To Akira Kurosawa, who would have turned 100 on March 23
Dear Mr. Kurosawa,
I'm one of those people who can't name their favorite movie--there are too many and they all touch me in a different way. But I can name my favorite director: You.
You would have turned 100 this month. And I can say two of my favorite films are Dersu Uzala and The Seven Samurai. Both films are very different from each other; both represent very different periods of your career; and both are supreme achievements in film as a humanistic artform.
Someone once told me they were surprised I liked Kurosawa because "he's a little cold". You were, by all accounts, a moody and often unhappy man. But if anything, your films reveal that you deeply understood the human heart. One recurring theme in your films is an affection for society's lone oddball or wily bands of misfits; another is that things are not what they appear to be. (Rashoman, Ikiru). And between these two themes lies your humanity.
Often your more intimate moments come wrapped within the formidable mastery of filmmaking--the tense buildup of High and Low, the steady composition of The Seven Samurai's battle sequences, the force of nature in Dersu Uzala, the swirl of pageantry in Ran. Then suddenly we realize we're watching a study of friendship or a man questioning his mortality. And the subtext is about honor, integrity, fate, loss. It's not thrown about as cliches or pathos; it just sits there quietly at the heart of the film. And it's much more powerful since we weren't really expecting it given all the other cinematic tricks you were pulling off at the same time.
You were smart, deeply human, and a brilliant filmmaker--and it's not often you get all these qualities in one package. Quentin Tarantino, for example, is smart and (arguably) brilliant, but more cynical than humanistic. You knew enough to borrow from Shakespeare (Ran, Throne of Blood) and by now it's widely known you were also worth borrowing from: The Seven Samurai inspired The Magnificent Seven. Yojimbo inspired the Spaghetti westerns. And The Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars.
I know it's a pointless fantasy, but sometimes I'll watch a film like Avatar and wonder what it would have been like in your hands. Because something this visually stunning deserved a script to match. I was blown away by Avatar’s beauty and willingly overlooked the story's clichés; but with you, the story was never less than depth and style. And that was the one tiny—yet crucial—Kurosawa element that was ultimately lacking.