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THE HERO

WITHIN US ALL

A RETROSPECTIVE OF POSTERS FROM

THE FILMS OF AKIRA KUROSAWA

Foreward by Abigail Gepner

Essay Text by Stephen Pierce


“WITH DEFEAT IN WORLD WAR II,

MANY JAPANESE, WHO HAD MADE

THE OBJECTIVES OF THE NATION

THEIR OBJECTIVES IN LIFE, WERE

DUMBFOUNDED TO FIND THAT THE

GOVERNMENT HAD LIED TO THEM AND

WAS NEITHER JUST NOR DEPENDABLE.


DURING THIS UNCERTAIN TIME,

AKIRA KUROSAWA, IN A SERIES OF

FIRST-RATE FILMS, SUSTAINED

THE PEOPLE BY HIS CONSISTENT

ASSERTION THAT THE MEANING

OF LIFE IS NOT DICTATED BY THE

NATION BUT SOMETHING EACH

INDIVIDUAL SHOULD DISCOVER FOR

HIMSELF THROUGH SUFFERING.”

— TADAO SATO, CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA



THE HERO WITHIN US ALL



TABLE OF CONTENTS

Foreward 1

Kagemusha (1980) 12

On-Set Photography 14, 24, 25

Sanjuro (1962) 16

Yojimbo (1961) 17

High and Low (1963) 18. 27

Red Beard (1965) 21

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) 22

Throne of Blood (1957) 23

Ran (1985) 28

Colophon 31



FOREWORD

There are few film directors like Akira Kurosawa. He arguably the

best known and most highly regarded Japanese filmmaker in the

West, and arguably the world. His films explore primal themes and

emotions that are at the core of what it means to be human in straightforward

and honest way that is neither pretentious nor ostentatious.

The subtlety of his storytelling allows the audience to become fully

immersed as participants in his films, an approach that has influenced

many film makers across the world. The films he has created are

clever and character driven rather than solely focusing on forward

momentum of events as many of his Western contemporaries did.

Kurosawa’s stories are told in vibrant environments that are so convincing

and dimensional that they are often characters in themselves

. In his films there are many shots that are solely dedicated to curating

a certain feeling or a sense of the setting in which the story being told

occurs. He often uses these scenes as a pause which serves to contribute

to the gravity and tone of his storytelling. He focuses on what he is

showing and what people may immediately perceive, as much as what

is absent. Perhaps this is why he continues to be an inspiration for film

makers and other creatives over half a century after his career began.

His films often echo the theme of individual human willpower

and tenacity as powerful tools to overcome obstacles - the

ability of regular people to become their own heroes.. Kurosawa’s

visual approach, as well as the motif of the individualistic hero

was translated through the posters for his films. This book is a

selection of some of the posters from his most iconic works.


THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

AKIRA KUROSAWA

Japan emerged from the war with its cities burnt and uninhabitable,

its industry destroyed, and its people near starvation.

Massive incendiary bombings of the major cities had completely

destroyed the fragile wood and paper houses and displaced the

urban population. Nearly 50 percent of the housing facilities were

wiped out in the 66 cities subject to attack by air.’ “By the end of

July [1945], 188,310 people had died in air raids, a quarter of a

million had been wounded, and about nine million were homeless.

With the destruction of the cities, much of the urban population

looked to the countryside for shelter and food, but it was

scarce, and by early November 1945, Japan faced a drastic

shortage of rice. Had the war continued, there would have been

starvation in the urban centers of Japan during the winter of

1945-46. The demand for food, and its insufficient supply, fed a

voracious black market that, in turn, depleted available supplies.

The chief concern of most Japanese in the postwar period

was how to avoid starvation. But hunger was not the only privation.

Clothing was in short supply because the country had

dismantled its textile industry so that the equipment could be

converted to war manufactures.” In addition, much of Japan’s

industry and nearly all its merchant shipping had been destroyed

by bombing. Deprived of adequate shelter, clothing, and food,

those who survived the firebombings faced a grim future.

Looking back on the disastrous military path Japan had followed,

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

a Foreign Ministry official observed: For a poor country like Japan,

the construction of costly warships meant a crushing burden

upon the national treasury. And yet we built a good number of

them. We also maintained a vast Army and an ever expanding

Air Force. In the end we became like the mammoth whose tusks,

growing ever bigger, finally unbalanced its bodily structure. As

everything went to support the huge tusks, very little was left to

sustain the rest of the body. The mammoth finally became extinct.

