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Akira Kurosawa An Auteur Film Studies Essay

Since the term ‘auteur’ was applied to film directors by the cahiers du cinema magazine in the 1950s,there has been much debate by film-makers and critics as to what makes an auteur and how accurate the term is when applied to some directors. Federico Fellini, in a 1966 interview, said that Akira Kurosawa was ‘the greatest living example of what an author of cinema should be’(Cardullo,2006,p.49) and in this essay I would like to explore the accuracy of this statement based on Kurosawa’s period films and how meaningful the term auteur is.

In his article, Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962, Andrew Sarris (interpreting the Cahiers various articles on what became known as auteurism)describes the auteur as a director who is technically proficient, whose personal style is clear in ‘the way a film looks and moves’ and who creates an ‘interior meaning’ from the ‘tension between a directors personality and his material’. This last statement, Sarris admits, is ambiguous. Susan Hayward in her book Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (1996) sheds more light on what the cahiers meant by auteur by defining the interior meaning as the mise en scene and the personality of the director. She also describes the ‘total author’(p.33), a director who writes their screenplays. Because of the sheer amount of debate surrounding what an auteur is I will base my argument on both Sarris and to a lesser extent Hayward’s explanation of the term auteur. A large part of being an auteur, based on what Sarris defines as an auteur, is the ability of a director to imprint their mark onto a film in spite of the limitations brought on by studio control. This would have had great meaning in Hollywood at the time the article was written but not necessarily in the film industries of the wider world, particularly Japan.

For Kurosawa in there far fewer limitations in how he made films in comparison to his Hollywood counterparts. Kurosawa was the principle writer on the majority of his films and those which were based on other stories would be adapted by him for the screen. He would often quote his mentor, Kajiro Yamamoto, in interviews saying ‘if you want to become a film director, first write scripts’ (Kurosawa, 2008, p.10). In this respect Kurosawa was quite literally the author/auteur and originator of his films and so would appear to fit into the ‘total author’ mould. Where the gray area exists as far as being an auteur is in Kurosawa’s use of collaborators in the screenwriting process such as Shinobu Hashimoto who was involved in the writing of Seven Samurai (1954), Throne Of Blood(1957) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) to name but a few. This would arguably prevent him from being considered a ‘total author’. Another area where Kurosawa has total control is editing. In the introduction to the book Akira Kurosawa: Interviews , Bert Cardullo calls Kurosawa an auteur because he ‘edited or closely supervised the editing of all his films’ (p.10). I am inclined to agree with Cardullo that this would add to the degree of authorship on a film as Kurosawa will have the final decision on exactly what the cinemagoer will see. This could be seen as technical proficiency however Sarris’ article bases technical proficiency on directing skills, editing skills are not even considered. Overall it seems that the level of control Kurosawa had over non-directorial aspects of his films would remove the impact of his autuerism because so much of what makes an auteur is the ability to push through industrial control to have your own voice heard. With Kurosawa it was his own voice from the beginning in the writers room and it would end as his voice in the editing room with no real struggle involved.

Because Kurosawa wrote the script it was all uniquely personal to him which is one of the key elements of auteurism. In Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962 Andrew Sarris had said that ‘a director spends most of his life on one film’. For Kurosawa that one film could be the period film, something he worked on time and time again. The backdrop of medieval Japan was the preferred setting for Kurosawa and something which was very personal to him:

Kurosawa’s intense feelings for pre-modern Japan, his perceptions of himself and his family in these terms, disclose a view of the past as a living sensuous reality (Prince,1999,p.203)

His father was of samurai descent and Kurosawa himself romanticised the past in many ways, finding solace in it where there was none in the present. The early samurai films show his youthful exuberance with films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo(1961)showing a positive vision of the past ‘heroism has been transformed into acts of everyday charity’ (Prince,1999,p.241). In stark contrast to the positive nature of these films the later samurai films are significantly more bleak in nature. These films followed years of depression, attempted suicide and struggles to find finance. For example Ran(1985) Kurosawa’s last samurai epic, the title of which translates as turmoil or chaos, is a downward spiral of misery from start to finish with almost all characters having distinctly negative traits. Prince describes the period of both ran and the earlier Kagemusha(1980) as defining ‘a period of melancholy and bitterness and a questioning of youthful idealism’ (p.293). Further examples of Kurosawa’s own beliefs and personality lie in the themes of the films. When asked what he felt were the common themes in his films Kurosawa replied ‘the only theme I can think of is really a question: why can’t people be happier together’(Kurosawa, 2008, p.162). In many ways the real recurring theme of Kurosawa’s films is humanism, he regularly explores human nature whether it’s an individual taking up arms against the corrupt (Yojimbo), people working together for the greater good (Seven Samurai) or the hopelessness of war (Ran). All suggest that the world would be a better place if we all got along. These films show the personality, thoughts and feelings of the director during their production which I would argue is a prime example of what an auteur is, someone who’s films reflect them.

