Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Ocotber 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
The death of Akira Kurosawa on
6 September was a great loss to
the world of cinema. Kurosawa is
probably Japan's best known film
maker. His films have been
copied countless times by
Hollywood. The Magnificent Seven
was a remake of The Seven
Samurai. Sergio Leone remade
Yojimbo as a spaghetti western
called A Fistful of Dollars--thereby
launching Clint Eastwood as the
'Man With No Name'. Even the
blockbuster Star Wars owed a
massive debt to The Hidden Fortress
Kurosawa grew up in Tokyo at a time when Japan was still relatively cut off from the rest of the world. Kurosawa described his childhood as 'peaceful in a 19th century kind of slowness'. But soon Tokyo was to be influenced by the ideas of the outside world-avant-gardism, the spirit of the Russian Revolution and new production methods began to have an impact on Japan.
Kurosawa was brought up in a very strict traditional Japanese family. In his autobiography he describes how his father insisted on maintaining the custom of wearing wooden clogs without socks even when Kurosawa had frostbitten feet! His father came from a long line of samurais and these Japanese warriors were to become a recurring subject of many of his films.
But his father was also keen to see Japan modernise. He built Japan's first swimming pool and worked hard to make baseball popular. At a time when the idea of watching movies was frowned upon in middle class circles, he regularly took the family to the movies arguing that they 'brought the world to life'. Kurosawa's childhood had a strong influence on his films. He was a master of combining traditional Japanese stories with modern and humanitarian themes.
In 1928, the year Kurosawa turned 18, there were mass arrests of members of Japan's Communist Party. The following year the winds of the Great Depression blew across Japan and socialist movements sprang up everywhere.
Kurosawa was radicalised by these events. He describes in his autobiography why he joined the Proletarian Artists' League in 1929: 'I simply felt the vague dissatisfaction and dislikes that Japanese society encouraged, and in order to contend with these feelings, I joined the most radical movement I could find.' For four years he was involved in 'illegal' underground socialist organisations. He even served a brief period in prison for his activities.
Kurosawa's brother Heigo was a well known film narrator. Heigo had a major impact on Kurosawa's life and he further encouraged his love of film and culture. Tragically Heigo committed suicide after he led a failed strike of film narrators.
Disillusioned after the collapse of the underground socialist groups, Kurosawa retreated into the world of cinema. But throughout his life he remained disenchanted with the system. At the end of the Second World War he worked at the Toho studios. Following two very bitter strikes by technical staff all the company's leading actors and directors who opposed the strike left Toho and joined a rival company. Kurosawa rightly refused to go.
Kurosawa's 1952 film Rashomon brought Japanese cinema to the attention of the world. Rashomon is the brutal story of the rape of a woman and the murder of her husband in feudal Japan. The film is in four parts and is told from four of the participants' points of view. It won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival.
The 15 years after Rashomon were the golden years of Kurosawa's film making career. His finest film, The Seven Samurai, was made in 1954. It was an action film to end all action films. The film was about the relationship between a village and the samurai hired by the village to protect it from marauding bandits. It was followed three years later with Throne of Blood. Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, the film is filled with unforgettable haunting imagery and was a break from Kurosawa's usual fast paced editing and Western camera style. His next two films were The Hidden Fortress in 1958 and Yojimbo in 1961.
All of these films are now regarded as classics and opened the way for other Japanese film directors. However, after 1965 Kurosawa's popularity declined. The high cost of his films antagonised Japanese film companies and the Americanisation of Japanese cinema all contributed to his decline.
During the 1970s and 1980s Kurosawa's fortunes revived. Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame and George Lucas (the writer and director of Star Wars) persuaded 20th Century Fox to finance a new Kurosawa film. They finally agreed and Kagemusha was the result. It was a massive international success.
The film Ran soon followed. It was Kurosawa's magnificent adaptation of another Shakespeare play, King Lear. Ran is a visually stunning epic, containing some of the most beautiful and breathtaking imagery committed to celluloid.
Kurosawa once wrote:`Take myself, subtract movies and the remainder is zero.' Nothing could be further from the truth.
A reggae musical set in Harlesden,
NW10, Babymother offers a rare
and unique snapshot of black
working class life. The backdrop is
the music, energy and colour of the
dancehall and its deejays of the
simple story follows the main
character Anita, a black woman,
vulnerable but with plenty of
attitude, and her struggles to break
into a predominantly male world and
become a deejay queen.
She struggles to bring up her two children on her own, on a rundown housing estate, while Byron, their 'babyfather' and local reggae star, pops in and out of their lives. For Anita and her friends neither the church nor the system are an option. Instead the colour, energy and tough competitiveness of the dancehall provides both a sharp contrast and escape from the bleak and impoverished life of the housing estate.
Anita fulfils her dreams with the support of her women friends while the men around her either let her down or take advantage of her. Men like Byron, after initially encouraging her, soon prefers her to stay in the kitchen rather than grab the limelight. Caesar, the studio engineer, takes advantage of her poverty and desperation promising her studio time to make a demo tape in return for a 'date'. But despite such adversity Anita eventually beats Byron in an Artists' Clash, a lyrical battle, her chat striking a chord with the crowd and leaving Byron lost for words. Anita is deejay queen.
Babymother raises questions about the difficulties of family life, being mothers, poverty and relationships between men and women, but it makes little headway in terms of answering them. Anita's life and the lives of those around her are presented as a closed world cut off from the rest of society and there is no sense of the way in which the system impinges on people's lives, the nature of the family, distorting relationships and creating poverty. Rather the message is that men are the primary problem and women must stand together in order to achieve their dreams in spite of them.
Nevertheless, the film is still well worth seeing. It is a celebration of black working class life, particularly of women, as mothers but also as individuals, trying to find a voice of their own. If you like reggae music then you will find it highly watchable and entertaining.
La Vie Revée des Anges
Dir: Erick Zonca
La Vie Revée des Anges (The
Dream Life of Angels) has a
gritty, naturalistic look which will
be familiar to fans of the films
of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. As
with the British directors, Erick
Zonca's sensitive filming style
draws the audience into the lives
of his characters, demanding our
empathy, if not always our
Isa is a 20 year old working class drifter. All her worldly goods fit in her backpack yet, at ease with herself, she is defiantly optimistic. Marie has never left her home town. Seething with frustration at her situation, she has become sullen and belligerent.
The two meet when Isa blags her way into a job in a Lille sweatshop. The slow burning but absolutely absorbing film which follows is a brilliantly subtle examination of alienated relations in a class ridden French society.
Isa and Marie are broke. They only have a decent place to stay because Marie is flat sitting for people who have been hospitalised by a horrific car crash.
The development of the relationship between the two young women, driven together by circumstance, makes for totally captivating cinema. What is the love of friendship, and what merely emotional dependence, is a question raised repeatedly as a chasm opens up between the friends. As Isa becomes increasingly involved in the life of the girl who once lived in the vacated apartment (and is now comatose in a hospital bed), Marie hooks up with an abusive rich kid bar manager. The move defies you not to become emotionally absorbed as its central characters take quite different paths--one driven by compassion, the other by lack of self esteem-in response to very similar situations.
If the story and the superb performances by Elodie Bouchez (Isa) and Natacha Regnier (Marie) are powerfully engaging, Zonca's technique is no less so. It is hard to believe that this is his first feature length movie. He already has the astonishing ability to make things look simultaneously bleak and beautiful. Everything about his film is carefully measured to achieve the greatest emotional impact.