Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Bowman takes on Kurosawa

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I just found James T. Bowman’s recent article on filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, “Samurai Sage“. In it, Bowman (whom I respect greatly as a thinker and writer, even as I tend to disagree with him and judge him to be entirely too cynical) lays responsibility for Hollywood’s and popular culture’s obsession with moral equivalence (what Ayn Rand termed “the cult of moral grayness”) at the great master’s feet.

Refreshingly, Bowman goes out of his way to acknowledge both Kurosawa’s greatness and that of his on-screen alter-ego, Toshiro Mifune.

It’s a bracing, thought-provoking read, and there is something to what Bowman says, but I (of course) do not agree with him. Not having the time to belt out a responding essay just now, I’ll give just an indication of where I think he’s wrong.

Bowman points out something he calls “the characteristic Kurosawan triangle”, a tripartite opposition that Kurosawa often used in lieu of the classic good versus evil paradigm, and sketches its use in several of Kurosawa’s movies.

In The Seven Samurai, this triangle is formed by the peasants, the bandits and the samurai, with Kikuchiyo — half-peasant, half-samurai — moving between the sides. In Yojimbo, it arises out of the opposition between the Seibei and the Ushitora factions on two sides and Sanjuro, the lone samurai all on his own or with the tavern-keeper, Gonji (Eijirô Tono), moving between the two on the third. In The Hidden Fortress (1958), later to be so influential on George Lucas in the creation of the first Star Wars movie, the perspective on the struggle of the forlorn remains of the Akizuki clan — the Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and her loyal General Rokurota Makabe (Mr Mifune again) — to escape their persecutors of the Yamana clan is provided by the two comic grotesques, Tohei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), the cinematic ancestors of R2D2 and C3PO.

He uses this to say that Kurosawa refuses to take sides, that he tries always to be the outsider, the observer.

But this is really a denial of responsibility. Responsibility is also binary: either you’re innocent or guilty, a good guy or a bad guy. Kurosawa always insists on carving out the third option for himself in the triangulating position of the observer, the watcher — the painter that he started out to be or the film-maker that he became — or the unreliable witness who was the figure at the heart of Rashomon. This person doesn’t take any responsibility because there is no longer any responsibility to take. The truth is unknowable. It only exists in the versions of it that all of us make up to excuse and justify ourselves for the things that we do.

While Rashoman certainly does paint a picture of the obscurity of truth in certain contexts, and can quite fairly be read to represent truth to be unknowable, this view simply does not hold across all of Kurosawa’s works, nor does he refuse to take sides.

To be certain, he finds the world messier than in older-style morality play types of story, and the truth to be harder to discern than simply looking at the color of the other guy’s hat.

I find it telling, however, that Bowman does not even mention two films of Kurosawa’s that are considered among his best. Ikiru and High and Low both argue against Bowman’s point. One is a story where there is a definite and knowable truth, even though just about every character in it tries to avoid knowing it. The other, while making use of the “Kurosawan triangle”, has definite good guys, vile bad guys, and also maintains that the truth is knowable (if difficult to arrive at). And you are definitely not invited to sympathize with the bad guys.

So, in my view, Bowman misreads Kurosawa’s work as a whole. Nevertheless, a very interesting read.

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Written by [IMH]

13 March 2008 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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