Last night I found myself alone in the house. An unusual situation which, on the rare occasions it occurs, generally sees me frittering away the hours by completely failing to decide what to do with the unexpected me-time. Should I read? Write? Watch a movie? Lie in a semi-comatose state and relish the peace and quiet?
For once, the decision came easy. After a brief rummage through my shelf of unwatched DVDs, I picked up Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. It’s a film I last saw in 1980, when it was first released in the UK. It was my first exposure to the work of the legendary Japanese director, and a formative experience for an impressionable teenager.
Since then, I’ve caught up with many (though shamefully not all) of Kurosawa’s earlier classics – the most famous of which is almost certainly Seven Samurai, the story of which is better known in the Western world via the remake, The Magnificent Seven. My personal Kurosawa favourite is Ran, his epic reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear.
What’s so great about Kurosawa? For me, it’s the sense that every film he made feels carved directly out of the fundamental bedrock of myth. It’s as if his stories have been not written but discovered, as if they’d always existed but simply needed someone to give them a voice.
Then there’s the filmcraft itself. The art direction, cinemtography, editing. Every frame of a Kurosawa film is an object lesson in staging and composition. Wordy scenes of exposition (and there are many of these in Kagemusha) play out with a formal theatricality that keeps them compelling despite their static nature. As for the battle scenes, who wouldn’t want to see umpteen thousand Japanese horsemen galloping over a dusty plain with vibrantly-coloured banners springing from their backs?
Inspired by last night’s rediscovery of Kagemusha, I spent a happy 90 minutes today sketching. I’ve called the resulting drawing Watchtower. It’s not a patch on a Kurosawa frame – nor is it really very Japanese – but it captures a little of the feeling I was left with after watching the movie. A feeling that places exist other than those which we know.
Places to which, if you watch a Kurosawa movie, you are sure to be transported.
Here’s a short step-by-step of the drawing in progress: