Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alireza Vahdani: The effects of Kabuki on Akira Kurosawa’s Auteurism , Part 1 -- Introduction and Background

The effects of Kabuki on Akira Kurosawa’s Auteurism , Part 1 ~ Introduction and Background ~
by Alireza Vahdani

The idea behind this research, sub-divided across these two essays, is derived from establishing the connection between kabuki, one of the principal forms of Japanese theatre, and Akira Kurosawa’s period drama films. Kurosawa is recognised by many Japanese scholars and Westerners alike as an auteur. The intriguing point which I discovered during the research was that although Kurosawa dislikes kabuki, his cinematic texts are influenced by its conventions. The reason for this ambiguity is not farfetched, for kabuki heavily influenced the Japanese cinema. Kurosawa, as a studio director, follows the general rules of kabuki, but in order to preserve his personal style, utilises kabuki elements modulated and tailored to suit his subjective inclination.

Introduction: Focus and significance of the study

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) epitomises Japanese cinema for many Western film scholars over the last half-century. Some of the books on Kurosawa’s oeuvre focus on the link between Kurosawa and auteurism. However, hitherto, none of these books examined this link by studying the influence of kabuki as a form of Japanese classic theatre on Kurosawa’s films, or the extent to which Kurosawa permits his works to be influenced by kabuki’s conventions. Indeed there have been attempts to illustrate kabuki characteristics of Kurosawa’s film for aesthetics reasons; this notwithstanding, they did not consider it as an aspect of Kurosawa’s auteurism. I found during my research that Kurosawa personally did not like kabuki; indeed, he was sceptical towards the concept and did his best to separate his works from kabuki conventions. The problem is that kabuki, as one the most influential sources on the Japanese cinema, leaves a limited space for Kurosawa to preserve his personal style. I hope this text helps readers to reconceptualise Kurosawa’s auteurism and rethink the way that he treated kabuki conventions while making his films.


There are a multitude of discussions and debates on auteur theory; however, one of the fundamental similarities in different understandings of the notion is that each auteur has his personal motifs, which can be seen as a directorial signature in his or her films. Kurosawa a director considered to be an auteur by many scholars, thus there are aspects of his films that make a cinematic text a Kurosawa film. The objective of this research is to develop an innovative argument on Kurosawa’s auteurism, and investigate if he utilises kabuki’s conventions in his directing style, and if so, in what way he engages with those conventions.

In order to research the above areas, I will analyse one of Kurosawa’s films: Tora no o wo fumu otoko (1945). The English translation is The men who tread on the tiger’s tail or The men who step on the tiger’s tail. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s book Kurosawa: film studies and Japanese cinema contains a chapter on this film, which will be the primary source for the research discussion; in addition, Donald Richie’s books will function as supporting academic texts to create a more in-depth argument and debate on the matter. Furthermore, Keiko I. McDonald’s book Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (1994) will provide extra information for the case study on The men who tread on the tiger’s tail.

The chosen film is by no means the magnum opus of Kurosawa or his sole work with elements adopted from kabuki. [1] He has created other cinematic texts which are influenced by kabuki; however, three significant points make this film a suitable case for academic research:

1. The film is based on the play Kanijincho. Yoshimoto (2000, p.107) describes this play as one of Kabuki Juhachiban, which means it is one of eighteen favourite kabuki plays, from an artistic perspective.

2. Kurosawa added two new characters to the plot. The most controversial one is a porter, played by the comedian Kenichi Enomoto (1904-1970), known as Enoken in Japan. According to Richie (2005), the result of this change was the ‘total alteration of the concept of drama’ in Japanese cinema.

3. This film was banned until 1952. At first by Japanese censors, because it was ‘too democratic,’ and in post-war Japan by American authorities, for being ‘too feudal, too Japanese’ (2005, p.168); therefore, this film can be seen as a controversial case that merits scrutiny.

