an infinitude of distinctions and rankings so that we may explore the reasons behind our preferences. Of course, should one or another of us be dwelling in the Buddha realm, any distinctions we find in this space will be perfectly acceptable.”

    And the response was:

    “Distinctions don’t necessarily have to lead to

    ranking.

    Of course we have our own preferences-things we truly

    love-things that resonate with us, personally. But I

    find, more and more, that to fully describe the

    special “thingness of the thing”-the special, unique

    characteristics of a thing-a film, poem,

    painting…wow, that is an almost herculean task! And,

    of course a thing’s existence comes into stronger

    relief when compared to something else. An orange

    looks oranger compared to a green pepper. And I love

    that! But we don’t criticize a pepper for not being an

    orange. We love them both, want them both in our

    lives!

    There may be people who say, “screw oranges…I think

    peppers are better”, but that seems largely an

    unnecessary way to think. Maybe it is better for

    everybody to just appreciate the oranges and peppers

    for what they are.

    Uh, it sounds as if I am being anti-discussion,

    anti-intellectual. But, I think this is a small but useful tool for looking at all of life: people, art, film, literature. Ask, “what is the

    thingness of the thing?” To be able to understand and

    appreciate all that the “thing” is and can be is a big

    job! To articulate your findings is huge!

    To “rank” things…well, maybe not so much truly

    helpful, except if you like the world of “us” vs

    “them”. I confess that I do check out director’s lists

    of favorite films, and always feel a thrill when I see

    some of my favorites listed, but always feel a little

    sick as if I have eaten junk food after reading the

    lists. It both confirms my sense of what is valuable

    when Ozu makes the top ten, and also saddens

    me..somehow…ineffably, but truly.”

    Any thoughts on ranking?

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    Jeremy

    Well, Yippe quite the interesting post. For what I think your getting at, I certainly agree. I dont have much to say other then, I often find myself happy and sadden when I see one of my beloved directors or movies on a “top ten” list. I’m glad to see they are recognized but also feel like something personal to me has been unwillingly exposed and seen by those I dont know. It’s weird I guess, and I dont understand the feeling.

    If we accept everything for what it is, and do not compare to others, then there is no value to anything. For what good is the good if there not the bad to compare it to. Ranking is like a evolved sector of natural selection, where the physical is replaced with the mental.

    I dont think it necessary to list as to why, what we find special about something really is. Perhaps is nothing more then to convince others what we like is correct over what another likes, and to find like minds to fight the other like minds. A showdown over who is greater and where the fight is replace by proofs and analyzes. It’s all a mental fight and very Darwin.

    Man, reading my post from a year ago, I cant help but think that guy is stupid. I’m always embarrassed about what I write in the past, and often wonder if that was even me. My thoughts never hold consistent though the years, I would say something much different now.

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    Vili Maunula

    I personally think that while nothing is inherently better than something else — although some moral philosophers and those who are religious might, among others, strongly disagree with this statement — comparison and listing things is a good way of raising interest and discussion.

    I am therefore interested in seeing top X lists, but would always approach them as I approach a commercial for an art exhibition. One of my literature professors once suggested that the whole enterprise of art criticism is mainly there to promote art and to organize it by trying to establish what is relevant enough to keep part of the cultural dialogue. I don’t necessarily fully agree that this is all that art criticism has to do, but I do think that he has a point there.

    Jeremy: I often find myself happy and sadden when I see one of my beloved directors or movies on a “top ten” list. I’m glad to see they are recognized but also feel like something personal to me has been unwillingly exposed and seen by those I dont know. It’s weird I guess, and I dont understand the feeling.

    I often get this when at a concert, especially if the musician is someone I have originally “discovered” all by myself, and have remained the only person I know of who appreciates that person’s work. To suddenly then see ten thousand like-minded individuals, of whom many are clearly bigger fans, is sort of disappointing. In a very weird way. 🙂

    Man, reading my post from a year ago, I cant help but think that guy is stupid. I’m always embarrassed about what I write in the past, and often wonder if that was even me. My thoughts never hold consistent though the years, I would say something much different now.

    I personally think that it’s only healthy. Changing my mind (especially when good reasons arise to do so) is one of my favourite hobbies. 😛

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    yippee

    One of my literature professors once suggested that the whole enterprise of art criticism is mainly there to promote art and to organize it by trying to establish what is relevant enough to keep part of the cultural dialogue.

