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Kurosawa and acting

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    Watching The Idiot this week crystallized one nagging issue I’ve had with Kurosawa’s films. Much as I love the films, the one negative that keeps intruding on my complete enjoyment of them is the acting. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was I didn’t like about it, but with The Idiot it occurred to me that the characters were not acting together – they were each acting AT each other. The most obvious example of this is where Taiko (Hara) challenges Kameda to choose between her and Ayoko (Kuga). I loved watching Hara in this scene (and all the rest of the film), but I couldn’t help but feel that her character seemed to belong to a different scene, or even a completely different film.

    Now I understand that AK had a particular interest and love of both theater (western and Noh) and silent films, and so loved more expressive, theatrical forms of acting, and this can look a little anachronistic and forced to modern eyes. I think we can also conclude that he deliberately instructed some characters to be more ‘theatrical’ or ‘Noh’ in various films for reasons specific to the narrative – this was sometimes very effective, in Throne of Blood as an obvious example. However, too often I find the unevenness in acting to be a distraction from the overall quality of the film. Specific examples for me where this has detracted from the overall quality of the film would be Madadayo, Ran, High and Low and, of course, The Idiot.

    From my understanding of AK’s methods, he was much more inclined than his director peers to let actors express themselves, to develop their own interpretations. Certainly, Ozu and Naruse were notoriously strict on their actors, insisting on directing their every move, and we know this led to a more naturalistic, ensemble style of acting. As far as Ozu is concerned, from what I understand, many of his favourite actors (including Hara) were not considered the most skilled of actors, he preferred to use more malleable actors that he could mold to his own ends.

    A related issue to this is the repeated criticism of Kurosawa that his female characters were often weak and clichéd. But as we have discussed elsewhere, this view can’t really withstand a full analysis of his films, because there are many strong, complex female characters in his films. But could this be related to a failure to direct his actresses correctly, resulting in weaker actresses not being able to fully flesh out their characters? It is noteworthy I think that his strongest female characters are either those who adopt a very formal style (usually the evil women, such as Asaji in ToB, Kaede in Ran or Kyoko Kagawa as the mad woman in Red Beard). My favourite female character in any of his films is Toya Odagiri, in Ikiru (the office girl) – I think this character is a wonderfully funny, complex and fully expressed young woman. AK seemed to imply (I can’t recall where I read this, it may have been in Richie) that this character was almost entirely invented by the actress, Kiki Odagiri. The implication of this seems to be that he would have been perfectly content to accept a very different interpretation of the role. But, in so many other films, potentially interesting female characters either tend to disappear into the background (such as Reiko in High and Low, again, Kyoko Kagawa), or be just rather uninteresting clichés, like Shino in Seven Samurai (related thought: wouldn’t Kiki Odagiri have been wonderful in that role?).

    To be more specific about where I think uneven acting and characterisation let down some of his films, here are some examples that come to mind:

    Madadayo: I think Tatsuo Matsumura is lovely as the Professor, but he seemed to be surrounded by some very intrusive overacting – almost all his ‘students’ lack any real character, and make up for it by intensive mugging.

    Dersu Uzala: Again, while the lead actors do pretty well, I thought the minor characters, especially the Russian Soldiers at the beginning, sometimes looked like an overenthusiastic amateur dramatic society (not helped by the horrible fake beards).

    The Idiot: I love watching Hara in all her movies and I think Mifune is stunningly charismatic here, but I agree with Richie that Mori as Kameda seems lost – I just can’t understand how two gorgeous women are supposed to fall madly in love with him – he is all ‘idiot’, but no ‘savant’ as the character implies he should be. And Ayako just seems like a spoilt brat, despite repeated assurances from other characters that she is really shy and sweet.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that AK’s films are full of bad acting, or that there is bad acting in all the films – I think all the performances are pitch perfect in Ikiru, Yojimbo, Red Beard, and Stray Dog (although in all those films I do think that several performances are just barely on the right side of over-egged). But for me there is a constant tendency for the characters to be thrust forward, rather than allowed to slowly develop, as we would see in an Ozu or Naruse film.

