The master of visual narrative

World Cinema

The highly-stylised screen compositions, the long shots, the grandeur that the ‘Tenno’ (Emperor) of cinema was known for, are all things the magic of which can come alive only when we watch them unfold on the giant screen. But the tragedy is that one can be almost sure not to get to watch the Japanese auteur’s creations on the large screen, on celluloid, in the present times, unless some film festival curates a retrospective of the maestro.

So, the next best option is to get hold of DVDs of his films. Till recently, the only answer to this quest was a path strewn with illegality, as one had to trudge to vendors who sale pirated CDs of world cinema. But now, things are changing, and two sets of his films, marketed under two different labels, have made it possible to build your own Kurosawa collection legitimately and have a home-festival of the greatest of his creations. And it is one sure-fire way to learn and re-learn why Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one who has inspired modern-day greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Woo, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone and Zhang Yimou.

Which was the greatest Kurosawa film? The director, the seventh child of his parents whose interest in cinema was fuelled by elder brother Hiego, a narrator for silent films, their soldier father who believed cinema had positive educational influence on minds, and a teacher named Tachikawa who firmly believed in educating the young in the arts, himself once said Ran (1985) was his best creation. But legions would dispute the maestro on this.

For many, his best creation is Seven Samurai, which got remade as The Maginificent Seven in Hollywood and Sholay in Bollywood, apart from numerous other acknowledged and unacknowledged remakes. For many others, it has to be Rashomon, the film that created a new cinema language by giving four viewpoints to the same story. Equally strong would be the argument for Ran, The Throne of Blood and quite a few others. But there is no argument that getting to watch a whole bunch of Kurosawa films at one go could be a great emotionally therapeutic exercise.

I undertook this journey over a couple of nights, and yes, it was once again hard to decide on the internal debate if Rashomon or Ran of Seven Samurai is my absolute favourite.

The reason for this is not very difficult to seek. Kurosawa is one filmmaker who made more than one masterpiece. And doing so, he created a cinematic idiom of his own, straddling genres, treatment and narrative style, while maintaining that special Kurosawa stamp.

Take for example Rashomon, the film through which Kurosawa gave the world the storytelling technique of multiple narratives of a single story. This is a film that probes the intricacies of the human mind, with a towering performance by Kurosawa’s alter ego Toshiro Mifune as the thief who is at the centre of it all. Set in the 11th century, the story is about the probe into the rape and murder of a noble woman, and Kurosawa’s masterly hold over the medium, along with Kazuo Miyagawa’s superb photography that makes the jungle backdrop itself a character, makes it among the best of his works.

Or Ran, the last epic by Kurosawa which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear (as his Throne of Blood was one of Macbeth), transposing the story to a backdrop steeped in Japan’s history. What makes this film really special is the way the master director seamlessly combined emotional drama and war scenes, the visual design of the film making it an extraordinary experience. A little known fact is that Kurosawa had treated this film as a metaphor for nuclear warfare, highlighting that whether it was in the 16th century or present times, man has only used technology to kill one another more efficiently.

Another film that is hailed as an all-time classic universally, is Seven Samurai, which is also probably the film that has had the maximum number of remakes ever for any film. Anyone who has watched either The Magnificent Seven or Sholay would know the premise of this film, but the sweep and scale of this film made in the heady days of black & white have yet to be surpassed by any of the remakes, however grand they themselves might have been.

In total contrast to these epics is Red Beard, with Mifune in the lead again. This contemplative film about the responsibility of individuals towards the society at large is set in a rural clinic headed by a doctor known popularly as the Red Beard. High And Low also explores the complexities of human mind. This film is about moral dilemmas that one faces in life, and how difficult it is to sacrifice one’s self-interest for the sake of others. A Kurosawa festival, even if it’s on your television, is a treat that you can have for yourself, anytime.  

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