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Akira Kurosawa films that best represent religious elements?

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    Grinor

    New to the forums and writing a research paper about Akira Kurosawa. I was wondering what would be the best films to analyze for Shinto/Buddhist values or practices? Attempting to describe how Kurosawa conveys his beliefs through film.

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    Vili Maunula

    Welcome to akirakurosawa.info, Grinor!

    Kurosawa’s films are typically seen as exhibiting fewer religious values or practices than those of some of his contemporaries, especially Mizoguchi. Instead, he is usually labelled a humanist director who was more interested in social problems. I too can’t really think of any Kurosawa film where religion or religious beliefs would be a main focus.

    This is not to say that you can’t discuss some aspects of Kurosawa’s films in terms of Buddhism or Shintoism, especially since neither would really contradict the idea of Kurosawa as a “humanist” director. Here are a few threads from here that come into mind:

    Marebito, Fox Spirits and Folklore

    Sanshiro Sugata: Instances of Buddhism and Shintoism

    Sanshiro Sugata: The Lotus, Truth and Beauty

    In addition to these films, Red Beard is often considered if not religious, at least very spiritual.

    I hope this helps!

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    Grinor

    Perhaps I should refocus my thesis to a new topic. 30 page paper, so if I can’t find enough to write off of I should scrap and find a new idea. Perhaps the idea of applying the samurai mentality (beliefs) to film focusing on elements of heroic deaths?

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    Vili Maunula

    Depending on your level of familiarity with Kurosawa, it might indeed be better (or at least easier!) to choose another topic. Interpreting Kurosawa through the samurai code would certainly be easier, and you would have plenty of resources to help you, but I would say that it is also quite a crowded topic, and you might find it difficult to say anything new that hasn’t already been covered a number of times before.

    But it could be interesting to look at deaths in Kurosawa’s films on a more general level. You can, after all, find quite a number of meaningful deaths in Kurosawa’s films. But what sort of characters actually die? Why do they die? What narrative purpose do their deaths have, and how do their deaths influence the meaning of the work? In what way does death as a subject or theme in Kurosawa’s later films differ from how death is dealt with in his earlier films, considering that his later films explore topics like aging and death more directly.

    These are just some questions that pop into my mind. There could be a whole lot of ground to cover there, and I don’t remember anyone specifically writing on this subject before.

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    Grinor

    Vili, what would be the best films to represent this transition? Sanshiro Sugata , Rashomon, Samurai Seven, Red Beard, and Ran. Ran is one of the best films that reflect Kurosawa’s life to his work as he creates this film during the period of his wife’s tragic death.

    Thanks for the input it has helped me redirect my focus.

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    Vili Maunula

    That’s a tough question, Grinor. The films to concentrate on may depend on what kind of an approach you want to take, and what you wish to explore specifically.

    There are films like Sanshiro Sugata, Yojimbo and Sanjuro where heroes cause deaths in order to overcome obstacles. (Although I would say that death is still handled very differently between these three films.) There are films like Seven Samurai and No Regrets for Our Youth, where the deaths of main characters are largely sacrificial, for common good, perhaps again to overcome an obstacle. Yet in all of these cases, as well as in Drunken Angel (where the sacrifice is not necessarily for common good), we can question how meaningful the main characters’ deaths really are — are lives simply wasted in those deaths?

    Then there is Ikiru, which is all about the finality of death and the deadline that it sets for us and our accomplishments. It might be a good question whether it actually resembles Kurosawa’s later works more than his earlier works when it comes to the subject of death and how it is handled. I would definitely include Ikiru in any paper discussing death in Kurosawa.

    There is a film about the fear of death in Record of a Living Being, and a film about refusing death in Madadayo. Kurosawa’s medical dramas, including Red Beard, are also about refusing or fighting death. The Bad Sleep Well is about revenging a death. The ending of Kagemusha also has a very powerful statement about death, and the whole film is of course about a character who lives in the shadow of a dead man. A number of sequences in Dreams deal with death in one way or another. Rhapsody in August is again all about deaths and ageing.

    There are two gruesome deaths in Stray Dog, one of which is a murder and the other a narrated killing of a cat. The death of the cat actually seems more meaningful to the story, as it gives us a window into the killer’s psyche. The killer there reminds me of the kidnapper in High and Low, who appears to have a very similar outlook on life, and has no problem killing people to test a poison — one of the film’s most chilling and brilliant sequences.

    Meanwhile, Rashomon of course centres around a death (and a rape). But there the death itself actually seems to lose all of its meaning, as we are more intrigued by the events that may have led to that death.

    The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that death is pretty much everywhere in Kurosawa’s films. But if you consider the deaths in Dodesukaden and the films that followed, could you perhaps say that death is handled more lyrically in those films than in earlier ones? Are deaths in Kurosawa’s earlier films more narrative devices, while they become more centrally the subject of inquiry in the later ones? Do the earlier films see death as waste, while the later films see it more as something which is inevitable and to be dealt with? I don’t really know. I feel that there is a difference of some sorts, with Red Beard being the watershed here, but it would need some serious thinking to say what that difference is, if it even really exists.