Kurosawa was a highly visual film-maker. In his youth he had wanted to be an artist and its clear from the composition of many of his shots that he retained the sensibilities of an artist. From the interviews conducted over the years in Kurosawa: The Interviews it is clear that Kurosawa maintains as much control over every shot as possible from composition to choice of camera. Stephen Prince describes the technical knowledge of Kurosawa and his ‘reliance upon telephoto lens and techniques of multi-camera filming’(p.18) as well as his use of anamorphic frame in later films such as Kagemusha. Kurosawa knew how to get the best images out of every scene even if it meant using unconventional techniques and new technology. He lives up to the level of technical expertise Sarris had believed was vital for a true auteur. This did not however mean that Kurosawa was his own camera operator, indeed he couldn’t be because from Seven Samurai onwards he stuck to using multi-cameras no matter what kind of scene was being filmed. He believed this meant that actors would be less conscious of acting to a camera and instead would have to put on a good performance that could be seen at all angles. Kurosawa did his utmost to ensure that his vision was achieved and would regularly take control of his own camera however he described the process of getting others to achieve shots:

I explain the desired image in detail not only to the cameraman but also every member of staff and have them do their utmost to produce the best possible likeness to it (Kurosawa,2008,p. 27)

So even with his knowledge of camera lenses there was still a collaborative issue as far as using a cinematographer and indeed Kurosawa had several regular cinematographers such as Asakazu Nakai who worked on films such as Seven Samurai and Ran. Kurosawa’s technical proficiency is also very clear in his framing decisions. For example in Seven Samurai Kikuchiyo is clearly the outsider of the group which Kurosawa emphasizes by how ‘the framing consistently isolates him from the rest of the samurai who are clustered together as a group’(prince,1999,p.214).

The way battle scenes are shot in Kagemusha with huge amounts of troops at either end of the screen is a sight to behold, all the more so in the way Kurosawa manages to retain a sense of beauty in the battle. Francis Ford Coppola on the making of Kagemusha described the way Kurosawa presented fight scenes and violence as ‘almost poetic...stunning and dramatic and embodying the moment that was supposed to be expressed’. The stylistic nature of the battle scenes became a trademark for the director from Seven Samurai onwards. His ability to use camera and edit techniques to portray violence in a thrilling, heroic way were part of the style and something that could be recognised as part of a distinctly Kurosawa film. Not only that but the introduction of colour only to improve his vision of battle with Kurasawa frequently choosing ‘drab backgrounds’(Ebert,online) to show of the colourful costumes which effectively stand out from the background and clash together in battle. Another noticeable Kurosawa technique is the use of cutting between similar shots to emphasize drama,’Kurosawa loved to intercut two or three shots whose compositions were exactly aligned with the axis of view established in the initial camera position’ (Prince,1999,p.299). Examples of this exist in various Kurosawa films. In Seven Samurai it is used on the flame engulfed house following the initial bandit attack and the broken lock in Yojimbo which is used by Sanjuro to avoid the kidnappers. This technique focuses the viewer on the dramatic or emotional element and creates a tension. With so many more stylistic calling cards than could possibly be named in a single essay, Kurosawa has a clear style and so fits into the auteur theory.

The auteur theory however clearly has many failings even when applied to someone who appears to cover all the bases (writing, directing, editing) of what makes a film-maker an auteur. Many of these failings have already been discussed but in essence they all come down to one thing, film is a collaborative work. Would Kurosawa be able to achieve the shots he did without the work of some of the world’s best cinematographers? It’s highly unlikely. Did he write all of his screenplays alone? Certainly not. Would many of his films have been as enjoyable without some great acting from the cast, particularly frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune? No. In an interview Kurosawa discusses the collaborative nature of his work with Mifune, particularly the distinct walk Mifune has in Yojimbo,’Mifunes walk is his own invention. In order to stress it, I carefully selected camera framings and lenses’. This seemingly insignificant example is a snapshot of all that is wrong with the auteur theory. The second a director claims a film is all theirs they are disrespecting the great people they have worked with. As for Kurosawa being an auteur,even ignoring the flaws in that theory, Mutsuhiro Yoshimoto in his book Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema says:

Kurosawas films are too worldly and historical to be approached as mere aesthetic objects where his personal vision is inscribed or as a structure or textual system that reveals his unconscious desire (p.239)

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