Samurai sword of mass culture. From Kurosawa, through Lech Wałęsa and Scarlett Johansson, to manga, Kenzo and sushi

The director, once removed from the production of a film, attempted suicide by slitting his wrists 36 times. Had he succeeded, he would have followed in the footsteps of his older brother, who successfully took his own life after losing his voice-over job in silent film.

He was said to be a bully -- but it takes ruthlessness to achieve mastery in any discipline. And in areas that require group action, the leader often must become a despot. Or, if you prefer, a murderer. He terrorised the crews working on his movies. But who would now expostulate about his difficult character, given that Japanese cinema owes its cult status to him?

Akira Kurosawa.

Satrap on the set

Kurosawa is the most famous creator of the phenomenon [Japanese cinema] Western pop culture was to fall in love with. He died a quarter of a century ago, on September 6, at the venerable age of 88. He worked until the end, but for the last five years of his life no longer directed, having devoted exactly half a century to it -- from his debut in 1943 with "Sanshiro Sugata" ("Judo Saga") to his last picture "Madadayo" ("Not Yet"), his last picture made in 1993.

He will forever remain in the public memory as the author of Samurai films, known in Japan as "sword fighting films" (chanbara) -- the equivalent of "cloak and dagger" movies. Broadly speaking and somewhat unfairly, this puts undue focus on a narrow range of Kurosawa's work. However, Western mass culture as well as Japanese cinematography have used the genre as a commercial flywheel. Nothing ever sold or today sells so well as a doomed, lonely fighter pitted against evil, in a picturesque costume, with a spectacular sword swing. A Samurai sword.

Kurosawa brandished this weapon so effectively that he conquered the New World.

His 1954 drama "Seven Samurai" was remade in the US as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960). Not much later, in 1964, the young Sergio Leone set out to remake the film "Yojimbo" ("The Bodyguard", 1961). The movie "A Fistful of Dollars" was supposed to be a Western tribute to the outstanding Japanese director. The latter, however, did not accept it as a token of appreciation and regarded it as plagiarism. He sued the Italian for copyright infringement and won. Compensation was awarded in the sum of $100,000 and 15% of the film's profits in the Asian market.

In Kurosawa's homeland, his achievements did not receive much recognition. However, since they were profitable in the West, they let him be ...

Significantly, outside of Japan, the director of "Rashomon" and other masterpieces is primarily identified with black and white movies. In a way, rightly so, since Kurosawa felt less comfortable working in colour. In fact, when he was removed from production of "Tora! Torah! Torah!" (1970), the movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the director attempted suicide by slitting his wrists 36 times. Had he succeeded, he would have followed in the footsteps of his older brother Heigo, who successfully took his own life after losing his job as a voice-over in silent films. That tragedy happened in 1933, when it was clear that there would be no going back to a cinema of voiceless actors.

It is, however, worth adding that the Samurai traditions and the [Japanese] concept of loss of honor that contrasted so greatly with the European equivalent, had long been cultivated in the Kurosawa family. He understood full well the fatalistic attitude of his heroes.

The ideal performer of the Samurai characters envisaged and created by Kurosawa was Toshiro Mifune, the actor he discovered. Ten years younger than the director, Mifune was to star in as many as 16 of the director's movies.

The fights between the two on the set of "Akahige" ("Red Beard", 1965) became legendary. Scheduled to last six months, the production eventually stretched over a year- and-a-half. This hit Mifune hard in the pocket, since he had to forego most of the television productions he had planned at that time. It was also whispered that the star had grown old and was increasingly irritated that he was identified solely with Kurosawa's movies.

The truth is that the director did not have an easy character. Like all perfectionists, he refined each scene, repeating takes and doubling individual shots until they pleased him, often earlier re-drawing the shooting plan and changing camera positions.
In this "painter-like" attitude to the screen he resembled several other masters of cinema -- our own, Polish Andrzej Wajda, for example. It was not without reason that Wajda visited the country of the Samurai seven times. He had loyal fans and friends in Japan and repaid their friendship by initiating the establishment of Krakow’s Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in 1994.

"In Japan, I met people close to my heart," the Polish artist wrote. "They have all the features that I wanted to develop and cherish in myself throughout my life: seriousness, a sense of responsibility and honor, and the need for tradition." Wajda wrote these words in 2000.

