You can find the video version of this essay here.
It’s difficult for those of us living in 21st-century America to understand the reality of Japan some sixty-plus years ago. America has, to date, never lost an official war, never been occupied by a victorious military force, never had its entire reality shaken so suddenly, so violently, to its core. According to some estimates, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 200,000 combined Japanese citizens. Some were soldiers. Many more were civilians. Nearly seventy percent of infrastructure in the city of Hiroshima was obliterated.
After the surrender, the occupying military government drastically reshaped the social and political landscape of the country. When the Occupation officially ended in April, 1952, the Japan that remained was remarkably different from the one that had declared war on the Allied powers only a decade earlier: deeply scarred, faced with a confusing new social order and the ever-present fear that what had once been an unimaginable level of violence and destruction might come again, at any time.
For this “aprés guerre” society, the world must have looked like it had for the European survivors of an earlier war, encapsulated by W. B. Yeats in his 1919 poem, “The Second Coming”:
But there’s a crucial difference between these two experiences, as highlighted in the last line quoted above. The poets and artists coming out of the First World War saw a world gone mad, a Golden Age destroyed in a nightmare of barbed wire, machine gun fire and poison gas. For Japan’s Lost Generation, however, the world hadn’t gone anywhere. The blood-dimmed tide might be loosed, but there was no ceremony of innocence to drown, no Golden Age lost. There was no Fall, no benevolent God guiding the universe according to some master plan – only chaos. Humanity is left to seek whatever shelter it can from the deluge. This is the world of Akira Kurosawa’s films.
The people who populate this unfeeling cosmos are, on the whole, a product of their environment. Most are too preoccupied with their day-to-day concerns to notice that the world teeters on the brink. They keep their heads down, mind their own business, try not to make waves. In the end, their passive acceptance of the world’s madness makes it inevitable. Yeats’s “rough beast” continues to slouch toward Bethlehem.
Faced with the existential horror of the indifferent universe, Kurosawa’s characters plunge into distraction, seeking material comfort, yet only making things worse for themselves. The slum-dwelling characters of 1948’s Drunken Angel become frenzied consumers of excess. Trash fills the mosquito-infested swamp bordering their homes. Disease runs rampant – typhus, tuberculosis, malaria. Such an environment only makes them more frenzied, more desperate for a momentary escape. In Rashomon, a priest, a woodcutter and a commoner seek shelter in the ruins of a gatehouse. The commoner wastes no time in tearing apart the walls of the building for firewood, literally destroying his shelter to feel a tiny bit warmer. Before venturing back into the storm, he kicks his fire out into the rain, depriving his companions of its warmth.
Compassion, honor, loyalty, the bonds of community and friendship, even familial ties – all fictions we tell ourselves to hide the truth within our hearts – we are, at best, trained apes, ready to shed our disguise of civilization at a moment’s notice. In The Hidden Fortress, two Hayakawa peasants pledge their undying friendship to one another. Yet their vow is abandoned each time they rediscover the cache of gold belonging to the defeated Akizuki clan. Neither man is willing to divide the treasure equally, and both find increasingly ludicrous excuses for taking the lion’s share. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Lady Asaji soothes her husband’s conscience, saying “To advance themselves in this world, parents will kill children, and children their parents.” Asaji reminds Washizu that Lord Tsuzuki himself gained the throne by murdering his predecessor. Compare this to Shakespeare’s portrayal of the righteous Duncan, a noble and just king whose death is eventually avenged by the loyal MacDuff. Kurosawa ends the story differently, though: Washizu is betrayed by his own archers, in the hopes of currying favor with the approaching enemy.
For Kurosawa, no one’s hands are clean. Farmers hunt down samurai and murder them for their weapons, stockpiling their best food and drink while crying poverty. Samurai talk of honor while plundering villages, burning houses, raping peasant women. Children turn their back on ailing parents when the money runs out. Even a gentle-hearted woodcutter turns out to be a thief. All of us are ultimately complicit in the roller-coaster going off the rails, whether we feel the car lurching or not.
But what of those who do? What happens when our eyes open, and we find ourselves face to face with the blank stare of the universe? Kurosawa posits three distinct responses to the horror of a meaningless existence.
We can call the first option the way of the beast. If the world is monstrous, why not become a monster? Why not take what you can while you can get it, and cut down the fool who stands in your way? Yusa Shinjiro, the antagonist of 1959’s Stray Dog, is driven to madness and violence by the horrors of war and the squalor he’s forced to live in after returning home. As the elderly Kiichi Nakajima slips further into fear and paranoia in I Live In Fear (1955), his children scheme to have him declared mentally incompetent to preserve their inheritance. In many ways, their behavior is only a harsher manifestation of the common human traits we’ve discussed earlier – greed, the pursuit of animal comforts, the propensity for terrible violence. Part of Kurosawa’s genius lies in the fact that he presents these characters in three dimensions. We may not condone them; they may horrify us. But we can usually see how circumstances may lead them to act as they do.
The second path, what we’ll call the crusader, doesn’t care about such niceties. Diametrically opposed to the previous worldview, this one seeks to beat back the darkness at every turn. He sees the world in black and white; as Stray Dog‘s Detective Sato says, “Leave psychoanalysis to the detective novels. I just hate them, that’s all. The bad guys are bad.” Those who take the first path are no more than animals, rabid dogs to be put down. What good is pitying them?
