Apocalyptic motifs in Kurosawa’s work
26 December 2020
28 December 2020
It has been along time since I watched it, but apocalyptic fear, and whether it is rational are not is the central theme of 1955’s I Live in Fear / Ikimono no kiroku. I think it would be awfully hard for someone of Kurosawa’s generation, particularly in a nation that experienced two atomic bombs not to have thoughts regarding a potential apocalypse. I am not sure I would classify those fears as paranoia, but probably a rational response to two cataclysmic events. The Pacific War devastated Japan economically and culturally as well, creating even more uncertainty. Yes, the pessimism runs deep in Kurosawa’s work, one only need scratch the surface. Whether it is the ending of Seven Samurai, the message of Scandal, or the sadness of The Quiet Duel, the pain is there.
30 December 2020
Thanks for reaching out, I want to put emphasis on existentialism and post-war skepticism in his work. I think Kurosawa was more concerned with social relationships and the consequences of war on individuals more than some national spanning nuclear paranoi. I think this has been done by I.Honda in his Godzilla metaphor, but there is different tendenci in Kurosawa’s 40/50 films. I mean, films like Stray Dog,Drunken Angel,Ikiru,The Bad Men Sleep Well, everything he did in the post-war era is more existential in nature than anything else. For me, vast majority of Kurosawa’s filmography is about loneliness in modern urban cities more than anything else. Ikiru, for example is very much in the tradition of Camus or Kafka, this unbreakable loneliness of man.
Those films are filled with feeling of alienation from society. Seven Samurai is all about this. The ending is pessimistic because after all they did for these people, they still do not fit in. It is identical ending to Ford’s The Searchers in this sense of not fitting it. In both films, they sacrifice themselves, but in the end are just left by the wayside. This tendency is in the heart of western genre and this is a clear dichotomy Kurosawa himself spotlights in his Samurai westerns. And this continues to the 60’ with Yojimbo and Sanjuro. It is not exlplicit in those, but the way Kurosawa frames his characters suggests clearly that they do not fit in.
In Bad Men or High and Low, you have problem with lack of morals in modern society. Kurosawa’s post-war Japan is this immoral capitalistic mess with people using this situation to their advantage and commit crimes. Kurosawa is pessimistic as hell and I think with Ran, it’s just flatfull Apocalypse that must occur in such world. Ran is the crescendo for me, which, again, follows lonely man in immoral world – Kurosawa is following in the tradition of Shakespeare,Cervantes and Dostoevsky (and other existentialists) with his struggle to find place for a noble man in immoral society. Kurosawa is in way making Idiot adaptation all his career, because Kurosawa’s characters live in apocalyptic society Dostoevsky imagined as corrupted and destined to suffocate. One thing Dostoevsky mentioned in Brothers Karamazovs as being huge obstacle for paradise on Earth is the fundamental loneliness of humans in the modern world.Kurosawa sort of proves his words.
11 January 2021
It’s an interesting topic that you brought up, At-Pharazon. There certainly is a strong element of destruction and end-of-times in Kurosawa’s work, and like BMWRider mentioned, it seems to reflect the historical reality in which Kurosawa was making his films. Japan was going through an enormous change and filmmakers like Kurosawa were responding to that. Having said that, while the concept of an “apocalypse” is typically seen as the end of something, I would argue that Kurosawa actually tends to be looking forward, at a new beginning, particularly in his post-war films. His interest is in the dawn of something new and what that new thing could be.
I think you are spot on when you describe Kurosawa basically making The Idiot over and over again, depicting a clash between our attempts to live happily together and the realities of a society that gets in the way of us doing so. That said, I think there is one crucial difference in that Kurosawa’s heroes are rarely perfect in the way that Myshkin is. With Kurosawa, we instead tend to get very flawed individuals as the people who are trying to make a difference. They also rarely completely succeed in what they are doing, and most of Kurosawa’s films end with a question or at least some level of uncertainty, rather than a simple and solved didactic statement.
However, I’m not sure if this is necessarily a sign of pessimism, as you write.
Many writers, I think starting already with Richie, have suggested that you can actually split Kurosawa’s oeuvre roughly into two halves; the films leading up to Red Beard and the ones that came after. Typically, the earlier films are seen as more optimistic and proactive, while the later films exhibit more pessimism and reactivity. Protagonists in the earlier films are constantly pushing to make things happen while in the later films they are increasingly just left having things happen to them. This is, of course, again a generalisation, but I think a fairly useful one. And to a large extent, it is also reflected in changes in Kurosawa’s visual style.
What I think is happening there is Kurosawa’s growing disillusion over what he can achieve as an artist. By showing audiences problems in post-war Japan and some possible ideas how to tackle them, he hoped to be able to affect change. This change did not really happen and later films seem to increasingly reflect this realisation. Yojimbo feels like the first time that he throws his hands up in the air and retreats to a fantasy where problems are not so much solved, but eradicated altogether. Later on, something like Rhapsody in August in many ways discusses what happens when issues are buried and left unsolved, when we don’t talk to each other.
So, I think if there is growing pessimism in his work, it is more a reflection on his own abilities than on human nature as a whole. If that makes sense.
It’s also a really good question whether I would call Kurosawa an existentialist. His films can definitely be seen as underlining many of the core values and tenets of existentialist thinkers. But in my view we also have in Kurosawa a very strong societal component that perhaps doesn’t fully exist in European existentialism, at least as I understand it. This of course doesn’t mean that Kurosawa couldn’t be called an existentialist, just that for me at least Kurosawa is repeatedly asking the question how can we find meaning and cohesion as members of a group or a society — or indeed as organisms that are part of nature — rather than just as individuals.
Thank you again for this very interesting and thought-provoking discussion opener, At-Pharazon. I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this. As you may have noticed, this website tends to work on a slower tempo than what many are accustomed to from social media and other modern platforms. Which is kind of also my way of saying that thank you also for the other thread that you started, and to which I will eventually respond to as well. But only after I have given it some more thought.
19 January 2021
I think its very understandable for someone who was an adult going through WWII in Japan to worry about the apocalypse. The sheer destruction he must have witnessed can’t not have had an effect. And of course, he saw it before, in the Great Kanto Earthquake. So I don’t think its necessary to go looking for philosophical influences, he saw it all with his own eyes.
But it is interesting I think that it was (at least so far as I can see), a period in the mid 1950’s when he seemed to feel this most vividly. I think culturally at the time Japan was going through a period of quite deliberate forgetfulness, when the past was being shut off in favour of a dedicated focus on economic growth. Ozu’s films are really interesting at the time as he took a much cooler view of the changes, often subtly mocking them, although that wasn’t Kurosawa’s style.
I am new to this site, but I have been keeping check on Kurosawa’s body of work for quite some time. I think it’s really special director, because he managed to cover (and reinvent) all sort of genres, but doing it in personal manner every time. Kurosawa really is a proof that genre can serve as an artistic endeavour and for this alone he desetkrát acclaim. But if we look at Ran and Dreams, there are heavy apocalyptic elements in both films. There seems to be a reflection of nuclear paranoi in them, but I think we can find Ragnarok (from Scandinavia mythology) in Ran and destruction of nature in Dreams. Idiot has been interpreted in this sense too in one essay posted on this site, but I am curious if we can find something pessimistic in his earlier (prior Ran) films.