Empty or undeserving praise is often heaped upon filmmakers and their work, but Akira Kurosawa — known mostly in the West for his Rashomon and Seven Samurai — is of that rare breed who deserves of every inch of praise and adulation he has received. “Most directors have one masterpiece by which they are known,” Francis Ford Coppola once remarked, “Kurosawa has at least eight or nine.”
This week, the world of cinema celebrated the 106th birthday of Kurosawa. Here I want to look at Kurosawa’s accomplishments with special attention to our discussion of the Higher Man.
Kurosawa began his career as a painter, and it is readily apparent when viewing even a single frame from one of his films. These were literal motion pictures, each frame perfectly composed and animated by exaggerated weather conditions moving about dramatically gestured actors.
This vitality moved beyond his command of composition and and was expressed through his study of art and culture. A consummate scholar, film became a medium for Kurosawa to express his passion for Japanese history and Western literature; among his most heralded works are Throne of Blood and Ran, adaptations of the Shakespeare tragedies Macbeth and King Lear set in feudal Japan.
This praxis of form and function, style and technique, innovation and tradition is what elevates Kurosawa to legendary status. When reviewing his body work, one comes to the conclusion that Kurosawa came as close as any modern artist to Miyamoto Musashi’s precept, “Become acquainted with every art.”
In his autobiography, appropriately titled Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote:
In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.
He understood that filmmaking was above all an art of great praxis—that a great script is not written in a vacuum, a great performance is nothing without a great director, and a great director is nothing without a great crew. For a film—or any work of art—to be great, it must germinate in greatness, it must be cultivated in the soil of the masterpieces that came before it, it must speak in the tongues of its ancestors. Cinema was a living art for Kurosawa, and a film a living organism composed of vital organs sustaining each other interdependently.
This vision reflected in his films. His first international success was Rashomon, an adaptation of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove.” Rashomon is famous for its nonlinear plot and its complex framework, in which three men meet at an abandoned temple to hear the story of a rape and murder trial that took place earlier in the day wherein each witness (including the conjured ghost of the deceased) tells a vastly different account of what happened. There is no clear answer at the film’s conclusion. It stands as a powerful testament to the devastating ambiguity of modernity that the Higher Man must integrate on his path of overcoming. While there is no justice at the end of Rashomon, there is still hope.
In the years following Rashomon, Kurosawa made two films which rank among his greatest masterpieces: Ikiru and Seven Samurai. The latter of these is probably Kurosawa’s best known film. Seven Samurai tells the story of a group of ronin — Samurai who are without a master — who band together to protect a small village from a gang of bandits during the Warring States Period of Japan. Rather than being mystified by an unbroken code and legendary godhood, the samurai in Seven Samurai are portrayed as flawed human beings who must respond when called upon to serve their fellow man. They serve not powerful lords, but weak peasants left vulnerable by the warring of noblemen.
In Ikiru, the film he made before Seven Samurai, Kurosawa subverts our ideas of heroism entirely. Unlike Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Ikiru is set in modern post-war Japan. It follows a bureaucrat who, after discovering he is suffering from terminal cancer, realizes that he has never lived a worthy day in his life. After a failed attempt at hedonism, he decides to leave a lasting legacy. In his dying days, he defies every level of his corrupt municipality to ensure that an inner city cesspool into a children’s playground. Similar to Rashomon, Ikiru employs a nonlinear narrative approach, dividing its story into two parts, the second of which takes place at the protagonist’s funeral.
By demystifying the samurai—by portraying them as flawed human beings vulnerable to crisis and tragedy—Kurosawa demystified the human condition, the alienation and existential malaise we face as modern subjects. In a Kurosawa film, a bureaucrat can display the courage of a samurai, and a samurai can suffer from the crippling depression of an alcoholic.
It is not title nor prestige, neither class nor caste that prove a man’s worth. The Higher Man knows that his true worth comes from his inner contents: his honor in the face of life and courage in the face of death; his loyalty to his brethren and duty to self-overcoming. One need not be a samurai on the battlefield to express Higher Masculinity. Even a civil servant can defy corrupt superiors in the service of his fellow man. Heroism is not a footnote in a dusty manuscript of a bygone era, but a living and vital force that we can interact with any time.
In an era when masculinity in film is represented by the puerile superhero genre and the despondently immature manchild demographic it both caters to and cultivates, it is refreshing to remember that masters with a vision of Higher Masculinity like Kurosawa once ruled the medium.
With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this.
Kurosawa was a filmmaker who was as unified with his body of work as his films were to their scripts. The film followed the script just as the crew followed the director. However, the director needed a script that would allow him to cross the abyss unimperiled. The director and script must be unified through proper cultivation and perfection of technique.
May Kurosawa and his films inspire you to perfect the script of your life, and find direction on the path of higher masculinity.