Saturday, February 23, 2008

Working on a map last night, I listened to Stephen Prince's commentary for Red Beard. Prince's analysis was primarily focused on two aspects of the movie that connect it to Kurosawa's other films; the master and pupil relationship, and the use of physical illness to reflect psychological or social trauma, as in Drunken Angel and Ikiru (I neglected to talk about either aspect in my own analysis of Red Beard).

During a scene featuring the aftermath of a terrible earthquake, Prince recounts a story about Kurosawa that I've heard a few times and have always found fascinating--the director's experience, at the age of thirteen, of surviving the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923;

Tokyo and Yokohama were densely packed industrial areas and a hundred and forty thousand people were killed in the destruction and resulting fires. The quake measured 8.3 with its epicentre southwest of Tokyo. And even for Japan, which is located in one of the world's most active earthquake zones, the devastation was enormous . . . The quake hit just before noon. Kurosawa had gone downtown that morning to visit a bookstore and he was never sure afterward how he had managed to escape the fire and destruction . . . Kurosawa rushed home, thinking that his parents were surely dead. But they had survived, and his older brother, Heigo, persuaded him to go back into the city so they could view the destruction. This trip with Heigo became one of the central and defining passages in Kurosawa's life. Heigo was four years older than Akira, and Kurosawa adored this brother and worshiped him as the kind of wise and powerful master that Kurosawa would go on to create in so many characters like Red Beard.

Kurosawa recalled that he and Heigo saw a burned landscape as far as they could see filled with corpses, charred black, some half burned, corpses in gutters, in rivers, on bridges, and in the street. There was every manner of death that a human being could experience. Akira turned away, but his brother said, "Look carefully, now." They stood by the Sumidagawa River and saw the banks choked with corpses. Kurosawa thought it was like the lake of blood in a Buddhist hell.

The river was swollen with naked, bloated bodies. Kurosawa started to faint . . . but Heigo held him up and said, "Look carefully, Akira." That night, after he and Heigo returned home, he slept soundly, and with no bad dreams. Surprised, he told Heigo about this, and his brother explained in a way that provided Kurosawa with the philosophy of art and life that he carried with him ever after. Heigo said, "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of." The journey with Heigo had been a trip to banish fear, the kind of trial by fire to which Kurosawa would subject his filmic heroes, and whose outcome is a state of enlightenment.

I suppose one of the reasons this story interests me so much is that I completely agree with this philosophy. Which is probably one of the reasons I like Kurosawa's movies so much.

I guess the antithesis of this philosophy would be Fred Madison's in Lost Highway, but this gives me an opportunity to mention that that movie is finally getting released on DVD in the U.S. on March 25. It's about damned time.

Yesterday I also downloaded the first ten episodes of the 1978 anime series, Galaxy Express 999, which I'd been wanting to see for about ten years, ever since I saw an English dubbed version of the movie on the Sci-Fi channel. The first episode of the television series exceeded by expectations by about twenty miles. And several episodes are available on YouTube--I highly recommend watching this (the subtitles are easier to read after the theme song ends);

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