Lost in Translation

Do you remember the film "Lost in Translation" by Sofia Coppola?

Twenty years ago, this picture took the world by storm, becoming one of the rocket stages that launched Scarlett Johansson's career into the stratosphere.

  But I'm not going to write about this particular cinematic masterpiece. My concern is the inability of Western man to penetrate the soul, mentality or even the culture of the Japanese.

Despite the many apparent links that today's increasingly technical and unified modernity offers to both, the Land of the Rising Sun remains an enigma to the West. Japan has long defended its leading position in the race of technical progress. Yet, although other powers may have recently taken over the lead, the country is still associated with prosperity gained at the expense of a workaholism that is often considered to be a national attribute.

Lech Wałęsa's promises that "we will build a second Japan in Poland" have gone down in the history of political fanfaronade. What is funny is how, many years later, during the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Manggha Museum in Krakow, Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski also noticed common features shared by the island empire in the Pacific Ocean and our country. He concluded that what most characterized this was the fact that both countries were modernizing without losing touch with their traditions and culture.

Blessings from Fuji

I wonder what it is today that connects not just us, but Western civilization as a whole, with the values the average Japanese person still adheres to?

The average European or American will probably consider manga comics, anime films, sushi bars and ramen soup as a common good. A more refined Westerner will undoubtedly cite Japanese art, which became fashionable with the "discovery" of Ukiyo-e graphics, i.e. "Pictures of the Floating World". They might also mention Ikebana -- the art of flower arrangement that at one time was the pinnacle of florist craftsmanship. Then, of course, there is the mystique of Zen gardens, those gardens of a dry landscape that serve as places of contemplation at temples and private mansions and are also cultivated in Europe in public places and on the private estates of followers of Far Eastern religions, many with pretensions to spirituality. Not to be left out is the art of folding paper into unexpected forms called Origami (a skill, it should be noted, that is of Chinese origin), promoted by centers for developing the artistic abilities of children and senior citizens.

Close to body

The revolution in fashion that took place in the 1980s thanks to Japanese designers cannot be overlooked either. They turned traditional European tailoring upside down. The leaders of this coup were Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Kansai and Yohji Yamamoto. To start with they successfully attacked Paris. They found a favorable climate there. The pioneering ventures of Japanese designers coincided with a growing anarchist mood in many other artistic fields. And also in customs and politics.

The boom took place in the 1980s. The tailoring avant-garde from the Land of the Rising Sun slotted perfectly into the time between post-pop, punk and grunge. The main advantages? They rejected the previously exposed proportions of the human body in the costume. They created "alternative" creations -- textile sculptures, somewhat contradicting the form of the human figure. They rejected Western tailoring patterns. Instead, they proposed a draped outfit, without seams, with slits in strategic places. If someone thinks I have forgotten about the merits of Kenzo Takada (in Europe known only by his first name), I haven’t. Kenzo, who died two years ago (October 6, 2020) due to Covid-19, was undoubtedly a pioneer of Japanese fashion as adapted to Western needs. Born in Kyoto in 1940, he was the first of the great [Japanese] designers to risk moving to Paris in 1964. Six years later he opened his first boutique there.

However, he was not the only pioneer who paved the fashion trails for his compatriots in the West. The kimono had appeared before him. Traditional, embroidered in intricate patterns. In the 19th century, the Impressionists, followed by salon trendsetters, fell in love with the Far Eastern costume. At first, it was mainly elegant women who dressed in kimonos, posing for photographs or portraits stylized to resemble a geisha.

The kimono, as a practical and comfortable garment, has survived to this day in men's and women's versions, although much less decorative than the original. It is sometimes used at home or on the beach, under the common name of a bathrobe.

Impressionists impressed

We like the exotic, which we... have tamed. About a century and a half ago, Japonism took over European art so effectively that certain images seem familiar to us "forever"

You probably know them?

For example, subtle ladies in kimonos shading themselves with umbrellas under cherry trees sprinkled with pink flowers? Or the face of a kabuki actor contorted with an overly-expressive grimace? Or, and this one is the most famous image, a huge wave, menacing and spectacular, with Mount Fuji visible in the distance.

