The Magnificent Two: A Transnational Dialog Between Theo Angelopoulos and Akira Kurosawa

Arthouse meets cult

There is a great deal of analogies between cult and arthouse films[1]. They have always been cinemas’ bastard children. They have always been the other cinema; the one that takes personal effort to discover, understand and appreciate. With films that frequently contain bold and controversial views, innovating techniques and aesthetics, as well as rich intertextuality, they are an alternative take on mainstream cinema. In many cases, such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, the drawing line between cult and art cinema is faint.

Consumption is another common denominator. Both cult and arthouse films are not aiming on a mass audience, nor on a lucrative box office course, but rather on a devoted group of followers, from whom they require a certain amount of commitment and investment.  One semantic differential between them might be the critical reception, on which art films are heavily depended upon, unlike cult films that have only to answer to the reputation they gain among their fanbases. However, various independent and arthouse festivals (e.g. Sundance Film Festival) have shown that fans are just as important to art cinema as it is to cult.

Two terms that are essential to this debate are cinephiles and buffs.  Cinephiles, who are usually associated with arthouse, share their common passion in cinema through a sophisticated analytical approach. They possess sufficient knowledge of film theory and enjoy practicing strict criticism. Also, they are aware of a great number of significant directors, whose work they study meticulously. Buffs, on the other hand, are enthusiastic fans who simply enjoy loving movies. Also known as film geeks, they are largely cult cinema fans and tend to memorize even the most outrageous trivial facts, just because they are film related.

An interesting way to work on a film topic would be to perceive cult cinema through a cinephile’s gaze (as does this MA programme, more or less) and accordingly, treat art cinema with a buff’s enthusiasm. I was a huge fan of both Theo Angelopoulos and Akira Kurosawa. When I found out about their friendship, I was more than intrigued. In this essay I will attempt to deepen into their work and find connecting references, as a cinephile, but as a buff, I will try to spot every single fact related to the relationship of those two cinematic icons.

 

Transnationality

Yet another feature cult and arthouse cinema share is their transnational character[2]. Cult and art films are always on the move, from country to country, from culture to culture, in a continuous influence transaction. Their total reception and overall appreciation takes place not on a national, but an international level. Akira Kurosawa is a great example of this. Western cinema and directors like Frank Capra and John Ford had such a huge impact on him that his countrymen called him the most western Japanese filmmaker. On the other hand, his influence on American cinema resulted exquisite pieces of filmmaking, such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and George Lucas’ Star Wars. Only a few Asian directors have managed such an international cult appeal as Kurosawa did.

Similarly, Theo Angelopoulos gained a global reputation that placed him among the great masters of cinema. Since the beginning of his career forty years ago, he is the only Greek director with a constant presence on the international scene. Hundreds of critics, analysts and historians have conducted researches and wrote essays and theories, explicating his vision. Festivals, tributes and retrospectives over his work are frequently organized all around the world. His legacy is very much alive and ever evolving, influencing many contemporary directors. He even managed to build a cult status around his persona, with his bald head and thick retro eyeglasses, as well as his sophisticated views and utterance -always accompanied by a lit cigarette- which requires a certain amount of cultural capital from the viewer, in order to be understood[3].

Looking back to seek Angelopoulos own influences, we find European and Japanese arthouse of the fifties and sixties, with directors such as Godard, Antonioni and Mizoguchi being praised by him. However, he admittedly grew up watching American cinema of the golden era of Hollywood[4]. Genres like film-noir, musical and melodrama are among his favourites and although his cinema is entirely different to the American, he claims that elements of these genres can always be found in his films[5].

 

A Greek in Japan

Prima fecie, Greece and Japan have nothing in common. With half the globe interposing between them, the two countries have developed dissimilar societies, traditions and ethical norms, their languages originate from completely different families, their religions hardly share any semblances and their historical courses seldom -if ever- came across. But at second glance one might discover that actually there are many similarities among them.

Greece and Japan are two of the oldest ancient civilizations, but only during newer History they have been reformed into modern nations. This is due to their incapability to follow the development of the western world, at least until the 19th century when they overcame a long period of hibernation, each one for different reasons. Their geography is very much alike, since they both sit at the very edge of their continents, consisting the borders of the east and west. They have a strong watery element, with hundreds of islands surrounding them, and had suffered many destructive earthquakes (Enceladus and Kashima are earthquake related gods and have a considerable presence in Greek and Japanese mythology respectively).  Philosophy and literacy flourished in both civilizations, creating influential movements and thought schools, and enriching the global cultural inheritance with written masterpieces such as Homer’s Odyssey and Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. Moreover, they both pioneered the art of drama, Greeks with their famous tragedies and Japanese with Kabuki and Noh theatre.

