Japanese films failed to make the Golden Lion shortlist at the 73rd Venice Film Festival that wrapped up in September. A question was posed at the Venice Film Festival Press Conference on why Japan is missing out on challenging in the top competition for the second consecutive year.
Also in Cannes and Berlin this year, no Japanese films were shown in competition, meaning they were not in the running for the top prizes at the “Big Three” film festivals.
While experts say Asian films have been losing their foothold in the increasingly competitive film festival circuit, they urge Japanese filmmakers to pursue their ingenuity and attempt a more international perspective.
The Venice festival has given the Golden Lion prize to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi, and also showcased films by Kitano, Hayao Miyazaki, Shinya Tsukamoto and other Japanese filmmakers in competition for 13 consecutive years until 2014. Although three of the 21 films showcased in competition in 2008 were from Japan, no Japanese movies have made it to the main competition for the past two years.
“With the number of films produced having increased, the margin for not only Japanese films but also for other Asian movies to be featured at international film festivals has shrunk in recent years,” said Tokyo International Film Festival programming director Yoshihiko Yatabe. “As it stands, it is less of the quality of the works than the fact that organizers can’t get around to reviewing Asian films as South American and North European films are also doing great.”
However, Filipino director Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion for Best Film for his The Woman Who Left at Venice this year.
A forum focusing on the rapidly growing Chinese market was also held on the sidelines.
But Venice festival director Alberto Barbera said the festival had picked up a powerful and beautiful Japanese work in the Orizzonti section for cutting-edge films: Kei Ishikawa’s first feature film Gukoroku–Traces of Sin.
While Ishikawa was presented in Orizzonti, Yasushi Kawamura’s full-CG film Gantz: O–also his first full-length feature–was screened out of the competition at Venice.
At Cannes, Koji Fukada’s Harmonium received the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
“In Japan, it is difficult for filmmakers to make auteuristic art films, but it shouldn’t be impossible if they are determined,” said film journalist Atsuko Tatsuta, as to how Japanese films could break into the competition lineup. “They need to gain a more international perspective by collaborating with other countries and making other efforts.”
Jean-Michel Frodon, former editorial director of film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, said that although Japanese filmmakers are making good films, they have yet to earn recognition abroad. He also stressed the importance of showing their presence at other film festivals and promoting their works to overseas audiences.
*Featured photo: The red carpet at the Venice Film Festival in Lido Island, Italy, where all the films want to be competing (The Asahi Shimbun)
In 1960, Director John Sturges made the original Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, as an American Western. Sturges based his work on legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. So in addition to being an end-of-summer blockbuster, Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake. Like Seven Samurai a good portion of Fuqua’s work takes place indoors and is evidenced by low-key lighting, heavy shadows and blackness.
This was Fuqua’s first attempt at a western although he claims to having had an affinity for them having watched many with his grandmother during his formative years. So when Metro Goldwyn Mayer approached him about making a western, Fuqua jumped at the opportunity. However, he wanted to make this his film with a theme to resonate with today’s audience. He didn’t have to look far to find a strong actor to lead up his core group of seven. Fuqua proposed Denzel Washington for the film’s lead, bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, having worked with Washington on Training Day and The Equalizer. Washington won an Oscar for Best Actor for his Training Day role and his on-screen partner, Ethan Hawke, received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination. Like Fuqua Washington had never done a western and looking back at the success the two have had together quickly came on board. Chris Pratt was identified to play gambler Josh Faraday, Chisolm’s sidekick and first to join the seven. Pratt, too, leaped at the opportunity to play a cowboy.
Soon Fuqua had an idea for his version of The Magnificent Seven as he and Washington performed research into the Old West. They discovered a wide-range of nationalities including Russians, Mexicans, and Irish. Fuqua wanted his seven to reflect this so he collaborated with screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk to create an authentic cast of characters utilizing a diverse group of young actors in addition to Washington and Pratt: Ethan Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux; Vincent D’Onofrio plays Jack Horne, Native-American Martin Sensmeier plays Red Harvest; Mexican-American actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Vasquez; and South Korean headliner Byung-hun Lee plays Billy Rocks.
The film is set in the town of Rose Creek where a ruthless industrialist, Batholomew Bogue, played convincingly by Peter Saarsgaard, is attempting to roust the entire town with threats, murder and mayhem for his own personal gain. The desperate town folk are at wits end when a woman, Emma Cullen, played by a tough Haley Bennett, reaches out and convinces the seven hired guns to protect and defend them from Bogue’s army of mercenaries. The men come together and find within themselves not only the will to fight and win but also the moral fortitude to do something because it is right.