Even someone who does not know the names of the authors of these prints will know the country of their origin: Japan.

Let us recall: this was a world closed to the West for over two hundred and fifty years. Only a small Dutch trading post had the right to export lacquerware, porcelain, handicrafts and artistic products from Japan to the European market. Japan's self-isolation was interrupted by the Katanagawa Treaty enforced by the United States. It was then, in 1854, that the exchange of goods between the Land of the Rising Sun and the Western world began. It was then that for some [Western] artists, Ukiyo-e woodcuts became a revelation, turning their perception of reality upside down. This is particularly evident in the achievements of two artists -- Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. But also the "original" Impressionists, the predecessors of these two reclusive geniuses, were inspired by Ukiyo-e. Particular merit should be attributed to Mary Cassatt, an American painter and graphic artist active in France at the end of the 19th century. But she was not the only one who fell in love with the Japanese art in the French capital.

Let me remind you of some of our own most outstanding artists such as Olga Boznańska, Józef Pankiewicz, Władysław Ślewiński, Leon Wyczółkowski, Wojciech Weiss… Thanks to Paris, they were too infected with Japanese fever – some for shorter period, some for longer…
However, the true advocate of the concept of Japanese art and aesthetics was Feliks "Manggha" Jasieński (1861–1929). What is unusual -- despite the fact that he had an excellent collection of artefacts straight from Japan (primarily the prints), he never visited the country. Unfortunately, the presentation of his collection at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw in 1901 met with negative comments from both the public as well as critics.

Nor was it met with enthusiasm when "Manggha" donated his collections to the National Museum in Krakow in 1920. But what a treasure it was! The core of the presented seven thousand objects were woodcuts (4,600 prints), plus military items, pottery, textiles, lacquerware and enamelware.

The donor's biggest dream was a "Japanese museum" in Krakow, that would be "the best visual lesson for Polish artists and Polish society about how one should create art for oneself, in one's own country, in one's own way, and how one should need and love art, and honor its creators."

His dream only came true thanks to Andrzej Wajda and a change in the audience's approach to what is "made in Japan".

Through the stomach to consciousness

Despite being open to the West, the Japanese tradition is cultivated and sustained mostly by its citizens, who have been brought up in that spirit. This is reflected, for example, in culinary matters.

The younger generation accepts fast food, but ramen and sushi have remained the flagship creations of Japanese cuisine for centuries. I wrote "creations" because the pursuit of perfection in a minimalist version is not solely cultivated by artists. In 2011, the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" appeared on our screens. Its protagonist, an 85-year-old sushi chief had been dealing with this one dish, or rather the national specialty, since he was a child. His Sukiabashi in Tokyo required reservations months in advance, not to mention the cost of such an adventure for the palate. But one also has to be capable of appreciating such delicacies …

Sparsely dosed spices and ingredients may seem too poor to a European. Meanwhile, most of our places where rice wraps are served are avoided by the Japanese. Philadelphia cheese binding rice? It's barbaric, just like pouring too much soy sauce on everything or combining pickled ginger with wasabi horseradish.

Dishes, like gardens, interior design or poetry, cannot be "contaminated" by an excess of taste or visual stimuli.

Minimalism is also reflected in the restrained behavior of the Japanese, even those whose fate, emotional relationships or the search for a better job have thrown into other cultures. And although the younger generations are trying to loosen the corsets of tradition and end the cult of workaholism, so far it has not been to their advantage.

The epidemic of singles, depression, suicides and other civilization ills affect Japanese society so badly that in 2020 the Ministry of Loneliness was established. Also Japan's economic power is on the wane, giving way to other Asian Tigers. Moreover, the population is shrinking at an alarming rate.

But on the occasion of the birthday of one of the greatest masters of cinema, it is worth recalling the history, or rather the historical myth of the Land of the Cherry Blossom where no one eats the fruit as the cherry trees are only to be admired during the flowering. Hanami, i.e. flower admiring, is a kind of national sport: racing against nature. And it is short-lived. Just like the glory days of the Samurai.

– Monika Małkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Akiro Kurosawa died a quarter of a century ago. Photo: PAP/EPA
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