Monday, September 05, 2005

Toshiro Mifune Versus The Ewoks.

The Hidden Fortress
1958, Japan
Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa films, like a fine wine, keep getting better and better with age. And, like wine, they make me sick to my stomach and are mainly enjoyed by effete drama students with black nail polish and a hard on for foreign films. They are, admittedly, usually fantastic, as is the case with The Hidden Fortress, but they’re not foreign. Well, technically they are, in that they’re made by someone with a funny color and an even funnier language, but there’s so little stylistically to differentiate them from American films of the period that there’s no point in identifying then as ‘other’. Kurosawa, at his best, is just John Ford or Howard Hawkes, except instead of cowboys he has Toshiro Mifune swaddled in samurai robes like a large yellow baby grunting like the monkeys in 2001. At his worst, he’s Frank Capra, the man who invented the idea that film audiences were illiterate children who needed to be burped by Jimmy Stewart and given a good cry before bed. The idealized past of the shogun era is the Japanese version of the Wild West, only with more fog. The cutting, pacing, and story-telling techniques are all that of American directors of the 50s and 60s, only with increasingly frequent stretches of boredom so Japanese audiences can empty their diminutive bladders more often. Kurosawa was as Hollywood as they come, and if he were alive today, he’d be adapting John Grisham novels and orchestrating marketing tie-ins with Happy Meal toys and T-shirts.

The new "Rashomon 2: Raped to Death in a Japanese Forest" Happy Meal

The cult of foreign film worship reached its peak in the 90s, and though the French have done their best to ruin it for other countries, there still remains a haughty attitude among film buffs that films made outside of North America are somehow inherently better than homegrown product. This is patently untrue. Foreign films are, by and large, just as immeasurably stupid as American product, but generally less ostentatiously so. When an American film runs out of anything interesting to say, they either blow up a gas station in slow motion or have Will Ferrell show up in a bathrobe. When a foreign film needs to draw attention away from a script written by cutting and pasting Movie Magic templates together, they show Monica Belluci’s pubic hair. The only thing is, the bad films tend to get weeded out over the pond, and only the best, or hairiest, stuff gets over here to be fawned over by Ebert, Roper, and those shitheads who work the concessions counter at repertory theaters. Also, different cultures tend to have different aesthetics and storytelling techniques, and novelty often equals quality in the eyes of many film critics. Just because I can’t understand what the hell is happening in a Takeshi Miike movie doesn’t mean that I’m an idiot and he’s a genius. In fact, it probably means that he’s traded in two dozen IQ points for amphetamines and I’m getting too irritated to pay attention. Filming an entire movie upside down doesn’t necessarily equate with innovation. It might just mean that nobody in Indonesia can read the Canon XL manual, despite the fact that they probably built the parts there.

Damn it, Mohammed...

Which is why it’s so strange that Kurosawa has garnered such acclaim in a world where people desperately attach importance to foreign films whose sole achievement is that they distinguish themselves from the American style. Perhaps it’s a longing for familiarity, coupled with the exotic aspect of seeing a traditional narrative trope enacted by the cast of a kung fu movie. Whatever it is, his films seem to have struck a chord with audiences, but the bizarre thing is how they’ve reverberated and in turn influenced the filmmakers they were originally inspired by. Yojimbo is the best example of this, though The Hidden Fortress comes close. Based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, an author who couldn’t be more American if he had a confederate flag tattooed under a bible verse on his chest, Yojimbo was nothing more than a Hollywood western with a floppy sword. After its success, it was remade into Clint Eastwood’s first hit, A Fistful of Dollars, making Clint an icon of Hollywood masculinity, before being remade again as Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, an established icon of beef and male pattern baldness. The Hidden Fortress is famously the inspiration for Star Wars, with its tale of a princess fleeing an evil empire guarded by two bumbling sidekicks, and it’s amazing how similar the two films are, both stylistically and narratively. Both feature transitory wipes, an epic narrative told through the eyes of two secondary characters, and killer robots. Also, Darth Vader is in both movies. And, though Yoda was a Jim Henson created puppet in the first four films of George Lucas’ series, here he’s animated via rudimentary stop-motion. Even the Death Star is in here, though in The Hidden Fortress it’s powered by dying suns and fires blasts of zero-point energy that dissolve dimensions. So, there’s really very little unique about this film. In fact it’s American through and through, though it certainly makes for a better T-shirt than Jar-Jar Binks.


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