The outline of these analogies might to a point explain why Theo Angelopoulos’ cinema, a sufficiently Greek cinema, is so well received by the Japanese audience. His first film ever to be distributed in Japan was the highly praised The Travelling Players. It was a blooming time for arthouse cinemas, also known as the age of mini-theaters[6], where artistic films proved to bring commercial success and led to the establishment of several small-scale companies, responsible for importing and distributing independent movies. In 1979, The Travelling Players opened in Iwanami Hall, where it became a long-running hit. Later that year, it was honored by the Kinema Junpo Best Ten Awards for best direction on a foreign language film.

Ever since, Angelopoulos became a favorite in Japan. Few audiences worldwide embraced his cinema so overwhelmingly, as did the Japanese. Noted film scholars Inuhiko Yomota and Junji Hori reflected on his work by publishing articles and essays. On July 2004, a retrospective of his entire work was held in Tokyo. With eleven films on the program, including Japanese and world premier screenings, this was the first time Angelopoulos’ complete body of work was assembled in one place. The festival was a sellout success.

Furthermore, Japan is the only country -including even Greece- where you can find Angelopoulos’ complete filmography collected in a special edition DVD series. In the past he was infamously negative in releasing his films in VHS because of the poor image quality. By the time DVDs came out, however, the format met his expectations. When his Japanese distributor was set to produce the collection, he watched the film Days of 36 and got so impressed by the quality of the image that he decided to rerelease in the theaters first, in order to do justice to it[7].

 

Chacun son cinéma

Angelopoulos is probably the last living director that incarnates the absolute meaning of the term auteur. With his unmistakable aesthetic approach, his thoroughly crafted frame composition and his exquisite long-take sequences, he has established a unique and deeply personal cinematic world. His epic storytelling originates straight from Homer’s tradition. His emotionally destitute characters, close to the detached dramaturgy of Bertolt Brecht, are vessels for views and ideologies, rather than normal people. You rarely see their faces. This clearly deliberate distance, which is an extension of his Marxist views, aims in evoking emotion not through emotion itself, but through intellection. An Angelopoulos film always asks for an active participation of the viewer.

Kurosawa on the other hand, as a far more recognized figure, is nothing less than a filmic genius, one of the few filmmakers that truly revolutionized the medium. In his long and productive career he has created movies of sublime cinematic beauty, masterpieces that will live on as long as film survives. Refining the genre of jidaigeki and samurai film, he is engraved in peoples’ consciousness as the director who brought east and west a bit closer.

Searching for references between each other’s own cinema, I came across a number of interesting connecting points. One of the fundamental components that connect Angelopoulos’ and Kurosawa’s films is the similar use of the weather elements. From the first images of the misty landscape and wet stone of the remote northern Greek village in Reconstruction, to the moody battle sequence under the heavy rain in the climax of the Seven Samurai, both directors are fascinated by fickle weather and how it affects, or represents, the characters’ emotions. The use of music as a storytelling technique is very particular in their work, and especially the interference of singing and dancing during the regular plotline. Also, the theatrical and somewhat non-realistic performance style (mostly in later Kurosawa) would be another sharing characteristic.

In the finale of Landscape in the Mist, Angelopoulos uses an archetypical Japanese image: after suffering a great deal of pain during their journey, two kids who run away from home to find their father end up walking alone in the wilderness to find a tree emerging from inside the mist. This metaphysical dimension of trees is used not only in Kurosawa’s work (e.g. Dreams), but in the wider Japanese mythology and philosophy (concept of tree of life, religion of Shinto etc.). Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev spotted this connection:

Before I saw Angelopoulos’ film, I, who had been brought up without a father, would never have thought that I would discover him in the image of a tree. This last scene of Landscape in the Mist was a revelation for me. It is a unique, one could say ‘Japanese’, moment, which surprised me because I had always thought of the Greek tradition as exclusively one of stones, rocks and gods. I saw in that scene a challenge to every inhibition and authority. This is why I would use Bergman’s words to say that the goal of cinema is to bring the dream back into our life, and thus help us to confront life’s difficulties[8].

On his behalf, Akira Kurosawa was a great admirer of Greek drama. Attributes of ancient tragedies can be found in his work, especially in his later period. His last masterpiece, Ran, is actually very close to Theo’s approach to filmmaking. The characters are not regular human beings but larger-than-life figures who participate in the devastating events that take place in the world. In the memorable castle siege sequence, the distance that Kurosawa keeps from the proceedings (there are no close-ups) insinuates that gods are watching at men’s savagery and they’re laughing. As if men are nothing more than pawns in the gods’ chessboard. It’s a clear reference to the incapability of altering one’s destiny while higher powers are on the works, a theme that was very common in ancient Greece.

