At the 62nd annual Academy Awards in 1990, a packed house of VIP guests and Hollywood alumni sat with bated breath as one of the greatest filmmakers of their generation was to receive an Honorary Award ‘for cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world…’
For Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, it would be fitting for them to be the ones to present this highly coveted accolade. At the time dubbed by critics as the ‘new kids on the block’, this next generation of successful filmmakers (including the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese) were all deeply influenced by the work of the master storyteller, Akira Kurosawa.
The two directors looked more like nervous high school pupils as they shared the stage with their hero, who graciously accepted the award. Addressing the auditorium through a translator, there was a noticeable befuddlement within the audience as the master spoke with self-reflecting modesty:
‘I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema. Cinema is a marvelous thing, but to grasp it’s true essence is very, very difficult…’
Such a statement rings profoundly perceptive when we consider the genius of Kurosawa…
In a career that stretched for longer than half a century, and with 30 classic films under his directorial command, Kurosawa was on a perpetual quest of personal examination and self-investigation. Nothing was off-limits, too personal or guarded when it came to his cinema.
As far-reaching, diverse and richly imaginative his lofty list of films were, when asked about their thematic nature he simply replied that they all ask the common question:
Why can’t people be happier together?
Despite the various adversities involved, La Cinémathequé de Toulouse is very proud to be hosting the Akira Kurosawa Retrospective.
Privilege Of Legends were lucky enough to chat to the head of programming, Franck Lubet on the legacy of a true master of cinema and the importance of screening such classics on the big screen.
Please could you shine some light on the motivation behind the upcoming retrospective of Akira Kurosawa’s work at La Cinémathéque De Toulouse and how this project came about?
First and foremost, for pleasure. The audience’s pleasure in the spectacle of quality cinema. Kurosawa’s work gives a lot of it… a simple pleasure.
This goes for his historical frescoes that rival the biggest Hollywood blockbusters (Ran, Kagemusha or Seven Samurai), his black films (between American B-movies and European neorealism – see Stray Dog or Drunken Angel) or his more intimate dramas (Red Beard, Dodes’ka-den) that are not too far behind.
There is an obvious quality in the cinema of Kurosawa, in the way of conducting the action as well as in its humanistic approach to its subjects; which certainly makes him one of the most important filmmakers of the second part of the 20th century.
More pragmatically, Kurosawa is a filmmaker on whom we regularly used to come back with a screening here and there, based on our programming. But it was very difficult, if not unthinkable, to devote a retrospective worthy of the name. Few copies in good condition are available in France and working directly with Japan would have been too expensive in terms of shipping and subtitling of copies. The recent release of a dozen of his films in restored versions gave us a good starting point. The time had come to do so.
Why do you think the cinema of Kurosawa is still relevant to today’s audiences?
To put it quite simply, classic is timeless. And this applies to all classical works. ‘Modern equals classic’ said French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The other way around is also valid.
Shakespeare, for example, is still violently modern. And there’s a lot of Shakespeare in Kurosawa. A movie can- fifty years or more after its first release, still bring out more intense emotions than a film released last week. The attendance of roughly 120-130 spectators per screening seems to confirm this.
You mentioned online that Kurosawa’s films transcend their label as being purely Japanese films or Western films; and could be more accurately described as universal cinema. Could you touch on this for our readers?
Japanese cinema, which can be traced back to the origins of filmmaking, has long been very insular and contained strictly within Japan’s borders.
It was a Kurosawa film that was to break the ice, and the West was immediately spellbound. Rashomon went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and an Oscar the following year. In 1953, another Japanese film, Gate Of Hell by Teinosuke Kinugasa won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and two Oscars.
We can frankly say that Kurosawa opened the western doors to Japanese cinema.
Moreover, Kurosawa was an avid enthusiast of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky; two major authors embedded in the European culture that he then transposed to Japanese culture.
Visually, within Kurosawa’s cinema there is a creative affinity similar to Jean Renoir and John Ford, two other masters of the art. His cinema is a true cultural crossroads. The question of truth for example- or rather truths, in Rashomon is a totally universal (and timeless) question.
Finally, it can be said that his cinema completely abolishes borders. Testament to this is the string of Kurosawa films that have been remade, adopted or parodied by the West. This includes John Sturges’ 1960 remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (remade again in 2016) and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, the 1964 reworking of Yojimbo, A Fistful Of Dollars. The storytelling technique and similar plot lines of Kurosawa’s 1958 film Hidden Fortress that George Lucas used in his Star Wars space epics is also worth mentioning.
In your opinion, how important is it to preserve classic world cinema and allow the public to relive these films on the big screen?
This is not only important. It is vital. And I speak here only from a spectator’s point of view.
It’s like seeing a real masterpiece, whether it is a Fra Angelico or a Bacon. Whilst we gain an understanding of the piece through reproductions, it is an entirely awe-inspiring experience to be admiring the actual artworks as they are. The same goes for the experience of the big screen over DVD or other formats.
And I would add that it is not only the classics that must be preserved and shown, but also B-movies- the mauvais film as we call it in France, which also reward it’s audiences and provide inspiration.
Out of the 24 films being screened from his prolific filmography, which of these do you regard as your personal favourites?
Stray Dog (1949), I Live In Fear (1955), Sanjuro (1962), Dodes’ka-den (1970), Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1986)…
Franck Lubet (La Cinématheéque De Toulouse) – English translation by Louise Millet
Information on the Akira Kurosawa Retrospective
La Cinémathequé de Toulouse