The films of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa were surprisingly comparable despite major differences in culture, language, and theme. I think over all their differences it is an overarching obsession of both directors which trumps all; their obsession with living in the face of certain death. Their obsessions come from similar historical events and perhaps more personal experiences. Kurosawa probably most impacted by WWII and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bergman and Kurosawa both saw a buildup of arms in a post-war world leading to a Cold War between communist and western super powers. Living and growing up in Japan during these periods would have been rough for a young Akira, but perhaps easier than the abusive childhood of young Swedish Ingmar. It is difficult to say since both cultures have a history of strict child-rearing. The extreme nature of Bergman’s childhood punishments might win him the prize.
Whatever the factors were, these two men were obsessed with life in face of death and the theme reoccurs in film after film. However, they approach their overarching theme in different ways; Bergman through high art and psychological concept and Kurosawa through beautifully crafted traditional films with subtle dialogue and choreographed action. Basically, Bergman gave most people a head ache while Kurosawa tricked you into a seeing an art film. I appreciate both methods and outline their impacts below.
The blackest of all plagues is love? But wait, that can’t be. We make an idol out of fear and call it God. We sleep with the devil and pestilence is brought down on the land while young girls must burn. Distraction and temporary avoidance maybe, but fear of the unknown and the absence of God are what we continually come back to in The Seventh Seal. Jons concludes his statement on the love plague with “if one could die of it [love], there would be some pleasure in love, but you don’t die of it.” Antonius Block grips the bars between him and his confessor crying out for his response but only death answers. Meanwhile, Jons gets drunk with the artist as they swap stories and have a laugh. The only certainty in this film is death and the only truth is the comfort found in the arms of others. Even poor Plog finds his comfort and cure in the procession through the dark forest.. which leads to death.
Their distraction, along with the clever maneuvering of Knight Antonius Block, proves to satiate Death long enough to allow the truly pure to slip by and live another day. But their salvation comes with the profound clarity of mortality as they’re allowed to see Death forcing the others to dance with him beyond the horizon. No doubt they carry on in a much better state than Block, lacking his eager capacity for doubt and suspicion, as Jof has true faith. As a reward divine hallucination is a common occurrence for him. Though for Mia it seems the introspective world of woman has provided her with a much more simple kind of peace. She is comforted by simple things, her baby, her husband, and wild strawberries. Antonius Block shares her 20/20 spiritual vision for a moment when he partakes of her sacrament and proclaims, “I shall remember this moment; the silence, the twilight, the bowl of strawberries, the bowl of milk. Your faces in the evening light. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lyre. I shall try to remember our talk. I shall carry this memory carefully in my hands as if it were a bowl brimful of fresh milk. It will be a sign to me, and a great sufficiency.”
The introspective world meshes well with his other thematic obsessions. In Persona this interior world and it’s relation to the out is explored as a tool of survival. I think this film is a peek into Bergman’s personal life and at times into his very soul. In an interview we watched in class he details the development of a Persona, a splitting of the true self from the public self. He describes it as a defense mechanism that shields his delicate soul from the harshest realities. We discussed his repeated institutionalization and his emotional fragility is well documented and confessed on paper and film. He begins Persona by announcing that it is a film. Then we enter into the Hour of the Wolf—that time where life and death, creation and destruction live. Here we come across a young boy who attempts to ignore the “call”. Finally he sits up and begins to massage the screen until it starts to focus. The boy molds the screen into the face of a woman and our story begins.
I believe this is Bergman saying, “Hello, welcome to my film, I wrote it, it is about me annnd check out these women I love—I will confess through them.” So what is the film about? An actress falls silent and refuses to speak. A nurse takes care of the actress in an institution and then they live together in a remote location. Slowly we find out that they are personalities of the same woman. When unable to deal with reality the actress acts for the nurse; after all, an actor doesn’t truly speak but is merely a tool of the script, a collection of actions and phrases in reaction to other actions and phrases. In the final reveal they have it out. A part of each of them and a new persona emerges, stronger than before. It makes its way back into reality and then Bergman pans back out into the room representation of the Hour of the Wolf. Here he reminds you that this film has been the making of a little boy who likes stories. A beautifully shot film and a great example of mastering the craft. This film could mean so many things but the images, actions, and words are so plain. And they only mean one thing because I perceived them and the meaning is mine.
