Happy birthday, Akira Kurosawa.
It's all your fault, you know. You got me started on this whole Japan trip, with your King Lear adaptation, and "the wellspring of the Force", and your template for most every adventure movie with a motley crew.
A lot of people still don't know how much you're part of the cinematic air we breathe. And some people have tried to solve that problem by taking your work and remaking it for a modern audience, with mixed results. Best when they take your conceits and embed them in an entirely new approach, instead of just slavishly recreating them.
Other people — like Criterion, bless their souls — have taken the simplest and most unpretentious approach. Take the movies, bring them back to modern audiences in the best possible editions, and let them sell themselves. It works, not least of all because there are so many people who have already caught a little of the spirit and are willing to pass it on.
It isn't enough today to talk about how one director (or any artist generally) "influences" another, because most people aren't excited about influences. They're excited about good movies. They often see the copy of the copy before they ever hear about the original. Kurosawa often suffers from the fate of having been diluted by two or three generations before people see where it all came from, and why it all mattered.
I have reviews of many, but not all, of his movies. Some of it is a matter of time and priorities; some of it is because I have the worst time saying something about a movie like Seven Samurai without feeling like I'm being completely redundant. In time, and with the re-release of his catalog on BD, I'll probably cover everything, and with any luck have something to add to the conversation that isn't just blathering fandom.
On a day like this, though, maybe a little fandom isn't a bad thing.
He would have been 100 this year. He fought with obstinate studio heads, crippled budgets, the weather, and often his own actors and crew. He fought with depression, his own failing eyesight, diminishing interest for his work in his own country. Out of that struggle came a body of work that has little parallel.
A lot of the time, in his own eyes, he got maybe a third of what he had been shooting for. "There are within my movies maybe two or three minutes of true cinema," he said once. I can think of a few of them offhand: Toshiro Mifune's gamut-of-the-emotions monologue in Seven Samurai, or Tatsuya Nakadai stumbling out of the burning castle in Ran, or Takashi Shimura on the swingset in the snow in Ikiru. A series of documentaries made about his work were titled It Is Wonderful To Create, and the movies are their own proof of that sentiment. Doubly so for a man who once stated that to take him and remove cinema would leave behind nothing.
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There are quite a few books about Kurosawa's life and work — the work more than the life itself, which is a bit of a shame. Waiting on the Weather is among the most recently published and talks about Kurosawa from the perspective of one of his long-time assistants. It fills in a good deal of where Kurosawa's own Something Like An Autobiography falls short — both chronologically and with regard to individual details. The Emperor and the Wolf is a parallel biography of both Kurosawa and Mifune, rich in detail but thin on analysis and insight; material this rich cries out for something more than Galbraith's lockstep, prosaic approach.
Overviews of the movies themselves abound. Donald Ritchie's omnibus remains the most widely-read, even if I don't agree with his assessments of some of the films. Stephen Prince and Peter Cowie have pitched in with their own analyses, which I've yet to sit down with, but their scope and authority are impressive on the face of it.
And then there are the movies themselves. Start here, I say, and just keep on going.