    I can’t help but think that this is related to AK’s desire for his films to be all- enveloping, to be stuffed with multiple layers of meaning and ambiguity, rather than the more tightly focused films of most of his best peers. Someone so filled with a passion for making great films that grab the audience is bound to be attracted to big, charismatic stars like Mifune, and also to be open to allowing those actors to express themselves, to develop their characters. But was this sometimes at the expense of coherence? It seems to me that one of the key tasks of a director is to set the emotional tone of the acting, and to ensure that each character is allowed their own space. On a simple practical level, this means preventing the more charismatic actors from dominating at the expense of others. I can’t help feeling but that AK didn’t succeed in this in several of his films.

    Now I know that this is contradicted by some of the evidence – we know he coached some of his actors very intently for some of the parts, instructing them carefully how to approach the role. But I’m not well enough read on the literature to know if this is true of all his films and key roles, but the impression I get is that it wasn’t. I don’t know whether this was a deliberate part of his philosophy, that the actors should have a certain amount of free reign, or that he simply wasn’t terribly interested in some ‘types’ of characters, so was content not to push the actors too hard (unlike Ozu and Naruse, who were notoriously tough).

    If you all agree with this (I’m sure many of you don’t!), I do feel this is potentially significant to how his films are interpreted. As I’ve said above, it could explain why some of his female characters seem less vivid than his male characters – quite simply, only a handful of his actresses were strong willed (or crafty) enough to compete with the likes of Mifune for screen time. But it also may lead us to very different conclusions about some of his films, if (as I’m suggesting) the specifics of some characters were nothing more than the quirks of casting, rather than real directorial choices.

    any thoughts? 🙄



    Ugetsu, you are right-there is a giant daikon side to the acting in many Kurosawa films.

    I have often thought as well, that, when things are intended to be funny, it’s either embarassing or merely curiously amusing that they are supposed to be funny. Genuinely funny is rare (Mifune’s face and the music as the dog trots by with a severed hand in its mouth in Yojimbo).

    Over-acting and scenery-chewing are hallmarks of Mifune’s style.

    Even Hara overacts in The Idiot! So, you may have hit on a dynamic-the strong overcoming the weaker actors, and Kurosawa’s seeming penchant for a kind of melodramatic excess.

    Having said that, I take it just as I do the Hollywood films of the 1930’s. NOBODY in America talks like that-what the heck-where did everyone pick up those accents, for one thing?

    Stylization is just a series of artistic choices giving a particular stamp to any creation.

    I never really liked any discussion that preferred “baroque” to “rococco”. It seems to me that the question is really whether or not the final product is enhanced or damaged by the choices the artist made (or, in the case of Kurosawa, if your suspicions are right-the choice to let go some control and let the actor make the important choices to form the character). Ever hear of Duchamp’s “five standard stoppages”? IThe artist dropped string, and as it bent and doubled back as it hit the floor, he copied it and made “rulers” of each length with the curves and twists in the hard, final shape. Chance was an “actor”. A part of his process. Maybe Kurosawa was allowing chance to play a role.

    I’m gonna admit-the acting used to be alarming for me. Mifune in front of the magistrate in Rashomon used to confuse and repel me. And, you know that publicity shot of the major actors lined up against a wall at the studio for publicity? Mifune leaping and making a face, and Daisuke Kato acting shocked…all for the camera, not in relation to one another…illustrating just your phrase “acting AT one another”

    -well, that makes me cringe a bit.

    But who the heck knows about art and how it can get to you? All of a sudden, it started to penetrate and become transparent at the same time. The affectations went away and the substance began sinking in to me. So, now what i see is not horrible acting, but people inhabiting stories in ways that make the stories and people matter.

