14 August 2005

The Guttural and Guttable Quick: Notes From A Samurai Weekend

      Thinking again of Toshiro Mifune after the other day, I decided last night to indulge myself in a samurai weekend. I began last night the dynamite double bill of Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro (1962), personal favourites for almost as long as I can remember.   I admit it: I'm a Kurosawa kinda guy ("okay, I don't make films / but if I did they'd have a samurai"), which I say with a tinge of self-irony, as a few particular young ladies may, however vaguely, sufficiently recollect to comprehend.   ( )

      That personal bit aside, it was Kurosawa that truly mastered the art of what Sam Peckinpah later called "beautiful blood-letting."   Especially among dour-minded film students in the West, Kurosawa has developed a reputation as a Serious Artist, which of course he is, but which tends to result in very earnest (and often humourless) responses to his movies.   So it's often forgetten how wonderfully funny both Yojimbo and Sanjuro are, the so-called "jokes" of their satires perhaps now a bit too subtle for contemporary viewers.  

      So many of the delights of those films are to be found in (and in reactions to) Mifune's magnificent deadpan, and watching some of Mifune's tics-- the twitiching of his shoulders, his sometimes mock-contemplative beard-scratching-- it occurred to me how well-suited he would have been for the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker comedies of the 70s.   Part of Mifune's genius is his ability in these films to be both still and light, manifest as a wonderfully gnomic cynicism that seems almost always on the verge of a wink, and then to burst forth with incredible violence, violence that is never simply for its own sake (though occasionally for its own saké).   But that violence-- whoa....   Mifune's samurai (he changes his name based on the foliage around him) is a master of stillness and lightness, of counterweighing stability with agility, and vice-versa.   He only barely seems to move when the action comes, and before you know it, there are bodies littered all over the place, without any of the signs of exhaustion or exhiliration more typical to the genre.   There's one scene in Yojimbo in which Mifune's Sanjuro (the word means "thirty year-old") frees a captive and slays her captors.   Afterwards, he cleans up his mess by making a mess: slowly, precisely, casually, he tears the place apart, slicing here and puncturing there, to ramshackle the place as if a dozen or more men had launched the attack.   As he does so, he beams with an unstated, but nonetheless professional, pride as he does it, a glorious self-satisfaction as he covers up his own minimalism.   His opponents know he's good.   None of them knows how good he really is, or how little it takes for him to convert his opponents into a human purée, so they will not suspect him of the onslaught, much less that he could do it alone.   This is the thematic crux of combining Mifune and Kurosawa: so little wreaking so much, and so quickly that if one glances askant a moment one misses the devastation.   Who needs physical hyperbole, the pseudo-sexual grunting and grasping and lunging?   The two make annihilation seem effortless, which for the films provides the more important message: slaughter is easy, strategy is hard.   A killer is only as good as his mind; his weapon is merely a tool of his trade.

      Continue reading....

      Contrast this, for example, with the more recent points of comparison in Tarantino's Kill Bill films.   Admittedly, Tarantino's tack is toward comic-book violence, with infite splatter and elaborate choreography.   As impressive as Uma Thurman's demonstrations were in those films, I think back on them now with this thought: Sanjuro would have slaughtered the Crazy 88's in half the time, and he would have split The Bride before she'd have seen it coming, though I wonder if Sanjuro would have engaged a woman in combat.   Where Tarantino reaches for kinetic violence, Kurosawa tends to locate violence in inertia, in stillness, so that when it materializes it's more shocking and, ultimately, more effective.  

      Just as importantly, where Tarantino tends to render his figures in ornament and style, Kurosawa renders his as slovenly and sometimes clumsy, as mercilessly human rather than parodically superhuman.   Again, from my point of view, advantage Kurosawa.    Even working in satire, Kurosawa works in human rather caricatural tones.   There's the one scene at the beginning of Sanjuro in which the incompetent local leaders are forced to hide from the villainous Superintendent's forces while Sanjuro intimidates them away.   When he returns, we have that wonderful bit in which the leaders emerge from hiding, from beneath the floorboards, their faces evincing astonishment and fear. These are well-meaning idiots, but not beyond sympathy, and so it's not hard to see why Sanjuro lets himself get dragged into their battle.   The comic effect, too, is valuable, as George Lucas realized when he imitated the image in Star Wars, complete with a howling Wookie and a nattering protocol droid.  

