Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa: Kagemusha



                The seventh and penultimate film in my analysis of the Chambara films of Akira Kurosawa is the arrestingly stylish epic Kagemusha. Developed and produced during the latter third of Kurosawa’s career, the brilliance of this period drama is often muted by the “drama of its production” and the presence of the ‘70’s darlings’ George Lucas and Frances Ford Coppola during the height of their powers: after they created ‘the blockbuster’, but before they themselves became the “new studio system”.  The pulling of focus ultimately undermines the legacy of this film. Its overall commentary on the dehumanization of the Japanese Feudal caste system, and the self-construction of a duplicitous dynasty which futilely attempts to hold on to power after their Lords death, goes under-appreciated.

 


PLOT

As a precaution to protect the Leader of the Takeda Clan, Shingen Takeda, his brother Nobukado, finds a thief to impersonate Shingen during potentially hostile events. When Shingen dies from wounds sustained in battle, this “shadow warrior” must take his place full time for a period of two years, to assure a peaceful transfer of power to Shingen’s grandson.  However, as the weeks turn into months, and the peasant “look-alike” becomes more comfortable in his role and used to the trappings of wealth and power, his ambition threatens to expose the ruse. The inner circle attempts to thwart his desires, lest the Takeda Clan’s plan falls like a house of cards, thereby leaving it in ruin.   

 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

            This film marks several firsts in Kurosawa’s career. It is the first film Kurosawa shot in color (more on this later), It is the first-time getting financing outside of the Japanese Toho system, and it is the first time that Kurosawa created a Chambara film that is based upon specific historical events and people rather than just period specific themes.

            Set during the Sengoku time of Japanese history, commonly referred to as the “warring states period” (period of civil unrest between 1500-1600) out of which came the (in)famous Tokugawa Shogunate; which not only unified Japan, but also began to bridge the gap with the west through the entrance of Christian missionaries. Kurosawa was drawn to this time because of the mystery surrounding the actions of the Takeda clan during the battle of Nagashino. In that battle, all of the soldiers in the Takeda clan died, but no one in the Oda/Tokugawa clans died. Confused by this action, Kurosawa began to craft a story that would explain this, and tie in the historical use of doubles for royal protection (Rayns 1981). Kurosawa felt that the immersion of “The Double” into the life of Shingen, coupled with the strength of Shingen’s actual character, would cause “The Double” to become him. Thus, his subordinates would then be willing to martyr themselves through “suicide” at the battle of Nahashino. To that end, Kurosawa took Shingen’s battle standards of: “Swift as the wind, as silent as the forest, as sweeping as fire, as immovable as the mountain.” (Shingen himself taking the quote from Sun Tzu) and used them as a unbeatable battle strategy (and important plot point) (Rayns 1981). Just like he depicted the movable forest in Throne of Blood, the moving mountain spells doom in Kagemusha.

            Even though Kurosawa was working with historical figures, that did not stop him from taking dramatic license in some areas of the storytelling. In Kagemusha, he intentionally depicts Shingen’s historical antagonists (Tokugawa and Nobunaga) as noticeably younger men than they were.  Add to this the historical understanding that both Nobunaga and Tokugawa were “more modern” than the average Japanese at the time (believing the earth to be round, and knowledgeable about the world outside of Japan) being an active importer from abroad (Rayns 1981). While Kurosawa did not set out to make a film about the beginning of Japan’s transition out of the Feudal period, in part because it would take a few more wars and hundreds of years for Japan to really begin to modernize during the Meji era, but Kurosawa understood that it was a “more modern” sensibility that could defeat Shingen and be used as a visual foil for Shingen’s son, whose actions cause the Clan’s collapse.

           


Production

The origin of Kagemusha began after Kurosawa’s long and difficult shoot on Red Beard in 1965. Kurosawa was intrigued by rulers that would have multiple identities in different situations (Grilli 2009). Still a fan of Shakespeare, the original conception of Kagemusha began as an adaption of King Lear; something Kurosawa would eventually complete just a few years later with Ran in 1985. Yet, in 1965, a medieval Samurai epic was unclear in the mind of Kurosawa, who was consistently distracted by other projects and problems (Grilli 2009).

By the time Kurosawa made his way back to “The Shadow Warrior” in the late 1970’s, it was after a somewhat tarnished reputation from a series of missteps, setbacks, and failures in the intervening years.  After directing Red Beard, Kurosawa’s name became synonymous with tyrannical behavior on set, fluid schedules, and ballooning budgets (Grilli 2009). Also during this time, feeling too restricted by the studio demands, he attempted to create his own production company with three other legendary Japanese directors: Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita. This inundated Kurosawa with a lot of business distraction that impacted his overall cinematic creativity, resulting in the 1970’s commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den. This failure, and the collapse of the production company, led Kurosawa to begin to compromise his artistic vision by being drawn into the production of Tora, Tora, Tora, co-produced by Hollywood. While he eventually left the project over creative differences[1], this experience added to his reputation for being impossible to work with, causing Kurosawa to descend into a suicidal depression in December of 1971 (Grilli 2009). He eventually experienced a spiritual resurgence after winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1975 for Dersu Uzala, but the damage was done, and he found the financing for Kagemusha to be next to impossible. Enter George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.




George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese and John Millius were a part of the cinematic revolution of the 1970’s. They were integral in shifting Hollywood away from the dominant Studio system, born in the 1930’s, to more independent, director focused cinema. In the late 70’s, these directors were the young “hotshots”; transforming the way films were made; but they also were big fans of Kurosawa; George Lucas being especially vocal about the influence Kurosawa’s work had on 1978’s Star Wars. So, when Lucas and Coppola heard that one of their idols couldn’t get the complete financing for his next project, they used their clout in the industry at the time, to convince American studios to give Toho the money to produce and complete the film (Criterion 2009). By their own accounts, Lucas and Coppola would take edited dailies from Kagemusha and present them to different studios to try and convince them to back the film’s completion. In the end, it was 20th Century Fox that supplied the rest of the capital necessary to finish the film; in part, or in total, to keep George Lucas happy, due to his massive success for them with Star Wars. Thus, “the circle was now complete”, and George Lucas was able to use his “blank check” status at Fox, to pay Kurosawa back for being such an inspiration/model for him.

