Is AK a more American filmaker than he is Western?
17 July 2017
17 July 2017
Kurosawa was definitely influenced by American directors like John Ford, Frank Capra and others, but his films were equally influenced by European filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Ingmar Bergman and many others.
Through his family and especially his brother Heigo, Kurosawa was exposed to cinema from a very early age and he seems to have sucked in influences like a sponge through his entire life. Yes, the American western was a major influence for some Kurosawa films, but the same could be said of German expressionism, continental European drama, or western silent film in general. I wouldn’t say that he was partial to any single country or culture, he borrowed from anything that felt worth borrowing from.
With that said, of the western countries, I would actually say that it is Russia that most influenced Kurosawa. In addition to the aesthetics and techniques of Soviet film, Kurosawa was hugely influenced by Russian literature and the worldviews that he encountered in authors like Gorky, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Ultimately, whenever this topic comes up here, the consensus tends to be that the basic presumption of Kurosawa as a “western director” is in itself quite flawed. He definitely drew a lot from the west and has therefore been easy (deceptively so, I would say) for western film critics to claim an understanding of, but Kurosawa always worked first and foremost with young Japanese adults in mind and the films consequently all had a social and cultural purpose closely tied to the contemporary realities in which they were made. Furthermore, Japanese filmmakers like Sadao Yamanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Kajiro Yamamoto and others should definitely always be mentioned alongside Kurosawa’s western influences.
I would further argue that much of what Kurosawa was doing in the 40s and 50s was also quite a natural continuation of the Japanese cinema and film theory of the 1920s and 30s, while of course also being influenced by the various pressures put to him by the wartime and postwar censorship requirements.
So, I suppose the above is a fairly long-winded way of saying “no, I wouldn’t call him a specifically ‘American’ director”. 🙂
18 July 2017
Thanks a lot of your answer I never knew of those directors influencing AK however after thinhking about it does make sense that he would be influenced by Eisentien with is theory of Montage Editing as it suits AK very well as I see a lot of dialectic thought in AKs work, however please if I am wrong in assuming that is how he influenced, him as it appears that I am seriously lacking knowledege in this area.
I will go away and study the influences Bergman, Pudovkin and Fritz Lang had on AK as have never come across them, being mentioned; there isn’t any articles or books that particularly show these influences woulod there? Or are they something that can be deduced from the films of these directors that I have missed in my first viewing of their films I have seen
Also I find ity interesting that you mentioned Kenji Mizogchi I never knew that he influenced AK I only knew of him as one of the four best Japanese directors to come out of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema alongside AK, making me think that they worked just at the same time not really influencing each other. On the otherhand I have read that Mizoguchi attmpted to mirror Aks accessability to Western audiences out of jealousy of his success what would you say to that?
Again Vili thank you very much for you well thought out answer.
20 July 2017
Kurosawa didn’t generally talk too much about his own work or influences, so it is always difficult to point at definite, conscious links. Also, sometimes what he did say doesn’t really seem to conform with what he did. In many ways, Kurosawa is a very unreliable source when we are assessing his works.
Eisenstein, for instance, is someone who Kurosawa explicitly denied having been influenced by. Yet, most film critics argue for a definite connection between the two (you can find this for instance in Prince, Richie and Yoshimoto), and I would say for a very good reason. Yoshimoto actually offers a possible suggestion why Kurosawa may not have wanted to be too directly linked with Eisenstein: “Kurosawa’s denial seems to have less to do with his analytical assessment of Eisenstein’s work … and more to do with his concern with his public image. From Kurosawa’s standpoint, the association with Eisenstein would make him appear an excessively verbose intellectual filmmaker, the opposite of his ideal, an artisanal craftsman whose artistic vision manifests itself only in the concrete materiality of what he creates, not in the abstract metadiscourse on his own work.” (405)
If you have read Kurosawa’s autobiography, this should not come across as a big surprise. His book is a very interesting and delicate exercise in the creation and molding of the author’s own public image, with Kurosawa all the while constantly winking at us, making sure that we know that this is exactly what is going on.
So, we are left with second and third hand interpretations. The three authors that I mentioned earlier and their career spanning studies are very good starting points. Prince in particular talks quite a bit about Kurosawa’s potential influences. Meanwhile, with directors more or less contemporary with Kurosawa, like Bergman, there certainly was mutual respect and knowledge of each other’s works.
As for Mizoguchi, Kurosawa showed a great deal of respect for him. While the two directors don’t necessarily resemble each other much stylistically (it must be said though that the two posthumous Kurosawa films, Ame Agaru and The Sea Is Watching, have very mizoguchian themes, pacing and feel), Kurosawa was almost definitely influenced by the type of realism that he encountered in Mizoguchi’s treatment of the past.
You must also remember that although we tend to talk about the “great four” directors of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema, and although these four men were born within a twelve-year timespan, Kurosawa was very much the young upstart in that group. Mizoguchi had been making films since the early 1920s, Ozu since the late 1920s, and Naruse since 1930. Kurosawa’s first film came out in 1943. To render this in cold numbers: the three other directors had put out over 150 (!) films (short and long) between them by the time Kurosawa came out with his first one. And as a true film connoisseur, I assume that Kurosawa had seen most of those films.
I don’t know enough about Mizoguchi as a person to be able to say how jealous he may or may not have been about Kurosawa’s success with Rashomon. It is definitely often mentioned in connection with the two, but how historically accurate the story is, I don’t know. In any case, Mizoguchi (like many other Japanese filmmakers) did seem to proceed to make a number of films with international juries in mind. And he was very successful in this endeavour. One must remember that right after Kurosawa’s success in 1951, Mizoguchi’s films were awarded in Venice three years in a row: The Life of Oharu received the International Award in 1952, while Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff both won the Silver Lion, in 1953 and 1954. Granted, none of them got Mizoguchi the top prize, but clearly his films had access to western audiences, or at least western film critics (and it’s not like Kurosawa’s films were at this point played at regular western cinemas, either).
31 July 2017
I think the idea that Kurosawa is a more ‘western’ director is a misunderstanding of Japanese culture. There have always been two very distinct strands in Japanese art and culture – one seeking a sort of ‘pure’ Japanese way of doing things – the other tradition being one of appropriating wildly anything foreign that seems a good idea and making it uniquely Japanese.
There is a tendency I think – both in Japan and from outside Japan lovers, to see the ‘pure’ tradition as somehow more ‘Japanese’, and so superior. But it can be argued that this tradition is quite contrived and class based (its essentially used as a marker for social status), while the second tradition more truly represents the spirit of Japanese art.
There is no doubt I think but that both Ozu and Mizoguchi quite self consciously tried to make a ‘Japanese’ cinema, even when they were basing their films on foreign ideas (such as when Ozu took inspiration from ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ for Tokyo Story). Kurosawa I think couldn’t care less, so far as he was concerned, if he was making Japanese films, for a Japanese audience, it was Japanese cinema. He certainly was inspired by Western, specifically US cinema for many of his ideas, especially his compositions and editing, and sometimes story ideas. But his tastes were so widespread and eclectic, I don’t think you can pin him down as having been particularly influenced by any school of cinema or particular film makers. Even his famed admiration for John Ford is a little over exaggerated I think. He took some shots from him and he obviously loved Western mythologies, but it was just one of many influences.
I have been reading a lot of articles about how AK took inspiration from John Ford and in the same articles tyhey called AK a ‘Western director’ this made me question whether if he was truely Western as the ‘West’ includes Europe if anyone knows any examples AK took/adopted ideas frm any European cinema/directors i think it wouyld be really interesting.