“Olga V. Solovieva’s “The Russian Kurosawa” and David A. Conrad’s “Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan” link both famous and less well-known movies to contemporary events in Japan and the world that may have influenced them.
It has been 25 years since the death of the great film director Akira Kurosawa, yet interest in his work remains strong, and fresh insights continue to surface. Two welcome additions to the critical studies on this renowned director are Olga V. Solovieva’s “The Russian Kurosawa” and David A. Conrad’s “Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan.” Both writers fruitfully explore how Kurosawa’s films, including samurai epics, reflect the condition of Japan when they were made.
Solovieva, a comparative literature specialist at the University of Chicago, analyses Kurosawa’s obsession with Russia, evident in several films, his autobiography and many comments made over the years. The Russia that entranced Kurosawa was not the expansionary state that fought a brutal war with Japan in 1904-1905, let alone the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin. It was not a place at all, but a humane literary culture constructed by a remarkable series of writers and thinkers.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Russian literature dominated the field of foreign literature in Japan. Kurosawa claimed to have read Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” 30 times and considered Fyodor Dostoevsky his favorite author. Of his films, the following are adapted from or partially inspired by Russian sources: “The Idiot” (1951, from Dostoevsky), “Ikiru” (1952, from Tolstoy), “The Lower Depths” (1955, from Maxim Gorky), “Red Beard” (1965, from Dostoevsky) and “Dersu Uzula” (1975, from Vladimir Arsenyev).
Solovieva is a highly creative interpreter of Kurosawa’s work, occasionally excessively so, but her thorough knowledge of the source material sheds valuable new light on Kurosawa’s choices. Particularly impressive is her analysis of “The Idiot,” a little-discussed film that was severely cut by the studio, much to the director’s indignation. Sadly, the full-length version has been lost, but many powerful scenes remain, featuring bravura performances by Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara and Masamune Mori, playing the members of the doomed love triangle. Properly presented, it could have been an all-time classic.
The author zeroes in on the backstory that Kurosawa puts together for Kameda, the epileptic “idiot” of the title. Mistaken for a war criminal, he was about to be executed by a firing squad when the Americans realized they had the wrong man. Apparently, such mix-ups were far from uncommon. Now he is returning to his Hokkaido home from Okinawa, where he was confined to a mental hospital. The implication is that Kameda was stationed in Okinawa and participated in the horrific scenes of death, destruction and forced suicide there in the summer of 1945. This backdrop of collective war trauma differentiates the film greatly from Dostoevsky’s original….
The rest of the review is on my website.
It’s a very nice article/review; I encourage everyone to read it. Some thoughts that came to mind while reading (nothing earth-shattering):
– I know we all wish we could see the original version of The Idiot; what a huge loss.
– I find most of Kurosawa’s wartime films to be very light on propaganda, even compared to his Japanese peers. Everything is subtle with him.
– As much as he loved Russian authors, he loved American Westerns and samurai culture (and his pre-modern Japan), and that marriage of cultural influences makes him great.
Just some quick thoughts, thank you so much for sharing.
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