Additionally, what made the pitch by Lucas and Coppola even easier, was Kurosawa’s painted storyboards, all of which were used in the presentation to the studios. Having painted as a hobby when he was younger, Kurosawa returned to this passion with vigor in the intervening years as he struggled with Kagemusha’s financing. Kurosawa visualized the epic so intricately in these paintings, that it convinced art director Yoshiro Muraki and cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Asakazu Nakai, to have Kagemusha be the first of Kurosawa’s films to be shot in color; to create a painting in celluloid. When you look at the comparison between Kurosawa’s images and the finished film, it is visual poetry set in motion.

One of the interesting ironies of this film, and “late stage” Kurosawa in general, is that even though his later work gets either overshadowed by the film’s production, or unnecessarily compared to his earlier work, the later films of his career still inspire other films that pay homage to both Kurosawa and his work.  A lot of Kagemusha can be seen in such films as Dave (1993), The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), The Devil’s Double (2011), and most directly, Shadow (2018) by Zhang Yimou, who substitutes ancient China for Feudal Japan. According to Matt Seitz (2019), Yimou’s openly derivative film pales in comparison because Kurosawa was “better at making the talking bits exciting, too.” And I tend to agree.

 


SOCIAL ANALYSIS

            The essential story of Kagemusha revolves around a man forcibly trying to take on the life of someone else.  Yet, through the development of a convincing impersonation, the person ultimately begins to believe the part that has been thrust upon them[2]. This has Sociological implications in the work of Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality and Goffman’s Presentation of Self. However, before getting into those specifics, there are also general Sociological implications of class dynamics, and the way we are folded into a larger social system, that needs to be addressed.

            Kurosawa understood very clearly the importance of the use of doubles for people in power. The use of “the decoy” is a common military strategy to achieve success. However, historically, that success was achieved by the dehumanization of (usually) the underclass. They become as Foucault (1990) states “the docile bodies” by which the will of the powerful is enacted upon, and through which they maintain their sovereignty. This violation of human rights was often masked through the rationalization of conscription, where peasants were compulsorily “inducted” into military service. The authority of the ruling class (usually justified through some manner of divinity) then used the bodies of their charges to protect the sanctity of their own lives, and the order they have established. 

            Taken more broadly, this idea of conscription can be used as an analogous metaphor for the general process of socialization; but instead of military service, we are forced into labor to become productive, law-abiding members of society. Most everyone socialized into any society (but especially within the US) is taught to enter the workforce. This is the culmination of (usually) decades long learning and social investment in an individual. Yet, like Shingen’s “shadow warrior”, We, the past, present, and future labor force are trained, then forced to supplant each other. The cycle is usually the same: we spend the first part of our lives learning to take the jobs that others are currently doing. When we get those jobs, we feel, as “The Double” felt, that we do not/cannot measure up. Then, as we get comfortable, we begin to believe that we have earned our positions through our experiential trials (The Double’s presence on the battlefield) and become willing to (sometimes literally) kill ourselves for our work; whether that be through a lifetime of harsh labor that destroys our bodies, or our identities becoming so wrapped up in what we do, that when we are ritualistically supplanted (retirements) many do not know what to do, or even who they are. 

One of the seemingly innocuous, but secretly toxic phrases that illustrates Kurosawa’s “shadow warrior” analogy for the socialization of the general labor force, is the phrase: “Fake it, till you Make it.” This is the advice that is given to Shingen’s double in Kagemusha; and it is the same advice that is spewed out in countless commencement speeches every year at high schools, colleges, and Universities across the country. On the surface, this statement is supposed to generate solidarity; that we are all in this together, because no one knows what they are doing. That, by the simple act of going through the motions enough times to breed familiarity, it will magically generate comfortability, and therefore confidence. Outside of just how objectively terrifying the idea is that many people in positions of power such as policymakers, rulers, and the like, actively don’t know what they are doing (Openly evil is sometimes easier to reconcile than straight incompetence); what a lot of people miss about this overtilled “faux inspirational statement”, is the way that it purposefully conditions and normalizes feelings of uncertainty and apprehension in order to keep the public docile, while placating the already established system without providing any means of challenging it.




Berger, Luckmann and Goffman

When we get into the specific theoretical concepts that Kagemusha represents we have to turn to the work of Berger, Luckmann and Goffman.  The basic principles of The Social Construction of Reality and The Presentation of Self are as follows:

The Social Construction of Reality is a cornerstone of Social Constructionism. Social Constructionism contends that individuals within society are defining, and therefore creating, the world around them through social interactions as a type of communal exchange.  Therefore, our understanding about the world cannot take place without other people. It is a social process.

 

Important aspects

1)      We are born blank (Tabula Rasa), without an understanding of reality that is then filled in by social norms, rituals, and routines.

2)      Individuals actively participate in the creation and maintenance of the world around them just by living and interacting with in a society, with a particular social order.

3)      The understanding of the world, including those that we take as concrete truths, have the ability to change based upon the influence of social forces, history and the shifting perception of the populace. (it is like water)

4)      Just because something is a social construction does not diminish its value or importance. Something that can be social constructed, fluid with history, and impacted by social forces can cause, create, and maintain consequences.  These consequences can be both positive and/or negative  

5)      Conversely, a consequence that is so extreme or persistent in a particular society (e.g. forms of racism and sexism) can partially solidify the socially constructed term. Thus making it seem natural to those within the social structure.  It is through this process, and the results of consequences and practices, that the object or term becomes “real”.

 

In the context of the film, “The Shadow Warrior” became the real Shingen when he was validated by others around him (especially the grandson), when his presence on the battlefield resulted in the consequence of the battle’s success, and people’s willingness to die for him. He became the real Shingen through his interactions with others, and the consequences attached to those experiences.  

