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Kurosawa: Humanist, or Formalist?

The following was a response to a discussion arguing the relative strengths and flaws of the filmmaking of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa:

First I should say that I have to hand it to you and Hood, in that our exchanges have helped raise my esteem of Kurosawa. You guys were willing to meet me on my terms and respond with formidable thoughts of your own. Much more interesting than the "Kurosawa is a master, 'nuff said" line of argument which obviously doesn't tell me much but is resorted to more often than other arguments on his behalf.Ź

Since you keep asking me "whatÕs my point" Š I guess IÕm just after a better understanding of what Kurosawa does, how he does it, and what it means. It could be positive, it could be critical Š but however we may feel about it, I want us to have a better understanding of what it is.Ź

Humanism and formalism. Let me try another stab at making my understanding of the two terms clear -- your last comments compelled me to reconsider my use of them. I think you're right after all that Kurosawa has humanist elements in at least some of his major works. If humanism can be described as a preoccupation with the human elements of a movie, then yes, Kurosawa's films are obviously that, as well as Ozu and Mizoguchi. I guess the distinction comes when we ask what KIND of humanist they are, in relation to each other. And I guess here is where the idea of formalism comes into play. Ź

Formalism is a preoccupation with the form of the movie, its storytelling, its visual elements, its style. Now, one common misperception is that formalism and humanism are always opposed to each other. DFC, for one, has at times accused me of putting style over substance. I don't think that substance is necessarily more important than style, or vice versa. I think that, in the best movies, the two work together to bring a profoundly moving and meaningful experience. But there are instances where the style seems to run against the content. There are obvious examples in bad movies that use a lot of herky jerky camerawork or editing to make up for their lack of meaning. But I think that even in the "best" or "important" movies, you can see instances where form and content don't have the best relationship. I think Ozu and Mizoguchi have developed highly singular styles, but what's great about them is how they relate to the characters on-screen -- they have developed very unique ways of shooting people, which signifies special and well-considered ways of understanding and relating to human beings, cinematically or otherwise. Ź

In comparison, you are right that Kurosawa is more of an eclectic. "I don't see him bedding down with any one particular philosophy or viewpoint on life at any point in his career, although I do see changes in the types of issues that he is interested in." He has employed a variety of styles to touch on a variety of issues. If there is one constant in his career, IÕd say it was a passion for dramatic conflict. ItÕs what motivates nearly all of the films of his IÕve seen, and itÕs probably his greatest virtue Š though it may also account for why his films often are fixated on violence and violent, macho males, for better or worse. My problem is with what he seems willing to sacrifice in order to achieve those glorified moments of dramatic crisis in his films. WhatÕs sacrificed, in my view, seems to be his letting human beings be their three-dimensional selves rather than as symbolic types charged with dramatic meaning. I see this in his earliest masterpiece, RASHOMON, where you have the Bandit, the Nobleman, and the Woman, each one behaving as they are symbolically ordered, like putting three different animals in a pit to see which one comes out alive. You see this in his late masterpiece, RAN, where there are some scenes where weÕre looking at red, blue and yellow dots as opposed to human beings. All of this attests to KurosawaÕs talent for orchestrating human beings into the grand dramatic arc of his thrilling narratives. But when it comes to him making it reflect on the human condition, his insights seem to me to be stuck on an abstract, conceptual or theoretical level, because thatÕs where his characters seem stuck as well. This is why I have problems labeling him a "humanist"; even though his films are absolutely about the human condition, itÕs the inhuman, overly formalist way he that treats the subject matter that seems to undermine his humanism.Ź

Perhaps to compensate for this, Kurosawa loads his characters with lots of pathos and emotional outbursts, just as a farmer will inject his livestock with growth hormones to make up for the lack of real nourishment. This maelstrom of dramatic effect may give us the impression that weÕre watching something heavy and human, but often times it really has nothing more to say about humanity than, say, an attention-grabbing Time or Newsweek magazine article that has lots of neat graphics, pictures and catch-phrase blurbs in place of hard, thoughtful analysis. Ź

It goes without saying that Kurosawa is more immediately entertaining than Mizoguchi or Ozu, and so he is a better filmmaker insofar that cinema is equated with immediate entertainment. Kurosawa strikes me as a guy who sits at his desk, works out his treatise on life in his screenplay, figures out the best way to make it click, boom and bang, and then sets it loose on the world. Mizoguchi and Ozu strike me as guys who hang out in the world, talk to people and more importantly listen to them, and then they go home and apply what theyÕve learned to their movies, and let the rhythms and forms of their human existence dictate the style of their filmmaking. I hope this difference is clear, and moreover, that it means something. It does to me, at least. ItÕs the difference between movies coming before life vs. life coming before movies.Ź

On the other hand, you and HoodÕs comments, combined with my further reflection, have helped me see that KurosawaÕs approach may be a virtue. I may be too harsh on him when I say itÕs pre-determined Š you look at a screenplay like HIGH AND LOW or SEVEN SAMURAI or IKIRU, and thereÕs something very exciting about how they donÕt seem to know just how theyÕre going to end, they seem to be figuring themselves out from one scene to the next. It still strikes me as relatively superficial, like heÕs sitting in his room trying to figure out where the story should go next in terms of how it works as a story. You look at the ending of RASHOMON and itÕs obvious how he tacked on the sentimental ending because it worked better as drama, regardless of how truthfully it speaks about what would have happened in life. But sometimes that technique can floor you with its audacity and inspiration. The way the last 20 minutes of IKIRU seems to leap from an emotional climax to a heartbreaking indifference, and then combine the two feelings into an amazing final image of a hopeful playground surrounded by a soulless city. HIGH AND LOW has that same kind of boom! From out of nowhere, check this out! Ending, but in that instance it made me realize that Kurosawa hadnÕt done much thinking about this low-life kidnapper that weÕre all of a sudden supposed to feel sorry for. Again, itÕs dramatic effect that takes control over unity of meaning.Ź

But all in all, this just amounts to my personal preferences. But I do think it is useful to understand the differences between these filmmakers, and come to what I hope is a provocative and interesting way of better understanding what distinguishes each filmmaker in their treatment of style and content, and what that tells us about them. Ź

in reply to:

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------"Unfortunately, the former is a lot easier to appreciate than the latter" am I wrong to infer that you are making a value judgement that character driven movies (character study, whatever you want to call it) are inherently better than movies that are driven by action (or.... story?). If you are making this value judgement, surely you know that it is entirely a subjective judgement (and surely you won't seek to JUSTIFY your values based on the difficulty of the appreciation itself).


Again, I don't think my words infer that one is better than the other. I am just saying that a film that has more action and outright dramatic effect seems to be easier to appreciate than one that is more studied and subdued and seems to do more thinking as to the implications of its actions. I wouldn't mind the action so much if people were willing to appreciate the other things as well. But people donÕt seem to be, because they care more about action and dramatic effect, I feel compelled to stick up for what I feel is a way of understanding and appreciating art and life that seems to be dying out in the 21st century, sort of the same reason you and I criticize FORREST GUMP when so many people seem eager to take its pleasures for granted.Ź

IÕm sorry to ramble for so long, but I hope IÕve made some clear and useful definitions and distinctions. Ultimately, I donÕt care so much about judging as I am about better understanding.Ź