Reviewing Auteurism

There is a substantial amount of literature dedicated to Kurosawa’s career. One of the early writings by a Western critic on Kurosawa is Noël Burch’s To the distant observer (1979). Burch, whilst describing Japanese cinema as presentational (meaning that there is no attempt to disguise the mechanics of the art, in opposition to representational), distinguishes Kurosawa’s filmmaking style from the typical mode of Japanese cinema by claiming that Kurosawa created a personal representational cinema based on the Western tradition of filmmaking. Burch’s reasoning here is that a Kurosawa cinematic text is merely a Western film with a Japanese façade. Burch is not the sole Western writer with this idea; in fact, other Western scholars, most notably Donald Richie, consent with this argument on the presentational nature of Japanese cinema. However, Richie, in two of his books, The films of Akira Kurosawa (1984) and A hundred years of Japanese cinema (2005), presents an innovative perspective on the Japanese identity of Kurosawa’s works, which controverts Burch’s ideas. Richie tries to establish Kurosawa as an auteur who represents his Japanese mentality and identity through film. Kurosawa: film studies and Japanese cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (2000) takes a similar critical approach towards Burch’s ideas; nevertheless, Yoshimoto is more critical of Burch’s ideas than Richie. He tries to clarify that not only is Kurosawa an auteur of representational cinema, but he also follows the traditional rules of Japanese cinema. That is, Japanese cinema is not presentational as Burch or his promoters suggest, but representational.

In order to study the auteur theory in depth, in addition to Yoshimoto’s book, two other written texts including Theories of Authorship (1981) edited by John Caughie and Auteur and Authorship (2008) edited by Barry Keith Grant have been studied. These books include many (if not all) of the key texts that have been written on auteur theory, since its conception in the early 1950s. I chose these books because they help the reader to learn more about the developments of the theory, and the positions which this research will reference and rely on. Besides these books, Peter Wollen’s Signs and meaning in the cinema (1972), and Roland Barthes’ Image, music, text (1977) will provide additional discussion for the literature review. The final books that I used in writing the literature review are Akira Kurosawa’s Something like an autobiography (1983), and Carl Gustav Jung’s reprint of Dreams (2002). Kurosawa’s account of his early years as a film director is a helpful source for readers to understand his mentality and vision, and why he is considered to be an auteur.

Peter Wollen (1972) observes the foundations of auteurism in connection with the political conditions of France in the Second World War. The Vichy government (1940-1944), under occupation by Nazi Germany, was ruling the country at the time. The result was harsh interdiction on different aspects of social, political and cultural freedom. The hegemony of these two political systems practised its authority through actions such as banning Hollywood films. As is common, severe censorship often builds cultural curiosity in the masses. After France’s liberation, many American films were imported. The great appetite for Hollywood films, coupled with their sudden and newfound freedom, resulted in an excessive emotional impact on French audiences.

The high degree of attention paid by the audience required a new approach to the American films. Wollen (1972, p.74) believes, “[auteur theory] sprang from the conviction that American cinema was worth studying in depth, that masterpieces were made […] by a whole range of auteurs, whose works had previously been dismissed and consigned to oblivion.” As with any new theory, auteurism condemned the ways of the past, and offered redemption for the future. Cahiers du Cinéma [2] and its young critics [3] undertook this task. As one of the pioneers of the movement, François Truffaut, in his inspiring essay “A certain tendency of French cinema” (“Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français,” January 1954) cited in Grant (2008, p.9), argues that in the French cinema of the time there was nothing but a handful of films per year, with no artistic quality worth mentioning. He sarcastically labels the directors of these films as “followers of tradition of quality.” By quality, Truffaut did not refer to artistic values, but rather, over-the-top sets, costumes and aristocratic atmosphere in films borrowed from French literary traditions of the nineteenth century. [4]

Auteurism as a notable theory in film studies creates a site for academic debates and intellectual writings. The theory, initially, did not contain a cinematic nature. Edward Buscombe (in Caughie 1981, p.22) writes, “the auteur theory was never, in itself, a theory of the cinema, though its originators did not claim that it was.” The writers of Cahiers du Cinéma always spoke of “La Politique des Auteurs.” One of the early attempts of the theory was to discuss works of Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and others in a scholarly tradition. However, this policy soon turned out to be more of an obsession rather than a scholarly crusade. Grant (2008, p.20) mentions that André Bazin in his 1957 essay “De la Politique des Auteurs,” criticises the young writers of the Cahiers by writing, “they always see in their favourite directors the manifestation of the same specific qualities.” There are two points in Bazin’s idea: ‘favouritism among directors’ and ‘specific qualities.’ The latter constrains cinema and deviates it from a secular concept to a series of dogmatic codes, i.e. how to make a good film. The former creates an atmosphere of discrimination and stigma towards non-auteur directors. The ‘Politique des Auteurs,’ despite its lack of perfection and clarity, survived and even flourished.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

To Read Part 2

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