Return of “The Emperor”

One of Akira Kurosawa’s first films, The Men Who Tread On the Tiger’s Tales, was banned in his home country of Japan during the Second World War because authorities believed that it mocked traditional feudal values. Ironically, the Allied forces, which occupied Japan after the war, also banned it because they believed that it promoted traditional feudal values.

A brilliant and inventive filmmaker who wrote and directed movies in his native country for over fifty years, his work has received more acclaim from critics in the West than in his homeland. Kurosawa, who is now enjoying a retrospective of his influential early work with Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, in new 35 mm prints at Cinema Du Parc, has had a career marked by such ironies.

A man who, while shunning convention, established many on the way, Kurosawa essentially invented the action movie itself. In Seven Samurai he set out what would become standard conventions of the genre, including the newly formed group with a mission, the reluctant hero, and slow motion dramatic effect in fighting sequences. The film, which also offers a critique of the rigid societal structure still present in 1950s Japan, is on nearly every critic’s list of top-ten movies of all time.

Unfortunately, Seven Samurai is only playing one more night (Wednesday, Feb. 5) during Cinema Du Parc’s Kurosawa/Mifune retrospective. Fortunately, however, the man known as “The Emperor” has made better films, which, unlike Seven Samurai, are not over 200 minutes long. Three great Kurosawa movies will be playing throughout February, including the undeniable masterpiece Rashomon.

A visually beautiful film that interweaves action, philosophy and masterful camerawork in a way that’s almost unparalleled, Rashomon is one of the most influential films of all time. The story takes place in medieval Kyoto but addresses a universal human dilemma: the problem of self-deception.

Four people have witnessed a horrible crime: a samurai being killed in the woods after he watches his wife getting raped. However, the four witnesses have sharply differing accounts of exactly what happened. In fact, three of them (including the dead samurai himself in a wonderfully bizarre scene where he speaks through a female medium) admit to being the killer. None of the characters appear to be lying, it’s just that they remember events in such a way that makes them seem more heroic. As Kurosawa notes in his autobiography, “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”

Rashomon was the first film to make use of conflicting flashbacks of the same event – again, this would become a popular convention. Moreover, it is the first film in which the camera is pointed directly at the sun. In Rashomon, Kurosawa proves he is a master at the art of camera movement, with gorgeous follow shots taken from cameras attached to lines on forest treetops.

As the Cinema Du Parc retrospective proves, Kurosawa was by no means limited to a single genre. He was also a master of film noir. Two of his best, Stray Dog and High and Low, are also playing throughout February. Up there with Hitchcock’s Rear Window in terms of suspense, ethical dilemmas and striking visual compositions (Kurosawa storyboards his films in full scale paintings), both movies are more than well filmed detective stories – they are poignant critiques of Japanese society and the effects of its newly capitalist economy.

For a man who was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars and who believed that people were unable to speak about themselves without embellishing, there is perhaps one final irony: Kurosawa once said, “in all my films there is maybe three or four minutes of real cinema,” but maybe that’s just false modesty.

Spotlight on Kurosawa and Mifune is playing at Cinema Du Parc, 3575 av. du Parc; for more info call 281-1900 or check out www.cinemaduparc.com.

Rashomon – Feb. 14 to 20
Stray Dog – Feb. 11 to 13
High and Low – Feb. 6 to 8
Seven Samurai – Feb. 5

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