Hitchcock and Kurosawa Walk into a Bar: Check out This Video Essay on these Masters of Cinema
While trying to think of something germane, pertinent and well, interesting, to say about the video essay which supplies the ostensible topic for this post, I happened upon a fact, which appears at the end of what I am about to start talking about, but which I am going to lead with, and bear with me, okay? So this is a video documentary (essay, really) which teases out the connections between Alfred Hitchcock's work and Akira Kurosawa's 1963 crime flick, High and Low. The connection I chose to start from (in a roundabout way) is as good a point as any, I think, for a discussion of Hitchcock's possible influence on Kurosawa (and everyone) without sounding too, too pretentious and/or lame. Hopefully. You'll be the judge!
Let me just start by saying that one could make an argument that it's possible to find connections between anything (otherwise clouds would be, you know, just clouds). What does this trite observation have to do with the price of potatoes? Well, the essay (video and text) under discussion, Dial K for Kurosawa, besides having a great title (right?) is also a fertile starting ground for a discussion of connections and parallels, as well as influence (particularly Hitchcock's ubiquitous influence), as well as Sidney Lumet, crime novels, Bergman's cinematic diss list, and lots of other cool stuff, whether connected or not.
Now, for those who aren't familiar with perhaps Japan's most titanic cinematic figure (based on both his reputation outside of and, for much of his career, in, Japan) Akira Kurosawa pretty much did everything that's possible to do in the movies, and he did all of it well, in my opinion. Not in Ingmar Bergman's opinion, though. (To be fair, that link leads to Bergman talking Scandinavian smack about almost every one of his contemporaries, including the other focus of this essay, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, who Bergman seems to think has some "issues" that make themselves apparent in his films. That sound you hear is me falling out of my chair. I'm fine, thanks!)
Post-war Japan, a nation which had gone from insular and traditional to modern and westernized in the space of a few months, was a society in flux, to the say the least. Kurosawa took advantage of the new openness to outside influence (his first films were rather tendentious propaganda works, which were still better than most) and incorporated literary and cinematic ideas from all over the world, everything from Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear (respectively, Throne of Blood, and, one of my father's favorite movies, Ran) to the so-classic it's a trope Roshomon. (Any time a TV show has an episode where everyone goes over whatever happened in a series of POV flashbacks, with each character's story kinda favoring them, and I mean down to like Full House, then the writers, who no doubt went to Harvard or something, are obliquely referencing Kurosawa, or the short story which served as the basis for the film, though I doubt the latter.)
But it is his 1963 work, High and Low, which this video essay and accompanying word essay discusses, and specifically, its relation to several of Hitchcock's works, including Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, which we are concerned with just now:
Now -- it could be argued that Hitchcock was a director driven by personal obsessions, and that his chief criteria for a story was that it provide him with the fodder for him to pull off his cinematic sleight of hand. (Hitchcock has the deserved reputation of being both a great filmmaker and a really entertaining one, not that the two should be mutually exclusive.) And while much ink has been spilled over Hitchcock's cinematic psycho-sexual obsessions, I honestly don't think Hitch wanted to do more than play with cinema and see the effects he could have on audiences (he certainly never admitted to anything resembling an intellectual agenda); his chief goal was always an entertained audience, and his persona was a carefully concocted concatenation of tics and mannerisms that let the audience in on exactly what he wanted them let in on. (NOTE: Great, while searching the Google I come across this, this being Hitchcock's recipe for happiness, which is all emo and pretty much deflates everything I just said. Great! Though, caveat: he could be lying!)
Kurosawa was, similarly, a master of cinema; like an excellent novelist, he, too, knew the grammar and conventions of his art inside and out, and could use them to his own devices. But Kurosawa never maintained such a coy relationship between his obviously giant intellect and output, and he was more unabashedly high-minded, with literary influences that ran more towards Dostoevsky, Gorky and Shakespeare; one of his earliest films, Stray Dog, is a second-hand take on one of Kurosawa's favorite writers, the French writer Georges Simenon, who wrote beautiful, philosophical and simple crime novels in between his more popular Inspector Maigret novels. And, let me say, that if any filmmaker is looking for an idea for a tight, psychological thriller, they could do worse than to peruse the dozens and dozens of Simenons and see if the rights are available. Any of his books would be the best movie.
Anyway, Kurosawa was an altogether more "serious" director, and while there are visual and thematic parallels between his work and Hitchcock's, it's my position (I guess, if I have to take one) that both were simply playing from the same rule book that directors of the era like, for instance, Sidney Lumet were playing from. There is a set way to achieve effects in film: cutting, lighting, acting, mise en scène, sound design, and in his book Making Movies, which is probably my favorite book about directing films, Lumet breaks down how they all work in concert to create movie magic! Here he is on lenses, which he called "the most important" photographic choice in directing:
During the body of the picture, various scenes took place that would be retold at the end of the movie by Hercule Poirot, our genius detective, using the retelling as part of his evidence in the solution of the crime. While he described the incidents, the scenes we’d seen earlier were repeated as flashbacks. Only now, because they’d taken on a greater melodramatic significance as evidence, they appeared on the screen much more dramatically, forcefully, etched in hard lines. This was accomplished through the use of different lenses. Each scene that would he repeated was shot twice—the first time with normal lenses for the movie (50 mm, 75 mm, 100 mm) and the second time with a very wide-angle lens (21 mm), The result was that the first time we saw the scene, it appeared as a normal part of the movie. Viewed the second time, it was melodramatic, fitting in with the drama of a solution to a murder. (cf. pretty much every movie ever)
High and Low features photographic choices that don't just show us the tale of a businessman, a kidnapping, a police inspector, and the evil in men's hearts, but incorporate these themes into the pictures themselves, which is the goal of any successful film, and what separates the great films from the not so great. A talent for telling pictures in the cinematic form is a rare thing, and weirdly enough, there seems to be one way, more or less, to communicate a continuous, temporal, narrative (and only so much filigree you can get away with). A director frequently hides their art, and it is a truism that the most successful effects are those which remain invisible to the audience (at least consciously). Good movie directors make dreams.
The essay does make compelling points about the motifs of trains, doubles and opposites in the films of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, though Kurosawa was more concerned with the problem of evil in a cerebral sense, like Dostoevsky, whose work he adapted more than once. Additionally, Kurosawa made it known that he made High and Low as an indictment of kidnapping, which he saw as the worst crime, ironic given that the film sparked a wave of kidnappings. The worst crime Hitchcock could imagine would be, I imagine, boring anyone.
If there's any similarity between the two I can land on with any authority, it's that you should check out both directors with equal enthusiasm. It's worth noting that just as Hitchcock has influenced almost everyone who has made a thriller in the past fifty odd years, Kurosawa was no slouch in the influence department: George Lucas has admitted that The Hidden Fortress, a lighthearted Kurosawa flick from 1958, was a major inspiration for Star Wars:
And a Fistful of Dollars is pretty much Yojimbo, Kurosawa's 1961 massive success that played with the genre conventions of the Western and inspired a whole bunch of violent (so-called "cruel") Japanese films. But, in the end, it doesn't matter who influenced whom; there's only a few stories to tell, and it's in how we tell them that the magic happens. So read as many as you can, watch as many as your eyes will allow, and then go make something new for me to blather on about.