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Kurosawa in the 21st Century

Daisuke Miyao talks with audience members following his lecture on Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in Houston on Sept. 12, 2010. (Asia Society Texas Center)

Daisuke Miyao talks with audience members following his lecture on Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in Houston on Sept. 12, 2010. (Asia Society Texas Center)

HOUSTON, September 12, 2010 - Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa's genius lay in his ability to revivify older movie genres while reflecting the social tensions of his own time and introducing technical innovations that propelled filmmaking into the future.

That was the theme of Professor Daisuke Miyao's illustrated lecture Kurosawa in the 21st Century, which inaugurated the Kurosawa @100 film series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Asia Society Texas Center partnered with the MFAH and four other Houston groups to present the 23-film retrospective, which continues through December and celebrates the centenary of the filmmaker's birth.

In creating such samurai classics as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Kurosawa drew on an older, silent-era tradition of Japanese swashbucklers, said Miyao, who teaches film studies at the University of Oregon.

"Kurosawa, when he was kid in the 1920s, was a big fan of jidaigeki, or period dramas with sword-fighting samurais," Miyao said. Studying these movies taught Kurosawa, among other things, how to stage fast-moving, complex fight scenes.

"Films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai were his dream project to re-create the excitement of silent-period sword-fighting films."

Although set in Japan's feudal past, these 1920s films had "speed and spectacle" that appealed especially to young people who welcomed Japan's growing urbanization and modernization, Miyao said.

But jidaigeki films fell on harder times in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Japanese ultranationalists frowned on them because of their debt to the American swashbuckler tradition, while the post-World War II American Occupation government viewed them as glorifying Japanese militarism. In 1937, 324 jidaigeki films were produced; in 1947, only eight. Miyao noted.

"This was the condition that Kurosawa wanted to challenge, so to speak. He wanted to revive the excitement of jidaigeki after the Occupation period." Kurosawa brought out Seven Samurai, widely regarded as one of his greatest films, in 1954.

Ironically, while swords were virtually banned from films during the late 1940s, "pistols were okay," Miyao said segueing into a discussion of Stray Dog, Kurosawa's 1949 detective film that screened after his lecture.

Particularly through formal devices such as the play of light and shadow, Kurosawa dramatized the sense of a divided self many Japanese experienced during the Occupation years, he said.

Miyao concluded with a brief discussion of Kurosawa's innovative, forward-looking techniques, including voiceover, music as counterpoint to image, and multiple-perspective narration. Rashomon (1950), which famously employed the last, ushered in the rage for foreign art films in the United States, Miyao said.

As evidence of Kurosawa's continuing vitality and influence on global culture, Miyao observed that in June the Oregon Shakespeare Festival brought one literary tale full circle, mounting a stage adaptation of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's film remake of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Reported by Fritz Lanham, Asia Society Texas Center