Friday, March 12, 2010

INTERVIEW: Film historian Peter Cowie

Interviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bith of Akira Kurosawa, and the publication of "Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema" (released in bookstores this week) The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow's Marc Saint-Cyr spoke with its author, world renowned film historian Peter Cowie, on his motivations for writing this landmark book, his personal favorites from Kurosawa's filmography, and how he sees Kurosawa's legacy influencing today's filmmakers.

We'd like to thank Marty Gross for his help in facilitating this interview.

Marc Saint-Cyr: In your introduction to the book, you clearly state that you’re not intending to compete with Donald Richie’s book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa", opting instead for a more tribute-oriented work. What was your main objective in putting this book together?

Peter Cowie: I had felt an urge to write at some length about Kurosawa, have devoted numerous short reviews to his work in various books over the years. I also felt that the visual splendor of his work deserved better treatment than it had in the Kurosawa bibliography to date, in which most books tend to focus on words rather than images.

MSC: Along with familiar images from Kurosawa’s films, this book also contains rarer stills and photos of his painted storyboards and script pages marked up with notes and sketches. How did you go about researching and gaining access to such material? How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out?

PC: It was difficult, to say the least. I had to negotiate with Toho, the company controlling a vast majority of Kurosawa’s films, and with the agency that markets his paintings and storyboards. Then I had to track down individual photographers, and also – with the help of my Toronto friend Marty Gross, persuade Teruyo Nogami (Kurosawa’s long-time assistant) to let me have access to her shooting scripts. I made two trips to Japan, and the Japanese, while wary of you the first time, are warm, and open to discussion once they feel your mission is genuine.

MSC: In the book, you make quite a few comparisons between Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. Do you see them as parallel figures in world cinema?

PC: Both men emerged during the 1950’s (even if Kurosawa was eight years Bergman’s senior). It was a period when film buffs were eager for new tendencies in world cinema, with the French New Wave, the Italian masters like Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, and De Sica, Satyajit Ray in India, Wajda in Poland etc. Kurosawa shares with Bergman a fascination for the history of his own country and both, of course, controlled their own screenplays.

MSC: Were there any foggy areas of Kurosawa’s career (i.e. "The Runaway Train", his long-lost director’s cut of "The Idiot", "Tora! Tora! Tora!") that you were tempted to shed more light on, or would be interested in exploring more extensively in the future?

PC: Both those episodes represent failure, and I’m always more interested as a writer in success rather than failure.

MSC: You interestingly, and accurately, describe Toshirô Mifune as representing “the essential frailty of man” in Kurosawa’s films despite his famous macho persona. How big a part do you believe he played in Kurosawa’s career and success?

PC: Considerable – even if he made fewer films with Kurosawa than Takashi Shimura. But (again the Bergman comparison), like Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand, Mifune and Shimura represented the poles of Kurosawa’s own personality, the yin and the yang. As you say, though, Mifune had a vulnerable side to his character which emerged strikingly in "Drunken Angel", "The Idiot", and "High and Low".

MSC: Which films of Kurosawa’s did you first see, or first make you interested in his work?

PC: "Seven Samurai", when I first went up to Cambridge University in the late 1950’s.

MSC: What are your favorite films of his?

PC: "Stray Dog", "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", and "Kagemusha".

MSC: Kurosawa’s career has undergone many fascinating phases of evolution – his early WWII-era and postwar films, his 1950s and ‘60s run of samurai and noir films, his later exercises in formal experimentation and mastery. Which period do you believe was the most fruitful of his career?

PC: The 1950s, no question. In that single decade he directed "Rashomon", "Seven Samurai", "Ikiru", "Throne of Blood", and "The Hidden Fortress", all of which were successful in the West.

MSC: Which Kurosawa films do you believe deserve more recognition?
PC: "Red Beard", "Sanshiro Sugata" (it’s finally available via Criterion), and "The Lower Depths".

MSC: Do you think Kurosawa’s films still have a strong following among younger audiences today?

PC: Absolutely. I write these lines just after returning from the European Film College in Denmark, where I lectured on Kurosawa to 100 neophyte filmmakers from 20 countries. They all reacted with admiration to Kurosawa’s work.

MSC: Which filmmakers would you say have followed in Kurosawa’s footsteps in terms of making the most of cinema as a storytelling medium?

PC: Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Ang Lee, and Zhang Yimou. Just as John Ford and John Huston influenced Kurosawa in their day.

Have you seen "Avatar:? Compared to Kurosawa’s films, and considering both its impressive visual quality and its considerable faults in story and writing, would you say it’s a step forwards or backwards for using cinema as a storytelling medium?

PC: I think "Avatar" will occupy a place in film history equivalent to "The Jazz Singer" (first sound movie), "The Robe" (first film in CinemaScope), and "Star Wars" (first film really to rely almost wholly on special effects). I regard it as a prodigious achievement from a technical point of view, and Cameron’s unfailing imagination ensures that it’s very entertaining too. I don’t think you can compare it to Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini, or any other great auteur’s work.

MSC: Finally, looking towards the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which will be put together by the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow’s Chris MaGee and Midnight Eye’s Jasper Sharp for its second year in Toronto this summer, what do you think young Japanese filmmakers should take away from Kurosawa’s legacy as they go about making their own films?

PC: Good question. Again like Bergman, Kurosawa has cast too long a shadow over his national film industry for far too long. I think young directors can still look to Kurosawa for inspiration, however, when it comes to developing characters, and in having compassion for those characters.

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