For Kurosawa, perspectives matter. Truth is ephemeral in his world, almost Heisenberg like. Who you are matters. But, who you want to be matters even more.
The ability to deceive others is almost synonymous with life. Yet, humans are unique in their ability to deceive themselves. This is what allows human to transform themselves from villains to heroes and vice versa, at will. Kurosawa realised very early that cinema is more vulnerable to this than any other narrative device.
Kurosawa explores the limits of narration in this complex compass-less world where the narrator is always unreliable. Without the narration, truth is like the ever shifting sands. Thus, Kurosawa’s movies are also his encomium to the vagaries of life itself.
In Rashmon (1950) something terrible happens. Each character in the movie narrates the story in a different way. The viewer’s first instinct is to reconcile the differences. Yet, there are some differences that cannot be reconciled. You start shuffling through the stories in your head, while you try to reconcile the differences. And then you realise that the movie is about who the characters want to be and not about what actually happened. By the end of the movie you are no wiser about what happened but you do learn a lot about the people involved. What is surprising is what you learn about characters in the movie and yourself. Of course, vanity and human frailty drives these characters. Yet, the characters are frail and vain in ways that are really surprising.
While watching the movie, something dawned on me. I have lived through episodes in my life that are as intense and as distressing as Rashmon itself. And yet, through that experience, I learnt very little about actual events of my life and learnt much more about people who lived around me. Truth is ephemeral at best. Yet, life is as substantial as the people you choose to surround yourself with.
Seven Samurai (1954) is more of a jingoistic film made in the shadows of a Japan coming to terms with its own frailty. Yet, there is more. People and their perspectives collide in what is a thinly veiled war movie. A hapless medieval Japanese village seeks the help of seven freelance samurais to help defend their village against the periodic onslaught by marauding bandits. There is camaraderie amongst the samurai. The villagers are a loose coalition. Everyone wants something for his or her self from the war, yet a common purpose unites them. It is the common purpose that papers over the human frailty. People’s perspectives constantly grinding against each other makes this an extremely complex as well as entertaining film.
In the Hidden Fortress (1958), the story is told from the perspective of two dishevelled peasants. The inspiration for telling the story from the perspective of C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star War Episode IV (1977) comes from the Hidden Fortress. In the telling the story from the perspective of two hapless peasants, Kurosawa was creating a cinematic devices that would used over and over again. The beauty of this particular cinematic device lies in the fact that hapless narrators, with very little to live for or lose, turn out to be the most reliable narrators. We get closer to the truth only when we have very little left to lose.
In Synecdoche New York (2008), another Kurosawa influenced movie, the narration becomes more and surreal and unreliable as the movie progresses. The protagonist finds solace in giving up his freedom to act as an individual and subject himself to the dictates of an in-camera director. Ironically, when I watched Synecdoche New York, I was blissfully unaware how accurately the movie reflected my life at that time. And how I unwittingly gave up my freedoms for a short but significant period of time before realising how surreal my life had become.
As I trawl through Kurosawa’s oeuvre, the impact he has had on popular culture is slowly sinking in. Both conceptually as well as technically, he is masterful in the way in which he moulds the medium of cinema to tell the story. The narration is somewhere between the Stanislavsky and the rasa mode of story telling. The characters seem fully immersed in their roles yet they seem to be puppet in the hands of Kurosawa, the real invisible narrator, who tells the stories which are ethereal yet substantial at the same time.
Its been the most glorious summer of my life. Discovering Kurosawa at the end of it has made it perfect. Kurosawa’s movies have a toolkit for life within them. They force us to confront our narcissistic self image. They explore human morality, or a lack thereof, without being pivoted around a societal conventional axis. I just wish I had started watching Kurosawa earlier. It would have saved me a lot of unnecessary misery.