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Red Beard – the Apocalypse Now question

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    Ugetsu

    Something alluded to by Vili in an earlier post is that the well shots is unusually cinematic – it is a scene where the technique is so spectacular it threatens to become more important than what is actually shown on the screen.

    It occurred to me when watching it that there are in fact a significant number of technically superb shots in the movie which call attention to themselves in a way that that is rare in most Kurosawa movies. I don’t mean that they are better than in High and Low or Seven Samurai, but that they seem to call attention to the director in a way we haven’t seen since perhaps the excessively long montages in Stray Dog. From that movie on, his formidable technique was always (I think we would agree) subservient to the narrative. In his great films of the 1950’s and early 60’s we only notice how brilliant the camerawork and editing is on a second viewing. The true skill is only apparent to the skilled eye. The central story is always first.

    But with Red Beard, it seems to me that a whole series of scenes were shot to impress. For the first time since his early films it seems to me that Kurosawa is deliberately calling attention to himself as director, or more specifically as a scenarist.

    Is this one explanation for what many percieve as a lack of an interesting central narrative or core story to Red Beard? That Kurosawa for personal motives was attracted to the story as a way of simply demonstrating what he could do, how far he could push his skills as a film maker? Perhaps he sensed that with the economic decline of the Japanese film industry at the time, this was his last chance to blow a really big budget and show what he could do? In other words, is this Kurosawa’s Apocalypse Now or Heavens Gate?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu said:

    “Is this one explanation for what many percieve as a lack of an interesting central narrative or core story to Red Beard?”

    I don’t think anyone finds the central core story or central narrative uninteresting. Who thinks that?

    And, Apocalypse Now or Heavens Gate – heck, Kurosawa found himself doing the impossibly monumental thing often…my gosh, burning the castle in Ran for a few moments of screen time…naw, Kurosawa was famously profligate in other films, too.

    And, dontcha think “shooting the sun” in Rashomon is pretty self-conscious? He already, in Rashomon is using the reflective light that he will use in Otayo’s eyes in Red Beard .

    Ugerstsu said,

    Perhaps he sensed that with the economic decline of the Japanese film industry at the time, this was his last chance to blow a really big budget and show what he could do?

    Yes, and no. He surely sensed the end of something. I don’t think it was motivation to “blow a really big budget”, (I don’t think Kurosawa ever needed much motivation) but I do think, it was the end of something.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: It occurred to me when watching it that there are in fact a significant number of technically superb shots in the movie which call attention to themselves in a way that that is rare in most Kurosawa movies.

    It is really interesting that you should say so, because I was just about to write a post about how “uncinematic” this film seems to me, much less so than Kurosawa’s earlier movies!

    For me, there are really only two shots in Red Beard that call attention to themselves. One is the well scene, and the other can be found at the end of the scene where Sahachi recalls his meeting with the wife that he had assumed dead. In the latter, it is primarily the way the scene is lit (but also the artificial-looking fence) that makes it seem cinematic, rather than “real”:

    Bridge scene in Red Beard

    (As a whole, this scene is still one of my favourites in the movie. The soundtrack is absolutely brilliant with the way the bell punctuates the acting.)

    There are, of course, many impressive shots in the film that I can think of, but for me none of them jump out of the picture frame, so to speak, while watching the movie. Many of them I actually only notice when re-watching scenes to note something down. A good example of this is the scene with the Mantis and Yasumoto. I didn’t notice the compositional brilliance of that long take until I watched it again to see if there’s something for the Mantis thread!

    Ugetsu: Perhaps he sensed that with the economic decline of the Japanese film industry at the time, this was his last chance to blow a really big budget and show what he could do?

    This could be true, but on the other hand Kurosawa built that gigantic set that he barely ended up using. If his intention was to show that money invested in him is not money wasted, that surely wouldn’t seem like the most sensible course of action to take!

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    Ugetsu

    I don’t think anyone finds the central core story or central narrative uninteresting. Who thinks that?

    Looking through reviews in rottentomatoes and imdb I’ve seen the story compared (not favourably) to Dr. Kildare, Trapper John M.D. and even General Hospital!

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_beard/

    The general tone of a lot of the criticism seems to be ‘great individual scenes, but they don’t tie in together’.

    And, Apocalypse Now or Heavens Gate – heck, Kurosawa found himself doing the impossibly monumental thing often…my gosh, burning the castle in Ran for a few moments of screen time…naw, Kurosawa was famously profligate in other films, too.

    Yes, but Ran was intended to be an epic – Red Beard could easily have been made on a modest budget.

    I think the point I’m trying to get across (and I’m wavering on it even as I write), is that the lavishing of money and attention on individual scenes seems to have become almost an end in itself, possibly to the detriment of the overall story. I’m not suggesting that he went all David Lean and replaced subtlety with grandiosity, I’m suggesting that he saw the making of the movie as more of a technical display of his skills – a bit like the architect who decides to design a useless but beautiful folly rather than a liveable house, just for the hell of it.