    Hey, Vili, he’s got something there, as far as one critic is concerned- I was struck, back in the day by Jonas Mekas’ (http://www.jonasmekas.com/inter.html) film commentaries in the Village Voice. Mekas described himself as a “raving maniac of the cinema”. He wrote that he was not as interested in critiquing what was bad in a film as in pointing out remarkable things to see and experience. Maybe like a kinda weathervane of interest, pointing out the direction of good stuff. When he spoke at my art school, I didn’t really like the films he showed, but I really liked him.

    This next bit is a stretch: On “This American Life” a guy who had almost no testosterone in his system said that, sans testosterone, he would just look at the mundane things of this world and spontaneously think, “beautiful”. He described it as thinking, perhaps, as God thinks. I would link this to Buddha-mind, in the way that this person felt divorced from any desire to possess, dominate, control the things he saw.

    Perhaps is nothing more then to convince others what we like is correct over what another likes, and to find like minds to fight the other like minds. A showdown over who is greater and where the fight is replace by proofs and analyzes. It’s all a mental fight and very Darwin.

    I think you have it in a nutshell, Jeremy.

    I can’t help but think it’s silly, in some way, to rank things. I mean, it smells like freaking “Star Search” and it looks like Homer Simpson with a giant foam rubber finger mitt hooting “USA Number One!” It seems too simplistic to rank, when looking at anything closely, carefully, fully describing it, comparing it to other things with an intention to understand the “thingness of the thing”-its essential nature-

    wow, is a daunting task, and much tougher intellectual territory.

    I may not have a handle on how to make the very fine distinction between noticing difference, describing, evaluating and ranking (after all this whole “thingness of the thing” I propose is about finding the essential characteristics of a thing. This can never be conducted in a vaccuum. As my Anthropology 101 professor (one-day, then I dropped and took Drawing instead) at Yale said, “all knowledge is linked and compared to things we already know. If I set out a tray full of things from the fourth dimension, you wouldn’t even see them, because they wouldn’t relate to your knowledge base”).

    I often find myself happy and sadden when I see one of my beloved directors or movies on a “top ten” list. I’m glad to see they are recognized but also feel like something personal to me has been unwillingly exposed and seen by those I dont know.

    Wow, what an honest, raw statement! I am humbled by your willingness to share that. I’ve felt that, too, and I am guessing that’s not uncommon, just very few people are willing to admit it. See, here’s the thing, isn’t it about possession in some way? Well, that can’t be a very good part of our natures. Ohmigosh, an even worse feeling-when someone you know discovers something you love a lot-and then becomes the “expert” and has an even deeper or more intense way of expressing his/her relationship to what you love. It’s as if they have stolen something from you-part of your identity, or as if you are sharing lovers, and you feel you are being edged-out. Wow, totally about possession.

    I often get this when at a concert, especially if the musician is someone I have originally “discovered” all by myself, and have remained the only person I know of who appreciates that person’s work. To suddenly then see ten thousand like-minded individuals, of whom many are clearly bigger fans, is sort of disappointing.

    If you need humbling, take a look on Flickr and do a search for any subject you might have photographed, and you will quickly find 17 million better versions of it. Sometimes I am crushed by how many talented photographers there are out there, and sometimes I am amazed and delighted. And when I feel amazed and delighted I sigh and say “beautiful’. Like the guy with no testosterone. And that’s when I am not tempted to find the “best” flower picture out of the bazillion on the site. But, gosh, I wouldn’t be trying so hard to explain my ideas if I didn’t have a little salt and pepper in me. Maybe too much!

    Man, reading my post from a year ago, I cant help but think that guy is stupid. I’m always embarrassed about what I write in the past, and often wonder if that was even me.

    Finally, Jeremy, I am horrified by everything I write, just about five minutes after I write it. It is big-spirited of you to confess that. Very cool to be so honest.

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    yippee

    You all probably know about the “Criterion Contraption” guy who is seeing every Criterion film in order of its release-

    So, there’s a blog /interview in which he discusses “ranking” films, and his whole attitude toward criticism:

    “I’m more interested in a discussion than a rating. If you’re trying to develop an aesthetic sensibility, one of the worst things you can do is begin with a generalization. In the very first essays I wrote, I included a rating, which was a terrible mistake (those first posts are filled with terrible mistakes). “

    The blogspot is here: http://roadrunnerreview.blogspot.com/2007/10/interview-with-matthew-dessem-of.html

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    Ugetsu

    What I personally love about Kurosawa, and why I elevate him above my other favorite filmmakers, is what I would describe as his generosity of spirit to the audience.

