Tagged: theory, western director
26 January 2011
Kurosawa is no doubt one of the greatest directors. But, why is he considered the most western of japanese directors although he broke many conventions of the classic hollywood narrative such as breaking the 180 degree rule and breaking the fourth wall.
Hello heavymentalj. Love the straightforward question.
Flip: Why do you think? Can we point to anything in his working methods, themes, character development, or storylines that relate to Western cinema? What examples can we give?
Conversely, what things make Kurosawa “really” Japanese? Kurosawa thought himself very Japanese. Why?
27 January 2011
I think its pure laziness on the part of writers and critics to describe him as ‘the most Western’.
As to specific reasons, I think much of it comes down a confusion between theme and technique. I don’t see any reason to question Kurosawa’s word that all his films were Japanese and aimed solely at a Japanese audience. However, many writers on the topic saw camera movements or set ups that resembled John Ford, read about Kurosawa’s admiration for westerns and American pulp fiction, and added it up into a bland statement of Kurosawa being an essentially Western film maker. And Japanese critics, puzzled about why he was so popular in the West compared to other film makers, decided this is right.
To take Seven Samurai as one example. So far as I can see, the only ‘Western’ influence in that film are a number of scenes which are familiar from some better quality cowboy films. But in my opinion, there are far more overt influences from Soviet film makers. And thematically, as I argued here, the theme has absolutely nothing to do with cowboy films – it is entirely rooted in Japanese history and culture.
Its interesting to contrast Kurosawa the ‘western’ director with the ‘Japanese’ Ozu and Mizoguchi. Ozu is almost always described as the quintessential Japanese director, but its well known that he was interested in, and very influenced by, French film. And his most famous film, Tokyo Story, was (as Ozu himself said) very heavily influenced by Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And we know from recent scholarship (outlined in the DVD extra’s in the Masters of Cinema versions by Tony Rayns), that many of Mizoguchi’s later films were quite deliberately aimed at western audiences as he was somewhat jealous of Kurosawa’s success. But rather than doing it by introducing western style techniques, he quite deliberately aimed for a sort of faux Eastern exoticism.
So in terms of comparing Kurosawa to his main contemporaries, there is no basis for arguing that Kurosawa was more western than the others, except insofar as some of his techniques were more overtly borrowed from his favourite Hollywood action films, and that he often used western sources as the basis for many of his films (Shakespeare, McBain, Dostyevski, etc). But saying this makes him a western influenced film maker is a bit like saying Shakespeare was a Danish/Italian playwright because so many of his plays came from sources in those countries.
There are also deeper reasons I think. Yoshomoto in his book on Kurosawa argues that in some ways Kurosawa’s films were problematic for Japanese critics in that he redefined what a ‘Japanese’ film could be – it was easier for them to dismiss his films as ‘western’ than to address the core themes of his films. In a broader sense, some writers like Alex Kerr have argued that most westerners (and many Japanese) cultural critics confuse ‘pure’ Japanese culture with ‘real’ Japanese culture, fetishising those things which are considered ‘pure’, without realising that this distinction is entirely artificial. While Kerr doesn’t address Kurosawa except in passing, I think his writing was addressed very much at those western Japanese ‘experts’ who declare Mizoguchi to be a better director than Kurosawa because Mizoguchi is more ‘genuinely Japanese’ as if this in itself is enough and that Kurosawa’s outside influences were in fact some sort of contamination, rather than a sign of an incredibly open minded and insatiably curious intellect.
And pure laziness on my part to pose the question and resist answering! Awesome answer, Ugetsu. One correction: Yoshimoto not Yoshomoto.
There is a principle of being struck dumb/turned into stone/made to be conservative by a precedent. In art we see this when a canon is accepted (Virgin Mary wears red dress, blue robe, signifies the passion and queen of heaven, respectively) and it takes like forever until somebody throws it out hte window. Maybe halos are a good example. Takes until Rembrandt and the Protestants to change their minds about how holiness can be made an image. Anyway, once somebody says Kurosawa is the most Western of all directors, it becomes a de facto factoid.Politicians use this principle to mind-numbing effect and great popularity.
I appreciate the distinction between “pure” and “real” Japanese culture. Nicely done, Ugetsu.
But, what do you think, heavymentalj ?
