The 2017 Sydney Film Festival inches closer and closer (it’s next month!) and as it does, so does Mr. David Stratton’s traditional classic retrospective. Last year’s program being classic Scorsese, this year’s being classic Kurosawa.
And since the absolutely fantastic people at the Sydney Film Festival are angels in disguise, they gave me the opportunity to interview the distinguished Mr. Stratton via phone call, regarding this upcoming ten-film retrospective.
Here is the (edited) transcript of said interview;
Do you recall your first Kurosawa experience? What sort of impact did it have on you?
I saw one of my first Kurosawa films in about 1957. It was at a film society in Birmingham in the UK and it had a tremendous effect on me. I’d never seen anything like it before. When you see Seven Samurai for the first time it’s just such an extraordinary experience anyway. If you’re not familiar with films from a totally different culture you might find it all a bit daunting to start with. But there’s nothing really daunting about Seven Samurai because the story is so lucidly told and it’s such a great story. Kurosawa was influenced very much by Hollywood westerns and particularly the work of John Ford, so there is that familiarity. That film made a great impression and when I started my own film society in my hometown a couple of years later, I screened it at the very first program I put together.
As you may notice, I kept my questions short as I know the man has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of film and that he’d be more than willing to unleash as much of that knowledge as possible. So for every word I said, he’d respond with around forty more (which was fine with me).
If I’d never seen any Kurosawa film and could only come to see one of the ten films you’re showing for the Sydney Film Festival, which one would you recommend as an introduction to Kurosawa?
It’s so hard to just to pick one. Seven Samurai would be a pretty good selection I guess. It is long but it is so brilliantly staged and photographed and it has such great actors. It’s also exciting and suspenseful, and so intriguing in many ways. However it is quite a long film and so Rashomon would be a great place to start at around 90 minutes. Rashomon was the film that really introduced Kurosawa in 1951. At that time Japanese films were really unknown in the west and then Rashomon screened at the Venice film festival and it was instantly a classic. It’s a very intriguing story. It’s set in medieval Japan and it’s a story of a murder and a court case. A man is accused of murdering another man and raping his wife but the intriguing thing about it is there’s no one truth and different witnesses tell completely different versions of what actually happened. It leaves the audience to work out where the truth really lies. It’s a very intriguing and interesting plot which has been copied since, but I think Kurosawa did it first. He shoots his films in such a physical and elemental way that it makes them visually, very arresting right from the start.
If I were to recommend a Kurosawa film to introduce you to his work, I’d probably pick Yojimbo but that’s just me. Back to the interview;
Rashomon seems to have a complete lack of objectivity.
Yes, it’s a remarkable film and like Seven Samurai, it has a great scene set in the rain. I think almost every Kurosawa film has a scene in drowning rain and he clearly loved filming rainstorms and there’s something very powerful about the way he handles scenes like that.
More analysation on that here.
Kurosawa’s films have often grown legacies of their own and two films in particular, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo spawned famous remakes; Seven Samurai had The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo had A Fistful of Dollars.
Rashomon was remade as well as a Hollywood film called The Outrage and starred Paul Newman. His films have certainly spawned remakes and I think that’s because he himself was so influenced by Hollywood and in particular the films of John Ford. He loved Hollywood westerns and that helped make them accessible. Sergio Leone was not a Hollywood filmmaker but an Italian filmmaker and on the lookout, always, for good stories. The curious thing about A Fistful of Dollars is that Leone didn’t make any attempt to get the rights to remake Yojimbo and so there was a bit of a legal wrangle after the film came out. It was a big success and it you’ve ever seen the two films clumped together, Yojimbo and then A Fistful of Dollars, you’ll see that Leone took even lines of dialogue from the Japanese film.
I honestly feel ashamed that I didn’t bother to Google that beforehand.
Would you say that Kurosawa has had an impact on you in the way that you view cinema?
I think Kurosawa is one of the great directors and that, in itself means that the films he’s made have made such an impression. You have to say that he’s had an influence. His work is so vital, so physical and so powerful.
Kurosawa directed 30 feature films during his career and you’ve selected 10 for this program. Were there any which almost made the cut?
I should think probably the other 20. His films are all great, some obviously, I suppose greater than others but any one of them is worth seeing. It’s very hard to choose just 10. Partly the choice at the end came down to the availability of prints. Most of them were 35mm prints, because that’s the way the Sydney Film Festival likes to show their retrospectives, and they’re not so easy to access. Certainly there would be one or two films that I’d love to have included but you’ve got to make difficult choices when you have 10 films out of 30 to choose from. I’m very pleased with the selection. I’m pleased that we’ve got many of his greatest films in the program. They are the films that influenced other filmmakers. One of the key films in terms of influence is The Hidden Fortress which is a samurai action film set in medieval times. It inspired George Lucas to make Star Wars. The basic plot of The Hidden Fortress is not that far away from the basic plot of the original Star Wars.
The two bumbling fools at the beginning of The Hidden Fortress resemble C3-PO and R2.
Yes, exactly. There is a princess and the warrior, or Harrison Ford role, is played by Mifune. One of the extraordinary things about Kurosawa’s career is that after making all these wonderful films that were very popular and successful worldwide is that he only had to make one film that was a disappointment at the box office, Dodes’ka-den from 1970, and then he could not get the finance to work again. Throughout the 70s, after making all these amazing films in the 50s and 60s, he made just one more film after Dodes’ka-den and that was in Russia and that was Dersu Uzala. Throughout the 80s he only made two films and he wouldn’t have made those if not for the support and backing of George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s just amazing that such an important and influential director had so much trouble financing his work during two decades.
Did you ever meet him?
I met him more than once and he was a very gentle, quiet, soft-spoken man. He was very tall and had a charming smile. His English wasn’t that good and my Japanese was non-existent, but it was a pleasure to meet him. When I was the director of the Sydney Film Festival for a number of years, Kurosawa was still making films and we showed many of his films at the festival when they first came out. In 1971 I arranged a retrospective of Akira Kurosawa films. He was going to attend and we were going to show Dodes’ka-den which was new then. Unfortunately, he was unable to come at the last minute and it was a great disappointment. We went ahead and showed the films of course but he just wasn’t able to make it and so I met him in the negotiations leading up to that. I met him once in India and I went to the world premiere of Ran which was held in Tokyo in 1985 which was his last really great film.
Do you have any ideas on your next retrospective?
There are so many possibilities. A lot will depend on the availability of prints and once we’ve decided that there’s a good chance of getting prints from the films of a particular director, whoever it might be, then there’ll be plenty of other possibilities in the future.
If I chose someone for a retrospective, it’d probably be Stephen King BUT AGAIN, THAT’S JUST ME.
HUGE THANKS to the Sydney Film Festival for hooking that up and also HUGE THANKS to the magnificent Mr. Stratton for his time!
David Stratton is presenting 10 films for this year’s retrospective, 10 films all directed by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. For dates and times, click here.