With the centenary of Akira Kurosawa's birth shortly upon us—March 23, for all you film buffs—I'm for anything that mixes up the Japanese director's familiar mythology. His samurai epics still get the bulk of the critical ink—after all, who can turn swords and sandals into poetic agents like Kurosawa? And then there's his pop culture cred: try finding someone at a Comi-Con convention who can't rattle on about Hidden Fortress being an archetype for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, a sci-fi double-whammy via feudal Japan.
Unfortunately, archetypes—and the attention they get—undermine some of the subtler points of Kurosawa's artistry. Sure, the outmanned-but-persevering band of virtuosos/heroes theme of Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven—and Inglourious Basterds, for that matter—while the semi-somnolent, cooler-than-thou ethos of Yojimbo was a virtual Ur-text for the spaghetti western movement. Western audiences have always liked the epic side of Kurosawa, but what of Kurosawa the humanist, the artist who could mine a single conversation or a single image for his galvanizing truths?
The quiet, quotidian aspect of Kurosawa's art gets a nice push in the impressively lavish—we're talking stacks of high-grade stills, notes, mockups—Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema (Rizzoli; $75), with a text by film historian Peter Cowie and the requisite foreword by Martin Scorsese, as true a fan of cinema as there ever was. There's no shortage of stills to suggest that Kurosawa could conduct an epic battlefield scene with D.W. Griffith-like élan, but it's the close-ups and three-quarter shots that mesmerize. Actor Toshiro Mifune—a Kurosawa stalwart who appeared in more than a dozen of his films—is everywhere, but never more arrestingly than in a still from The Quiet Duel, a neglected film with Mifune playing the part of a syphilis-stricken obstetrician. Clothed in surgical gear, his arms limply bent-upwards—as if pleading—and crossed by a lattice of shadow lines, Mifune is both ghostly and shredded, vague and not vague at once. It's also a shot you could hang on the wall at MOMA.
The Quiet Duel, significantly, dates from 1949. If you go through Kurosawa's filmography, you'll see that there were plenty of big, fairly bombastic films coming out at regular points throughout his career. The King Lear revamp, Ran, is from 1985; Seven Samurai from 1954, Yojimbo from 1961, Dersu Uzala—an eco-parable set in Siberia—from 1975. But it's in the first few years after World War II that Kurosawa set himself up as a master of miniatures.
Stray Dog—also from 1949—is one of cinema's most relentless works, as unmitigating, in its way, as Peckinpah's Straw Dogs or Polanski's Macbeth. There are loads of devils in these details. "The sense of suffocating heat is brought home in repeated shots of people fanning themselves, mopping their perspiring faces with grimy hankies, grasping at a tepid drink or a proffered Popsicle," Cowrie writes. The simple premise—a young detective sets off after a pickpocket who stole his gun, and flirts with criminality himself—results in a docudrama, urban travelogue of sorts. Tiny, person-specific details coalesce to create a portrait of an exceedingly ravaged country with busted-up people all around.
This is the Kurosawa I prefer—the director more in step with the Italian neo-realist movement rather than some of the bloated horse operas of the American Western, a form he loved. He also loved painting and drawing, and Master of Cinema shows that even in his large-scale epics, Kurosawa was in touch with the aesthetic that dominates his late 1940s work. An image drawn for Ran—in crayon, pencil, and pastel—of a warrior stuck with a couple dozen arrows, has the same gruesome grill work as the Quiet Duel still, but now the shadows have become physical objects. The lacerations are present either way, but there's more of the conjurer's art in the postwar films, and a stronger shading of reality too. That's one nifty party trick.