Sunday, September 11, 2016

Akira Kurosawa and Modernity

The Japanese have always been proud of their ancient heritage. Their heritage, dating back centuries, strikes notes of insularity, tradition, and conformity. With the advent of industrialization and the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, that heritage became more and more subject to the forms and influences of modernity. Japan by this point, was forced to navigate a middle course between the reliability of the past and the progressiveness and promise of the future. It has been a perplexing dilemma for the Japanese people that will probably never reach an ultimate resolution.

The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa took on the burden of trying to answer this quandary throughout the span of his memorable career. The debate between tradition and modernity had lain in Kurosawa’s mind for the duration of his professional life. As far back as his earliest days as a relative unknown in the Japanese wartime film industry, Japan’s agonizing over tradition and modernity lurked in the back of Kurosawa's creative brain. And while he would put it into visual and semiotic form in his works, Kurosawa would never take clear sides with either position. Like all such deliberations, the director would allude to the positive and negative aspects of the traditional and modern consciousnesses.

Kurosawa, one of the most modern of Japanese directors, refused to accept modernity as an absolute and final reality. A serious rift emerged between Kurosawa and modernity as it was applied to Japanese culture and as it gave rise to profound technological advancements. Although ironically perceived by a chorus of Japanese critics as a director who was too Western for their indigenous tastes, Kurosawa had reservations about Japan’s ability, as well as his own, to cope with modernity’s demands and pressures on its revered cultural traditions.

Kurosawa did not possess some inherent enmity towards modernity. He did after all, share a passion for two of modernity’s progeny, the concepts of individualism and democracy. However, like another agnostic of modernity who was his literary contemporary, Yukio Mishima, Kurosawa was consumed with its paradoxes and contradictions. That is, modernity’s inadequacies and propensity to overreach beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable to a society steeped in tradition.

Not that he wanted in principle to live in the past. Kurosawa, probably more so than Mishima, took for granted that Japan’s traditional past was indeed a thing of the past, something that could be revisited, revered, and remembered, but never relived. For one to be critical of modernity does not mean having to regress to the past. One can look back at it fondly while actively, but vigilantly pursuing a modern agenda.

Despite having a unity of purpose and a single-minded determination as a director, Kurosawa pursued a general course of ambivalence in the case concerning tradition versus modernity, at least in his earlier films. In avoiding diverting his attitude completely towards one sensibility or the other, Kurosawa, almost in dialectical fashion, introduced a cinematic frontier that yielded characters who were springs of individualistic priorities and values, but who were also children of the very tradition they were, consciously or subconsciously, becoming ever more blind to.

Being the cinematic genius he was, Kurosawa made a name for himself by credulously employing these individual characters against the traps and pitfalls that come with modern life, as he did in such films as "Yojimbo," "Ikiru," "Dersu Uzala," and "Ran". He remained forever attached to the notion that you could accentuate human individuality, traditionally a foreign concept in Japanese society, and still discover that same individuality to be captive to the more socially-collective concerns of modernity and its consequences.

Decidedly apprehensive of modernity’s creeping intrusion in Japanese life, Kurosawa co-opted the trappings and the respect accorded to Japanese tradition. He availed himself to the truism that legions of Japanese, particularly older Japanese, could not dull their sense of socio-cultural tradition, that venerated tradition which coursed through their veins and through the veins of the generations that preceded them. Unlike many of his fellow Japanese however, Kurosawa understood the merits and benefits of modernity and incorporated as many of them as he could in his works.

Kurosawa confronted the fact that what is called the “fluidity of modernity” had shaken Japanese society to the core. The question he had tried to answer was whether that core had been shaken out of its historical stasis for the better or had Japan’s traditional pillars of social stability been slowly but surely stripped away.

A main locus that is to be found in Kurosawa’s movies is the juncture at which he embodies Japan’s purgatorial vision of modernity. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his book “Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema,” writes that the director showed a propensity for using transitional periods in Japanese history as the backdrops for many of his movies. Kurosawa’s "The Hidden Fortress," "Seven Samurai," and "Throne of Blood" are derived from his earlier "jidaigeki" or period dramas which generally encompassed Japan’s tumultuous medieval and Edo periods (roughly the 16th to 19th centuries).

The late Tokugawa period (late 19th century) followed the premodern era. By this time, Japan was being remolded by Western influences. "Yojimbo" and its sequel "Sanjuro" originated out of this historical context, which reflects Japan in yet another state of flux.

The canvas for the next transitional stage covers the post-World War Two years when a war-exhausted Japan lay in ruins. Films none other than the stark "Stray Dog" and the unforgettable "Drunken Angel"l came into the public purview during this reconstructive period. In line with Kurosawa’s contextual demands on Japanese history, a telling measure of the tensions postwar Japan would have with the modern bureaucratic and corporate capitalistic state structure comes to light in his more contemporary films "The Bad Sleep Well," "Ikiru," and "High and Low".

All of Kurosawa’s films and the historical contexts they evoke share something else in common. As indicators of the historical periods they are derived from, Kurosawa’s films were affected by historical milieus that simultaneously posited both the perils and promise of modernity. While it may be possible to overstate, or even understate, Kurosawa’s seemingly conflicted relationship with modernity, towards the end of his life the precarious balance between tradition and modernity started to shift as he finally began to feel increasingly regretful about the former and discontented with the latter. This sentiment was featured in Kurosawa’s two late sweeping jidaigeki epics, "Kagemusha" and "Ran".

As a footnote: Kurosawa’s vacillation with modernity is reminiscent of another groundbreaking artist in his own right. Some three centuries before in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare also wrestled with the threshold of modernity in his plays. With the beginning of the decline of the medieval era, Shakespeare took advantage of Queen Elizabeth I’s vital appreciation of the arts and, like Kurosawa, thrived in the shaded intersection that lies between tradition and modernity. This dynamic is what helped drive their creative processes as we know them, and inspire their respective conceptions of a new generation of artistic expressivity.


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