    Yoshimoto notes the complex relationship here:

    “In marked contrast to Ozu, Kurosawa exaggerates his actors’ performances and idiosyncratic mannerisms as much as possible, and his use of Hara in The Idiot is no exception.”

    But, again, does this harm the film? Maybe not. Yoshimoto says:

    “Yet what is important is that precisely because of the suppression of subtle emotional expressivity, Hara’s face is purified, and only a single emotional tone remains on her face. What appears on her face is a sense of noble sublimity that cannot be violated by any external forces. “

    I agree with this beautiful concept, and Yoshimoto’s intelligent perception in uncovering what appears to be paradoxical, yet reveals truth. The horrible daikon acting becomes a vehicle for deep expression. I find The Idiot a remarkably scary, penetrating film. And, would women ever love a character like Mori plays? Actually, I find him incredibly appealing, and understand both the lure of Mifune (what a lion!) and Mori (a saint!).



    It’s a tough subject,

    If you don’t give the actor some ability to make decisions as they see fit, and if the actor can not act upon impulse, having to get authority from the director. You get this very linear outcome, sort of a plateau in overall viewing value, and for the most part emotion remains constant.

    Not entirely a bad thing, and Ozu certainly showed absolute control can work. But, Ozu doesn’t have his own active website with discussion, Kurosawa does and too generally far more popular.

    To what I believe is due to Kurosawa giving the audience some active role. An active role much that comes from bold actors having the ability to play out what they have in mind. As, ideally the actor should become the character, if the director gets too involved this can never happen.

    To have “acting at each other” can be just as bad as acting for the camera. And any obvious acting, were the audience separates from the movie is a bad thing. Still, to have actors act within a small world towards each other can often allow the audience to relax and judge what they see. In a sort of peering into a window sort of way. If the director however expands the world of the actors too much, the audience can find it hard to judge, and so just sits back and watch without much thought, requiring then the movie to make decisions for them. Kurosawa in some cases seems to desire these tight quarters we’re indeed the acting is for the sake of the other actor, but truly to allow the audience a means of peaking into a life that’s not meant for display.

    I suppose my point, is that Kurosawa wasn’t aiming for Ozu styling, and too Kurosawa didn’t feel it right to suppress the actor’s ideals of the character. To do so, removes the audience from the movie and the character from the actor.

    Here Kurosawa breifly talks about the subject.


    My poor translation and Kurosawa tends to mumble too much for me to catch his words:

    Around the 2 minute mark. After the director Kitano, mentions what he dreamed his movie would come out as, was much different then what it really came out to be.

    Kurosawa, says something along the lines: That often what he has in mind is much different then the actors have in mind. But as a director you should only guide the actors for what you feel is best, but you should never make them do anything.

    I’m not saying Kurosawa made no mistake, certainly some actions seem like a better idea, largely in reducing some Mifune runaway. However, Kurosawa does give us a living film, whilst Ozu is more a specimen for study. It’s Kurosawa style, and it doesn’t always work out perfectly. But, I’m not so much defending Kurosawa, as I’m just saying its a, damned if you do, damned if you don’t, sort of thing. Kurosawa maybe found it best, to let it all ride, and give the audience something living, rather then the very precise, but cold and sterile, as often Ozu does.

    Regarding females, too much vividness doesn’t portray the Japanese female. We’re talking period films, and a post-war Japan world. You can’t expect the woman to have any dominate role within the movie, such empowerment in females inst widely seen in Japan till around the mid to late 1980’s. (There was a rather meaningless 1946 attempt, with was more symbolic and not actual. It wasn’t till 1985’s law making men and women equal in the work force that really spawned what can be called the empowered Japanese woman. Although this too can often be more symbolic then actual in many regards to this day, and far more suppressive then the suppose “glass ceiling” in Europe and America. Japanese companies still do the cute girl in the short skirt over one with a brain, so often you see the ambitious Japanese women working in U.S. companies with Japan branches)

    I think ideally you would want your females to be drowned out among the male actors, as they are in real life. And too shouldn’t have much visual depth to them, as they can then be overly highlighted among the males, which goes to throw off the social interactions. The female role shouldn’t extend too much pass, being a obedient servant to the male characters.

