Conversations with Ben VI
On today's agenda: Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress
I was almost disappointed to discover that this film is much better than I anticipated it would be. Years ago, shopping for records with my brother, I picked up an album by the always great - that's the point - Art Blakey. I asked my (older) brother what he thought of the particular title I was holding and he said - no doubt unfamiliar with the item - "Guy never made a bad record in his life." Is there anything truly bad from Kurosawa? I suspect that even when things are not working for him, there will still be much that is worthwhile. This is hardly relevant for our topic today, mind you, because everything seems to be working pretty darn well in HF. I was biased against the film because of its reputation as the inspiration for Star Wars. But there have been quite a few Western take-offs of Kurosawa. What bearing does it have on HF that Lucas' take-off proved to spawn the movie equivalent of McDonald's?
I am going to quote a line from the liner notes in order to agree with it but before I register this agreement I will beat up the semantics of the line for being redundant. This criticism provides me with an opportunity to take up my beef with the notion of genre. Then I will attend to the film.
Armond White writes: "Yet HF proves most distinctive when not merely reduced to genre type but rather appreciated for Kurosawa's unique, excited exhibition of nature and different human characters."
"Genre type" is redundant. Genre means genus, class, kind, sort, etc. - duh - type. To say that something "proves most distinctive when not merely reduced to genre" is redundant and might only sound otherwise by the rhetorical use of the superlative. Once it is removed, the redundancy is plain. To reduce something to its group association is precisely to set aside whatever features it has that make it distinct from this group, to overlook whatever makes it unique. This crappy writing allows me to pinpoint my objection to the category of genre in film criticism. It's not that I refuse to recognize that there are certain types of movies, (or literary narratives for that matter, and so on.) It is rather that I will not accept the identification of conventions as an excuse for the lack of anything distinctive about the work. The meaning of a work has to be internally generated. Of course, nothing is absolutely unique. A demand for such is asocial and ahistorical, an insistence on the creativity of God. But the work with some genuine meaning, perhaps even universal meaning, finds this meaning in its own special way. The auteur model is exemplary because it provides individuality to the point of personal expression. But I'm not such a snob as to expect this every time out. I just don't want genre to be a cover for stuff that only makes sense if we lean heavily on conventions externally established, with basically no internally generated meaning of its own. Few tailors can craft a garment as distinctively as Kurosawa and I will certainly try on their clothing. I just don't want to wear anything off the rack.
Alright, thank you for indulging me. Returning to the correctness of White's statement, I think he hits on the head two of the three great nails in HF. The excited exhibition of nature is not an overstatement. The film is set entirely in the great outdoors. Even the end of the film showing the princess restored to the throne is not a true interior shot. The room is missing a wall, looks out to the courtyard where the two clowns (my third nail) remain under the open sky. The title of the film is ironic insofar as we never enter the little buildings of the fortress. Of course, these shacks are mere symbols of territorial possession, the actual fortress is a great, barren cleavage in the earth. Yet, the woods and water are but a twist away. Realistic? No. The place is enchanted. I can dig it. I was enchanted. And this is cool because the film is a comedy. Not just because of the humor provided by the two clowns. More deeply, because we just know that our good guys will succeed, the happy ending is never in doubt. Ultimately, their social trials and tribulations notwithstanding, the heavens are aligned in their favor. The natural world is benign, if not downright bountiful. Hence, the bonfire scene - more than just a plot device - is also more than the existential chant White mentions. They don't just chant, they dance their asses off in a full-out pagan party. (Reminded me of that business in Rubalev - except fun!) No wonder the princess - undergoing her own High And Low awakening, getting down with the masses - would not have traded her life for the sensual adventure she experienced.
White also speaks of the different human characters in the film and again, I think this is correct and what makes the film rich entertainment. But for me it is really the two clowns who constitute the human core of the film. Contrary to Lucas' take in the Special Features interview, HF is not told from the perspective of the clowns. They are not physically present in all the scenes of the film. But beyond this prosaic point, they are commented upon as much as they comment in the narrative. Perhaps what Lucas was attempting to indicate is the deeper orientation of the film as a comedy. I have already said that I mean this beyond the ha-ha funny schtick the clowns provide. Call me an over-reaching twit if you must, but damn if I didn't think of Vladimir and Estragon watching those two fools in HF. No doubt, Beckett's universe is a bit bleaker, just a bit, (kill me please!); Kurosawa's benevolent natural environment shelters the existential predicament from tilting towards despair. Still, the existential predicament is those two Japanese peasant schmucks repeatedly stepping on each other dick. You gotta laugh at them... at life.
