With the launch of the Criterion Channel this past April, I was finally able to achieve that which humankind has been trying to accomplish since we first emerged from the Garden of Eden: watching every Akira Kurosawa movie back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Before you ask, Kurosawa directed 31 feature films spanning 1943-1993, and as most of them clock in over two hours (and a few approach four), we’re talking almost 100 total consumption hours of Kurosawaness. And before you ask, yes, that’s going on my résumé.
Bottled retrospectives like this are typically undertaken in order to then distill all of that beautiful creative magic into a ranked list ascending from “worst” to “best.” I’ll spare you that, except to say that the five Kurosawa films that stuck with me most are (in loose order):
- Ikiru (1952)
- High and Low (1963)
- The Hidden Fortress (1958)
- Stray Dog (1949)
- Dersu Uzala (1975)
Continue reading Ran (1985)
It’s entirely possible that the West’s fondness for Akira Kurosawa is borne of the fact that he frequently addresses themes of individuality, personal distinctiveness, and the importance of being true to yourself. Those aren’t very Japanese themes, traditionally, even if the popular “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” axiom is a bit simplistic these days. But the corporate-cog-finds-new-lease-on-life narrative seems especially well-suited to the notoriously workaholic Japanese culture, and nowhere is that narrative more effective than in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel, Ikiru stars Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura as a spiritless bureaucrat grappling with the futility of his mortal days.
There is a sequence in the film — possibly the most famous in a film full of memorable sequences — where a group of parents approach a number of different government offices in an attempt to get a local cesspool drained and replaced by a park for their children. The first office refers them to another, that office refers to a third, and on and on. The buck is passed until the parents are so worn down by the perpetual runaround that they give up. If you’ve never seen Ikiru or would just like to rewatch the scene, you can stream the sequence here.
Continue reading Ikiru (1952)
A Russian man named Andrei is in Tuscany. Not the beautiful sunny Tuscany we’re used to seeing, but a foggy and rainy one. He is holding a candle, attempting to carry it from one end of a drained pool to the other. In an astounding nine minute long lateral tracking shot, we see his struggle. He doesn’t get too far in his first attempt, and slowly walks back to the beginning of the pool, going to start again. He starts once more. He makes it a little further, attempting to shield the lit candle from the wind. He fails once again, although he’s made it a bit farther. On this third attempt, Andrei is devoting everything he has to keeping this candle lit. On his face is a look of intense concentration, shielding the candle with his coat and acting as if his life depends on this moment. Finally he makes it. He approaches the other side of the pool, and with every step closer, he struggles more. His legs become weak, sweat is on his brow. He carefully sets this lit candle down onto the side of the pool, and promptly dies. This is the final scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. What does this mean? What could it possibly symbolize about our character and his journey? Well, probably nothing if you’re to take the words of the film’s director into account.
Andrei Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. He was hailed by Swedish film maestro Ingmar Bergman as “the most important director of our time.” His movies are rife with incredible imagery and beautiful storytelling. However, one unique characteristic that separates Tarkovsky from most storytellers is his aversion to symbols and symbolism in his films. Tarkovsky disliked the idea and believed it could ruin the composition of a scene and create a distraction for the audience. This is, by all means, a pretty unusual viewpoint. Symbolism has been an incredibly important part of almost all art since words were first put down to tell a story. So why did Tarkovsky think it was so harmful, and how does it relate to his own work and perhaps other films?
Continue reading Nostalghia (1983)