    The exception is of course the female in private with the husband. Only here can her dominance be shown, and as done in Ran, Throne of Blood, for example. To which Kurosawa played it right, when the man was among his peers the woman drifted back, when alone, she came out front and ruled the male. Not exactly an uncommon thing in all cultures and time periods. What would be uncommon, and a in some degree out right impossible would be the woman dominating the male out in public, especially if this male is of high ranking, and among subordinates.

    I’m not saying the woman shouldn’t be deep, vivid, and multi-dimensional, but it should only be seen in private, anytime a scene is among others, the female needs to fall back and be largely forgettable.

    I would even say today, your typically small town Japanese woman is very much like Shino in Seven Samurai. Often they are taught to at least act the cliche in public and among those not deeply acquainted.

    Not to be confused with suppressed, simplistic, or lacking empowerment however.

    For the briefness we see Shino interacting with Katsushiro, Shino should for us the audience and even for Katsushiro, be nothing more then quiet and passive. Had we and Katsushiro more time with her, then she could evolve, til then she must fit cliche. You can’t break social norms for the sake of vivid characters.

    Had Kurosawa made a 1985 to present film with a big city woman, then indeed her character should be on level with any male from the start.

    But when you dealing with anything traditional Japanese woman, be a true period based Japanese woman, or a small town modern woman, and wanting boldness and empowerment, it has to be done so crafty, with a strong inner woman, that stumbles greatly in her quest, all while being rather reserved outwardly. As done in Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends The Stairs. And for this to all happen, the woman must take lead role, which was never the case in Kurosawa.



    Hey, Jeremy, you said,

    ” …and Ozu certainly showed absolute control can work. But, Ozu doesn’t have his own active website with discussion,”

    Well, by golly, there actually is a very good Ozu site with erudite folks, and despite the lack of bells and whistles, it’s pretty sweet, in terms of the level of discussion. And, the participation of Japanese cineastes doesn’t hurt…http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/ozu/.

    Jeremy , your understanding of the role of the woman in Japanese culture in different environments, social situations and time frames is, once again,spot on with what I understand, and you seamlessly integrate that description with the filmmaking process so that we understand how historical accuracy and choice affects the story, and the woman’s role in film.

    Although Kurosawa was no Mizoguchi-in that he didn’t use women as the primary in his films (except, arguably, in “No Regrets for Our Youth”, or, perhaps the female collective in “The Most Beautiful“), it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is “uninterested” in women. Some of his women are amazing! The bad-birl-turned-nurse-in-training in “The Quiet Duel”, the young working girl in “Ikiru”, and Setsuko Hara in “No Regrets for Our Youth” and “The Idiot”-these are all interesting characters with backstories and depth.

    On one point Jeremy, you and I will disagree. I think Ozu is sublime-neither sterile nor a specimin. Ozu’s work lives and breathes for me.

    It is a different pleasure than the pleasure Kurosawa gives-and, in fact, it is a different world view that can be summed up simply: Ozu is mono-no-aware and disappointment. Kurosawa rages against the forces of destruction. Ozu’s subject is the tempest in the heart of someone who looks very calm on the surface. Kurosawa’s subject is personal transformation. In Ozu’s world a human goes from a self-indulgent child to a disappointed adult. In Kurosawa’s world knowledge and experience lead to transformation and moral choices. In Ozu the greatest good is kindness. In Kurosawa the greatest good is work toward rectifying social ills.

    So, yep, they are different guys, and both really compelling, and worth getting to know. By the way, Ozu’s jokes, especially in the early silent films-are really really funny.



    Re-reading what I wrote, I would go back reword, and explain further some items. The basic premise however I have to stick by, full of errors, and from a one-sided male view or not.

