Friday, March 12, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema

Author: Peter Cowie

Publisher: Rizzoli

304 pages

ISBN: 0847833194

Published: 2010

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

When I’m in an Akira Kurosawa kind of mood, usually after having re-watched one or two of his films, my thoughts sometimes return to a dream project of mine: a book that would span the entirety of his career. In this ideal tome, I’d touch upon the things that draw me to his exhilarating, stimulating brand of cinema (which, lest we forget, has delivered such keystones as "Stray Dog", "Rashômon", "Ikiru", "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", "The Hidden Fortress", "The Bad Sleep Well", "Yojimbo", "Sanjuro", "High and Low", "Red Beard", "Dodes’ka-den", "Dersu Uzala", "Kagemusha" and "Ran"); his recognizable themes and motifs; the fascinating variety and consistency of his films and career; the popular byproducts of his influence ("A Fistful of Dollars", "The Magnificent Seven", "Star Wars", etc.) and his command over the visual and aural elements of cinema. As much as I would have liked to produce something like that, it seems only fitting that in the year – and the month – of the great director’s centennial, there arrives a book that fulfills all of my expectations for such a project, and then some. As a huge fan and admirer of Kurosawa’s work, I don’t think I could have hoped for – let alone hoped to make – a better tribute to him than "Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema" by renowned film scholar Peter Cowie.

Befitting the Emperor’s one-hundredth birthday, Cowie has essentially put together the ideal overview of his career. Through his insightful and pleasant text, he examines Kurosawa’s work in chapters that address his early years, studies of postwar Japan, period films, literary adaptations and uses of style and form. In this way, Cowie doesn’t approach the films in chronological order, but instead logically organizes them according to their thematic qualities. Along the way, he provides a knowledgeable and informative analysis of each film and autobiographical facts about the director, his family and his work habits. Additionally, he recognizes Kurosawa’s place in world cinema by occasionally referring to such other influential figures as John Ford, Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio De Sica.

The opening pages of the book feature introductory notes from a few Kurosawa authorities. Martin Scorsese, who, along with being an admirer of Kurosawa’s work, also memorably appeared as Vincent van Gogh in "Dreams", talks about the lasting power of his storytelling skill and his understanding of both the various aspects of filmmaking and nuances of human nature his films explored. Donald Richie’s introduction provides more of a historical context, discussing the chilly reception and production difficulties Kurosawa faced in his home country as well as the cruelly ironic about-face pulled by the Japanese public after his death when they finally fully accepted him as a national treasure. Yet it is daughter Kazuko Kurosawa’s touching note that best sets the tone for the rest of the book, highlighting its status as an affectionate recognition of the man and his craft. As good as the book’s text is, its main draw is, fittingly for Kurosawa, its visual components, comprised of stills, on-set photographs, posters and photos of marked-up script pages, sketches and the director’s famous, stunning painted storyboards, all of which providing a comprehensive and inviting journey through his creative process.

A veritable treasure for newcomers and longtime devotees alike, "Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema" is an ideal companion piece to any Kurosawa retrospective. Put together with noticeable dedication, it illustrates the impact of Kurosawa’s films while providing plenty of tasty eye candy that will, without fail, remind you why he is the world’s most highly regarded Japanese filmmaker. Kudos to Peter Cowie and Rizzoli for celebrating the master’s 100th in just the right way.

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