A prismatic look at the esteemed filmmaker’s life.
In his masterpiece Rashomon (1950), Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) presents contradictory stories about a murder in 12th-century Japan, as told by several witnesses. For viewers, notes film scholar Anderer (Humanities/Columbia Univ.; editor: Literature of the Lost Home: Kobayashi Hideo—Literary Criticism, 1924-1939, 1995, etc.) in his sensitive investigation of Kurosawa’s life, the retellings create “a horrifying gap between our words and images about the world and the world itself.” The author successfully uses a strategy similar to Kurosawa’s in focusing on forces that shaped Kurosawa’s art, and a complicated, enigmatic, and unsettling portrait emerges. The filmmaker seemed determined to obscure his past; in his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography (1982), he never told “the whole story” about his family life, including his older brother, Heigo, who could be abusive and manipulative but also protective and nurturing. After a restless, rebellious adolescence, Heigo became a successful benshi, a performer who narrated silent movies, taking characters’ voices and adding “lyrical riffs, ironical asides, or mood-inducing groans, shrieks, and whispers.” He was “fanatical” about movies, taking his brother to see the black-and-white films of the 1920s that later indelibly inspired him. But Heigo’s influence went beyond aesthetics: in 1933, when movies incorporated sound, Heigo’s career was over. He led a strike, but when it failed, he killed himself. Reports of his suicide, however, were inconsistent, leaving Kurosawa to wonder if he had been despondent over work or a love affair; if he killed himself with his lover; if he had a child, and if the child lived or died. Anderer also traces other dark forces in Kurosawa’s life, including the great earthquake of 1923, which destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama, and “the hollowed-out emptiness” of postwar Japan. The author gives enough details about Rashomon to suffice for readers who have not seen that film or others that he examines from Kurosawa’s oeuvre.
Perceptive insights about the mysterious heart of a legendary movie and its maker.