    No Regrets for Our Youth, and One Wonderful Sunday, and perhaps Ikiru are exceptions that stand outside my comments, the rest I could argue. But, if I take the original question correctly, as to why the female role is dormant among the males. My reasoning for the correctness and importance of it, to me holds validity, while not discrediting female or their cinematic importance.

    I do enjoy greatly Ozu, and not aimed to discredit. Fail however, to see a “living” film, but more a specimen of life opened up. Which is not suggesting they are so, or have reduce value if so.



    Yes, Jeremy, I think you have the role of women right…particularly honest bit:

    “The exception is of course the female in private with the husband. Only here can her dominance be shown, and as done in Ran, Throne of Blood, for example. To which Kurosawa played it right, when the man was among his peers the woman drifted back, when alone, she came out front and ruled the male. Not exactly an uncommon thing in all cultures and time periods. “



    Are there not devils of sarcasm that prowl about? To pry my mind, and to attack without.

    Don’t look deeply in my words, and dont extend them outside a specfic context. 😯 I’m talking Japanese period films, that contain male lead roles, nothing more.



    Hey, Jeremy, I’m not being sarcastic! A fact is a fact, and the reality is that the female in private may have had, in most cultures throughout time, a more prominent role than she was allowed to hold in public. No sarcasm intended. It’s reality, and it’s not helpful to say “Wow, that sucks” or get all bent out of shape about it. One thing I really despise is when American girls on our study abroad programs are angry that they can’t wear short skirts and tube tops in the summer heat in Istanbul. They’re really offended when we advise them that it is not appropriate, and feel that we are “squelching their personal right to wear what they please”. Then they are amazed when they get ugly stares, catcalls or worse. I mean, DUH.

    Reality is what it is. Deal!!!!



    Cool 😎

    Yes, I’m familiar with these American girls that yell empowerment and exploitation at will. I dare say a girl in a short skirt looks nice, I’m being exploitative, I say a girl should dress more conservative in some situation, I’m now suppressing empowerment. I’ll stick to Mexicans and Asians, or maybe the elusive coco, were maybe I can still make a friendly request of a sandwich, and not fear getting a knife stuck though me instead. 😆 😛



    I think its a very fair point that Kurosawa was (consciously or not) portraying a reality of Japanese women shrinking into the background in public, but being far more assertive at home. I guess its not a specifically Japanese thing – I remember from my childhood seeing it happen with rural relatives here in Ireland – even my uncle asking my aunt permission to come into the parlour! The fields were his territory, the house was hers.

    As I look at those screen shots of The Idiot, it does bring it home to me just how vivid the film is. The more I watch Kurosawa, the more I get used to the demonstrativeness of the acting – but I still have a problem with the unevenness of it. By which I mean that its not consistent – I have a constant feeling sometimes that some of the actors think they are in different films, the acting is never ‘ensemble’. Not in every case of course, just some of those movies I mentioned above. I’m just wondering if it was deliberate, or an accidental by-product of AK’s directing style.



    Jumping in here, as I have nothing to say about The Idiot, not having seen it or having any hope of seeing it soon….

    I’m sorry, I don’t find the role or performance of Shino in Seven Samurai cliched, and don’t feel the actress from Ikiru would fill the role as well. AK needed a pretty-bordering-on-beautiful girl with her head a bit in the clouds – the kind of person who’d not only appreciate, but want to live out, the plot of a romance novel – and the actress from Ikiru strikes me as too down-to-earth and tomboyish to play Shino properly.

    The one thing Manzo is right about is that his daughter is ripe for the picking by the nearest cute young samurai. Of course, making her dress as a boy only increases the danger, as it’s unlikely anyone, even Katsushiro, would have approached her or responded to her had they known from the beginning that she was a village girl and Manzo’s daughter to boot.