It is in this general context of physical trauma, economic collapse,

and psychological defeat that Kurosawa’s films of the

late 1940s and early 1950s should be viewed. As we have seen,

in later years Kurosawa remarked that he believed after the

war that spiritual and cultural recovery was incumbent upon

the adoption of social values that emphasized the individual.

During the war years, the avenues for public expression or

social criticism had certainly narrowed. The Peace Preservation

Law, for example, passed in 1925 and revised in 1928, became

an important tool in repressing the Left. The law banned any

words, deeds, or writing that urged the abolition of private property

or the imperial regime. It provided the legal mechanism

for the mass arrest of radicals by the police during the 1930s.

The official state ideology during the war was formulated in terms

of service to the imperial heritage, a “national polity” (“kokutai”)

whose origins Carol Gluck suggests should be seen as a response

to the strains of modernism. Tracing policies of imperial ortho-

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

Kagemusha (1980) A petty thief with an utter resemblance to a samurai warlord is hired as

the lord’s double. When the warlord later dies the thief is forced to take up arms in his place.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

doxy, in which the Emperor was regarded as the “axis” of the

nation, Gluck points to their roots in the Meiji era as an ideological

effort to seal fissures in the modernizing state, where “labor

disputes, like socialism, were an unmistakable sign that modern

economic life engendered conflict on a large and unacceptably

divisive scale. It was as if the unique glory-and the reassuring

immutability-of kokutai became that much more important as

the world fell away around it. This official ideology during the

war years became enmeshed with a resurgent anti-Westernism

and antimodernism “Fundamentals of Our National Polity,” published

by the Ministry of Education in 1937, was designed to

describe the contours of Imperial service. It decried the influence

of Western values centered on the worth of the individual, and it

argued that socialism, communism, and social unrest were due

to the influence of the misguided individualism of the West.

When people determinedly count themselves as masters and

assert their egos, there is nothing but contradictions and the

setting of one against the other, and this was in contrast to the

Japanese Way of harmony with family and state. A reawakening of

devotion to the emperor was necessary to counter these harmful

influences. The country was a great family, and the Imperial Household

is the head family of the subjects and the nucleus of national

life. Serving the nation can be done only by overcoming individualism,

by dying to self and returning to [the] One, a process that can

never be understood from an individualistic way of thinking. War

is a means of bringing about, not destruction, but great harmony.

The degree to which Imperial ideology penetrated the culture, and

the extent of cultural and state authoritarianism during the war,

are debated by scholars. Daikichi Irokawa describes allegiance

to the emperor system as a kind of mass cultural blindness, “an

enormous black box into which the whole nation ... unknowingly

walked. Kazuo Kawai suggests that the rise of the militarists

was tied to an alleged lack of a cultural tradition of individualism

and social equality. “There was as yet no widespread conception

either of the essential equality of all men or of the supreme

worth of the individual.’:” Ben-Ami Shillony suggests, however,

that there were spaces in the society where individuals and

groups could remain relatively free of wartime ideological im-

George Lucas

and Francis Ford

Coppola are credited

at the end of the

film as executive

producers in the

international version.

This is because

they convinced

20th Century Fox to

make up a shortfall

in the film’s budget

when the original

producers, Toho

Studios, could not

afford to complete

the film. In return,

20th Century

Fox received the

international

distribution rights

to the film.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

Although the Japanese press tried to paint him as

a tyrant, almost all of his casts and crews agreed

he was a much more cool and detached presence

on sets. Many also described him as “intense”.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

peratives. He argues that the Japanese state during the war was

not a fascist one like Nazi Germany because there was no party

ideology or dictatorial leader and because the state was much

less repressive and the society not totally politicized. “[S]ocial,

communal, and occupational loyalties continued to st independently

of the state, and no mass party could abolish them.”

However authoritarian the state may have been during the

war, however large the gap between “kokutai,” official ideology,

and actual practice, upon the nation’s surrender the codes

of individual behavior and the relation between the state and

its citizens were subject to intense changes. The Allied Occupation

of Japan resulted in a new constitution that assured basic

human rights and popular, rather than Imperial, sovereignty.

