Few directors of the last century have possessed as refined and self-aware a sense of visual impact as Akira Kurosawa, so his switch from making black and white films to color could not possibly be a mere aesthetic whim. Kurosawa’s turn to color symbolized the beginning of the final phase of his career, a tumultuous period less characterized by genre hopping and compact storytelling than by epic scopes and bold visual palettes.
The 1964 film Red Beard was the last movie that Kurosawa shot in black and white, and it was also the last film he made with longtime lead actor Toshiro Mifune (similar to the way that Scorsese hasn’t worked with De Niro in nearly two decades). Red Beard culminated the “Golden Age” of Kurosawa, a period theoretically starting with Rashomon in 1950, and running through such black and white classics as Ikiru, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and High and Low. Each of these films built upon the domestic box office success and critical approbation of its predecessors, to the point that Kurosawa must have been nearly paralyzed with fear and anxiety at the idea of topping himself.
Perhaps trying to escape the island-bound media bubble of Japan, Kurosawa followed Red Beard with a couple of brief but unfruitful Hollywood flirtations. He was slated to direct an American production of Runaway Train, the existential (and pretty entertaining) actioner eventually made in 1985 with Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca de Mornay, and Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. Kurosawa also wasted several years developing the Japanese portion of the Pearl Harbor movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, only to get shit-canned a few weeks into production. Both of these projects were to be his color debut.
Kurosawa finally made his color debut in 1970 with Dodes’ka-Den, a film that was made very quickly with a newly formed production company, although they disbanded when the movie sank at the box office and flopped with Japanese critics. Dodes’ka-Den is a very bleak film that corresponds to the bleakest period in Kurosawa’s life – in 1971, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slicing his wrists and neck. Made for the Russians, his 1975 followup Dersu Uzala was a minor critical success that was fairly ignored in Kurosawa’s home country.
Fortunately for his reputation, Kurosawa was “rediscovered” by Western audiences with the assistance of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who helped to produce the historical epics Kagemusha and Ran. Coming at the end of his career, and with the star director associations, those two films cemented his reputation as a master of the panoramic image, and they are a big reason that people generally associate Kurosawa with his battle epics rather than with his crime films or his psychological dramas.
In this festival, we will review 3 of Kurosawa’s color films:
*Film #1: Dodes’ka-Den (1970) – review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, September 8
*Film #2: Dersu Uzala (1975) – review by Mike Dub on Wednesday, September 10
*Film #3: Kagemusha (1980) – review by Daniel Barnes on Monday, September 15