    To explain: I believe that nearly all ambitious filmmakers can be put into one of two crude categories:

    1. Those who challenge the viewer to see the world through his (or her) eyes. They are effectively saying ‘see how clever and brilliant I am’ by repeatedly reminding the viewer of how wonderful the camera angles are, how challenging the subject matter is, how radical is the filmmakers viewpoint. While obviously there have been great films made from this perspective, there is an element of pompousness in it, an implication that if you don’t like the movie, then you are clearly too much of a philistine to ‘get’ it.

    2. Those who assume the audience is a bit dim, and so hammer them over the head with action/comedy/well meaning themes and messages. This basically covers most of Hollywood/Bollywood and the other ‘woods’, not to mention the US indy sector and a lot of the low budget wannabies from other countries. Not to mention nearly all modern Japanese movies I’ve seen (with the honorable exception of the best works from Studio Ghibli).

    With Kurosawa, I feel he completely rejected both approaches. He never attempts to impress us with his skill or vision – it is always there, but never in an overt way. He never forgets to entertain and enthrall. But his movies are a Russian Doll of ideas and themes. The guy who wanders off the street into a cinema to avoid the rain can just sit and watch most of Kurosawas movies and thoroughly enjoy them without having a notion of what lies beneath the action. But (as this forum shows), for those willing to explore there is an endless fascination to be found. Whether your interest is in his technical skills, his humanistic philosophy, his deep knowledge of history and politics, his movies are treasurehouses.

    The other thing I love about his movies is his endings. Like Ozu and Mizoguchi, but unlike 95% of modern filmmakers, he knew how to end a movie. No contrived twists, no low key fadeouts, no commercially ‘happy’ or fashionably nihilistic endings. Just enormously satisfying (emotionally and intellectually) endings that show his complete control of the stories he was telling.

    What do I not like about his movies? I suppose if I was to be picky I’d say that he regularly hammered his allegories and metaphors to death. I find the theatricality of some of the acting a little much – I prefer the naturalistic acting to be found in Ozu. I never cared for the long focus (especially in Ran and Kagemusha, i found it alienated me a little from the characters). But on the latter point, I’ve never seen any of his movies in the cinema, where they should be seen. But these are very minor negatives in what was a magnificent career.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Vili said:

    I personally think that while nothing is inherently better than something else — although some moral philosophers and those who are religious might, among others, strongly disagree with this statement — comparison and listing things is a good way of raising interest and discussion.

    Well, gotta disagree, Vili, but on a functional basis. There are things that are better than others, relevant to purpose. A sieve makes a poor container for water. A bucket would be better. Simple enough. The difficulty is in defining art’s purpose. So, we have the aesthetic “out”- a degree of subjectivitiy is necessarily a part of the deal. If we cannot pin down the art’s purpose, we cannot slice through to the relative value of the means/technique/material use in an absolute way. “Tolerance of ambiguity” is what my boss keeps saying in reference to the lack of clarity in what is increasingly looking like my dead-end career. Ha! In art, though, it applies.

    Ugetsu, (I love that film!) if you see Yojimbo in a theatre, you “get” the telephoto totally, and the two dimensional ballet forged by Miyagawa and Kurosawa. The music, staging, cinematography, story, all reach a symbiotic apogee which is alternately hilarious, riveting, troubling, loveable, transcendent.

    I was watching “The Burmese Harp” over the weekend and Ichikawa’s interview for Criterion on the disc. He said, “Sometimes I use a wide angle lens for closeup…or I want strong angled lighting…I do things like that”. Then, he says that, of course, with consultation with the cameraman he makes these decisions. But, then if we read Miyagawa’s bio we see it aint’ quite so that Ichikawa had much input. At least it opens the possibility that the cameraman did quite a bit on his own. I think of Kurosawa forgetting to tell Miyagawa he did good work on Rashomon. Makes me think a lot of it was up to the cinematographer himself.