 

Theo and Akira

Apart from their cinematic connections, Angelopoulos and Kurosawa had a lot of respect and appreciation for each other’s work and they shared an actual friendship. However, they only met thrice in person. A recounting of these encounters can be found in the introductory chapter of the Greek edition of Akira Kurosawa’s Something like an Autobiography that was written by Theo Angelopoulos himself.

Their first meeting was in Rotterdam Film Festival in 1971, where Angelopoulos presented his directorial debut, Reconstruction. The occasion was a Kurosawa tribute, hosted by the festival. They had a conversation concerning the differences between Kabuki and No theater. Angelopoulos explains his first impression on Kurosawa vividly: “Tall, skinny, with a face so graven at that time. He was just coming out of a personal scrape, terribly painful. […] He was speaking slowly, wearily; one would say that he was suffering. He was marking the differences with attention and with knowledge. Even so, I would say that he was about to cry[9].”

It was a dark period in Kurosawa’s life and career. In 1970 he was signed to direct a Hollywood version of the WWII Japanese attach in Pearl Harbor, a film called Tora! Tora! Tora!, but he was replaced by the studio in the last minute. His next film Dodesukaden was a major flop. His commercial failure and financing problems led him to the deepest depression. In the freshly released book Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema, film historian Peter Cowie comments upon Kurosawa’s condition:

Kurosawa was in his own lower depths, having slashed his neck and arms with a razor in his own bath on December 22, 1971… Kurosawa apparently made thirteen attempts to commit suicide, though his darkest moment came in that winter of 1971[10].

The second encounter took place no less than a decade later. Angelopoulos was invited in Japan by his distributor to promote Alexander the Great. He sent word to Kurosawa, addressing him that he’d wish to meet him again. After visiting the filming locations and the grave of one of his all-time favorite directors, Kenji Mizoguchi, he finally met with Kurosawa in a traditional teashop somewhere in Tokyo. Kurosawa was astonished by Theo’s new film. He had brought with him an enthusiastic article he wrote about it, that was published in Asahi, Japan’s biggest newspaper:

He watches things calmly through the lens. It is the weight of his calm and the sharpness of the unmoving regard of Angelopoulos’ camerawork that makes Alexander the Great so powerful it’s impossible for the viewer to escape from the screen. This kind of filming, so personal and unique in its particularity, tends to look back to the origins of the cinema. This is what creates the impression of freshness and validity. As for myself, watching this film I deeply felt the pleasure of cinema in the most absolute meaning of the term[11].

They spent that evening together, talking about the use of colour in cinema and especially how to achieve black in film (Kurosawa was impressed by the quality of black colour in the costumes of Alexander the Great). This time, Angelopoulos was standing in front of an entirely different person. Kurosawa had overcome his trauma. He was elegant, cheery, confident, and -most importantly- back in cinema. Since their previous meeting, he had shot two films with huge critical and commercial success: Dersu Uzala, which won the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975, and Kagemusha, winner of the Palm d’Or in Cannes in 1980. Kurosawa had finally earned the recognition he deserved and he seemed to enjoy it.

In the meantime, Angelopoulos was about to face the toughest adversity in his own career. Two months before the beginning of shooting for his film The Suspended Step of the Stork, when the set crew was still building the constructions in a small town of northern Greece, a copy of the film’s screenplay had mysteriously disappeared from the set designer’s hotel room. As soon as principal photography started, Angelopoulos and his cast confronted an unprecedented agitation: the local bishop declared a crusade against the film, renouncing it for its antinational, blasphemous and atheistic views. Cast and crew members were threatened by church fanatics. The bishop’s followers were ringing the bells of every church in town to interrupt the filming and at night they were out, destroying the sets. The incident took international dimensions and ended up at the European Council. Angelopoulos received numerous supportive letters from many directors, including telegraphs from Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Ettore Scola and Nagisa Oshima. When Kurosawa heard about this inequity, he sent Angelopoulos the following note:

I write to you in order to protect you from the imposition of censorship regarding to your new film. It is a dreadful feeling. Like watching the child you raised being killed in front of your eyes. Such things should never be allowed. I unite my cry along with all the cries of the people who love and honor Theodoros Angelopoulos’ films. Let us see this movie. It is our right[12].

The friendship between the two masters of cinema lasted until Kurosawa passing. Although they didn’t have the chance to meet each other in person more frequently, they were in constant contact through cards, phone calls, book exchanges etc. Angelopoulos recalls their last encounter in Tokyo. It was the September of 89:

He was even gentler, assured. All the great honors had already taken place. He spoke about the end of his career, calmly this time. As if he had completed his course and had come full circle. He felt that he was reaching the end and it was a good end[13].

