The first of a two-part debate between CURNBLOG’s Simon Butler and Jonathan Eig on the films of Kurosawa. The question: Are Kurosawa’s Samurai films superior to his contemporary films? See Part Two here.
Simon Butler and I are at it again. This time, we are debating the iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Which were greater, Kurosawa’s Samurai films or his contemporary films? Today, I write in support of the contemporary. Tomorrow, Simon will argue in favour of the Samurais.
Ask a Western film fan to name an Akira Kurosawa title and you will most likely hear Rashomon (1950) or Seven Samurai (1954). Fans of Stars Wars may know The Hidden Fortress (1958), just as fans of Sergio Leone’s Italian westerns may know Yojimbo (1961). The Shakespeareans among us will probably mention Throne of Blood (1957) or Ran (1985). These are all Chambara (sword-fighting) films, often referred to in the West as Samurai movies. They all have their ardent admirers, and with just cause. There is no denying the visual beauty, dramatic intensity and raw passion to be found in many of them. But film fans in the West, even avid film fans, are often surprised to discover that of the 31 movies Kurosawa directed between 1943 and 1993, about half of them were contemporary dramas, often about social conditions in post-war Japan. And many of these contemporary dramas demonstrate equal or more beauty, intensity, and passion than their Chambara siblings.
My own personal scorecard goes like this: The headline-ripping contemporary drama High and Low (1963) is Kurosawa’s greatest achievement and the best police procedural ever filmed. It is followed closely by the intense morality play crime story Stray Dog (1949), Ikiru (1952) (featuring one of the great performances in cinema by Takeshi Shimura as a petty bureaucrat trying to do one noble thing before he dies), and his best Chambara film, the wry and witty Yojimbo. After those, a handful of movies from both camps (the aforementioned Seven Samurai and Rashomon, as well as Yojimbo’s companion piece Sanjuro , and the contemporary dramas The Bad Sleep Well  and Drunken Angel )are all first-rate movies. I will concede that Throne of Blood (a Chambara reimagining of MacBeth) might be considered on this level as well to make it five great contemporaries and five great Chambaras. I will not concede on three other Chambaras that have their own fans: I find Kagemusha (1980) and Ran overblown and tedious, and The Hidden Fortress mostly silly. There are a half dozen other contemporary dramas that range from good to very good.
Kurosawa’s contemporary dramas possess several qualities that elevate them above the Chambara films. Kurosawa was an artist of great passion, and while working on contemporary dramas, he was forced to keep that natural passion in check. This in turn prevented some of the excesses that mar even the best of the Chambara films, and resulted in a controlled intensity that has rarely been equaled on screen by any other director. Consider his primary leading man, Toshiro Mifune, in any of the Samurai pictures. He always delivers remarkable energy, but often, it is an energy that can distract from the drama. The artificiality of the Noh-influenced Samurai movies allows the character to run amok. Compare that to Mifune in the extraordinary first hour of High and Low, when an equally passionate character, subject to contemporary reality, bristles and seethes with anger and frustration.
Restriction of a different sort benefitted the director in another way. Kurosawa was a very political filmmaker and all of his best movies, contemporary or period, make political statements. The post-war years in Japan witnessed censorship, and one of the reasons Kurosawa was likely drawn to Chambara was the opportunity those movies offered to make veiled political statements about the current state of affairs in Japan. But instead of chafing under the restrictions imposed by both his own studio, Toho, and the Western authorities that wielded some measure of control in the early post-war years, Kurosawa found a way to work around those restrictions. Those political statements, from the metaphoric cesspool which dominates the space in Drunken Angel to the extraordinary condemnation of corporate greed in The Bad Sleep Well, have more immediacy and therefore surpass similarly-themed statements in Yojimbo and Throne of Blood.
Beyond political statements, you will find a far wider range of interesting characters in the contemporary dramas than you will in the Samurai movies. All of the Samurai movies boast great lead characters (often played by Mifune), but it is in the supporting players that they fall short. With the possible exception of Seven Samurai, the Samurai films tend to use lesser characters as pawns, designed to set the stage for the leading players’ ultimate confrontation. Consider the outstanding character work turned in by Kamatari Fujiwara as the haunted, mild-mannered corporate functionary Wada in The Bad Sleep Well, and perhaps even more telling, his single-scene junkyard manager in High and Low. Similarly memorable minor characters are very hard to find in the Samurai movies. And there simply are no Samurai films that have the ensemble ethos of The Lower Depths (1957) or Dodes’ka-den (1970).
Finally, the case for the contemporary films can be made by examining the influence of Kurosawa’s movies. This may seem counterintuitive to a Western audience because there is no denying the Samurai films were more influential in the West. That’s partly because they were much easier to see, and partly because Kurosawa himself drew heavily on Western writers and forms for inspiration. Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo were all turned into westerns. But such was not the case in Japan. Much like its cousin, the American western, Chambara films enjoyed enormous success for over a decade, and then, partly through over-saturation and partly due to limits inherent in the form, their popularity receded. Also like the American western, they never completely went away and have gone through occasional periods of rebirth. But the next generation of important Japanese filmmakers – from Shohei Imamura to Nagisa Oshima to Takeshi Kitano – scarcely concerned themselves with Chambara. They were interested in freeing modern Japanese art from its older restrictive forms. They were interested in the lower classes, in social issues, in politics. And even though some of them were loathe to admit it, one of their main influences was Akira Kurosawa, the man who made movies about nuclear war and poverty, corporate corruption and petty bureaucracy, the fight against crime and the fight against disease… all set in modern-day Japan.
So enjoy the Samurai and the swordplay as much as you want. But don’t forget that there is a lot more good stuff – to my mind, even better stuff – where that came from.
Check out Simon Butler’s argument in favour of Kurosawa’s Samurai films here.