    It is amusing to note that Miyagawa began his career filming COMEDIES! Here’s his bio, and it’s pretty good: http://www.cinematographers.nl/GreatDoPh/miyagawa.htm

    I wonder if it is a co-inky dink that Miyagawa was cinematographer of some of my favorite films in the world ?: Ugetsu, Sansho Dayu, Floating Weeds, Rashomon, Yojimbo…! Hmmm, although Miyagawa creates a different look for different directors, all the listed films feature incredible use of frame and picture plane, and a strong two-dimensional design sense. You are right, Ugetsu, that Yojimbo is claustrophobic..but, there are breaks at emotional moments. The grid gets broken outside the woman’s hideout, in the graveyard. Is it saying that the world of men is a kind of prison and that nature is relief? I dunno….I do think it is masterful filmmaking, and dig Miyagawa-even with the telephoto compression…!

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    Kinski

    I always found with Kurosawa that I love the ‘ideas’ behind his work. The stories, characters & themes always seem really appealing. He seems to have some very beautiful views on humanity (in his earlier work). However, I find his problem as a director lies in the execution of these ideals.

    Firstly, what always bothers me is his very obvious exposition in scenes. I mean, he can be so blatantly obvious with these things. I always believe that the best exposition is clear but also subtle.

    I find another major aspect missing in his work is use of the close up. I disagree with his philosophy that holding the camera away from actors gives a better performance. I find that this often distances the audience from characters.

    In films like The Hidden Fortress & Ran, I found they were cheapened by too much story. I prefer it when he takes a simple concept (Ikiru, Seven Samurai) and fully explores it. The lack of story gives him more time to philosophy and put in great ideals. With other films he can put forth too much. For example, in the Hidden Fortress, his subtle social commentary is interrupted by too many twists of plot in the second half. What starts out with alot of adventure and excitement, I find, looses steam by the end. Which leads me too…

    Every Kurosawa film leaves me exausted in the end. That really limits how often I can sit through it. Even a short 90 minute one like Rashomon or Ikiru takes alot of focus and energy. This is a testament to Akira of course, because every film he does seems like Lawrence of Arabia. Granted, we don’t watch Lawrence of Arabia very often, but when we do we prepare ourselves for something grueling but worth it.

    Subtlety is not in his vocabulary. When a character is bad, they are the scum of the earth. When peasants are pathetic, they are the most sad, fragile, cowering people. This can often be really advantageous, however sometimes it just doesn’t work. For example, when Kurosawa comes to his ‘lesson’, he cannot imply it. He is so blatantly didactic he clearly states the moral with absolutly no subtlety.

    Anyway, don’t get the impression I don’t like the film! Their great!! But I don’t belive any film can be without flaw. As well as art for that matter!

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    Ugetsu

    Hi Kinski, great to have you aboard here. I hope you find this site as interesting (and addictive!) as I’ve found it.

    Kinski

    Subtlety is not in his vocabulary. When a character is bad, they are the scum of the earth. When peasants are pathetic, they are the most sad, fragile, cowering people. This can often be really advantageous, however sometimes it just doesn’t work. For example, when Kurosawa comes to his ‘lesson’, he cannot imply it. He is so blatantly didactic he clearly states the moral with absolutly no subtlety.

    Nice comments, but this is one thing you wrote I would slightly disagree with! I mention it, because what you say is exactly what I thought when I first started watching Kurosawa’s films (in fact, I more or less said the same thing when I did my introduction). But the more I watch his films, the more I find that Kurosawa’s films have far more going on beneath the surface than is obvious from an initial viewing. I think his fondness for a strong style of acting and vigorous editing can make us jump to initial conclusions about his characters that on reflection, are not necessarily correct. When you look more closely at films like Stray Dog, or High and Low, there are all sorts of layers of ambiguity and human complexity going on beneath the surface. Its one of the pleasures of watching his films in detail, the complexities emerge over time.

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    Vili Maunula

    I was going to post pretty much what Ugetsu wrote here. The performances are often very direct and theatrical, and Kurosawa certainly strove towards that, but there often seems to be something rather more complex going on behind the scenes. Just like Ugetsu, I have over the years come to the conclusion that Kurosawa is most of the time only superficially didactic and unsubtle, with most of his films actually asking more questions than answering.

    But I do understand very well where you come from, Kinski. The theatricality of some of the performances is a little much to take for someone who is more familiar with western styles of acting and cinematic presentation.

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