      Lucas, it should be said, understood Kurosawa's samurai better than Tarantino does (or chooses to). Think of the blink-and-it's-over violence of Alec Guinness slicing off the arm of the threatening alien in the bar at Mos Eisley: that's another example, among many, of Lucas channelling Kurosawa, and Guinness half-designed against Mifune's model, though Guinness may not have realized it.   Shame, I think, Lucas moved away from this in his subsequent films.   One of the most startling scenes in Kurosawa comes at the end of Sanjuro, with Mifune facing off against his primary foe, the equally mercenary but more Machiavellian Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai, who eventually played Lord Hidetora in Kurosawa's version of King Lear in 1984's haunting Ran).   Muroto insists upon a duel, and once the duel is accepted, the two stand toward one another, motionless.   It almost seems as if the two will not engage-- but a flash of motion, an explosion of blood, and it's over.   The genius is in the shock, in the "what-the" effect aswe replay in our minds what happened, and so it preys more upon our imaginations.   We've seen it, seen it all, but did we miss something?   It's almost an inversion of Mr. Eliot's note about having the experience but missing the meaning: we've been jolted with the meaning, and we're left wondering if something escaped us, eluded us, tricked us.   But this is how death happens, even when we know it's coming, the result synergistic of what preceded it.   In Star Wars, Lucas understood this, though he came to forget it; Sergio Leone, and to some extent, Misters Hitchcock and Peckinpah understood it, too.   In Kurosawa's films, this is constant, and it keeps his films, particularly his satires, as sharp as the finest samurai swords.   All the better to lacerate you with, my dears.

      Kurosawa, beyond being visually arresting and intellectually provocative, always instilled his movies with a kind of epic passion that somehow manages to traverse even those circumstances in which he seems to underplay or minimize such tendencies.   I remember arguing with a onetime professor of mine about Kurosawa and Eisenstein, he preferring the latter, but for me the question is a no-brainer: Eisenstein was all style and intellect, a cinematic polymath too often desperate to show it (see also Tarantino); Kurosawa had style and intellect, too, but his films always had heart, emotional and visceral dimensions tangible enough to address more universal concerns.   Kurosawa's comic touches work, and they never seem intrusive or indulgent, unlike Eisenstein's awkward and often haughty attempts at same, or Tarantino's clever but often onanistic digressions.   In this regard, although Tarantino would surely object, I see QT not as the heir to the directors of low-pop films of drive-in theatres, but as the new Eisenstein, all style and no heart, encyclopedic in so many ways, but his films finally being as thin as the walls in a Virginia Woolf novel.   Kurosawa had a major contemporary, David Lean, both of them masters of humanizing tales of epic sweep and infusing them with subtle humour, but I cannot think of a legitimate heir to his throne.   (Nor can I think of an heir to Mifune's, most Tough Guy Heroes since too cardboard to qualify.)   Perhaps this says more about me than it does anything else, but Kurosawa's 17th century Japan seems more vivid and more substantial than Eisenstein's 1910s, or even Tarantino's 1990s.   Eisenstein's and Tarantino's worlds seem too artificial by half, too baroque or mock-baroque to cut to the guttural and guttable quick, though Reservoir Dogs is a significant exception to this.   Kurosawa could do High Style as well as anyone, but he knew better than to make style his top priority, and his best films are glorious balancing acts between style and emotional-and-intellectual content.   In many ways, Kurosawa is the filmmaker who has come closest to genuinely Shakespearean sensibilities, though thankfully without a Hamlet quagmire that would have debilitated his sense of action.   No wonder his Shakespearean affinities were with Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and Lear (Ran): it's one thing to contemplate action, it's another to let deliberation become the action in itself.   The guttural and guttable quick awaits.   If it were done, indeed.

      And with all that said, I'm off for more for this samurai weekend. Next up: The Seven Samurai and then Ran, and maybe Kagemusha, if I have time.

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