Interestingly, like Kurasawa, Fuqua employs a number of camera techniques to highlight his film’s narrative. Many of his Hollywood closeups are shot just below the chin emphasizing the actors’ strong jawlines. Mauro Fiore is credited as the Cinematographer. In addition, impressive, expansive panning landscape shots are used to introduce the film with a non-diagetic score started by the iconic film score composer James Horner. Horner had over 75 projects to his name, along with two Academy Awards, and worked with Hollywood heavyweights like James Cameron, Oliver Stone, George Lucas, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg. Horner did not live to see the completed product before his untimely death in June of 2015. However, he did manage to complete seven themes based on the film’s script and his conversations with Fuqua. Composer Simon Franglen finished the film’s impressive score in a manner and style of James Horner as a tribute to Horner.
Throughout The Magnificent Seven Antoine Fuqua attempts to comment on today’s society and what he sees as overt acts of tyranny as he keeps with the Kurosawa thematic element of programming a film with societal mirrors and a political undercurrent. Notwithstanding, while Kurosawa used the unemployed samurai to form his seven, Fuqua finds a group of fringe characters with diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Still, both film’s characters do what is right and help those in need in spite of their own self-interest. My hat goes off to Director Fuqua for a valiant and noble effort. The Magnificent Seven is a fun film. It is well done technically with plenty of action and color. And, it is made in a similar vein as a world cinema masterpiece. Highly recommended.
(Featured photo courtesy of ASAC Images/Biennale Cinema di Venezia)
Because of the war, few countries participated in the 1940, 1941 and 1942 Festivals, not taken into consideration later on, with the dominating presence of the members of the Alliance. Following the war pause, the Festival was held again in 1946 with screenings at Cinema San Marco (the Palazzo del Cinema had been requisitioned by the Allies).
In 1946, in view of an agreement with Cannes, which had held its first festival that year in the spring, a simple transitory festival was organized in September. The 1947 Festival was held in the splendid setting of the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, with a record audience of 90,000. It was one of the best festivals and saw the return of the USSR and the new “popular democracies” including Czechoslovakia, which won first prize for Siréna by Karel Stekly. That year the international jury was reinstated to assign the International Grand Prix of Venice. Up until 1948 the director was Elio Zorzi, a Venetian.
Proceedings were transferred permanently back to the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido in 1949, and the Golden Lion of St. Mark introduced for best film.
During the Fifties the Festival experienced a period of international expansion, with the affirmation of new types of film (Japanese, Indian), and the arrival of leading directors and film stars. The Festival director’s chair was occupied by Antonio Petrucci (from 1949 to 1953), Ottavio Croze (1954 and 1955), Floris Ammannati (from 1956 to 1959) and Emilio Lonero in 1960.
Over the years the Festival has had a noteworthy influence on the history of world cinema. Japanese cinema has become well known in the West mostly thanks to the Golden Lion awarded to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon in 1951, and successively through the Silver Lions won by Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô Dayû (1954) by Kenji Mizoguchi, not to mention the presence of films such as Biruma no Tategoto (1956) by Kon Ichikawa. It was the same case for Indian film, Golden Lion in 1957 to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito. Eastern European cinema was brought to world attention partly through the Grand Prix awarded to the film Siréna (1947) by Karel Stekly (Czechoslovakia), and later thanks to the presence of emerging filmmakers such as Andrzey Waida (Popiól i diament, 1959).
After the first neo-realist films were shown at the Festival (Paisà by Roberto Rossellini and Il sole sorge ancora by Aldo Vergano in 1946, La terra trema by Luchino Visconti in 1948), a number of foremost Italian figures were recognised as leading talents in the ’50s and ’60s: Fellini, Antonioni, Rosi, Olmi, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Vancini, De Seta, and Zurlini. The fact that Luchino Visconti did not receive the Golden Lion for Senso in 1954 nor for Rocco e i suoi fratelli in 1960 led to heated debate. Visconti was to be awarded the top prize in 1964 for Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa.
French cinema marked decisive steps in the Festival history, with the presence of directors such as Jean Renoir (The Southerner, 1946), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Manon, 1949), Robert Bresson (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), Marcel Carnè (Theresa Raquin, 1953), Louis Malle (Les amants, 1958), Alain Resnais (L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1961) and Jean-Luc Godard (Vivre sa vie, 1962; La chinoise, 1967).