 

Epilogue

Today, 23rd of March 2010, is Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday. It is the perfect occasion for people to look back not only into his films, but his life as well. In my view, if someone is interested in cinema, it is really important to discover the lives of the people who are responsible for bringing us these extraordinary pieces of art. Only then we are able to comprehend their vision, understand their intentions and appreciate their work in a full scale. Only then we get all the pieces of the puzzle get together. Watching movies is a matter of entertainment. Reading into the stories behind them, is a matter of investment. And -gladly- investing is a hallmark of all cult fans.

 

Bibliography

On cult film

Mathijs, Ernest & Mendik, Xavier, ed. 2008. The Cult Film Reader. Berkshire: Open University Press.

On Theo Angelopoulos

Fainaru, D. ed., 2001. Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews. Jackson, MS: Roundhouse Publishing.

Horton, A. ed., 1997. The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema for Contemplation. Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

Horton, A. ed., 1997. The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

On Akira Kurosawa

Cowie, Peter. 2010. Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema. New York: Rizzoli.

Kurosawa, Akira. 1983. Something Like an Autobiography. Translated in Greek by Makis Moraitis, 1990. Athens: Aigokeros.

 

Footnotes

[1] Mathijs, Ernest & Mendik, Xavier, ed. 2008. The Cult Film Reader. Berkshire: Open University Press. Editorial Introduction: What is cult film? pp. 2-11.

[2] Mathijs, Ernest & Mendik, Xavier, ed. 2008. The Cult Film Reader. Berkshire: Open University Press. Section 3: National and international cults. pp. 275-283.

[3] There are even jokes about his peculiarities. One that comes to mind goes like this: “A couple is having sex. When they finish, the man asks the woman: ‘What did you think, honey?’. ‘It was like an Angelopoulos film’, the woman replies. ‘You mean deep and meaningful?’, the man asks. ‘No, I didn’t understand anything”.

[4] Fainaru, D. ed., 2001. Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews. Jackson, MS: Roundhouse Publishing. pp. 67.

[5] BFI. Interview with Theo Angelopoulos. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/interviews/angelopoulos.html

[6] UNIJAPAN. 2009. The Guide to Japanese Film Industry & Co-Production. Tokyo: Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Available at: http://www.unijapan.org/en/project/information/pdf/co-production_guide.pdf

[7] BFI. 2003. Interview with Theo Angelopoulos. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/interviews/angelopoulos.html

[8] Theo Angelopoulos. Landscape in the Mist. Available at: http://www.theoangelopoulos.com/landscape.htm

[9] Kurosawa, Akira. 1983. Something Like an Autobiography. Translated in Greek by Makis Moraitis, 1990. Athens: Aigokeros. pp. 5.

[10] Cowie, Peter. 2010. Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema. New York: Rizzoli. pp. 91.

[11] Os3. 2006. Tributes: Theodoros Angelopoulos. 50 Years Waiting for the… Mist. Available at: http://www.os3.gr/arhive_afieromata/gr_afieromata_theodoros_aggelopoylos.html

[12] Theo Angelopoulos. “Images are being created through journeys”. Interview to Stathi Irini. Available at: http://www.theoangelopoulos.gr/avaluseis/1.pdf

[13] Kurosawa, Akira. 1983. Something Like an Autobiography. Translated in Greek by Makis Moraitis, 1990. Athens: Aigokeros. pp. 6.

 

April 2010 / Brunel University / MA Cult Film & Television / Transnational Cult Cinemas
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2 Comments

  1. You have written a great article touching on two unique auteurs. I like your comment about Angelopoulos being the last director that gives meaning to the term auteur (even though I believe there are many living directors who still deserve this title). Unfortunately, some of his films were badly received in Greece. I remember when Ulysses’s Gaze was released Greek reviewers pointed out the weaknesses of the film (if any!) and compared it to Underground which had just won the Palme D’Or (very unfairly in my opinion).

    Back to your article, I was fascinated to read about all the details of the correspondence between the two directors. I had no idea they had constant correspondence until the very end. It made me think of the fact that indeed there are some similarities of some sort between the two. I am not referring only to the grand vision of both directors, since some of Kurosawa’s films do not have an epic scope, while all of Angelopoulos’s seem to strive for it. But mainly trying to draw similarities of common themes in their films, mostly from Greek drama as you point out. Thank you for this illuminating essay!

    Like

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Well, it’s a fact that many great artists are underappriciated in their homelands, but he didn’t seem to care much about this. He knew what we was worth. I was lucky enough to meet him once and he was this wonderful person.

      I wrote the piece a while ago and it makes me really happy that you dug this out and enjoyed reading it. Thanks again!

      Like

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