    As for Ran, it’s an interesting question how much the death of Yooko affected the film. We must remember that the script itself was mostly written in the mid-70s, and if I remember correctly most of the filming had taken place before she fell ill.

    I’m not sure if this rambling reply of mine can help you in any way. It seems that I have ended up listing almost all of Kurosawa’s films. And most of the ones that I have not listed also contain deaths: Sanshiro Sugata II‘s is a rehash of Sanshiro Sugata‘s, in The Lower Depths we have the hanging at the end, Throne of Blood‘s events really begin to unfold after the muder of Tsuzuki, Dersu Uzala is ultimately a film about Dersu’s death and what is symbolises, and so on. But whether any sense of all this can be made, is another question. However, as it has been stated by a number of scholars that Kurosawa’s later films meditate on topics of ageing and death, I think someone definitely should look at the question how that process of meditation differs from the way death is depicted in the earlier films. Unfortunately (or fortunately!!), it might mean that you will need to go through all of Kurosawa’s works to properly tackle that question.

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    MattK

    I think that Rashomon is a very religious film. There is a scene where we see the woman in white at a stream with what is very definitely a cross of light in the background. In other scenes we see the husband leading this wife on a small horse just as Joseph lead Mary to Bethlehem. And with the final scene being a baby bringing our hero into the sunlight, I don’t see how anyone could miss the connections. Or maybe that’s just the way I saw the events of the film! It’s possible Kurosawa put other religious references in the film also, references I don’t understand, making Rashomon a very meta piece of art.

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    MattK

    Oh, and Tajômaru Is obviously the Lord of the Flies.

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    Vili Maunula

    I think Lord of the Flies came out a couple of years after Rashomon.

    But I feel that there is indeed a western religious interpretation waiting to be squeezed out of Rashomon. One that approaches it as an allegory of the Abrahamic Eden myth.

    We do, after all, kind of have the basic elements of the Garden of Eden story in the film. We have a “garden” in the form of the uninhabited grove. We have a man and a woman, as well as a serpent type character (Tajomaru) who is up to no good. There are the themes of sex (rape) and reproduction (baby) and there is also the subsequent shame and self-implication.

    Like you mentioned, there are some cross-shaped visual elements dropped here and there. And the trial seems to be conducted by some sort of a silent, judging god-like figure.

    Before Kurosawa added the frame story from Rashomon, Shinobu Hashimoto’s original script was called Male and Female (Shiyu), because “it was a story about men and women, male and female.” (Hashimoto, 36). In this interpretation, those would be the original male and female.

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    chomei

    Just signed back on the website after being away for many months and found this old thread come to life. I had never seen it before and I wanted to comment because I have always felt that Kurosawa was one of the most religious directors who ever lived; two reasons, but there are many.

    His last film, “Madadayo” is, in essence, a commentary on Hojoki, the 13th century Japanese Buddhist classic written by the monk Kamo no Chomei; it is the only book that the professor was able to save from his library. It is the foundational work of Japanese nature writings, a book that is required reading for 12th grade students and one of the greatest works of literature which few outside of Japan have ever heard of, Walden is the closest analogy. Chomei recounts the events of 1177 to 1185 when Kyoto was devastated by a great fire, windstorm, famine, plague and earthquake. Chomei realizes he has no future in the city becomes a Buddhist monk and moves to a 10 foot square hut in the middle of a forest. The work that he wrote is both a meditation on nature and Buddhism; it is the perfect book for the hero to save and the book which a former student quotes from when the professor is in despair:

    The flow of the river is constant, the water continually changes.
    Foam and bubbles are churned up by the current and just as rapidly disappear.
    Just as people and their dwellings in this world.

    At the end the professor dies and goes to The Pure Land, i.e. Nirvana, Enlightenment.

    I see “Madadayo” as a bookend to “Ikiru.” In one the portrait of a man who has lived an exemplary life, who has given every fiber of his being to teaching young men the important things in life, teaching the good life by living it, and it all comes back to him when his former students ban together to make sure he has a secure retirement. In “Ikiru” we have a man who has done nothing for the world in 60 years, he has a son, monetary wealth, a home when many in Japan live in squalor, but it means nothing. He has 6 months to do something, to make a difference. For one the path is easy, he just leads a good life; for the other it is the hardest thing on earth, as Buddhist a theme as one can get. In the end they both achieve Nirvana, Enlightenment.

    I could say much more but will end this here. I first was drawn to Kurosawa when I saw “Ikiru.” At that time I had been studying Buddhism for 8 years and realized that this movie was the embodiment of the Fourfold Noble Truth of Buddha: 1) The world is full of suffering 2) suffering is caused by desire 3) eliminate desire and suffering ends 4) There is a path to the elimination of suffering; right view, right thought, right speech, right livelihood, right behavior, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. I have since seen all of his films and think they all have a Buddhist “thread.” Will be more than happy to continue this conversation.

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