Fun and funny film, really liked it. Kurosawa on the Yiddish side. And as always, his marvelous shots. I won't criticise the aristocratic duel this time. It serves the plot in a made-for-kids way and I like to think that Kurosawa himself is mocking the convention.
At this point time-constraints necessitate that I focus on one aspect of the film you mentioned at the end of your review. I think that you are correct about the duel, the lone concession to the samurai flick here, in that Kurosawa is not using it as an action sequence per se. I mean, there's action in it, sure, but notice how much of it takes place off- (or just off to the side of the) screen (behind the banners) and notice also how it is much, much longer--and, as a result, less urgent--than your standard samurai duel. Remember the duel in Seven Samurai between the belligerent opponent and the expert swordsman? The duel takes several minutes to set up, but is over in three seconds. While the audience probably didn't expect the duel in Hidden Fortress to be over in the blink of an eye, neither (I'm betting) did they anticipate it going on for--what was it? Five minutes? Seven minutes? Maybe more. And then to have it end without the death of the antagonist. Talk about messing with audience expectation. I doubt that this is done purely for the novelty effect, but rather to expand upon themes he is developing in the story. Also, while Mifune's refusal to kill his highly respected opponent does return to help him, in karmac fashion, later in the story, but again, I don't think Kurosawa includes the scene merely to set up a later plot twist. He must be trying to tell us something more, perhaps about the roles of these soldiers in their world, and the effect that such ritualized violence, which has done much to define who they are in this society, has upon them. I don't think their hearts are really in this fight. Neither man is fighting to win (to kill their opponent) but rather they are going through the motions (in quite a beautiful way. I return again to my analogy to ballet with swords. Or pikes. Or whatever weapons they were using) in order to appear like they were fulfilling their duties without actually having to commit a coup de grace upon the opponent. At some level, they've had enough of the killing, even if they aren't quite ready to lay down their weapons. I know that Kurosawa was a fan of French director Jean Renoir, and in one of Renoir's greatest films, The Grand Illusion, there is a confrontation (that I won't detail here, as I don't wanna spoil the experience if you haven't seen the film. Yes, it is in my library) between two aristocratic officers, one French, one German (played by Erich vonStroheim) that I'm betting was an inspiration for AK in this scene. In K's film these are men of similarly aristocratic backgrounds who would, if their countries were not at war, sit together and share a bottle of sake.
But, while Mifune's masculinity and athleticism muscles the film's action, it is those two hapless peasants who wring the emotions out of the film. And again, I love how K toys with expectation. They are mostly pretty unlikable characters, willing to turn on the other in a moment's notice, obsessed by their desire for wealth, and awfully cowardly in most life-threatening situations. Not the kind of people you'd usually build a story around. At least, not unless you planned to have them undergo an amazing transformation into heroic figures by the story's end. Does K give us that? Not really. In the end, they've changed, but it is only really a marginal evolution of character, so that cannot really be held up as evidence. Yet, we continue to pull for this pair throughout the entire movie. How does K do it? The guy's some kinda goddamned genius.
More on Estragon and Vladmir later. I have a gathering of friends to attend, from which I will probably return suffering from the early stages of a hangover. I have no willpower to resist the lure of good wine. Or even half-decent wine, for that matter.
Took me a minute to figure out which review of mine, and therefore which film, you are addressing. Should have paid attention to the "Subject" box. Unfortunately for you, I can't stop myself from talking yet again.
I am glad you reminded me about the banners in the fight scene. I was not sure what to make of them but I was sure that we are supposed to make something of them. It's not just a looks-cool thing. Is it too much to see them as a Brechtian demystification of theatrical technique in general and staged violence in particular? Probably. For a change I'll try not to over-intellectualize and just stick with my first notion, Kurosawa is mocking the convention. He was instrumental in cultivating the convention in the first place so there is some self-parody I guess.