28 January 2011
This sounds a little like a homework question to me, but I’ll bite…
Actually, I don’t have much to add to Ugetsu’s brilliant response, except one possible scenario, which goes something like this:
1. A western film scholar sees a brand new Kurosawa film and considers it brilliant.
2. Enamoured by the film, the scholar does some research and finds out that Japanese film scholars (i.e. Kinejun) have ranked other Japanese films higher that year than the Kurosawa film that he has just seen.
3. Excited, the film scholar watches these other films (maybe years later, as it takes time to get hold of them).
4. Because of the high expectations generated by his Japanese peers, some cultural differences hindering understanding, because of personal taste, and because these other films are nothing like Kurosawa’s (for the simple fact that they are different films!), the scholar does not love them quite as much as he loved Kurosawa’s.
5. The scholar is puzzled.
6. Like any good academic, the scholar tries to understand this puzzlement.
7. The scholar concludes that since he likes Kurosawa more than he likes other Japanese directors, Kurosawa must be more western.
8. The scholar writes a book arguing this point.
9. Readers accept the scholar’s views because, well, those views were written by a scholar.
10. The scholar’s views become repeated in other publications.
And there is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. Although ranking films is, of course, quite a funny activity in the first place. Having said that, it is unfortunate that Kinejun’s historical lists don’t seem to be available online, as it would be interesting to see them all together, year by year.
In any case, I wouldn’t really argue against the suggestion that of all the major Japanese directors of his era, Kurosawa is the most accessible to western audiences. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a more western director, and I don’t think that he really is. It just so happens that many of the films that he made were easier for western audiences to read, at least up to a point where some sort of meaning or enjoyment could be had from them.
It’s a little bit like if you take a number of different traditional Japanese foods, some of them will turn out to be more appreciated by western restaurant goers than others. This doesn’t make any of the foods less Japanese, and certainly not more “western”. While this is not directly comparable to the situation with Japanese film directors (some certainly were influenced by western film making, etc.), I think that it is an aspect of the issue that is often forgotten.
Sweet worldview, Vili. Could also be:
2. Japanese film scholars (i.e. Kinejunpo) rank other Japanese films higher that year than the Kurosawa film
3. Japanese critics explain their ranking saying that Kurosawa is too Western
4. The self-loathing Western scholar confirms that the Japanese critics are correct
5. The view becomes a de-facto factoid, uttered by any casual J-film afficianado because, well, it’s clear that Kurosawa is Western and thus low-brow..everybody says so
6. The self-loathing scholar’s view actually serves to ignite curiosity in those who want to “see for themselves” and make a comparative study, thus, is a good thing making folks investigate more Japanese filmmakers
29 January 2011
Great answers Vili and Coco! There is a lot of truth there I think.
I know Yoshimoto (yes, sorry for the earlier misspelling) dealt with this in some detail, but I must admit I found some of his arguments hard to grasp, I assume as the book is aimed at readers with a far greater knowledge of Japanese cultural studies than I have. He talks a lot about how Kurosawas films ‘problematize’ Japanese culture, without (for me) explaining very clearly what he means. Yoshimoto seems to have taken it as ‘read’ that Japanese cultural critics just can’t get a handle on Kurosawas work, and so prefer to dismiss him as too western, and in turn Western critics take up this simplistic notion.
2 February 2011
Thank you for such detailed response Ugetsu. I asked this question after I read an article on Kurosawa being a problematic auteur and how his style of film making was different from other Japanese directors. He borrowed techniques from John Ford and other western directors who influenced him. I think you are absolutely spot on when you make a comparison of Kurosawa with Shakespeare.
Thank you for your response Vili Maunula. I agree with you on Kurosawa’s films being the most accessible to western audiences. Kurosawa himself said (something along the line of this) – that he made films keeping the Japanese youths in mind and used western techniques so that these youths could relate to his films.
And finally, thank you too cocoskyavitch.
Thanks heavymentalj. I forgot to mention that one reason sometimes quoted as to why Kurosawa is ‘western’ is not about his technique, but his theme of focusing on the individual and the need for individuals to distinguish themselves from the collective.
But again, I think this is a lazy characterisation, as the conflict between the needs of the individual and collective (or hierarchy) can be found right through numerous Japanese films and books. Mizoguchi in particular invariably had characters who struggled against the expectations of traditional Japan. It is fair to say that Kurosawa had a much stronger belief in the need for individuals to stand up for themselves, but this still places him within the spectrum of Japanese beliefs.
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