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I have fond memories of so many great films from years past, movies that I saw on Sunday mornings, aired by cable stations unwilling to pay more than the most nominal fee for their air time. I watched those movies and discovered Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and a slew of other greats. I also watched those and discovered Crocodile Dundee, Beverly Hills Cop, and a load of '80s fun. But, one morning in particular, on a rarely watched artsy channel, I found a film by one of the great Japanese directors of all time, and was enthralled.
That particular Sunday morning was interesting for a few reasons. First off, my brother was staying over at a friend's house, meaning I had the full reign of the television. Second, it was raining very hard, so my parents couldn't send me outside to 'enjoy' the sun by myself. Third, I was a little under the weather, so my normally short attention span stayed glued to the television, partially under the influence of cough syrup, and partially in pure lethargy.
All of these things were necessary as the film in question was Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a three-hour opus. At the tender age of 11, it had not yet been restored to its original luster of 202 minutes, cut down by the unfortunate few who find foreign films too convoluted for American audiences. Regardless, I was enamored by this epic tale of right triumphing over wrong, and ever since then I've been in love with Akira Kurosawa's work, constantly pointing out to my friends all the hundreds of different influences he's had over Western cinema. It's impressive really, the volume of work he produced and the volume of work that came to exist in America as a direct response to that work.
Many people are quick to forget just how much one man can influence the course of an entire art form. When that one man is a Japanese director who passed away more a decade ago, it's almost impossible to educate the many who have never heard his name. But, film directors are not nearly so cloistered to world cinema as movie goers are. They watch everything they can get their hands on, and for that reason, an auteur like Kurosawa was high on many great directors' lists, including Sergio Leon, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and dozens more.
So who was this man, Akira Kurosawa, who had a massive impact on the movies we grew up loving. He was a descendent of a former Samurai family, and as a child, had the kind of imaginative interest in stories and the new medium that was film, as any future director should. He attended film schools, worked with the first directors in Japanese film, and in the 1940s began directing his own films.
What made Kurosawa's work so much different was that he had a mass appeal, a flare for seeking out the root of storytelling, that seed of a good yarn, and exploiting it with all the compassionate visual stimulation, that only Japanese films could offer. He invented numerous popular story telling techniques still used today in films like Rashomon (with multiple view points on the same story) and Seven Samurai (the powerful strangers hired to save a village). When he wasn't busy creating archetypes for what Western films would become, he was taking Western archetypes and applying Japanese style to them. He wrote and directed two Samurai Shakespeare adaptations, with Throne of Blood adapted from Macbeth and Ran adapted from King Lear.
He adapted Dostoevsky in Hakuchi (The Idiot) and crafted stylish noir thrillers in Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. As original and inventive as he could be, Kurosawa was in love with the Western forms that informed cinema as well. For me, this is what true cinema is all about. Instead of constantly whipping out mindless sequel after mindless sequel, based on nothing more than the whimsy of a previous film, directors were seeking out new ideas from across the globe and integrating them into their own culture, exploiting universal themes in such ways that their viewers could understand.
When Sergio Leone crafted his Man with No Name trilogy, it was a rewritten script from Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro. When George Lucas began piecing together his characters in Star Wars, he used many sources but none so openly as Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. You've likely seen some form or another of Rashomon hundreds of times throughout your lifetime, retold constantly with different characters. Unlike what many of today's directors would deride as open infringement of ideas, this is how art actually works, assimilating and building. The cross-pollination of culture and story is what made Shakespeare's work so epic, and in the 20th century made films so universally accepted.
Today's film-going audience is not only woefully ignorant of the films of the past, but of the effects of those films and of ingesting the work of other cultures. While attending films at Seattle's International Film Festival, I can't help but think what would have happened to cinema if each nation had developed their own cinema solely independent of the others, how boring and repetitive it might have become.