Akira Kurosawa might not be the first director one would think of when discussing authorship. He may have been the best-known Japanese filmmaker to English language audiences during the fifties and sixties, for films like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo. But other names of the time would indicate a greater authorial sensibility European auteurs like Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson and Federico Fellini for example. These were filmmakers whose vision seemed smaller and more personal, more reflective of what Alexandre Astruc saw as the future of cinema and the opportunity for its personalisation. "The filmmaker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen." ('The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera Stylo') We could say this first wave of authorship theory was predicated on personality, coinciding with movements like phenomenology and existentialism that predicated the personal over the structural, the will of the individual over the demands of society. As Jean-Paul Sartre said: "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." (Existentialism and Human Emotions) Even if the Cahiers critics who did more than anybody to promote the director as auteur often chose as important figures those working in the Hollywood studio system (Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Robert Aldrich), they were still individualists choosing out of apparent limitations. Sartre's claim "I can always choose, but I ought to know that if I do not choose, I am still choosing" would hold. They chose employment in Hollywood and, for Cahiers, many of the directors cannily found ways to work through their preoccupations in stories that were commercially viable. It didn't suggest they lacked freedom more that they were clever in how they used the little they had. As Francois Truffaut proposed, "Nicholas Ray is to some extent the Rossellini of Hollywood; in the kingdom of mechanization he is the craftsman, lovingly fashioning small objects out of Holly wood." (Cahiers du Cinema: the 1950s)
When existentialism and phenomenology were superseded by structuralism, individuality gave way to an abstract notion of personality, so that the filmmaker was no longer a person fighting systems; more a figure fitting into structures, taking deep cultural codes and configuring them into a vision which needn't have anything to do with the biography of the person creating it. An individual created out of a system of signs and produced meaning through the skill with which they manipulated these codes. This was auteur structuralism: "on the one hand, it tried to preserve a place for the individual in artistic production, generally retaining the notion found in the politique des auteurs of the artist as a potentially critical voice in society. On the other, it saw the individual as enmeshed in linguistic, social and institutional structures which affected the organisation of meaning." (The Cinema Book)
This in turn was replaced by philosopher Gilles Deleuze's look at cinema, one which allowed the author a high degree of individuality but this didn't mean it was a conscious process of creation, more an instinctive carving up of images that are much broader than those structuralism and semiotics tended to identify. Filmmakers were working with information rather than codes, creating out of potentially chaotic worlds a meaningful one that could be called the Hitchcockian, the Bressonian, the Renoiresque and so on. They were philosophers working with images, creating conceptual possibilities out of what others would see as dramatic stories. One of the many directors under discussion in Deleuze's Cinema books is Kurosawa.
Turning to Kagemusha, we might initially insist the film is slow. This may be a claim based on a prejudice and an expectation: that Kagemusha is a samurai film, samurai films are action films, and action films are fast. But Deleuze notes similarities between Dostoevsky and Kurosawa that go beyond the director's adaptation of The Idiot, with Deleuze saying "if there is a certain affinity between Kurosawa and Dostoevsky it is precisely on this point...the givens of the question which is hidden in the situation, wrapped up in the situation, and which the hero must extract in order to be able to act, in order to be able to respond to the situation." (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) We might be reminded of a passage from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, where he speaks of men of action. "...in consequence of their limitations they take immediate, but secondary, causes for primary ones, and thus they are more quickly and easily convinced than other people that they have found indisputable ground for their action..." Kurosawa's problematic, his directorial purpose, rests partly on examining such a remark. Deleuze notes that the most difficult thing for the director is the period "before the characters start to act: to get to that point I need to think for several months." (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image). Deleuze says that this is "only difficult because it is difficult for the character himself: he first had to have all the givens."
We might suppose it is the givens that slow a number of Kurosawa films down, that make them lengthy, as Deleuze reckons that they have two distinct parts, with the first a long exposition and the second where the action takes place. We can see how this works in Kagemusha, viewing the son of the feudal lord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai) as the impetuous example of the impatient figure central to many an action film, and the brother of the lord the one who tries to think through all the available moves before acting. At the beginning of the film, Shingen's brother Nobukado finds a petty thief who looks almost identical to Shingen Takeda. After the lord is injured and then dies, Nobukado arranges for this double to masquerade as Shingen so that the house's enemies won't assume they have killed the lord. This charade will go on for three years after which the double will have his life back and Shingen will have appeared to have died naturally. Nobukado has thought very carefully about this plan and knows that while Shingen's retreat from a castle he wished to storm makes sense if the lord has been killed trying to storm it, if he still seems alive the move is inexplicable. What sort of plan does the fiefdom have as they backtrack? The son Katsuyori however is resentful: there is he is now the heir and instead decisions are being made by his father's brother while a complete stranger is pretending to be in charge.