You refer to Renior's The Grand Illusion (haven't seen it) to offer an example of the potential for class to transcend national rivalry but for embroiled military engagement. Sometimes this is applied to humanity in general to deliver an all-purpose pacifist moral. But even when it is, it don't impress me much. It remains an aristocratic luxury already contained in the category of the duel. The case of a couple of elite warriors who are ready to study-war-no-more is neither here nor there. Because they have this option in the first place. The heart of my critique of the duel is that aristocrats are not forced to fight. That job falls to the workers. And it falls to them the way Randall Jarrell tells it in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Aristocrats play at war. The duel is the categorical representation of this play. It's a symbolic ritual about honor, the honor of those who don't have to work for a living and have the privilege to die at the hand of one their class equals rather than in a mass of unknown soldiers. Or not die, even better, when this stupid war is over, let's do lunch. I'm having none of it, especially on this Remembrance Day weekend. You are right to deem the artistic depiction of the duel as ballet if you have in mind the original court ballet of Louis XIV - an abomination of natural movement, codifying stylized gestures, signifying social status, in a domain of decadence so pronounced, shucks, it's no wonder the next generation couldn't duel its way past the revolutionary guillotine.
I like to think that Kurosawa is making fun of his samurai-movie-mogul reputation in HF because this aspect of his oeuvre doesn't sit well with me. Frankly, I think it is an unfortunate, reactionary violation of his outstanding realism and relatively solid humanism. I think it is a problem in his political consciousness that he never confronted directly, more troubling than just a failure to get past an adolescent macho fixation (that's Tarrantino). On what grounds do I say this? The Seven Sammys baby! There isn't a drop of aristocratic bullshit in that film. Jesus, it's a war movie Trotsky could have endorsed! Talk about your collective effort. And the single one-on-one scrap, you have already recounted its details. It's an anti-duel, the interjection of reality into the form and hence its deconstruction. Indiana Jones also realistically deconstructs the duel when he simply shoots the man with the bullwhip. The only difficulty there is that this seemingly democratic comedic scene is in fact based in racist, techno-militarist, US supremacist ideology. In the Seven, there is such a thing as military expertise and this expertise is established through the anti-duel. But this is not the last word in the essay on expertise. For the expert - no aristocratic hero, never mind invincible superhero - perishes in the end. War is not an honor dance and ten guys can kick the shit out of anyone.
Yeah, baby. "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner" Great poem.
Of course I agree with you regarding the sham of aristocratic honour in war, but I'm not so sure that is what Renoir or Kurosawa is up to here. Sticking with the film at hand, I think the battle of the aristocrats is something a bit more interesting than that, in that K seems to be suggesting that the whole duel thing is a sham as well. Neither man wants to fight, but must because it is expected of them. How else can they command their men if they don't fight? So, they put on a good show, go through the motions, but in the end Mifune is unwilling to administer the requisite coup de grace. He no longer has an interest in killing. The film's a comedy, so that is probably not a particularly startling development, but it's there nonetheless.
But yes, the presentation of battle is much more interesting in 7Sam, and not just cuz of the more egalitarian politics.
We agree that the fight scene in HF is some sort of mockery, parody, deconstruction, internal critique, what have you, of the duel. You are analyzing how this what-have-you communicates itself as a going-through-the-motions respectful tipping-of-the-hat between the why-can't-we-be-friends? opponents. I am telling you that this doesn't register with me one way or the other because as members of the aristocratic ruling class it is sociologically given that they are at bedrock sympathetic to each other. Whether they fight or fuck, same difference. And if they fight, whether they pull back at the last minute or take it to the limit, same difference again. It's all the same dance of honor between partners in a performance, a mutual recognition sock-hop. In short, they - not as persons but as representatives of their class - are not really opponents.
This is my theoretical position on the duel, categorically speaking that is, or if you prefer, in terms of a genre convention. I'm having none of it. I have spent a lot of time barking about this because my theoretical position informs my evaluation of the artistic presentation of violence in general. In other words, it's back to political ideology. The most liberalism can offer is a critique of violence as gratuitous, valid but not adequate and often hypocritical. Because inevitably pacifist absolutism can withstand practical existence for about five minutes and it becomes essential for the liberal to point to certain violence as not gratuitous but in fact necessary. Time to draft the workers and trumpet the glory of war. But militaristic campaigns will only prove successful if a culture of violence is constantly maintained. Above and beyond quantitatively excessive presentations of violence, the qualitative dimension involves a number a key features. The sanitation of violence, the hands-off technologization of violence, and more.
