Last night PBS aired a remarkable biography of the late Akira Kurosawa that included perceptive commentary on his major works: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/
Although I have seen nearly every film the great master ever made, I wasn't familiar with the details of his life. All I knew was that he attempted to kill himself in 1971 after Japanese film studios refused to bankroll his new projects. The bio filled in the details on this and supplied many other fascinating insights into his career and Japanese culture in general.
Kurosawa was born in 1910 and his father came from a long line of samurai. Although Japan had long dispensed with feudalism, his father was steeped in samurai culture and liked to walk around the house wearing traditional garb with his hair in the distinctive topknot. He ran a gymnasium and built the first indoor swimming pool in Japan. He also worked to popularize baseball in Japan. The young Akira Kurosawa was not particularly athletic and found himself more attracted to the graphic arts.
Before the Japanese state had converted itself into an authoritarian war machine, Kurosawa traveled in CP circles as a youth. Some of his early student works were "socialist realism" exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. One assumes that his early training in socialist realism acquitted him well, just as it did American CP'ers in the film industry.
Kurosawa was extremely rueful about his role in all this. Perhaps shame motivated his desire to create a new kind of film for postwar Japan, one that would criticize a society that had become adrift. Although it no longer celebrated martial values, it still lacked a higher purpose. His youthful leftist beliefs combined with his family's aristocratic sense of 'noblesse oblige' led to the creation of distinctly Kurosawan type of film, one in which a lone individual struggled to define a personal ethos against a callous and self-centered society.
"Ikiru" was the first film in this vein. It depicts an aging bureaucrat, who, after learning that he has incurable cancer, dedicates the remainder of his life to making things better for other people. It is evocative of Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Illyich". It is clear from the PBS bio that Kurosawa was steeped in the world's great literature, from Shakespeare to classical Japanese literature. When he happened upon the basic idea for Rashomon, he and assistants spent 6 months going through Japanese literature and history in order to find a story that could serve as a screenplay.
Despite Kurosawa's lack of connections to the organized left in Japan, he collaborated with one of the most powerful strikes in the postwar era. Under the leadership of the CP, the workers at Toho film studios organized a movement to win workers control over the studios. They sat in at the large production buildings, determined to fend off the Japanese cops and the American military that surrounded them. For their defense, they deployed huge fans that were used to create wind effects in film at all of the doors. When the cops and soldiers were breaking in, they planned to throw cayenne pepper in front of the fans in order to blind the attackers.
After television and cheap, schlocky monster films became popular in Japan after 1968, Kurosawa's film career took a steep nose-dive. This led him to slash himself 30 times in 1971 in a suicide attempt.
Later, after recovering, he tried once again to jump-start his career. But Japan remained a hostile environment for the kind of visionary and uncompromising films he sought to create. It was fitting that the USSR was the one place that still had a use for his talents. The film "Dersu Uzala," which depicts the solitary wanderings of an explorer in the Siberian wilderness, was regarded as an oddity. Perhaps Kurosawa identified with the main character. Instead of battling the elements, Kurosawa was in a struggle with the forces of mammon that dominated the film industry in the capitalist world.
One misadventure fully expresses the mismatch between one of the great geniuses of the film world and the commercial world. Kurosawa was invited to supply the Japanese perspective for a film on Pearl Harbor, titled "Tora Tora Tora". He was told that the great director David Lean would supply the American point of view, but the Hollywood moguls went with a hack director instead. All of Kurosawa's footage went into the trash-can.
Kurosawa says that you can find his personal evolution expressed through the central characters of all his films. If this is the case, one can say that the inspiration went both ways. Without a powerful character shaped by distinctive familial, social and historical forces, the great genius of Kurosawa's films might never have been realized.