At the same time, the petty thief is always at risk of being exposed since only a small number of people know that he isn't Shingen, and those unaware include the lord's mistresses, his grandson and his horse. He manages to convince the mistresses by claiming battle weariness so that he remains chaste and his body unexposed (otherwise they would notice he doesn't have the lord's scar), convinces the initially sceptical grandson with warmth and humour, and avoids direct contact with his horse. But late in the film he tries to ride it, falls off and when his mistresses check if he is alright, as they pull back his robe, they note the absence of the scar and discover he is an imposter. He is removed from his role and now Katsuyori is in charge, and recklessly takes twenty-five thousand troops to attack one of his rivals. As another rival says, "the mountain has moved", a reference to Shingen as precisely that, as we know from an earlier moment where we are told that one of the signs on the banner signifies wind, fire, forest and mountain. "The lord is that mountain. Both in battle and at home." Katsuyori may be the rightful heir to Shingen but that doesn't mean he can signify the qualities the lord possessed. The thief won't have those qualities either but he can at least suggest them as long he mimics the chief without exposing his own weaknesses.
What Kurosawa shows is that power is both strategic and symbolic as readily as heroic and active. Shingen's absence is tolerable as long as the heroic image is sustained, with the brother focusing on strategy and the thief representing the symbolic. Katsuyori sees leadership chiefly as active bravery, and when he is advised to hold a position rather than to attack, he insists that the clan has never lost a battle in their history, as though past victories lead inevitably to present successes. But as the lord says at the beginning of the film, after the thief says he has merely stolen while the lord has murdered many, yes he has banished his father and killed a son, but there would have been far more bloodshed were it not for his ruthlessness; somebody must hold the country together. Victory has never come easy.
This opening scene is a single take lasting six minutes and the viewer won't easily distinguish the lord, his brother and the thief. They are dressed identically in grey Hakama clothing, with chonmage hair and with greying beards. But between them they represent a triad of power, while when Katsuyori takes over he thinks he can go it alone, relying on his instincts as he sends wave after wave of soldiers to their death when they storm solidly defended ramparts while musketeers mow them down as they advance. It has been a tactical disaster and those who know a little history won't be surprised to learn that Katsuyori took his life shortly afterwards and that the Takeda clan never recovered. The film is an epic exploration of failure, not heroism, an account of pride coming before the fall of an entire kingdom.
Thus, rather than seeing authorship as necessarily about the personality of the filmmaker, the amount of control they have over the material, even their influence on other filmmakers, another way of viewing an auteur is seeing how they create a world that makes their work subtly singular. It isn't enough to say that Kurosawa is the unequivocal master of the samurai film, nor even that he often worked with the same cast and crew, though these aren't irrelevant. Such a claim covers authorship in its first phase where the personality matters and the style is important. But during the second phase, with auteur structuralism, the personality is no longer deemed of such value. What matters is how the filmmaker fits into the codes, how the director generates meaning often out of key oppositions: father/son; poor man/lord; strategy/attack; palace/wilderness. Kurosaawa's authorship would rest on how brilliantly he manages these contraries. It should be less about the cult of personality and instead the formal properties the filmmaker unavoidably utilises. It should be as much a science as an art. It "...argues for a descriptive, analytic approach against subjective interpretation." (The Cinema Book)
Yet Deleuze wanted to go further, seeing an auteur neither as someone with a personality, nor as an impersonal figure making use of established codes, but as a thinker in images making meaning out of chaos, generating singularities that can fall under a designated noun. If that sounds complicated, for Deleuze, Kurosawa isn't chiefly a samurai filmmaker. He might have made Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha, Ran, and others. But he also made non-samurai films like To Live, The Idiot, Dersu Uzala, Red Beard and Drunken Angel. What designates the Kurosawan if the films can be so disparate? Deleuze would say chiefly the givens, and the questions raised within them. Then the transformation of the question which leads to a new insight, then the absorption of all the givens, and finally what amounts to a life and a sense of purpose. We can then see that the samurai warrior might think his life is merely facilitating rather than purposeful, as at the end of Seven Samurai, when a warrior says: "the victory belongs to those peasants. Not to us." It might be the office worker who finds he only has a few months to live and wonders what he has been living for (To Live). In turn, the trapper in Dersu Uzala has for many years known how to live in the most difficult environments, but he must know now how to die as he reaches old age. Then we have the shadow warrior in Kagemusha who was known as a thief and now sees the importance of the false notion of ownership when he realises he has served a significant role having stolen another man's identity. Theft has its uses. When that identity is exposed, when the son becomes leader, the son promptly destroys the clan.
In sum, we can say authorship becomes a way of understanding the deepest questions an auteur asks and the critic doesn't look for superficial signs of coherence in Kurosawa's work (Samurai films, action, history) but what underpins them. Kurosawa is a great filmmaker of samurai cinema but he is even more a great director of asking questions slowly, of turning action film into a meditative experience that can still contain spectacle but needn't be beholden to it. There is much more to Kurosawa than action, of course, but if we see action not as a genre but as an act requiring much thought, he becomes a great and important director of the image.
© Tony McKibbin