 


Similarly, coming out of the Sociological study of Dramaturgy, the study of social interactions by invoking Theatrical terms, Goffman saw the theatre as a metaphor for social interactions. For Goffman (1959), we all perform our “selves/ identities” for a particular audience. Aided by the Teamwork of our fellow Actors, we all participate in Impression Management and Performance, both on a micro (individual level) and Macro (the group impression) level. According to Goffman (1959), there are two types of impressions that exist. Impressions that are given, (This is what you openly present to people either verbally or through a sense of self definition) and Impressions that are given off (This is insight or information that someone gleans from observing your behavior). Since impressions that are “Given off” are more powerful in determining our “Self”, Goffman says these are the impressions we attempt to control…in other words, we attempt to control how other people see us. We do this through products (clothing, cars, etc.), behaviors, languages, and the way that we speak (slang, rate of speech). Goffman’s work understands that this process takes place in two different stages: The Front Stage and The Back Stage. The front stage is where the performance is given and where the audience members for that performance is located.  This is the space for individual performances of a particular impression, and the space where teamwork is done to maintain a group impression.  The Back Stage is where the performance is dropped and worked on.  Goffman (1959) elucidates that we all have multiple Statuses and Roles we need to play in our society. Each of these statuses, and their corresponding roles, have their own Front Stage performance and Back Stage maintenance. These different stages for different impressions overlap with one another. Which is why Goffman says that the world is divided into Front Stages and Back Stages. One performance’s Front Stage is another performance’s Back Stage…we are constantly performing. Yet, things get interesting, and more closely related to the double’s experience in Kagemusha, when you combine these Goffmanian ideas with Charles Horton Cooley’s idea of “The Looking Glass self”

“The looking glass self” is a theory of self-construction by Charles Horton Cooley. According to Cooley (1902), the perception of our self is dictated by our interpretations of interactions and reactions that we have with others daily. Therefore, we get an idea about who we are by the way other people treat us. If we get positive treatment, it will more likely lead to a positive self-concept. The opposite is also valid. This implies that when we upset someone (especially someone that we know) the compassion and empathy we feel to reconcile with that person, is coming from a desire to mend our own self-concept. If we don’t feel the desire to reconcile, then that person’s reaction matters little to us (or, more accurately, they matter little to the formation of our self-concept). Unfortunately, this also implies that all of our interactions and relationships are motivated by self-interest.[3] Additionally, this means that much of who we are (in terms of self-construction) is based on other people’s actions toward us.

When we combine Goffman’s ideas of Impression Management with Cooley’s “looking glass self”, what we realize, is that it creates an elaborate and purposeful form of self-deception to maintain the social order. We solidify in others how we want to be perceived, but that in turn, shapes the perception of our selves. We are manufacturing support and “evidence” for our own self construction, which thereby helps the larger impression of a functional, productive, and stable society. This is the last wish of Shingen Takeda, the goal of the Daiymio’s council, and the plight of the “Kagemusha” so completely, that “The Double” is willing to die with the rest of the Takeda soldiers, to prove his loyalty in a final sacrificial display.

 


CONCLUSION

            In all of Kurosawa’s Chambara filmography, Kagemusha often gets overlooked. Even as a product of “late stage” Kurosawa, that conversation usually gets monopolized by Ran; leaving this masterpiece without recognition.  When looking at this through a sociological lens, as we continue to exist in this ever-corporatized dehumanization of the labor force, many of us may empathize with the “Kagemusha”, feeling that we too are “the shadow”. Like him, we desire for acceptance and validation from a system we know, deep down, we will never get; certainly not in equal measure to what we put into it. We may love our jobs, but our jobs will never love us back. Ultimately, that is the crux of the problem. We shouldn’t love our jobs to begin with, and we sure as shit shouldn’t die for them.      

 

REFERENCES

Criterion Collection 2009. “Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa” from Criterion Blu-Ray Edition Spine 267

Cooley Charles H. 1902.  “The looking Glass self” in Human Nature and the Social Order

Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge New York: Anchor Books

Foucault, Michel 1990  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons New York: Vantage Books

Goffman Erving 1959. The Presentation of self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books

Grilli Peter 2009. “Kagemusha: From Painting to Film Pageantry” in Current Retrieved on 5/1/2022 Retrieved at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/360-kagemusha-from-painting-to-film-pageantry

Rayns Tony 1981. “Talking with the Director” in Sight and Sound Included in the booklet on the Criterion Blu-ray

Seitz, Mathew Zoller 2019. “Shadow Review” in RogerEbert.com retrieved on 5/1/2022 retrieved at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/shadow-2019

 

 

 

     



[1] How do you say “No” to a Kurosawa suggestion?

[2] Vonnegut would enjoy this  

[3] This seems to only hold up with US Socialization patterns.


Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa: Yojimbo and Sanjuro




                The fifth and sixth films in my analysis of the Chambara films of Akira Kurosawa are the delectable duology of Yojimbo and Sanjuro. This review is going to tackle both amazing films simultaneously, as this is the first and only pair of films in Kurosawa’s filmography that are anthological sequels to each other (involving the same primary protagonist). While these films were very commercially successful, they also continued the cycle of cinematic influences and homages between Chambara films and the Western film genre. Additionally, the westernization of the Ronin (Masterless Samurai) became an ideal, and its archetype was inserted into a variety of stories masking the interesting aspects and differences of class, status, and prestige just before the Meji era.

 


PLOT

            Yojimbo

            Sanjuro, a Ronin (Toshiro Mifune) comes upon a town under the thumb of two warring factions. After witnessing the plight and poverty of the townspeople he sets a plan in motion to wipe them both out and free the people from under their yoke. After demonstrating his sword skills, he hires on as a “bodyguard” for both factions attempting to undermine both and pit them against each other. Following a few setbacks, he releases the town from their oppressors through a impressive display of violence, and moves on to the next adventure



            Sanjuro

            Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) overhears a group of young Samurai plotting to weed out the corruption in their clan. Out of a combination of compassion and veiled hopeful idealism, the masterless samurai decides to help them free their clan’s Chamberlain. As in Yojimbo, he employs subtle trickery to gain the confidence of the immoral Superintendent and his honorable Henchman Hanbei. After the mission’s success, the young Samurai witness a fatal duel Sanjuro has with Hanbei on the outskirts of town; after which, Sanjuro, “the Bodyguard” moves on to the next adventure.



HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

            By looking at the production of these two films, along with the cyclical relationship between Chambara films and the Hollywood Western, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, changed filmmaking and help make Akira Kurosawa into an international cinematic icon, while creating a template for action filmmaking that often gets reused for its cinematic palpability.

Production

Kurosawa wrote both Yojimbo and Sanjuro with his regular collaborators Ryūzō Kikushima and Hideo Ogun; the same team behind a lot of his Chambara films (such as Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood). In addition to western classics like High Noon and Shane, Kurosawa also took inspiration from film noir, another popular genre at the time. This was also the second collaboration with cinematographer Kazuio Miyagawa, reteaming for the first time since Rashomon, where Miyagawa, had to come up with a way to film directly at the sun without burning the (film) stock. On Yojimbo, Kurosawa wanted Miyagawa to maintain Pan-focus. According to Miyagawa, in an interview with Criterion:

 Everything had to be in the perfect focus, whether it was right in front of you or in the very rear of the shot. So, we decided work on a spectrum of tones that would accentuate the contrast as much as possible and give objects a hard metallic edge.”  (Criterion 2006).

Miyagawa also tells the story of this one shot set underneath the floor of the house where Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) was trying to escape his captors. Because there was minimal space underneath the set as it was built, he could not fit himself or a cameraman in the space with Mifune. Thus, he had to marionette different lenses during the shot to keep everything in focus during each take.

            One common understanding in film production is that if you want an environmental effect to show up on camera, the intensity of that effect must be increased in order for it to register on camera. There seems to be a 1 to 5 ratio from real life to camera. If a director wanted to see rain on camera, the quantity and size of the drops must be increased 5-fold. Similarly, if the director wanted to depict strong wind, as Kurosawa did in Yojimbo, every fan that Toho Studios had, which included fans with a Cessna propeller engine, two V8Ford Engines, and 5 horsepower engines.  Additionally, the actors instructed to “keep their eyes as open as possible”, minimizing their ability to blink (Criterion 2006). This led to a very difficult shooting schedule and an obsession to acquire the perfects shots.

            This desire for perfection continued into Sanjuro in its creation of both the production design and special effects. According to Production Designer Yoshiro Muraki:

            Every morning, we’d all gather before the shooting started to [create and] stick artificial flowers and sakaki leaves on the camellia branches…You can’t be lackadaisical sticking on the flowers either, or they just fall off and be crushed underfoot [each flower cost the same as a pack of cigarettes]   

Moreover, because the script highlighted the importance of the red color of the camellia flowers, Kurosawa was considering shooting the flowers in color. Unfortunately, he did not have the technology available to him at the time, so he required Muraki and his staff to painstakingly paint all the fake camellia flowers a deep crimson so they would be picked up by the black and white film.



The biggest special effect in Sanjuro happens at the ending duel when Sanjuro’s slash results in a fount of blood from Hanbei’s chest. In the script, the description of the duel is sparse, saying “The Duel that follows between the two men can not be put into words. After a long, agonizing build up, it is decided in a lightning quick flash of the sword” (Criterion 2006). There was no clear description of the blood flow’s volume or arc of arterial spray. So, when they set up the shot, Shoji Jinbo opened the valve on the air compressor sending fake blood shooting through the hose around Nakadai’s body nearly lifting him off his feet. This mistake was captured on the first take and managed to be kept in the film because the actors thought that it was intentional, and they did not want to ruin the shot. This goof went on to define the Samurai genre of 60’s and 70’s as some of the bloodiest action of the time.   

  


 

            The Ronin and the Cowboy

As stated previously in this series, one of Kurosawa’s primary influences in his career was John Ford, acclaimed Western film director of such classics Stagecoach, Rio Grande and The Searchers, (many including John Wayne). Kurosawa stated that “I pay close attention to [John Ford] Production and are influenced by them.” (Cardullo, 2008).  Kurosawa was so influenced by Ford’s shot composition, the use of wide lenses, and the addition of Pan focus, all of which gave his films a vastness that was not previously seen in Japanese cinema at the time; resulting in Kurosawa being admonished as “The most Western Direrctor.” in Japan. This is despite his previous masterpieces (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, The Bad Sleep Well, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths and The Hidden Fortress) doing so much to move Japanese Cinema away from the negative stereotypes of World War II (Sesonske 2010). Thus, when prepping for Yojimbo, Kurosawa seemed to lean into these influences rather than hide them, as if he said “I’ll show you how Western I can be!.” (Sesonske, 2010) With that, Kurosawa solidified the cinematic marriage of The Ronin and The Cowboy eventually birthing the Samurai Cowboy trope.

According to Daniel Choi (2021) the commonality between the ronin and the cowboy begins with looking at the similarities in their morality and sense of Honor. The Bushido code  and The Code of the West often overlap in the areas of chivalry, Self-Dependence, the duel code, and vigilantism. Additionally, when we look at the specific image of the “Ronin” (Masterless Samurai) there is this flavor of libertarian distrust of the government and the perception of these warriors were much in the same flavor of the Cowboys in the Western genre, were former soldiers, whether they be enlisted, conscripted, or deserted.   

