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Cannes 1980: Kurosawa at Cannes

Cannes, France – The dramatic return of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has provided most of the drama during the first week of this year’s Cannes Film festival. Kurosawa, who at age 70 had not made a film in five years or a Japanese film in 10, arrived here Wednesday with “Kagemusha,” a three-hour samurai epic that is clearly a labor of love. It was greeted with ovations at its press screenings, and is the early favorite to win this year’s Grand Prix.

So far, to be sure, it has little competition. Most of the festival’s most eagerly awaited films are still to come. Of the films already shown in competition, few have inspired much excitement, although there was respect for “Constans,” the story by Krzysztof Zanussi of a crisis in the life of a Polish Intellectual, and “Les Heritieres,” a feminist drama from Hungary by Marta Meszaros, which may win a Best Actress Award for the popular French star Isabelle Huppert. The long and talky “La Terrazza,” by Italy’s Ettore Scola, was a much-heralded dissection of a group of disillusioned intellectual Roman friends that most viewers found pompous and shapeless.

So it is the old master, Kurosawa, who has stolen the show during the first week. He seemed to be enjoying the excitement caused by his personal appearance in Cannes – one of his rare journeys outside Japan – and the press conference after his film had to be held in the Palais du Festival itself to accommodate some 1,000 journalists.

For Kurosawa, it was a comeback mixed with symbolism. If he wins this year’s Grand Prix, it will be his first award ever at Cannes. “Rashomon” won the top award at the Venice Film Festival. It went on to win an Oscar as Best Foreign Film and served to introduce the Japanese cinema to the Western world. Kurosawa went on to make such films as “The Seven Samurai,” remade by Hollywood as the “The Magnificent Seven”; “Ikiru,” the heartbreaking story of the death of an anonymous bureaucrat; “Throne of Blood,” the samurai version of “Macbeth,” and “The Idiot,” based on the novel by Dostoevsky. But the Japanese film industry moved away from him and his stringent artistry, and after “Dodeskaden” in 1970 he was unable to get financing for any projects. The Soviets underwrote “Derzu Uzala,” shot in Siberia and released in 1975, and then it appeared as if Kurosawa might have made his last film.

He spoke at the press conference of his struggle to find backing for two other projects – a samurai version of King Lear and a new version of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Both fell through, but then, after two years of negotiations, he was able to make “Kagemusha,” which at $6.5 million is the most expensive Japanese film ever made.

It is a remarkable film. Set In the 16th century, when feuding warlords fought for control of the capital city of Kyoto, it was conceived by Kurosawa as a film within a film. The epic outer story involves great and lurid battle scenes, some of the most violent and sensational ever seen in Japanese films. The inner story involves one of Kurosawa’s favorite themes – the struggle of a double or an apprentice to live up to the standards of his master.

“Kagemusha” translates as “Shadow Warrior,” and the film’s hero is a thief whose remarkable resemblance to a Japanese warlord wins him a place as the lord’s stand-in. When the lord is wounded by a stray gunshot in battle, his dying instructions are to conceal his death for three years by using the double.

The double’s own experiences during the three years provide the central story of the film, and allow Kurosawa to raise questions about identity, duty and the validity of inherited power.

The double slowly begins to fill his lord’s shoes, to win respect, to actually act in the role of the lord, but he is cast out when his identity is revealed, and then the clan throws itself into a suicidal battle.

The film includes images of sensational beauty: thousands of warriors marching against a setting sun, a breathless messenger waking hundreds of soldiers as he races down a hillside, a misty lake burial, a siege against a medieval castle. Many of the film’s ingredients and intrigues will be familiar to readers of James Clavell’s bestseller, Shogun, set in the same era.

Coming up in the festival’s second week are films most people here seem a great deal more excited about than anything shown so far, except for “Kagemusha.”

Two aging founders of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, will be represented by new films. The French themselves are eagerly awaiting “The Big Red One,” by veteran Hollywood action director Samuel Fuller, a hero of auteur critics over here. And there is also Federico Fellini’s “City of Women,” which is showing out of competition – and just as well, too, if it’s as bad as festival scandal has it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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