Enter my critique of the duel. A conservative atavistic tactic or reactionary retrieval of an aristocratic paradigm, the duel - as I have been barking - presents violence as a (enough with the ballet) personal contest between equals on a level playing field, a sporting match. I. Am. Having. None. Of. It. Period samurai, mythical cowboy, science fiction outerspace, dragnet in New York - I will not eat them on a train, I will not eat them in the rain; I do not like them Sam-I-Am... And this is just my Marxist critique. There is also the equally valid feminist critique. Furthermore, these two may be integrated. But enough.
Really, I hope it is enough. Otherwise I would have to think that I am incapable of saying what I mean and meaning what I say. I promise to take a break from this topic for as long as I possibly can. The Duel is done. And since I am making promises (that I probably won't be able to keep), I declare a moratorium on Genre and its Conventions as well.. That's progress. If I could just stop talking about myself too, we'd really get somewhere.
I am mostly in concurrence with your instinctual and intellectual response to this scene. My attempt was to understand what K was up to here; it might come off as rationalizing his flaws, but I hope not. I do feel there's more to this scene than you get at first glance, and I think that Mifune's unwillingness to kill his opponent IS important, and not just cuz he lives to save the day later. Mifune's refusal to kill his opponent is also a deep humiliation to the man, is it not? I know this is all honour-bound aristocratic wanking in your book, but since the story's following the flight of a pair of such individuals for most of its running time, I think we hafta take matters such as this into consideration. Still, as I mentioned, I think you are basically on target regarding the scene's impact upon most aware audiences--it is not particularly moving or involving, and hopefully that was intentional on K's part. I mean, he has to realize that it is the peasant whose story moves and involves us. The general and the princess or mostly window dressing.
Wait for it now. Are you ready? Here it comes:
I agree with you.
Whoa. I'll alert the media.
So, how does K keep us pulling for these often much less than admirable peasants throughout the picture anyways?
By the way, I do plan to answer this apparently rhetorical question. Mebbe after dinner, unless I have too much wine. But I'm thinking the fact that the peasants are at the absolute end of their tether--no food or even water--and yet manage to retain, beneath all the agitation, a basic comradery and a real lust for life and refusal to surrender to the apparently hopeless situation that is their life all plays a big part in retaining audience support for these characters throughout. More later. Hopefully.
Okay, I'm back.
So, as you mentioned, the film takes place pretty much entirely in the great outdoors, which is a clue as to how to look at our peasants. It is, after all, their mileux. These are not indoor cats. But neither are they creatures of war, but rather like the witches in Macbeth, the scavengers who come along afterwards and clean up on the mess. Except these two have not been particularly good at the job, and are now returning home empty-handed and at wit's end.
But, while near death, they are, as the lads from Monty Python might say, not dead yet--a point driven home by the death of a fleeing samurai soldier right before their (and our) eyes. They are not even worthy of a samurai's spear, it seems, as the killers ride away, leaving the victim to be plundered by our hero.
It's at this point the film takes an interesting twist, as the peasants accidentally discover the hidden bar of gold, and suddenly it looks like A Treasure of Sierra Madre, Japanese-style. Except Kurosawa will have none of Huston's conventional (Christian) moralizing in his tale. Instead, we are given a much more dynamic contrast between the artifice of social obligations (the general and the princess) and the earthy and compelling struggle of these two men's determination to survive in a hostile environment. So, while the general is determined to return the princess to her home and throne, this is a quest borne out of his position which does not engage us (or the general, for that matter--this is not a quest that comes from an innate human urge) in the way that the life and death struggle of Matashichi and Tahei does. And when the general tries to apply some sort of moral imperative on the pair--he argues that they'll continue to do what he wants because they are "greedy"--it feels false and unfair because it is not something as cheap as simple greed that motivates them, but rather a more human need--they don't want to return to their village empty handed, as it would be humiliating. Factor into this the obvious fact that this pair is clearly about as dirt-poor as you can get, and I think Kurosawa has provided plenty of reason for us to pull for them, despite the fact that they bicker and often turn on each other like a pair of old farts in the Legion.
We haven't even talked about the wonderful look of the film. I am in awe of the Potemkin reference in the oversized steps sequences, for instance. And the terrific ambush--as the guards wander past the apparently sleeping prisoners, only to be overwhelmed (anticipating your comment, you've gotta like the prisoner's odds here) by them, well that's a great subversion of expectations and a stirring political message for those so inclined to find one.
Yeah, as is always the case with Kurosawa, the more I talk about it, the more I admire the film and kinda wonder why we don't have a Kurosawa altar at which to worship. After all, this is one temple I'd actually attend.