Outside of the motivations of the principal Protagonists, the setting of each genre are vastly similar. Both the Ronin Chambara films and the classic Western take place during times of rapid social change and expansion due to conflict. Most Westerns and Ronin-style Chambara films usually take place between 1860-1870’s’s While in the US there was westward expansion and the fighting of the Civil War, Japan was going through its own Civil War (The Boshin War and later the Seinan War) that rejected imperial Japan opening itself up to the West. The resulting Imperial victory dissolved the Shogunate and left many Samurai released from the employ of their Daimyo to become “masterless”. Yet, while both the Ronin and the Cowboy cultivate a vagabond image, there is a reinforcement of class status and a romanticism of the Noble poor Trope among them: the Ronin through the class status of the Samurai Class, and the validation of the independent entrepreneurialism of the Cowboy. Because of the similarity of these conflicts, the landscape of war is also parallel. The lack of resources, high unemployment, destruction of crops leading to dry dusty conditions, and an increase in bandits and roving gangs in need of “frontier/ Samurai” justice, leads to a resemblance of set and setting between the Chambara and the Western, culminating in the continuing legacy between these two genre’s synchronicities, especially for Kurosawa.



Legacy

            A lot of Kurosawa’s work has been retooled, remade, reworked into overcooked facsimiles of itself. Yet, it is through the duology of Yojimbo and Sanjuro that he manifests an archetype in his central Character that becomes desirable to western filmmakers especially the work of the 70’s hot shot directors Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, and Coppola. Through Yojimbo, Kurosawa made a western better than a lot of previous other directors, at a time when the western was at its peak. Yet, the result was outright imitation, or in the case of “The Dollars Trilogy” outright stealing.

            “The Dollars Trilogy” aka “The Man with No Name” movies, are a series of films by Italian director Sergio Leone starring Clint Eastwood in the titular role, kicking off the “Spaghetti Western” sub-genre (Westerns made by Italian directors).  The first of these films, “Fist Full of Dollars” is a direct, and in some cases a shot for shot remake of Yojimbo without giving credit to Kurosawa, or his team. In 1961, Kurosawa famously sent a letter of intent to sue to Leone stating “I’ve seen your movie. It is a very good movie. Unfortunately, it is my movie.”. In the end, the film was delayed 3 years and Leone paid Kurosawa 15% of the profits[1].  There is a bit of Irony here given that the plot of Yojimbo is also an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s two novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key.

            Because of influential cycle of Western to Chambara and back to the Western continues to impact filmmaking and overall storytelling, this has given rises to the “Samurai Cowboy” an amagmatic trope that transcends the original genres. Many long form (films) and Short form (TV) content use this trope, coming in a variety of flavors in the 60 years since Kurosawa’s original films.Shows and films like: Cowboy Bebop, Kill Bill, The Warrior’s Way, Trigun, and a variety of other individual episodes invoke the same “Cowboy/Samurai” spirit.

 Most of the examples given romanticize the Bushido/Code of the West, overrepresenting the perceived positive characteristics of Honor, Duty, Loyalty, and Respect, while downplaying the lawlessness that they operate under, and the destabilization that their actions create. And once that destabilization occurs (usually through the creation of a “power vacuum”) the protagonist often gets to literally “ride off into the sunset”; leaving the difficult work of reconstruction to the civilians who have survived. Also, the positive qualities that have been gleaned from these cultural codices is one that is used to validate, define, and recreate masculinity. The perpetuation of the romantic notions of these morality/spirituality doctrines through its ubiquity in a majority of media content marketed to men, results in the creation of various “toxic” forms of masculinity that promote violence to solve problems and rationalized as a legitimate form of protection. Both Mifune and Eastwood have been revered for their actions in their subsequent films as the epitome of masculinity to the point that, in the 60 years hence, they become not only a masculine archetype, but its paragon for generations of boys and men that watch it. The endless recreation of this trope results a reproduction of myths, symbols, and metaphors [of masculinity] that are dangerous (Serttas and Gurkan 2017). Ironically, Kurosawa wanted “to revise the cinema's attitude towards onscreen violence. He wanted to show the damaging effect of violence, rather than the slightly anodyne way that it usually had been depicted before. (He would later come to regret this move, as it spawned a mass movement in international cinema that hasn't abated even today.)” (IMDB trivia). Once again this is another example of the public taking the exact opposite message from the creator’s intension. 

 


SOCIAL ANALYSIS   

 

The Complexities of Social Class     

Person’s social class status is defined as the social position that a person possesses within the economy that then impacts other social positions, they have within the rest of society It is important to remember the intersectional nature of class dynamics. In that, your social class is determined by and can be influenced by several different social factors. For Example: poverty impacts more women than men, and disproportionally more people of color and people with disabilities.  Additionally, a higher social class can mitigate the inequality and barriers that one might feel in other areas but will not eliminate them completely. This is the same for privileges that people experience in other aspect of their lives. This is because all lives are a complex web of individual and structural privileges and barriers. There are aspects where we have a great number of privileges and other aspects where we experience barriers. The privileges mitigate the effects of the barriers, and the barriers minimize the privileges that the person experiences. Thus, it is not just money or wealth that determines and individuals social class position. Instead, many sociologists, especially those of us who teach, combine ideas of social class to include a variety of components:

 

Components that impact Social Class Status

                        1. Wealth (a combination of your Income (wages) and Assets (property, stocks etc)

                        2. Education (The kind (Major), type (AA, BA, MA, Ph.D)

3. Occupational/Educational Prestige (The perceptive value of an occupation/Education within society)

4. Cultural Capital- The value of a person’s knowledge skills and experiences

within a society ( AKA “What you know”)

5. Social Capital- The value of a person’s social relationships within society (AKA

“Who you know.”)

6. Symbolic Capital- Value of demographics of identity (race, gender, sexuality disability) The level of acceptability of demographics, keeps doors open, or shuts them accordingly. The ability for white people to have an easier time accumulating generational wealth than other People of Color due to systemic barriers

6. The Class Culture- norms and ritualized behaviors localized to represent a particular class status.

 

According to Bourdieu (1987), The Class Culture is something that is not often considered as important as the other components on this list.  The idea that each social class level has its own rules, regulations, rituals, language, norms, and physical objects that represent them, makes upward social mobility very difficult. Because, even if you have acquired the basic criteria to be considered a member of the upper class, you may have difficulty assimilating into the class culture, whether by required behaviors or by acceptance by peers.   The rich are often a specific and segregated subculture. Their access to resources (or lack thereof) determines their own reality. This reality results in class segregation by geography, relationships, and daily experiences.

