CosPlay-Fun Survived Kurosawa Movie Marathon
This was the 2nd weekend I attended the Akira Kurosawa Film Festival: Centennial Retrospective. I wish I could have gone for the first week but I was sick with a flu and if my memory serves me right, Dewan Kuliah Utama ASWARA is famous for its very cold air condition which could have worsen my flu but I found strength from within to attend the screening of ‘Seven Samurai’ & ‘Drunken Angel’. There were two reasons why I had to be there: first, it could be my one and only chance to watch Kurosawa’s finest in real film reels. Trust me, no blu-ray or dvd player can beat the projector experience.
And, the second reason: the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) staffs were there every day to handle each screening and to prepare/rehearse for the launch, even though deep in their heart, they were still sadden by the major earthquake and tsunami that has effected Japan. There were notes and wishes, on the board behind the registration counter, thanking the public for their words of encouragement and to Malaysia’s SMART Team for their assistance as well as words expressing how Japan will overcome the tragedy. I could feel their worries and concerns for the safety of their family and friends but in the spirit of fulfilling their duty, they still continued working. For that, JFKL has my utmost respect for proceeding with this film festival.
Now back to the movies on the final day of this superb film festival. After experiencing a horrible jam caused by a traffic diversion, I finally arrived at ASWARA to watch ‘Dodes’ka-den’ which could be seen as a 1970s version of ‘Slumdog Billionaire’ with the Billionaire part depicted in the character of a beggar with his son in a Japanese slum in a fantasy. This is Kurosawa’s first colour-featured movie and he seems to treat ‘Dodes’ka-den’ as a canvas upon which he could paint on. It’s unfair to say that this film is an experimental art attempt by Kurosawa but the use of many bright primary colours in this gloomy movie makes me believe it is. The spectrum of colours are evident from the clothing to the imaginary fence, the background to the paintings on the wall and at times, I felt that I wouldn’t have minded if colour films did not exist in Kurosawa’s universe.
The film tries to juggle 7 stories and as usual, Kurosawa manages to orchestrate it perfectly but I discovered some elements that did not complement this artwork. Although I’m not a fan of modern Kurosawa’s film except for ‘Drunken Angel’, ‘Dodes’ka-den’ is, nevertheless, a masterpiece that’s too metaphorical to digest. If you research deeply into this movie, it was believed that, for Kurosawa, this film functions as a mirror for himself; a hard headed director, who faces the test of time, in an industry that no longer wants him. One can see this clearly in a scene where a painter almost gets hit by an imaginary train by a retarded boy. Despite earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film in the 44th Academy Awards, ‘Dodes’ka-den’ did not do well in Japan and this caused Kurosawa to plunge into a deep depression.
Having always reminded myself not to watch a heavy film at the beginning of any movie marathon, ‘Dodes’ka-den’ was not a good choice to start my movie marathon day at this film festival. Getting comfy at an area so I don’t disturb anybody if I dozed off, I was surprised ‘Red Beard’ was shown in a wide screen format. 15 minutes into the movie, I had already listed ‘Red Beard’ as one of my favourite Kurosawa films after ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘Rashomon’. Known as Kurosawa’s last black and white film and his final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa maximises his style in this film which also appears to be the ultimate best. Tackling the complexity of social injustice, ‘Red Beard’ turns a medical drama into an emotional rollercoaster incorporating multiple storylines of rural clinic patients in 19th Century Edo. You can’t tell much in the black and white in terms of projecting realism in a film but Kurosawa skilfully uses lighting and shadows, as well as through his editing to create a few awfully shocking scenes in the movie: the operation scene in which a girl’s intestines spill out (this film is the only Kurosawa film which features nudity) and the scene when Dr. Kyojio Niide single-handedly fights a group of thugs to rescue a sick twelve-year-old girl from a brothel – the gangsters’ body parts are twisted, bones protruding out of the arms and with blood gushing out so real that you’ll clinch the edge of your seat because reeling from the pain felt from these gruesome images. Like ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Red Beard’ used a huge set. How huge? One whole town and Kurosawa demanded to use a century old lumber and roof tiles but sadly, many of the grand sets didn’t even appear in the film. Because of the grand set, tourist buses organised special tours during the two years of filming. The film was so magnificent, I cried twice: once, during the scene at the well and the other at the end with the realisation that this is the final masterpiece that really portrays Kurosawa at his finest because everything went downhill in his next few films featured in the 70’s.