Moreover, because of Allied suspicions of zaibatsu (big business)

complicity with the militarists, a program of economic

reform was implemented that aimed to decentralize economic

power and institute labor and land reforms as a basis for establishing

the foundations of a democratic political order.

As economic, political, and educational reforms were implemented

by American Occupation authorities, building on existing democratic

traditions in Japanese politics,” Western social and political

ideals gained a renewed pervasiveness and popularity compared

with the war years. Robert Bellah notes that “The loss of the war

and the beginning of the American occupation ... precipitated a

rush to the standard of ‘democracy’ in the Japanese intellectual

world. Western ideals of democracy, freedom, and individualism

were the new slogans replacing those of state nationalism.”

Shuichi Kato has suggested that this shift of attention brought with

it a renewed focus upon the initial Meiji project, that is, upon the

meaning of modernization and the American influences conjoined

with it: “it was not until the end of the Second World War

that the modernization of the country as a whole became once

again one of the major concerns of Japanese intellectuals and

writers. As in the Meiji period, modernization is again identified

with Westernization, or more recently with Americanization.

Kurosawa’s work is tied to these cultural shifts and to the renewed

currency that Western ideals received in the immediate postwar

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16

Sanjuro (1962) A crafty samurai helps a young man and his fellow clansmen save his

uncle, who has been framed and imprisoned by a corrupt superintendent.


Yojimbo (1961) A crafty ronin comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs

and decides to play them against each other to free the town.

17


THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

High and Low (1963) An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of

extortion when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

era. In his films, he attempted to work through the crisis that the

militarized nation had suffered and to point a way out of the

darkness such that it could not happen again. Indeed, w finds the

theme of suffering to be central to Kurosawa’s work and to the kind

of redemptive model it offered the culture during this chaotic time.

With defeat in World War II, many Japanese, who had made

the objectives of the nation their objectives in life, were

dumbfounded to find that the government had lied to them

and was neither just nor dependable. During this uncertain

time Akira Kurosawa, in a series of first-rate films, sustained

the people by his consistent assertion that the meaning of

life is not dictated by the nation but something each individual

should discover for himself through suffering.

High and Low was filmed at

Toho Studios and on location in

Yokohama. The film includes stock

music from The H-Man (1958).

Kurosawa has remarked, “During the war, there was no freedom

of expression. At the end of the war, I had so much to say, I

was overfilled with things to say about Japan.’?” In this effort

to internalize and portray a new set of values, he felt he had to

work much harder than one who had known such values for a

lifetime. He points out that, like most others,” he did not resist

Japan’s descent into militarism. “Unfortunately, I have to admit

that I did not have the courage to resist in any positive way, and

I only got by, ingratiating myself when necessary and otherwise

evading censure .... In wartime we were all like deaf-mutes.”

This political passivity, however, changed after the war. Occupation

reforms extended to the cinema, where, as Kyoko Hirano has

pointed out in her study of the Japanese cinema under the Allied

Occupation, mass media (including films) were used as part of the

reform effort: As early as September 22, 1945, the Civil Information

and Education Section (CIE) of SCAP summoned representatives

from each Japanese film company, and told them that SCAP would

like the Japanese film industry to pursue the principles of the

Potsdam Declaration and help reconstruct Japan positively. At the

same time, CIE established the three principal aims of the Occupation:

complete disarmament and demilitarization of the nation;

encouragement of individual liberties and fundamental human

rights; and directing Japan to contribute to world peace and safety.

To pursue these principles, desirable subjects and directions for

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

films were suggested by CIE. 31 Allied control over the Japanese

cinema was exercised by way of both censorship (prohibiting

material contrary to Occupation goals) and propaganda (promoting

American values].” Filmmakers were subject to firm guidelines

specifying what kinds of subjects would be tolerated. Generally,

films were to extoll individual freedoms and be critical of militarism

and feudalism.” Hirano points out that many filmmakers

and studio officials, who yesterday diligently promoted the war

effort, now performed a rapid ideological flip-flop to turn out films

promoting Occupation-style democracy.” The cost of this flip-flop,

Hirano suggests, was a lack of genuine commitment to the new

values, an ideological vagueness “about what democratic values

actually are.” She finds many of the postwar films made by Japanese

directors under the aegis of CIE to be curiously apolitical.