However, there have been a couple of recent examples of individuals (Anna Delvey/Sorkin and Elizabeth Holmes) whom, without many of the components of social class, were able to acquire status through mimicking the trappings of wealth in their clothing, mannerisms, and language which allowed them to acquire social and cultural capital and giving them access to upward social mobility they desired, thereby validating their social class performance. Even though these individuals were eventually caught and charged with various counts of fraud; they were able to exist in these exclusive spaces due to (at least initially) their adherence to a particular class cultural script.  The same could be said for Samurai turned Ronin after the dissolving of the Feudal system. As long as they “act the part of a Samurai” in their clothing, mannerisms, temperament and the carrying of swords they could hold on to the level of respectability and status afforded to them; even though they may be as penniless as the peasants that they look down upon. 

The complex vagaries of social class status are always at the forefront of the Samurai in Kurosawa’s films. In addition to Sanjuro in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, the poverty of Samurai is a plot point in Seven Samurai  and The Hidden Fortress,  Kurosawa using the desire to help peasants and townspeople alike as a window into the Samurai’s morality that puts them above other individuals in their station. For Kurosawa, these are not just members of a broken caste system who are just trying to, like Holmes and Sorkin, “Fake it till they make it.”. Instead through these acts of benevolence, they embody the romanticized “spirit” of the Samurai one that we can both hold and aspire to.     

  

 


CONCLUSION

Like all of Kurosawa’s work the Yojimbo/Sanjuro duology are masterpieces. They both have changed cinema and left their legacy stamp on the industry. While these twin theatrical titans (both making record amounts of money) involve the same character, it is an anthology rather than a direct sequel and they can be watched in any order. If you can find it , I recommend watching The Ambush: Incident at Blood Pass while not directed by Kurosawa, does star Toshiro Mifune in a role analogous to the role in these Kurosawa classics, and with it, can round out a Samurai version of “The man with No Name” trilogy that could not exist without Kurosawa’s or Mifune’s brilliance.

 

REFERENCES

Bourdieu Pierre 1987. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Cardullo, Bert 2008. Akira Kurosawa: interviews. Conversations with Filmmakers. University Press of Mississippi

Choi, Daniel 2021. “Cowboys and Samurai – A Study Of Genre | An In-Depth Analysis” in The Hollywood Insider retrieved on 4/1/2022 Retrieved at https://www.hollywoodinsider.com/cowboys-and-samura-genre-analysis/

The Criterion Collection 2006. “ Director of Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa: Yojimbo’s Pan-Focus” in Yojimbo Interview Booklet Janus Films

The Criterion Collection 2006. “Production Designer Yoshiro Muraki: No Regrets for our Sets” Sanjuro Interview Booklet Janus Films      

Serttas, Aybike and Hasan Gurkan 2017. “The Representation of Masculinity in Cinema and on Television: An analysis of Fictional Male Characters” Presented at 12th International Conference on Social Sciences: Amsterdam. Retrieved on 4/1/2022 Retrieved at:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328314572_The_Representation_of_Masculinity_in_Cinema_and_on_Television_An_Analysis_of_Fictional_Male_Characters

Sesonske, Alexander 2010. “West Meets Eastin Current.  The Criterion Collection Retrieved on 4/1/20222 Retrieved at  https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/60-west-meets-east  

  



[1] The Film was remade again, years later, as a Prohibition era gangster film titled Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis. However, the director, Walter Hill , gave Kurosawa a story credit in the film.


Saturday, March 5, 2022

The Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress

 



The fourth film in my continued analysis of the Chambara Films of Akira Kurosawa is the inspirational adventure The Hidden Fortress. A “road movie” with Samurai flair, this 1958 classic was Kurosawa’s first big hit since 1954’s Seven Samurai.   A film that is often overshadowed by other Kurosawa hits that seem to have stuck longer in the memory of the public, The Hidden Fortress is still the catalyst for one of the biggest pop cultural properties in US history. This analysis will cover the historical context and rich social analysis of this wonderful film, including being unfortunately eclipsed by an (inter)stellar film that is a “far, far”  less compelling watered-down popcorn drivel, than the Kurosawa masterpiece.

 


PLOT

Two greedy peasants, living in a region in Japan between two warring factions, stumble upon the secret base of one of the faction’s leaders (Misa Uehara) and her general (Toshiro Mifune) after being mistakenly imprisoned as her soldiers. Together, the unlikely quartet travel incognito behind enemy lines, caring gold, in hopes to reach the safety of the peasants’ homeland without being detected by the enemy.

 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

            Production

            The Hidden Fortress was one of the first films shot in Tohoscope. With Kurosawa’s use of long lenses, this became an important stylistic achievement for the director creating, shots and sequences that, yet again, have never been seen on screen. In fact, this style became so iconic that they eventually were assimilated as an industry standard.

On The Hidden Fortress, in addition to using the wider Tohoscope, Kurosawa developed a technique to keep focus on an object in motion while using a wide shot. During the shot when General Rokurota Makabe (Mifune) is riding his horse into the enemy’s camp, Kurosawa used two telephoto lenses and pulled the shot back with dollies. Additionally, he tunneled the viewfinder of a camera using cloth and placed it on one of the operator’s heads to black out the light. The result was as shot like no other in cinema at the time. However, this shot goes by so quickly few people outside of film school students rarely notice.   


 

            Legacy

With previous films like Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952) and Thone of Blood (1957), Kurosawa was beginning to be known as an “art housed director”, and upon looking at the shift away from the enthusiastic nation building of Seven Samurai (1954), many of the critics looked upon The Hidden Fortress  as simple “frivolous entertainment” (Russell 2014). A New York Times review by Bosley Crowther in 1962 called the film “superficial” and that it “was stooping to Hollywoodism”. The unfortunate tragic irony of the eventual success and recognition of this film as a masterpiece, is only after its blatant theft by George Lucas whom rather than give full creator credit to Kurosawa for Star Wars, just cited the film as an influence; even though it shares basic plot points, shots scenes and characters with The Hidden Fortress. They are basically the same film. But before I get to that, first, some groundwork.