Great figures in world cinema received awards with significant works: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet, 1955), emergent Andrej Tarkovskj (Ivan’s Childhood, Golden Lion in 1962), Luis Buñuel (Belle de jour, 1967), Ingmar Bergman (The Face/The Magician, 1959), who had first come to the Lido in 1948 as an unknown figure with Musik i mörker.
I will be analyzing the three films, Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1957), and Ran (1985), in relation to how these Akira Kurosawa films represent men and their relationship to social structures, and to violence in reference to historical truth and to socio-economic realities. In Rashomon, Kurosawa breaks the traditional narrative mold of his earlier films with Arthouse Cinema depicting a murder of a samurai and the rape of his Lady by a bandit. The samurai is depicted as a clean cut, upright guardian as he walks carrying the reigns of the horse that his properly attired Japanese Lady rides upon in traditional ruling class attire complete with hat and facial netting protecting her delicate, porcelain-like skin from the harmful rays of the sun. The bandit, on the other hand, is dressed with tattered garb, no shirt, unshaven and a general unkempt appearance and he is frequently swatting and defending himself from the attention of big flies evidenced by his scratching and swatting at the loud buzzing of the flies. As the samurai and the Lady make their way through the woods, the bandit slowly watches like a snake watching his prey. Eventually, the bandit confronts the samurai in broad-action, sword dueling scenes and in hand to hand combats as daggers are brandished and eventually the bandit subdues the samurai and forcefully takes the Lady’s honor. (People: Akira Kurasawa)
The men this film is focusing on are men that take care of the weaker sexed women and use violence to get what they want and need. (Prince) The use of violence to protect the weak and to get what is wanted will be seen again and again in Seven Samurai, in Ran, as well as in the remainder of Rashomon, as four varying versions of the same crime are presented with one version containing a hidden secret. In my opinion, this film is a reflection of Japanese society in 1950. The Japanese samurai has been killed as democratization is the driving force behind the new society and that the new culture is at risk of becoming a society of thieves and bandits. (People: Akira Kurasawa)
Americanization has been taking place with a new constitution being implemented. Furthermore, the Japanese “sword,” the army, has been removed. It is my belief the four versions represent varying perspectives on WWII. Yet, by the end of Rashomon, an acceptance of the past has taken place and hope for the future is being put forth symbolized by the wood cutter’s willingness to trade the valuable, pearl-handled dagger he kept for himself, in return for the safety and well-being of the newborn. (Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The cinema of Akira Kurosawa) This, in my opinion, is Kurosawa showing through the woodcutter’s action that there is there is hope for the future of Japan without the weapons of the samurai and the army.
With the 1955 film Seven Samurai, ten years have passed since the end of WWII. Japan is struggling to find it’s own identity. For the most part, Japanese society has all but turned its back on the samurai way and is leaning heavily toward a full embrace of Western ideals and economics. Kurosawa sees the ideals of the samurai as a way for Japan to embrace the past taking the strong, good ideals of the legendary samurai and reinventing the samurai as a present day, or contemporary figure as he fears Japan is losing its identity. (People: Akira Kurasawa) The film opens with the bandits coming to rob the peasant farmers of their grain and barley. The peasants can’t defend themselves and fear for their survival. They decide to hire a samurai to protect and help defend them from the marauding bandits. Interestingly, Kurosawa depicts the first samurai as out of work true to a struggling contemporary Japanese economy. The samurai prepares himself as a priest and rescues a baby from a crazed kidnapper. The kidnapper is impaled by a sword and stumbling from the hut and in slow-motion drops dead to the ground. The samurai emerges and holds the baby aloft. The samurai uses violence to protect and safeguard the baby. I believe Kurosawa uses the baby again here in Seven Samurai, as he did in Rashomon, to foreshadow a hopeful future for Japan.