The master craftsman idea reveals a point I’d like to make about both Bergman and Kurosawa and will serve as a segue into Kurosawa. Neither of these masters would have been half the man without the craftsmen/women they mastered, as film making is a team effort and they picked winners. His players, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max vonSydow, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann became extensions of his pen while Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist interpreters of his sight. They make a Bergman film a Bergman film as much as Bergman makes it his. The same could be said for Akira Kurosawa. Without cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, composer Masaru Sato, or production designer Yoshiro Muraki his films wouldn’t have been the same. Muraki made sets and costumes that brought an authenticity into frame. Miyagawa pulled the focus blind and perfect. Sato’s music has established an audial signature not just for Kurosawa, but Japanese cinema. His influence is heard in action films and animations to this day. Perhaps more influential to those mediums, but only because I have a visual bias, is probably Toshiro Mifune. His movements and behavior redefined the samurai and influenced action heroes from the moment he arrived. But it was Bergman and Kurosawa who pulled all these people together and made them click.
There is also a flare of humor in their films. In Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, or The Seventh Seal we find humor in the relations, in the selfishness of their nature, and especially in their summations and insights on life. Like Dr. Borg and his maid or Jons and his singing. The same is true in Yojimbo and Roshomon. The characters are cartoonish at times and we see the darkness cast right along with the light in scenes where Sanjuro proclaims there is “no cure for fools” and then instantly cuts down three hired thugs. Sanjuro plays around with people’s lives like Death at the chess board. At times he even takes a seat at the watch tower and laughs at the effectiveness of his work. Sanjuro’s actions are an example of Kurosawa’s subtle attack on the idealized image of the past. He has the look down perfectly; in fact, he obsessively executed every detail of the image to make it accurate. But then he takes a samurai and has him pit two rival profiteers and their gang against each other.
There is corruption everywhere even in Sanjuro, that is until actual innocent lives come into play. Here our hero becomes vulnerable and almost dies. His flaw, completely lacking in elevated society, is doing the right thing, even as a flea bitten rogue. Later he stands up bravely to a revolver but it has no bullets for him as good triumphs over evil. One could probably compare these scenes to those like Jons and Raval, the man who convinced Antonius Block to go on the crusade. Raval has revealed his true nature in desperate times and Jons cuts up his face to mark him for the world to see he is corrupt. Or the scene where Jons and Antonius stare into the burning girls eyes and see nothing but terror.
Kurosawa brought a level of authenticity to his characters by making them individuals, each with their own quirk, a compulsive process, a demented mind seen through the eyes and smile. He brought a level of authenticity to the entire film through his obsessive behavior. In the interviews with his team they talk about his attention to detail, like having fire fighters spray down the town in Yojimbo until the streets were sufficiently eroded. He devotes time and effort into executing authentic representations of what he imagined, not just what is. For example, Dreams becomes very authentic because of his work ethic in designing sets and costumes. People on a hill look exactly like life size dolls dancing for the camera. In Ran you believe that the king is actually insane because Kurosawa spent hours discussing insanity with the actor until they achieved the distant look of being lost inside yourself.
In Roshomon, Kurosawa lends this ethic to the genre of unreliable narratives. Perhaps more honestly but still just as confusing as any other unreliable narrative he teaches us that perception is key, subjective, even in cases where the camera objective. Three people can all be present at the same moment, go through the same actions, and still experience it all differently—in this case each finding a murder their own responsibility. In Persona we have a case where one person is present with multiple narratives within, both unreliable. I once heard that Kurosawa described Roshomon as a story about rape in the woods, but recently I found a quote saying, "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing." Both very simple explanations for a film that I believe demonstrates his ability to subtly tell much more. I’d like to call Kurosawa a minimalist but it would be difficult to prove when you look at the construction of his sets and characters.
EphraimKatz said Bergman “is among a select few directors who have consistently used the medium of cinema as a creative art of personal expression, and among an even smaller group that has been able to exercise near-complete freedom and total artistic control over its film product.” I don’t know if Kurosawa had as much artistic freedom as Bergman, but he certainly said a lot in his films as well. I believe he is among the same class of film maker and used similar themes. Their impacts are long lasting and have reached the ultimate level of pop culture indoctrination, the parody. Woody Allen, who loves Bergman, uses his faces shot (from Persona), has his own white Death, and dances into the horizon at the end with him in Love and Death. John Belushi does a samurai parody that is made up entirely of Mifune’s samurai performances. But the most powerful and longest lasting for me—especially since it is the reason I discovered Bergman at a young age—is Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Bill and Ted die and play a series of ‘90s board games against the unsportsmanlike Death and win back their lives. Keanu’s best role by far, he was born to play Ted Logan. I will never forget the scenes of Kurosawa, however, it is Bergman’s images that haunt me—and they’re mostly just faces.