Everything is like Everything else  

We like to repeat stories…. a lot. In 1895, Christina Stead and George Pierce Baker authors of Dramatic Technique outlined that all of storytelling only has around 36 dramatic situations. Psychologist Christopher Booker (2004) synthesizes this even further down to 7 basic and repeating plots:

1.      Overcoming the Monster

2.      Rags to Riches

3.      The Quest

4.      Voyage and Return

5.      Comedy

6.      Tragedy

7.      Rebirth

All stories, in all cultures, are derivative and influenced by what has come before it. Stories involving humans tend to repeat, as we constantly try to work through the same stuff (of being human) from one generation to the next. In fact, even stories not involving humans are still repeating the same story beats. Thus, we cannot get around similar storytelling structures. Yet, as we have repackaged these stories ad nauseum, seeping into every single genre and subgenre, we often do not publicly recognize the influences (direct or indirect) in film and TV credits.

Part of the reason for this repetition is our Capitalist drive to maintain and open new markets/ “revenue streams”.  This is done through an endless churning over of products that are repackaged riffs on something that we already have, leaving us with little distinct and unique content. George Ritzer and Michael Ryan (2003) discusses that all products inhabit a place a long the scale of “Nothing” vs “Something”.  Something: is a social form that is generally indigenously conceived and locally controlled that is rich in distinct and Substantive content This is something that is individually driven and not corporately controlled. Whereas Nothing is a particular social form of globalization that is generally centrally received and controlled by the overarching systems and devoid of any distinct nor Substantive content.   With nothing, there is no independent conceptualization- there is only control. Thus, the value of the product decreases both in terms of price and of the product’s worth to the consumer. As consumers in a capitalist system, we are conditioned into thinking that price dictates individual personal value (the more expensive = the more valuable), and we often have less social and emotional investment in something when it is a dime a dozen, or just easily replaceable. This is of course reversed if, through nostalgic marketing, there is a manufacturing of desire for that product because it connects to an emotionally resonant time for the consumer (usually childhood) or invokes a past/current relationship.  

According to Ritzer and Ryan (2003) rather than something, that is complex and unique, the mass public would rather have large varieties of “Nothing.” This is because it gives the illusion of quality and content, (the illusion that it is in fact ‘something’ when it is not) while making it easier for producers to create something for the broadest and simplistic tastes.

  • The General public has a greater demand for ‘nothing’ rather than ‘something’ in part because ‘Nothing’ tends cheaper through Mass Production
  • ‘Something’ is harder to reproduce (for one it takes more time) because it is complex and distinct
  • ‘Nothing’ being devoid of distinct content is often more desired because it does not take a stance. It is not trying to say anything with its content. It is often not political and sold to the broadest audience possible
  • Because of its lack of appeal (in terms of interest and personal satisfaction) More advertising dollars are put into the selling of ‘Nothing’ because advertisers must “Manufacture desire” for that thing in the minds of consumers. ‘Something’ usually has a built-in audience a nesh group that already desires the product…making it less marketable.

 

  Therefore, rather than something interesting and distinct, a lot of our popular culture are unnecessary reconfigurations of human struggles, overtilled for the purposes of profit. We eventual turn the nuanced and novel into tropes. Granted, this happens because these universal human stories are reproduced to better resonate with every subsequent generation, and regardless of the quality of the storytelling, some stories, made at a certain place in the socio-cultural context, do not invigorate the current generation because they either cannot engage with the story on the surface, or the filmmaking style does not capture their attention, regardless of thematic resonance. Yet, this does not stop the industry from trying to construct a loyal customer base.  

Brand Loyalty is a marketing term explaining the desire for companies to increase the positive feelings consumers have for a brand and will continue to purchase the product(s) regardless of the products flaws. Often, filmmaking auteurs, and even studios develop a particular style that becomes sought after by film geeks, critics, and the public. Production Companies like A24, and Neon, to writer/directors like Robert Eggers, Karyn Kusama, Ari Aster, Lynne Ramsey, Jennifer Kent, their name(s) becomes synonymous with quality. However, this is nothing new, and is a part of the assimilationist nature of the industry, 45 years ago, the young genius auteurs went by the names Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and Lucas who “revolutionized filmmaking” and became deified for their efforts by film school bros since. It should be said that this assimilation into the industry, like Immigration, is a lot easier if you are white and male, and the ability to become a part of the system, in the way that these 70’s auteurs began, resulting in becoming the system through the running of their own companies/studios.

In the way that directors, producers, and companies recently have brought superheroes and comic book characters from the fringes into the dominant monoculture of today, Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg, and Scorsese idolized Akira Kurosawa; making sure his films got a wider international audience (with reparatory screenings of his earlier work) and helped the aging director develop his last films. Coppola and Lucas helped produce Kagemusha (which led to Ran), while Spielberg and Scorsese helped to produce and direct segments in Dreams.  It is a hard reality to accept that, in the United States, Kurosawa wouldn’t be as known and beloved as he is without the efforts of the 70’s auteurs that idolized him.  Perhaps, because I too love Kurosawa’s work, I am just a bit salty that his influence is not as recognized as I think it should be in the general culture, especially around Star Wars.




