Don’t panic. This may not be stellar news, but it’s also not the worst thing in the world (that distinction still belongs to Chelsea Handler). Nevertheless, fans of classic cinema and / or things that are sacred may want to take a deep breath before reading the next sentence: Variety is reporting that some L.A. production outfit called Splendent Media (which has nothing to do with Chelsea Handler, really) just acquired the rights to 69 Akira Kurosawa projects -- 24 films he directed, 26 films he wrote, and 19 scripts he wrote that were never produced. And exhale.
Splendent Media’s Sakiko Yamada had this to say about the deal, which is explicitly intended to streamline the process of remaking Kurosawa’s material: “We are thrilled... to help contemporary filmmakers introduce a new generation of moviegoers to these unforgettable stories.” Which I guess is sort of like introducing a new generation of art lovers to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa by doodling it on a napkin at the Olive Garden.
I kid, I’m sure that Splendent Media is home to a number of fine people who have nothing but the highest respect for the masterworks of world cinema. And all kidding aside, there’s no legendary filmmaker who could better appreciate the cross-cultural appeal of filmic stories and tropes (well, besides a legendary filmmaker who is alive, and thus capable of appreciating things, I guess). Several of Kurosawa’s masterpieces were adapted from the literature of foreign lands, and his widely beloved jidaigeki films -- the term means “period drama,” but is most often used a synonym for samurai stories -- were deeply informed by the Westerns of John Ford, and in turn were remade into several of the Western world’s most treasured movies, providing the templates for A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven, and the Josh Hartnett classic Lucky Number Slevin, just to name a few. Oh, also Star Wars. To belabor the obvious, remakes are not in and of themselves a bad thing, it’s all about the execution. Moreover, anyone familiar with The Sea is Watching -- a film made from a script Kurosawa had completed just before his death -- could tell you that the prospect of seeing films made from the other 19 screenplays he left in his proverbial drawer is an enticing one, indeed.
The deal doesn’t include remakes currently in production (Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, and Drunken Angel), so where does that leave us? Here are 3 Kurosawa films that I think could stand to be remade, and 3 I think would result in unmitigated disasters. P.S. I omitted Kagemusha, because it was totally already remade as the Kevin Kline epic, Dave.
Kurosawa Remakes That Could Work:
RASHOMON: Remember that time when Homer turned on the TV and groaned because this formative Kurosawa classic was on? And then Marge was all “Homer, but you love Rashomon!” and Homer goes “That’s not the way I remember it,” and houses across America shook with laughter? Those were the days. Anyway, Rashomon is the film that first heralded Kurosawa’s genius to global audiences -- ostensibly the story of a rape in a 16th century Japanese grove, Rashomon ultimately examines the elusiveness of truth and the extent to which clashing perspectives are often equally valid in their uncertainty. In all of cinema, there may be no other film that so naturally lends itself to the prospect of being endlessly retold. While its central idea has since been sublimated into countless other films, digital technology and the myriad new ways of seeing that have come along with it might make a straight-up remake a particularly neat idea.
THE BAD SLEEP WELL: Wikipedia describes this film as “A critique of corporate corruption.” Need I say more? ...I do? But just to fill space, right? Okay, so in this early 60s Hamlet riff, Toshiro Mifune stars as a man who climbs the corporate ladder in an effort to expose the executives responsible for his father’s death. An unforgettable tale of fat cats hoping to get away with murder, someone should probably strike while the iron is hot, because it’s not like this country is always going to be run by evil billionaires. ...On second thought, there’s no rush, and in the meantime we can all enjoy appetizers like Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist.
ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY: An modest Kurosawa film from the days before he was cinema’s supreme overlord, One Wonderful Sunday is the simple story of a poor young couple trying to enjoy an afternoon together in Tokyo despite the fact that they only have a paltry 35 yen with which to do so. It’s unabashedly maudlin stuff (a spiritual precursor to the likes of One Day), but deeply effective all the same, particularly in a memorable moment towards the end where the woman stares directly into the camera and urges “All the young people out there to applaud for your dreams.” A date movie with a whiff of desperation, a remake of One Wonderful Sunday might enchant contemporary audiences who are likewise in need of some hope. Of course, the remake would obviously be in 3D (destroying the 4th wall in 3D is like... 12 dimensions of interactivity), thus ensuring that a ticket to see the film would cost several times what the characters themselves are able to spend, but if they cast Emma Stone then any complaints of hypocrisy should cancel themselves out.
Kurosawa Remakes That Would Be Disastrous:
DODES’KA-DEN: Despite the fact that he was one of the most acclaimed filmmakers to have ever lived, Kurosawa’s career wasn’t always so smooth -- by the early 1970s, much of the industry was convinced that Kurosawa was suffering from a mental illness of some kind, and 1971’s Dodes’ka-den was so poorly received the great director attempted suicide, slashing his wrist 30 times with a razor-blade. So yeah, it’s probably a safe bet that Splendent Media won’t see much action in the Dodes’ka-den department, especially when you consider that the movie itself is about a bunch of people living in a dump, filled with pathetic characters like the malnourished girl who tries to alight her life with beauty by making fake flowers, and gets beaten by her father in return.
Everyone knows that domestic abuse is box office gold, but domestic abuse among the homeless could be a tough sell. A rich and inimitable film, Dodes’ka-den is a bold gambit of a film, but without Kurosawa’s steady guidance and off-kilter preoccupations, this story could easily wind up as a mess of vapid and brightly colored self-loathing -- infuse the remake with 3-4 hours of speed-ramping and you’ve got yourself one of the 5 worst Zack Snyder movies ever made.
DREAMS: At the twilight of his career Kurosawa made a film about his dreams, and being the visionary that he was, he called it... Dreams. Consisting of eight brief episodes into which Kurosawa employed uncharacteristically surreal imagery to distill his memories, fears, and hopes for the future, Dreams is about as personal as filmmaking gets. Each of the vignettes -- even those which borrow from legend or peek into the lives of other artists (is that Martin Scorsese playing Vincent van Gogh!?) -- are rooted in a distinctly Kurosawan ethos. Assigning this form to other reflecting filmmakers might be a neat idea, but directly diluting Kurosawa’s most personal visions seems like a major waste of time.
IKIRU: Fine, this is cheating because a remake is already in some state of production limbo here in the U.S., but seriously... no. Hollywood, I want you to think of Ikiru like it’s John C. Reilly’s drum-set in Step Brothers, and I want you to think of yourselves as the people who can never, ever, never ever touch it. ...Don’t touch it! You can also choose to see it as the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones, and if you mess with it your faces will melt into a milky white substance and movie-goers across the country will cheer at your horrific demise.
Do you want that? Think of your families -- no one wants an inanimate stew of milk and eyeballs for a spouse or parent. A remake might not deprive the world of the original (although in this age of digital distribution, it’s becoming possible), but to submit the final moments of Kurosawa’s best film -- perhaps the most moving scene in all of cinema -- to the forces of kitsch would incite a cinephile insurrection, a rebellion for which I would be proudly be embodied by Andy Serkis.