The men in Seven Samurai, are distinctly drawn into two classes, the upper class samurai and the peasant farmers and bandits. Kurosawa depicts the samurai living almost exclusively by a code of loyalty, duty responsibility and honor. He embodies these men as transcending selfishness and individualism, sacrificing themselves to protect the peasants. In addition, he includes a peasant who was not born into the samurai class as the possibility of social mobility in post WWII Japanese society and through the samurai and the hard work, sense of duty and fighting loyalty of the peasants victory is possible. Kurosawa uses violence as abstract realism. The fight scenes are very physical, very kinetic. His use of the long lens and camera angles draws the viewer’s eye in and creates a very contemporary feel. (Giddens) Furthermore, in the final scenes, Kurosawa is linking the ideals of the samurai at the film’s end with the buried samurai on the hillside with the future of Japan. As Japan is struggling to find its identity Kurosawa is showing them a way through the abyss- the dirty, muddy fight scenes – through the surviving samurai tradition of loyalty, self-sacrifice and sense of duty. In the closing moments of Seven Samurai, the surviving samurai agree that they survived and that the peasant farmer’s are the ones who have won. Kurosawa is saying that the Japanese can have a better future if they are willing to reach for it and work for it.
With his final epic film, the Shakespearean Japanese interpretive, Ran, based on “King Lear,” Kurosawa has pulled away from such overt optimism of Seven Samurai, and the darker themes from his earlier Shakespearean Japanese interpretive, Throne of Blood, based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” have taken hold. Kurosawa sees his government taking sides with huge corporations at the expense of the Japanese people. A truly authentic Japanese identity post WWII is becoming very difficult. Kurosawa has for all intents and purposes lost faith in the Japanese government and it’s chance at a more hopeful, authentic Japan based on the ideals of the samurai society. Kurosawa has seen the Japanese samurai ideals subverted almost entirely into the corporation. (Nolletti) His film Ran, (1965) is a white flag to the winds of fate – the lost hope of an independent, authentic Japan. (IMDB: Akira Kurosawa) The sons of Lord Hidetora are, in my opinion, representative of the sons of Japan after WWII. Not to be content with their individual kingdoms, each is driven to conquer, capture and unify the people by a woman, Lady Kaede who is hell bent on revenging her family’s demise at the hand of Lord Hidetora years earlier. A case can be made Japan had come full circle from the civil warring era that Kurosawa sets these films, with serfdoms battling one another and samurais waging the battles for the lord of the serfdom, much like the warriors that served the three castles and the Lord of each castle to the economic juggernaut that Japan became in the 1970’s and early 1980’s following WWII. (Prince, “Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in Global Cinema”)
Seemingly, Kurosawa has thrown his hands up in the air with Ran, and has reached the conclusion that Japan is fated and his efforts to see his native country return to, or even evolve into, a strong, masculine state again will not be fulfilled. Japanese suffering is just the way the world works. Kurosawa conveys this with the image of a castle burning with horsemen rushing in and killing is everywhere. Moreover, the ending of Ran, depicts Taramaru on the top of his family’s burned out castle ruins. A drastic cut pull out gives appearance Taramaru is part of the ruin and poses the adage that Justice is blind. Seemingly, Kurosawa feels modern Japan, like, the Japan depicted in Ran, is being decided on the whims of a feminized bureaucracy attempting to avenge a humiliating defeat through the economic windfalls of hue corporations. Kurosawa’s films after this period moved into dreamlike states and fantasia.
The messages Kurosawa sets forth in these masterpieces are relevant today. Economically, Japan is struggling due to a global recession, a major earthquake and a resultant three-story tsunami (possibly fate) along with a nuclear release of radioactive material occurring at the Fukushima nuclear power plants. Notwithstanding, Japan as a culture, has succeeded in maintaining aspects of the samurai culture in its work ethic and in its value of loyalty. Nevertheless, as a nation, Japan did not invite the international community to participate in assessing and containing the nuclear spillage nor in rectifying the leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor. As Kurosawa elegantly, and eloquently shows, the Japanese people are a people steeped in a strong, rich and powerful tradition. One can only hope that when they need to, they ask for help in overcoming an adversary to ensure the health and survival of its people despite class differences. In closing, I believe Japan still looks to the West before it charts its course for the future – much like Kurosawa’s western genre influence in these films. And despite the great film director’s dismay, the Japanese people and the strong ideals of the samurai remain vibrant, alive as they work, struggle and fight for a better future.
Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera: The cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Giddens, Gary. Kurosawa in Action. 22 July 2015 .
Nolletti, Arthur. “”Perspectives on Kurosawa”.” Film Quarterly Summer 1996: 52-54.
Prince, Stephen. “”Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in Global Cinema”.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 37.1 (2011): 229-233.
People: Akira Kurasawa. 19 July 2015 .
IMDB: Akira Kurosawa. 18 July 2015 .