Friday, August 21, 2009

Toshiro in the Rain

I have never been a movie star devotee. Thinking too much about people I don't know personally feels voyeuristic, like driving slowly in a residential neighborhood so you can look in the windows. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered I was madly in love with Toshiro Mifune. I couldn't explain this reaction, and I didn't tell anyone, but I absolutely did not think John Belushi's samurai was funny. In fact, the nerve of him. He spat on sacred ground.

It was probably Roshomon (1950) that started everything when we watched it in our high school film history class. That movie with its triad of contradicting stories made me sick with worry about ever being able to communicate with another person again as long as I lived. I got over that eventually. But thoughts of the dashing Toshiro lingered and grew. I didn't realize until much later that Toshiro's great appeal to me was due in large part to the directorial eye of Akira Kurosawa who in my mind stands alone as the great genius of filmmaking.

Kurosawa was a painter by training. Once I learned that, things began to fall into place. It explained my reaction not only to Toshiro: the angles and planes of his face, his elegant posture and gestures regardless of what he was doing were choreographed for effect, frame by frame. It also explained something I couldn't otherwise understand: I could sit through three hours of some of the bloodiest sequences ever filmed (Ran, 1985) and come away with an overriding sense that I had viewed something horrible of extreme beauty.

For example, look at this carefully composed scene from the opening sequence of Ran. Four warlords face four directions while mounted on horses, the stealth bombers of the day; soft green hills roll off into the distance. Clouds loom on the horizon, and let that be a warning (we all know this from our own personally compiled encyclopedias of movie imagery). In this case, our sense of menace has been manipulated: it turns out the warlords are on a boar hunt. But don't get complacent. This is more than hunting for sustenance: the reddest screens you've ever seen are about to unfold before you. You were right to feel uneasy from the first frames. In Japanese symbolism the wild boar (a favorite image of warriors) represents war and violence.

Often when this film is discussed, it is in terms of the unrestrained carnage, brutality, man's inhumanity to man, to use Robert Burns' pure reduction of the sentiment. So why is it that after all these years what I remember is the sublime beauty of that opening shot, the exquisite balance of the placement of the figures in the scene, the rootedness of the men on the horses and the horses in the grass and the grass on the hillside under the clouds and the sky?

Let's move for a moment to the sword-fighting scenes in The Seven Samurai (1954). Do you remember those? Maybe instead you can visualize the gunfights in The Magnificent Seven (1960) which was based on Kurosawa's film. Here's the difference: the sun shone as the bullets flew. While the swords of Kurosawa's rogue samurai clashed, rain drenched everything, watering down the potential for genuine human interactions by obscuring facial details of the other. Dense rain like this is noisy. It blocks out anyone else's voice and deadens any possibility for influences from the outside of the single mindedness in each man's heart: kill the other. The other thing heavy rain does is give you a sense that time is slowing down, so that while the sensibilities of these ronin were blunted, the same rain that blunted them also created the mental state of readiness in slow time that permitted indelible mental imagery to be planted in their minds. They were brutal, vicious, inhumane. By adding rain to the scene, however, Kurosawa demands they they bear the consciousness of their deeds: they will not easily forget those images which will haunt them for the rest of their days.

Japanese artists hail from a long tradition of sensitivity to cues from the natural world. No haiku or screen or brocade obi is conceived without consciousness of the reference to its correlate in nature: everything is symbolic, nothing stands alone. For example, there are many fine permutations of the meaning of rain, from gentle awakening in the early spring to torrents that nearly obliterate everything on the earthly plane. Kurosawa's rain in The Seven Samurai is torrential. Since it comes from the heavens, as the gathering storm clouds on the horizon in Ran also suggest, it is fitting and just that these violent fights should be showered with sadness from the heavens above.

There is an exquisite pain in beauty underlying much of Japanese art. Conversely, there is often beauty in pain. A message can be conveyed without a bludgeon: art can be horrible and beautiful at the same time (as opposed to much of what passes for art today, but that's a subject for another post). Every film made by Akira Kurosawa bears testimony to this belief.

The samurai in The Seven Samurai were ronin (masterless samurai) recruited to fight on behalf of some farmers and their beleaguered village which was constantly under siege by bandits, another group of rogue samurai. After all the bloody scenes in the rain, after all the slaughter, the farmers' champions prevail, though they don't seem to feel like conquering heroes. It is actually the farmers with their ties to renewal who have overcome the evil wrought by the bandits.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God sent Noah the rainbow as a reminder that there is life after death. In the closing scene of The Seven Samurai, the farmers plant rice in the abundant paddies filled with captured rainwater. The warring ethos represented by the samurai on both sides was as defeated as the wild boar in Ran.

In both the bible and Kurosawa's films, the divine is revealed in nature. Even within the concrete bulwarks we call our cities, and beside the labyrinthine corridors we call freeways, it waits quietly for us. It tugs at our souls, no matter how hard we fight to pretend it isn't there.

As long as we have city parks and hiking trails funded by public money, as long as kayaks sprout in the rain atop every Subaru Outback in Seattle, evidence of our search and desire for a soul-deep connection with our creator will remain in evidence and prevail, just like the rainbow and the rice paddies.

P.S. Toshiro Mifune didn't appear in Ran, but you can identify him easily in The Seven Samurai: he is the samurai with the biggest sword.

Photos: all photographs are from Wikipedia, public domain

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