The third film for the final day was ‘Sanshiro Sugata’, the first directorial debut by Kurosawa, the film is an adaptation based on a novel of the same name by Tsuneo Tomita. The plot begins with Sanshiro Sugata arriving at a town to learn the martial art, jujitsu but later, he turns to judo as he witnessed a street challenge between a group of jujitsu students against one judo sensei. Kurosawa bravely tackles two different martial arts without disgracing any of them by layering the story with Sugata’s internal struggle; his ego that leads to a lack of compassion, the regret after he accidentally kills his opponent, the price to pay of being famous and his reluctance to fight in a match. For me, this is the least favourable film of the day because the story is too straightforward until it becomes another typical sports movie. On his first debut, many scenes were considered basic and suffered from erratic pacing. Later, I learned that almost 20 minutes of the film were badly cut by the censorship board that considered the work as too “British-American” in the wartime era; sadly, there is no trace of the censored scene, hence, it is lost forever.
The final film of the movie marathon was the awaited ‘The Hidden Fortress’, an action-adventure comedy-drama about the adventure of two peasants, a medieval princess and a loyal general. I was joined by Azmi from Singapore and Allen, all of us are fans of Star Wars, and we were able to relate many scenes in this film which inspired George Lucas to write and direct the famous space-drama. Kurosawa, again, uses his majestic approach to construct the film into an epic blockbuster of grandeur. Concentrating only on the four characters, Kurosawa has put in much thought and effort in ensuring every detail stands out across the screen in each scene. Hundreds of extras, gigantic sets, perfect editing and well-planned shots make this another good study for film students of the future.
There was one pull-out to wide shot which was enough to make Azmi and I lose sleep just from thinking about it. This is because back in the 50’s, it was unthinkable but someway somehow, Kurosawa achieved the impossible and produced a perfect continuous shot. Another scene was the beautifully composition of a spear fight. Hell! This is no lightsaber-size weapon but a very long spear yet he calculated every length and space between two fighters, the background and the distance of the camera. I was shocked when I uncovered how Kurosawa achieved that scene and what it more impressive was the fact that ‘The Hidden Fortress’ was his first wide screen (aka Cinemascope) attempt! My final verdict: Lucas was definitely inspired by many scenes in this movie when he carved his own masterpiece, Star Wars but not forsaking his own artistic vision. What Lucas conveys through his film is that he honours the brilliance of Kurosawa and acknowledges Kurosawa as the ultimate guide and influence – Kurosawa, the master and Lucas, as the apprentice together with many others including Spielberg, Scorsese, P. Ramlee, just to name a few.
At the end of the movie, I finally felt a certain numbness running through my body which was a clear indication that the sweater and pillow I brought didn’t help much. The spectacular awe of Kurosawa’s magical movie making, however, would make you forget about any pain, hunger or whatever that was happening outside the Dewan Kuliah Utama, as it did for me. I didn’t want to complain much because I noticed there were a few hardcore fans who came to watch almost all the films. One lady left office early everyday to catch the 6pm show and she was well-prepared for the weekend: a flask of hot water, packets of ready-to-be-made drinks and food. Another person came all the way from Bangi to watch. Some were between 60-70 years of age but they still smiled after walking out of each movie. So seriously, I could not and would not have accepted any reason for not attending this film festival.
The grand closing of Akira Kurosawa Film Festival: Centennial Retrospective marked another successful event in bringing Japanese culture and arts to the masses through the efforts of JFKL and ASWARA. This event also directly or indirectly has opened the door to the endless future possibilities for more film festivals for Malaysians (or in Azmi’s case, Singaporeans, too) and I would like to encourage them to organize an anime film festival because of a mind-opening event I attended more than 10 years ago which was an anime film marathon and talks at Muzium Negara. Moreover, if there should be an anime film festival, it would definitely garner a lot of support and a strong viewership as a result of the surging numbers of manga fans in Malaysia over the past few years.
In the meantime, till the next Kurosawa film festival, I’ll be sourcing for some of Kurosawa’s films on DVD so I can study, analyse and dissect every remarkable scene to understand how the brain and mind of this maestro works.