Red Beard was shot

at an aspect ratio

of 2.35:1. It was

Kurosawa’s first

film to make use of

a magnetic 4-track

stereo soundtrack

and principal

photography took

two years. The set

was intended to be

historically accurate:

the crew went as far

as to use the right

kind of aged wood

that would have

been used in the

region at the time

the film is set, at

Kurosawa’s request.

Like other filmmakers, Kurosawa rode out these changing tides,

working successfully within the industry to produce several

mild wartime propaganda films (e.g., Sunshiro Sugata, Part II

and The Most Beautiful), then swiftly adjusting his cinematic

vision to the changed postwar political context. Nevertheless,

we need not read this move as opportunistic. Kurosawa chafed

under the constraints of wartime censorship and recalls his

struggles with the Japanese censors with intense bitterness.

Furthermore, the emergence of his mature cinematic talent occurred

during the Occupation period. Beginning in the postwar

years, Kurosawa’s cinema acquired a depth and power that are

simply not present in the works produced under wartime constraint.

A happy congruence of circumstance linked his artistic

temper with the turbulence of Occupied Japan and an atmosphere

in which he felt free, at last, to speak. Ironically, CIE’S guidelines

and the energy for social reform that lay behind them helped

establish a context in which Kurosawa’s postwar cinema could

thrive and in which he could express his visions of the new Japan.

The shock of the war and defeat seemed to create a cultural

opening in which new alternatives could be considered.

The Japan of August 1945 appeared to some extent to be

a tabula rasa both physically and ideologically; and for a

time the country was undoubtedly in an extremely receptive

state so far as outside influences were concerned.

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Red Beard In 19th-century Japan, a rough-tempered yet

charitable town doctor trains a young intern.

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22

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) Sugata, a young man, struggles to learn the nuance and meaning

of judo, and in doing so comes to learn something of the meaning of life.


Throne of Blood (1957) A war-hardened general, egged on by his ambitious wife, works

to fulfill a prophecy that he would become lord of Spider’s Web Castle.

23


THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

Although one must doubt the extent to which native cultural

traditions could simply be erased, as the metaphor of a tabula rasa

would seem to require, the imagery is nevertheless suggestive for

Kurosawa’s cinema because the evidence of the work indicates

an attempt to inscribe a new set of values and messages upon the

culture. Desser suggests that Kurosawa was faced with the task

of making films whose themes and subjects could be seen to be

appropriate propaganda for the United States’ desire to demilitarize

and defeudalize Japanese attitudes” and that Kurosawa’s

strategy was “to adapt Western modes in a deliberate manner so as

to explore the nature of Western ideals as they impact upon Japan.

Kurosawa has clearly scrutinized his own culture by way of the

West. But rather than viewing his films of this period as simply carrying

out the reformist policies of SCAP, we would do well to recall

that Kurosawa’s pre-Occupation films-Sanshir6 Sugata and They

Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tailexhibit the strong, quirky individual

characters and the ambivalent, even critical view of established

Production stills from the filming of The

Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa refused to

shoot the peasant village at Toho Studios

and had a complete set constructed at

Tagata on the Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka.

encourages that feeling of authenticity”.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

normative patterns that MacArthur’s reforms later incarnated.

Keeping that in mind, then, it should be noted that Kurosawa

welcomed the changed political climate and sought to fashion

films that would be responsive to it, but in doing so, he was able

to find his own mature cinematic voice: “The freedom and democracy

of the post-war era were not things I had fought for and won,

they were granted to me by powers beyond my own. As a result, I

felt it was all the more essential for me to approach them with an

earnest and humble desire to learn, and to make them my own.”

