The Rear-View Mirror: Akira Kurosawa (1910)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Those of you who’ve been following this site for a while will know that when Criterion brought out a complete collection of Ingmar Bergman’s films, I was there pretty much immediately. I got the collection, a gorgeous collector’s item filled with existentialist Swedish goodness, and since then we’ve been watching an instalment in the ongoing Bergman saga on a more or less monthly basis. What better way to start your weekend than by watching a marriage crumble into acrimony and psychological cruelty? Criterion’s since announced another similar set – The Complete Films of Agnès Varda – and chances are I won’t be able to resist… but really, what I’ve been hoping for ever since the Big Box of Bergman is an announcement that Criterion is doing the equivalent for another one of the greats of world cinema. I am, of course, talking about Uwe Boll.

Okay, bad jokes aside: obviously I’m talking about Akira Kurosawa. Criterion would make me a happy (if considerably more busy and poorer) man if they were to release a complete collection of the films of Kurosawa. From samurai epic to noirish crime, from Shakespearean adaptation to domestic drama, Kurosawa’s works covered an immense range of genres and styles. His films also cover the emotional gamut, they are exciting, exilarating, even emotionally draining. Kurosawa’s filmmaking is endlessly inventive, and it is no surprise that his style was an inspiration for countless filmmakers across the world.

The best thing about a Criterion-style Complete Works collection… well, there would be so many things, but one of those is particular to me. See, the thing is that I have a rather embarrassing gap in my Kurosawa filmography. Sure, I’ve not seen more than seven or eight of his films, but that’s okay, I can still go and see the others. However, there’s a Kurosawa film that we started watching a couple of years ago. My wife had recorded it off Film Four and I’d heard so much about how great the movie is, how much fun it is, how it’s very much a Kurosawa must-see. Doubly so for people who grew up being fans of Star Wars, because this Japanese classic was a major inspiration for George Lucas, though Lucas has been rather coy, if not to say misleading, about the parallels: from the story to the characters to cinematographic and editing choices, Star Wars freely helps itself to Kurosawa’s 1958 jidaigeki adventure film The Hidden Fortress.

As I said, we started watching The Hidden Fortress… but we didn’t finish it. At the time, we found it obnoxious, its broad humour grating. It happens once or twice a year that my wife and I look at each other ten to fifteen minutes into a film and quickly come to an understanding that the evening is too short for this particular movie, and usually that is a good, happy moment and we both feel like a cultural weight’s been lifted from us: we don’t have to watch this or that film because, frankly, we don’t like it. But to do this with a Kurosawa? I find it easier to say that I’ve disliked most Godard I’ve seen, because let’s face it, Godard’s something of an ass – but Kurosawa is different.

We’re still hoping for a second chance to see The Hidden Fortress. It’d be different if they showed it at a cinema, because then we’d sit through our dislike and might even get to a place where the film suddenly clicks with us. But the best thing would be the aforementioned Criterion collection, because then it’d be a project: we would watch our way through every single Kurosawa, and in that context we’d be sure to appreciate The Hidden Fortress more. The more time passes, though, the more I think that I will have to bite the bullet and get my hands on the film, Criterion or not, because there are some kinds of dishonour that a noble film fan cannot live with. This may just be one of them.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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