Star Wars and Kurosawa   

            As mentioned above, and by Lucas’s own admission, there is a lot of Kurosawa’s work and influence in The Star Wars franchise.  The basic plot elements of A New Hope and Phantom Menace are directly lifted from The Hidden Fortress:

1.      Story following the lowliest Characters (Peasants/ Droids)

2.      A frenetic duel between old Masters

3.      Imperial and Samurai crests in Hidden Fortress  are the Same

4.      A self-assured Princess of a annihilated clan must sneak past enemy lines to seek refuge in a neighboring Fiefdom/ Star System

5.      Disguising the Princess as a Handmaid

6.      The existence and destruction of a hidden rebel base

7.      A wide ceremonial shot at the end of the film.

Additionally, the general aesthetic of Star Wars owes everything to Kurosawa:

1.      Japanese period pieces are known as Jidaigeki often involving Samurai (Jedi)

2.      A lot of the wipe transitions in Star Wars came right out of Hidden Fortress

3.      Toshiro Mifune was offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi

4.      Episodes of The Mandalorian and The Clone Wars rework the plot of Seven Samurai

5.      A good majority of Star Wars: Visions has a Kurosawa aesthetic

6.      Clone Wars episode “Lightsaber Lost” is an adaptation of Stray Dog

7.       The Jedi after Order 66 become Ronin (Yojimbo/Sanjiro)

8.      The use of the Western Gunslinger aesthetic (itself fueled by Samurai) in Star Wars is doubling down

As I stated in the previous section, this is a part of the cycle of storytelling and is not necessarily the problem. What I take umbrage with is that so many fans of Star Wars do not actively know or praise its roots. To me, if you are a fan of Star Wars, on any level, you must also be a fan of Kurosawa, or at the very least, acknowledge his influence. Yet, so many fans of Star Wars speak about their love of it without also mentioning or even knowing Kurosawa. A person who can love Star Wars and not know who Akira Kurosawa is, should not exist. Meaning, if you love Star Wars get to know, and at least appreciate Kurosawa’s work; because without it, Star Wars would just be a Campbell-esque “Heroes Journey” of another two-dimensional boring white dude.[1]       




SOCIAL ANALYSIS

            A lot of the social analysis that is encompassed in The Hidden Fortress is not in the forefront of Kurosawa’s storytelling. He instead strings together minimal statements of class and gender politics that are rarely given either its due or meaningful analysis; instead opting for is characters’ personality to reflect the social stereotypes that exist. 

            Class Dynamics

            The economy of war is stratification. As private companies are glad handed billions of dollars by the Department of Defense, making their CEO’s Billionaires in their own right, a key strategy during times of aggression, to end conflict is the use of economic sanctions against an opponent. Economic sanctions can range from trade tariffs on goods to a complete embargo.

The idea behind the use of economic sanctions is typically twofold: the restrictions will either motivate the leaders of a country to halt aggressive actions and violence to maintain the health and safety of their own people, which the sanctions put in jeopardy; or motivate the people to rise up and overthrow their government because the economic conditions have unraveled.  Yet, the main reason to use economic sanctions, a common tactic of the US liberal left to convince themselves they are not Warhawks, and therefore morally superior to the uber violent “run and gun” position taken by many of those on the right, is also a major criticism of the practice. The economic punishment of an entire country for the actions of the elected officials is both misplaced passive aggressions, and a violation of their Human Rights (Pape 1997).

The notion that economic sanctions that strip away human livelihood, rights and the ability to survive as being less aggressive than the use of munitions is a farce. The end result is the same; the difference is that economic sanctions are a more indirect and emotionless action that is perceived as more humanitarian because we only define and think about violence in a militaristic way. Economic Sanctions while still a form of Hard power of an authority to express domination, also has symbolic elements, in the Bordieuan sense, because of its use of non-physical violence to establish power differences between groups (Bourdieu 1998). Thus, in the US, we use economic sanctions which have potentially a longer lasting impact than direct violence, to act as a motivator for those effected by it (often under dictatorial rule) to institute a political coup (which usually begets physical violence) while presenting ourselves as benevolent.

Additionally, the sustained use of economic sanctions increases the flow of refugees from the impacted country. As many flee the oppression and potential violence by their own country’s authorities, there are those that also flee because of the economic depression brought on by the extended economic restrictions. Yet, because of xenophobia and a threat of terrorism many countries have had a long history of immigration restrictions from countries under conflict, even when it is their economic and social pressure that manifested the refugee crisis to begin with. 

In The Hidden Fortress, the two Peasant characters are from a region between two warring Daimyos, which has resulted in their overall economic position.  Unfortunately, rather than point to the social and political root of their problem, depicting the peasants as refugees of the crisis, Kurosawa instead individualizes the issue, depicting the peasants as conniving cowards, that will do anything in the name of wealth. While the peasant’s arc in the story eventually quells this greed, it does not go far enough to show the overall macro level problems of which their greed is a symptom.

 


CONCLUSION

Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress is a masterpiece with a long reaching influence that has been invisibly woven into Pop Culture through its homage in the films of the 1970’s. Regardless of recognition by current consumers or not, Kurosawa’s work (specially this film) has left an indelible impact on many of the things people love today. Yet, even though this film is absent a lot of direct social commentary, the questions about the collateral damage against civilians, and the value of economic sanctions are quite prescient for our current context.

 

REFERENCES

 

Booker, Christopher 2004. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. New York: Continuum

Bourdieu, Pierre 1998. Masculine Domination. Stanford: Standford University Press

Pape, Robert A. 1997. “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work.” In International Security Vol 22 Num 2 pp 90-136

Ritzer, George and Michael Ryan 2003. “The Globalization of Nothing.” In Social Thought and Research, Vol. 25, No. 1/2, pp. 51-81

Russell, Catherine 2014. “Three Good Men and a Princess.” In The Current New York: The Criterion Collection. Retrieved on March 5, 2022. Retrieved at https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3101-the-hidden-fortress-three-good-men-and-a-princess

 

 

           



[1] Fuck Luke Skywalker! In the original trilogy he is just a cypher for the white male audience, to make them feel like they too can be the hero and save the Galaxy. He is a paper-thin character, a shallow shrill, that through legends became a white dude power fantasy of an unstoppable badass that fanboys could emulate and drool over. The only compelling depiction of Luke Skywalker is in The Last Jedi showing the dangers and ramifications of this earlier depiction and a nuanced understanding of balance. Yet, these fucking white male fanboys could not take a alteration and progression of a character away from the image of the heroic badass they have in their heads (that is likely a member of their Reference group) thus they rejected The Last Jedi and demanded that Luke’s legacy be corrected. They were then kowtowed to by Dave Feloni and Jon Favereau to make their (wet) dreams come true.