Thirty-nine of Kurosawa’s films of this period are explicit attempts

to dramatize the spiritual and the psychological dilemmas that

the country faced in the aftermath of militarism. As Tadao Sato has

pointed out, Kurosawa’s films suggested that Japan’s recovery

from defeat did not have to be only an economic one. Kurosawa

tried to visualize the moral and social contours of national recovery

in the very moment of its unfolding. In the films of this period,

history would be understood in moral terms, as a structure of

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

The Washington Post wrote that “High

and Low is, in a way, the companion

piece to Throne of Blood – it’s Macbeth,

if Macbeth had married better. The

movie shares the rigors of Shakespeare’s

construction, the symbolic and historical

sweep, the pacing that makes the story

expand organically in the mind”.

events presenting his protagonists with a range of choices. This

range of choice signified the space of their freedom and, in the

type of response chosen, symbolized the future course of national

develop ment. In short, Kurosawa’s was an unabashedly didactic

cinema that, in its union of ethics and aesthetics, attempted

to use art as a mode of instruction. Zeami had proclaimed that

his Noh theater would “serve to praise the Buddha and provide

the means to spread his teachings, will chase away evil affinities,

and will call forth happiness, so that the country will remain in

tranquillity, bringing gentleness and long life to the people.

Kurosawa’s cinema belongs to such a practice, wherein

art is treated as the vehicle of enlightenment. He relates an

incident during the filming of Hnshomon when, at the completion

of location shooting at the Kornyoji temple forest, the

abbot of the temple gave him a folding fan as a gift in tribute

to the crew’s hard work. On the fan were inscribed the words

“Benefit All Mankind.” Kurosawa says, “I was left speechless.”

In carrying out such a task, the works of the immediate postwar

era belong to the heroic mode of Kurosawa’s cinema. This

chapter is concerned with the structure of that mode and

its gradual articulation, the contradictions that articulation

entailed, and its culmination in Kurosawa’s first masterpiece,

Ikiru. All these works are attempts to construct a cinema

connected to its topical moment. Even the weakest films of

this period-One Wonderful Sunday (1947), The Quiet Duel

(1949), and Scandal are all interpenetrated by the exigencies

of wartime collapse and the emergence of a new Japan.

By contrast with the other, tumultuous works of this era, these

three films have a placid surface that is marked by a general

absence of radical formal experimentation. One Wonderful

Sunday chronicles the alternately whimsical and despairing

adventures of two lovers as they wander through the city, pitting

their fantasies against the disturbing presence of war orphans

and ruined buildings. Buffeted by misfortune, the young woman

cries out that she would die without her dreams. The couple

becomes depressed by their poverty and the ruined surroundings,

but their spirits are rescued by an imaginary symphony

(Schubert’s Unfinished) that the young man conjures in an empty

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High and Low (1963) An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of

extortion when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

High and Low (1963) An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of

extortion when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom.

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THE HERO WITHIN US ALL

outdoor auditorium. As he pantomimes the motions of a conductor,

the imaginary music appears on the soundtrack, heard

by the characters in the film and the audience watching it.

Its affirmation of the power of dreams to counter dispiriting

realities points toward the obsessions of Dodeskaden (1970)

and contrasts greatly with the other works of this period, which

caution against policies of escape.” The Quiet Duel visualizes the

war as a corrosive, invasive agent, the effects of which are felt

long after hostilities cease. Toshiro Mifune plays a surgeon who

contracts syphilis while operating on an infected patient at the

front, and the remainder of the film studies his efforts to isolate

himself from those who love him and to eradicate the infection.

High and Low was filmed at

Toho Studios and on location in

Yokohama. The film includes stock

music from The H-Man (1958).

Although the presentation of the hospital clinic includes many

incidents and characters that would receive their consummate

expression in Red Beard, the situation is essentially melodramatic

in that it depends on Mifune not telling others of his condition. This

melodrama displaces the implicit metaphor of the war as disease,

and the metaphor does not receive the kind of elaborate treatment

that distinguishes Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. Scandal attempts

to criticize the sensationalistic reporting of lurid newspapers, one

of which falsely reports a sexual liaison between a wellknown artist

and a singer. Kurosawa felt that such abuse of power by the press

was symptomatic of the postwar obsession with freedom of speech.

The rest of this essay can be read in Stephen Prince’s book,

The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

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COLOPHON

Vintage poster images were sourced from Google Images.

The accompanying essay was written by Stephen Prince.

Additional facts sourced from IMDB archives and Wikipedia.

The header font used is Bebas Kai, designed by Ryoichi Tsunekawa.

The body and caption cop font is Aileron, designed by Sora Sagano.

This catalog was printed and produced at The New School.

This book was designed to accompany an exhibition,

held from November 15th – December 14th at the Japan Society.


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