The crusader is heroic, single-minded, unwavering. Inflexible. In The Hidden Fortress, General Makabe is so devoted to his mission that it blinds him to everything else. When he learns that his sister, Princess Yuki’s decoy, has been captured and beheaded, he dismisses the loss as part of his duty. Later, the group discovers an enslaved Akizuki girl being sold into prostitution. Princess Yuki orders Makabe to purchase the girl and set her free. He resists, afraid that the girl will slow them down on the road to safety. “Your kindness will be your downfall,” he says.
In reality, it’s Princess Yuki’s kindness that sees them safely across the border, just as it is the sensitive rookie Murakami, not Detective Sato, who brings Yusa Shinjiro to justice. In the end, crusader types fall short, blinded by their cynical take on humanity, their obsessive need to stamp out evil in all its forms. It’s an exhausting undertaking. Sato’s final monologue paints a picture of a world filled to bursting with Yusas, suggesting a crusade that never ends and is ultimately doomed.
Only the third path, the way of the healer, offers any real hope. It’s the way of empathy, striving to see the humanity in everyone. This is Princess Yuki, delighting in the fire festival of an enemy people, risking her own life for the slave girl’s freedom. This is Detective Murakami, unable to see his quarry as an animal when he, too, returned from the war deeply scarred. It is Kambei in Seven Samurai, moved by the suffering of the farmers and, later, by the realization of his own complicity in their degradation. The healer recognizes his own capacity for good or ill, and the large role that our circumstances and blind chance play in our lives. There but for the dubious grace of an unfeeling universe go I.
The journey is an arduous one. Heartbreak and disappointment are the only real guarantees, and despair nips at your heels most of the time. It often seems easier to choose one of the other paths. Many of Kurosawa’s healer types resist their empathic tendencies, either straight-jacketing themselves within the crusader’s rigid outlook or diving headfirst into animal hedonism. But the healer’s path is not easily abandoned. Each one must eventually face his true nature.
When his nurse contemplates returning to her ex-boyfriend when he gets out of prison, Sanada berates her for her weakness. If she wants to be with a man who treats her like a dog, so be it. His words are harsh, but his face belies a different set of emotions at work in his heart. Sanada cares too much for this girl to watch her fall back into an abusive relationship. Similarly, when Toshiro Mifune’s character comes to him with a severe case of TB, Sanada shows him nothing but contempt. Over time, however, the doctor begins to see his own misspent youth mirrored in the life of this small-time gangster, and resolves to save him despite the yakuza’s refusal to heed his advice. When his efforts fail, Sanada is forced to confront the truth: for all his talk of rationality, in the end it is his heart which guides him. Like Rashomon‘s woodcutter – also, incidentally, played by Shimura – the healer doesn’t “understand his own soul.” But he keeps moving, one imperfect human among many, doing his best to make things a little better for those around him.
Which leads us to Kurosawa’s poster boy for the healer type: Seven Samurai‘s Kikuchiyo. On first viewing, this seems like nonsense. Kikuchiyo seems to have much more in common with the peasants of The Hidden Fortress than with Dr. Sanada. He’s loud, obnoxious, selfish, ruled by his appetites and a desire for his own glory. He professes to be a samurai, but is indifferent to the code of honor which governs the others. He falls asleep on watch. He has no sympathy for the samurai hunted down and murdered by the villagers for their armor.
But then the bandits burn the old mill where the village elder has holed up with his family. When Kikuchiyo and Kambei arrive at the scene, a dying young woman thrusts her infant son into Kikuchiyo’s arms. Kikuchiyo collapses to his knees in the stream. “This baby is me!” he sobs. “This is just what happened to me!”
Now we start to understand. The man the other samurai dub “Kikuchiyo” was born a peasant. His family was slaughtered, his home destroyed – it’s never clear whether by bandits or corrupt samurai, and in the end the two are basically interchangeable. Left with nothing, alone, he chose the path of the beast. But some part of him always resisted that decision. We can see it in his eyes in his very first scene, pleading silently with Kambei to save the kidnapped child. He might profess indifference for the suffering of the weak, but the real reason Kikuchiyo “hates wimps” is because his heart is the largest. At Heihachi’s funeral, Kikuchiyo angrily demands that the farmers stop weeping before running away in tears himself. It is not their sensitivity he’s been railing against, but his own.
Kikuchiyo continues to resist his healer impulses as the film goes on. The day before the final battle, he abandons his post in hopes of stealing one of the bandits’ muskets and achieving glory for himself. As a result, the bandits overrun his section. The samurai manage to beat them back, but not without casualties: the cowardly farmer Yohei, who dies defending Kikuchiyo’s section, and the samurai Gorobei.
These deaths weigh heavily on Kikuchiyo. He recognizes that his own selfish actions are blame. During the final battle, he becomes a tornado, cutting down bandits left and right, until his gigantic sword shatters. He flings it aside without a glance, and retrieves another – this one normal-sized, a real samurai’s sword. He has joined his fellows at last, embodying the truth which Kambei spoke earlier: “By protecting others, you save yourself.” It’s perhaps fitting that the man who once called this village a dungheap should die only moments after single-handedly taking down the last bandit. Reunited with his authentic self, Kikuchiyo lays down his life so that others may live, fulfilling the ultimate calling of the healer.
Kurosawa’s world is a cold place, and humanity always one step away from the precipice. Yet his heroes, rather than succumbing to despair or nihilism, approach the world around them with compassion, showing us that even the most animal among us can achieve redemption. Chaos may reign, the darkness may eventually win, but we can still bring some measure of warmth and comfort to our corner of the madness. That alone is worth striving for. In the end, maybe all we have is each other in a universe that feels no sense of obligation.
Truth In 24 Frames © 2018 Ethan R. Friend.