    I think the actress playing Shino does a good job of conveying her poorly repressed lust, joie de vivre, and carpe diem desperation.

    Anyway, I think the portrayal of Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood and all the female characters in The Lower Depths are wonderful. The Lower Depths is an example of a film that was done in true ensemble style – AK made them rehearse on set and in costume for a month before filming began – and I think it shows. Yes, the first act drags a little until you understand how the plot and character-building pays off in the second act, but that’s more Gorky’s fault than Kurowsawa’s. As an aside, I find the two musical numbers in the film totally hysterical. Apparently that style of music is authentic to the time. Does it remind anyone else of hip-hop?

    The point about Kurosawa’s relationship with his actors is interesting and well-taken. While he wasn’t above bullying his actors (see famous story about his bullying the actor who played Gorobei in Seven Samurai), he did have a reputation for leaving them and their interpretations mostly intact, and there is sometimes an unevenness in the acting style. And yes, Mifune’s acting style takes a little getting used to, although he doesn’t overact as much in the films set in contemporary Japan (at least those I’ve seen; I haven’t seen High and Low or Red Beard yet.)

    Jeremy, don’t apologize for your posts. I didn’t see other comments taking you to task for it. I think we all understood that you were reminding us to look at Kurosawa’s films in cultural context before criticizing his depiction of female characters or their depth or prominence. Since he made films set in contemporary or historical Japan, his female characters had to reflect the actions and psychology of women of the appropriate period which in most instances would result in their fading into the background except when alone with their spouses.

    BTW, another example of this not fading into the background in private would be the discussions between Watanabe’s son and daughter-in-law in Ikiru.

    To the extent many of Kurosawa’s strong-willed women come across as mean, evil, and/or shrewish (I’m thinking of the landlady in The Lower Depths, Lady Asaji from ToB, Kaede from Ran, possibly even the wife from Rashomon), might that not be a result of cultural conditioning? After the Heian period, where there seemed to be, for nobles at least, more personal freedom and equality for men and women (at least when it came to sex), Japanese women were expected to become obedient and dutiful wives and mothers whose sole exercise of self-will consisted of raising children (or overseeing the raising of children) and managing the family finances. With no other outlet for their abilities, is it surprising what little power they had might been used maliciously? Full disclosure: I am a woman and about most things a female chauvinist.



    Ugetsu, you make me want to view The Idiot right now to see the differences in acting styles…the “unevenness” of it-

    I don’t think I saw that, and now I want to see what you see.

    FLASHBACK: I was really reluctant to view the film at first. I had read the Richie account, and the others that talked about it being mangled…so I put it off. Also, it was pretty tricky to get a copy. Now, sure, it’s part of Criterion’s package of Post-War Kurosawa…easy purchase or Netflix view for us Yanks. Anyway, I finally purchased it, and still it sat on the shelf for months. I didn’t want to see a crappy Kurosawa film! I loved Kurosawa too much to be let down!

    When I finally saw it I was absolutely transfixed. It really is very different from any other Kurosawa film-in some ways, the cutting destroys the cohesiveness of the story line (this is especially noticeable in the beginning where the viewer has intertitles like some old silent film instead of the cut scenes. One starts mentally and emotionally leaving the actual film to wonder about what might have been lost…) And then, the art part kicks in and I get totally hooked/spooked by this strange world unravelling. END OF FLASHBACK

    SIDEBAR: Sometimes I feel like Chris Farley (bless his soul) doing that bit on Saturday Night Live, “Remember this (insert a vibrant scene)…that was awesome” really inarticulate and fumbling. I was about to launch into a list of scenes that cobble together a powerful impression for me…and then realized the futility of doing that-it’s not dissimilar to my posts on Seven Samurai-lists of things I love about the film. That’s sweet and it shows what an enthusiast I am-but is not the same as intelligent discussion. END OF SIDEBAR.

    CONCLUSION: Must review film again. Jeremy, I will be glad to make you a sandwich anytime!

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