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    Jeremy

    I’m going to have with the middle ground on this one.

    The problem perhaps goes back to what when I mention Red Beard is too prefect. Every shot in this move is perfectly arranged, offering among the best composition I have ever seen. It’s one that, that could allow one to see it lacking cinematic, and another finding too much cinematic qualities. Although I see this more of a person having master his art, having nothing go unnoticed, rather then a person premeditating a show of talent.

    The composition in Red Beard is so perfectly executed, it becomes too common place for a director to do any of this purposely. While Apocalypse now, had little well done composition, but push hard cinematic scale, then dropped down to key composition shots to show awareness of direction throughout the film.

    I would argue, and may do so with Vili’s upcoming post ­čść

    That shots like the one below, are so heavy with cinematic perfection, but are still entirely done in a unconscious level-all rooting from years of study and practice.

    scut

    For while it composition may be prefect-thus pleasing to the mastered Kurosawa, it a rather uninteresting, and sterile to someone not mastered in composition or just a movie watcher really.

    This is where being too much of a director and not enough a movie watcher has negative side effects. Though it’s not a flaw of Kurosawa, but rather someone who has mastered every regard of film making.

    I think Kurosawa notices this, and why, I, at least see a big change in films made after Red Beard, heading into the his very last films, where I see too much of a movie watcher and not enough of a director.

    Sometime tells me, this was a big struggle for Kurosawa-he no longer had his balance, a point where his knowledge was just too much to handle. So he risk going too far, or not far enough. Too far being Red Beard, and not far enough being most of the others afterward

    .

    Such things are rare to see, and hard to give examples, few directors have ever come close to reaching the level of Kurosawa.

    Anyways, this is may point of Red Beard being too perfect, assuming I even made point.

    Ugetsu to me is both right and wrong.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco: I don’t think anyone finds the central core story or central narrative uninteresting. Who thinks that?

    According to Galbraith, this actually seemed to be the majority opinion of American critics when the film came out.

    Ugetsu: I think the point I’m trying to get across (and I’m wavering on it even as I write), is that the lavishing of money and attention on individual scenes seems to have become almost an end in itself, possibly to the detriment of the overall story. I’m not suggesting that he went all David Lean and replaced subtlety with grandiosity, I’m suggesting that he saw the making of the movie as more of a technical display of his skills – a bit like the architect who decides to design a useless but beautiful folly rather than a liveable house, just for the hell of it.

    Maybe I’ll take Jeremy’s position and both agree and disagree with you here. Certainly, this seems to have been the height of Kurosawa’s need to pour money and attention into individual scenes. It’s something that would get him into trouble a few years later with Tora! Tora! Tora!, and I don’t think that it is a coincidence that his next finished film, Dodesukaden would be one of his fastest shoots (something that he didn’t fail to stress in various interviews at the time).

    On the other hand, I don’t think that Red Beard is “beautiful folly”. In terms of its presentation of its world, it is very realistic. And I think that at least some of this must be the result of Kurosawa’s attention to detail — things like that the blankets were slept on for half a year or that the drawers apparently contained real medicine, even if none of that was ever shown on screen. I am not saying that this is the only way to create the illusion of realism on screen (certainly not the cheapest way), but it was Kurosawa’s way.

    In my personal view, Red Beard is more of a case of applying everything that he knows, rather than “showing it off”.

    Somewhat related to all this, it would actually be interesting to do a statistical comparison of camera use in Red Beard against his earlier films. To me, at least, it seems that the camera moves far less in Red Beard, staying more of an observer than a narrator, and giving the film a much more static feel. I actually wonder if the fact that Ozu died on the first week of filming Red Beard had any influence on this.

    Although, even the stories in Red Beard are in some sense more Ozu-like than those in the rest of Kurosawa’s films. I don’t think I’m far off if I say that this is one of the few Kurosawa films where male-female relationships and marriage are at the forefront.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’m sorry-I didn’t know we were referring to Red Beard’s critical reception in the west when the statement was made,

    Is this one explanation for what many percieve as a lack of an interesting central narrative or core story to Red Beard?

    Because, of course, for Japanese audiences, well, they love it.

    As for “Heaven’s Gate” and “Apocalypse Now” -there’s nothing like that excess or bombast. Some of the most memorable things in all of Red Beard are small moments, not spectacle.

    Kurosawa felt free to take as long as he felt he needed, and to use whatever resources he thought he needed to “get the job done”. The studios thought him profligate and excessive. I always think that he thought himself quite pragmatic…but thorough! And, although it may well be true that Kurosawa was “throwing in everything he knew how to do”- I don’t think of Kurosawa as a self-conscious filmmaker- I think he was masterfully-perhaps even cooly, simply using customary tools that he had earlier mastered, and using them in the best ways he knew, in order to bring his vision to life.

    Jeremy’s discussion of “too masterful” is appropriate- we might call a work “facile” when the technique has become second-nature, and we don’t any longer feel the sense of adventurous exploration we do when an artist is still learning and growing.

    Vili already made mention of some similarities in the development of painting movements. I would dare say that in most painter’s individual careers we can see a point where they are summing up what they have learned. It can be quite a dangerous moment for an artist-to come to that pass where he has achieved a certain degree of mastery. To then stumble on into new unknown territority after having experienced success indicates quite a tremendous need for new forms of expression. Coupled with courage and a willingness to face the possibility of failure, an artist just might be able to make another contribution in another area, but it is rare.

    Titian did it-but not everyone would agree with my assessment. In his early work he startled with his attention to lifelike detail and color. In his mature work, he was able to do all forms-landscape, mythology, religious painting-all with mastery. His portraiture is particularly penetrating and fine. And, in his late career, when his brushstrokes open up, and begin to be pure painting, he abandons form for expressionist gesture-it really looks quite modern, and his late work was, in fact, influential in the 20th century on fin-de-siecle neo-expressionists. But, dude, he’s rare. He’s Titian! For any artist to continue to grow up to the end of his/her life is a mighty rare thing indeed.

    Many artists end up repeating themselves with diminishing results. Perhaps, even within Kurosawa’s own heart he felt he would give everything he had to Red Beard, as he may have felt something was ending. But, who knows? All the interviews we read were after the fact. Who knows in the moment what he thought?

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    Jeremy

    ^ Now that’s what I wish I could say, you know-if I knew about art or could articulate.

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    Ugetsu

    Looking at the shots Vili and Jeremy posted remind me clearly of my first reaction when watching Red Beard – this is like a Mizoguchi film! The theme (which I hope to expand on in a future post, I’m still mulling it over) has a strong female orientation, and so many of the shots seem composed in a painterly way that reminds me so much of the Story of Oharu and Sansho. I’m afraid I don’t have the technical art background of you guys, so I can’t express it more clearly. But Jeremy’s shot reminds me of one particularly vivid scene in Oharu (I don’t have the dvd to hand so can’t refer to it specifically). Vili’s clip has a sense that reminds me of the boating scene in Ugetsu Monogatari.

    Tony Raines claims in his dvd commentary on the Masters of Cinema series that Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff were deliberate attempts by Mizoguchi to outdo Rashomon and were at least partly motivated by jealousy at the upstart Kurosawas international acclaim. I would imagine that Kurosawa would have been aware of this. I know he was invariably respectful of his contemporary film makers in public but I wonder if maybe at some level he was conscious of Mizoguchi’s low opinion and was motivated by a desire to match or even top the later Mizoguchi’s history films?

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    Vili Maunula

    Tony Raines claims in his dvd commentary on the Masters of Cinema series that Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff were deliberate attempts by Mizoguchi to outdo Rashomon and were at least partly motivated by jealousy at the upstart Kurosawas international acclaim.

    I must say that I have never encountered this claim before — that there would have been anything like strong jealousy between the film makers. Did Raines mention what his source for this claim was?

    I am actually not very familiar with Mizoguchi apart from a few of his films. This is something that I am hoping to change in the near future.

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    cocoskyavitch

    The holy trinity

    Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Ozu in Japanese cinema. We study everything of these we can find. (Then, one adds Kobayashi, Naruse, and begins looking for more…and finds bits to add here and there..Teshigahara…Oshima)…

    Such a rich world!

    Kurosawa always speaks respectfully of Mizoguchi. I believe him. What he particularly admired was Mizoguchi’s mis-en-scene, and his faithfulness to accuracy of period detail (one might almost say manic insistence on autheniticity).

    We know Ozu was taunted by Kurosawa (green tea over rice anecdote), it is not difficult to believe that Mizoguchi wanted to out-do Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

    (I find it strange the Mizoguchi actually cried over Van Gogh’s paintings when he saw them for the first time in Paris. It reminds me that art has fashion, too. Despite whatever it is that is long-lasting, eternal, or at the very least durable-there is also fashion, and our emotions are victims of fashion, too! Viliyou should get the Criterion big-bang release of Ugetsu so that you can see the fascinating interviews with those hwho knew Mizoguchi, and the great stories they tell! )

    These feelings of competition, respect, love, disrespect, antipathy, honor always you find these feelings involved with art-an artist cannot help but feel some competition and some respect and some cockiness in his own abilities, mixed and in different degrees, but most artists feel these things. In fact, most artists I know feel both superior and inferior at the same time. Sometimes, how one feels slips out, even when folks are trying to be correct!

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