The Power of Truth: The Kurosawa Hero in Three Films

In Akira Kurosawa’s films the figure of the hero is always prominent. The hero, as seen in these films, is a selfless individual, who often sacrifices for the greater good. The hero is someone who is courageous and powerful, alternately natural and supernatural in his abilities. The hero is also cautious, and knows when to act and when not to act. He also understands that sometimes the rules of his class, or of society in general, must be altered in order to fulfill his duty. The Kurosawa hero serves to change the existing social climate, be it in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS when Rokoruta vows to restore his clan, or in SANJURO or THE SEVEN SAMURAI when the main characters agree to stave off corruption and evil. Above all, the hero is true to himself and his virtues.

While there are exceptions within his filmography, those films which portray anti-heroes (THRONE OF BLOOD, THE LOWER DEPTHS), in which the protagonist of the film is a form of tragic hero or non-hero, the model of Kurosawa’s hero remains in the periphery, embodied by non-central characters. The model can also be developed by the use of the anti-hero, which acts against Kurosawa‘s hero figure and thus defines the hero by presenting its opposite. In short, the hero model is the constant force behind the portrayals of Kurosawa’s main characters.

In addition, the hero is often seen as being defined by his intent, despite the sometimes contradictory words or actions he pursues in order to reach his ends. The means, if well meant, often define the hero in other unexpected ways, like Sanjuro’s seeming intolerance of other people even though he acts on their behalf, or Rokoruta’s willingness to act like a common thief in order to escape from the clutches of the enemy. What the actions tell us about Kurosawa’s hero are themselves definitions of other hero models; ones which are often undercut by Kurosawa in his films and his hero’s portrayal.

To illustrate the model of the hero in Kurosawa’s films, I will discuss heroes in the following three films: THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, SANJURO, and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. I will compare and contrast characters within each film, as well as discuss them all together within the context of the hero model I believe Kurosawa has presented. I will also discuss how each hero says something unique about the hero in Kurosawa’s films, through the use of their behavior, which varies widely among the many characters portrayed in the three films.

The Princess, General Rokoruta, and the Peasants

Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s discussion of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS in his book, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, ends with the declaration that “the film…lacks the by now familiar Manichean moral dichotomy, which is simultaneously asserted and problematized in many of Kurosawa’s successful films.” He makes this assertion because of what he sees as the ambiguity of good and bad within the film, noting that the original Japanese title for the film (Three Bad Men in the Hidden Fortress) connotes the existence of evil within the film, yet there are no “bad” characters in the film at all, other than by name.

Many scholars, including Stephen Prince and several quoted by Yoshimoto in his brief essay on the film, seem to think less of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS because of its lack of the moral dichotomy they claim is in his “successful films.” I refer here again to Yoshimoto’s specific wording, as I believe that THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is not only successful, but it is so because of its ambiguities within the filmic reality presented to the characters themselves.

The film is candid with the viewer in a way that it is not with the characters it presents, revealing who each character really is, even though other characters are either deceived by appearance and action, or their own prejudices against other people. The peasants, for example, seem greedy, but not evil. This is because they are presented as peasants to the viewer - out for easy money and scheming to get away with it. The princess, and sometimes the general, however, see them as merely bad, greedy people, not knowing their circumstances the way the viewer has become invited to know them. Similarly, General Rokoruta bullies the peasants into helping him escape with the gold, but his lies and deceptions are never meant to be perceived as harsh by the viewer. And yet, it is precisely because of these things that Rokoruta appears harsh and brutal to the peasants, or that the peasants are seen as bad by either Rokoruta or the princess.

The film is ambiguous, yes, but not when it comes to the presentation of character to the audience. Though everything is clear-cut, and there is never a question in the viewer’s mind as to whether or not anyone is actually good or bad, the ambiguities between the characters remain. It is as though what Kurosawa has done with THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is bring the audience into the film, allowing them a sense of identification denied to other characters. This identification is something which Kurosawa has heretofore denied in his films, much like with Watanabe in IKIRU, or Gondo in HIGH AND LOW.

I bring the viewer into my discussion because it is precisely through these moments between the general and the princess that we learn his motivations and his true character, revealing him as the hero model within the film. Without these scenes in which the viewer is made a confidant, the viewer would be welcome to perceive Rokoruta as a potentially evil man. He is shown in these scenes to be a man of great self-sacrifice and power, heroically acting upon his own virtues in a manner which he sees fit to get the job done, which is not unlike the characters of Sanjuro (in YOJIMBO and SANJURO) or Kambei (in THE SEVEN SAMURAI).

One of the great sacrifices the general makes is in conjunction with his sister, who he surrendered to the enemy as the princess, thus allowing for the execution of a decoy while he attempts to sneak the real Princess Yuki away quietly. The scene in which this revelation is made takes place in the cave in which the princess and her servants are hiding. Here the princess shows her rage at someone so loyally following her, a mere human being, and she is disgusted by Rokoruta’s lack of emotion at the loss of his sister. Yet, what this scene shows of the general more than anything is the steely resolve so typical of Kurosawa’s heroes. He is unwaveringly loyal to the things he believes in, which above all else are his princess and his now-destroyed clan. Rokoruta knows the struggles Princess Yuki must go through in order to rebuild their people, and he is willing to give anything he can for this to happen, including his own life.

General Rokoruta leading the Princess head-first into danger, attempting to cross a heavily guarded border.

He risks his life on several occasions during their escape from enemy-occupied territory, not in the hope of defeating the enemy single-handedly, but more as a distraction while the princess continues running. He faces the enemy on several occasions, though he does not battle them. His power is often hinted at, but not shown in this regard. Rokoruta does become involved in a single duel, however, and his skill with various weaponry is shown in a scene which begins with his chasing several scouts into an enemy encampment and ends with the aforementioned duel with a rival.

Rokoruta is a character not unlike Sanjuro, who considers all possibilities before taking action, despite his considerable and formidable talents in battle. He knows that his own life is not the only thing at risk, and therefore much more caution must be observed in order to achieve his goal. This caution is the overriding theme of the film SANJURO, but also takes a central role here. For instance, Rokoruta never divulges information to anyone who is not already informed of his mission, thus the peasants, as well as no one else, never know his identity, nor what he is doing with all of the gold. He also does not divulge all of the information to the princess, fearful of how her knowledge may jeopardize the plan. Rokoruta, in all his glory, is the embodiment of Kurosawa’s hero model, though as a character he obviously favors certain aspects over others: self-sacrifice, cunning, and power.

The title character of SANJURO is a hero defined more by his actions than his appearance or words. He is scruffy and dirty, rude and crass, and cynical beyond belief. And in spite of his outward characteristics, or perhaps because of them, he is another perfect example of a Kurosawa hero.

When he first wanders lazily into the film’s narrative he is an anachronism, existing in a place which he cannot call his own. As a ronin, he does not belong in the castle town, which has its own feudal system, nor in the society which exists there as a result of this system, which presents Sanjuro as somewhat of a paradox throughout the film. The young samurai who he helps in the film are clean and idealistic, and brilliantly juxtaposed to Sanjuro’s world-weary cynic. From the first, Sanjuro performs his heroic duty, by saving the young samurai, who are in need of his help. He also attempts to separate the youngsters from their preconceptions of every situation throughout the film. If anything, Sanjuro’s experience has taught him that not thinking through a problem and devising a plan, or in the case of the young samurai, not following the plan and acting rashly, is very dangerous, and ultimately costly no matter whether he wins or loses.

Sanjuro is misunderstood because of his appearance more than anything. But like all of Kurosawa’s heroes, Sanjuro is better judged on action rather than appearance, which is also a lesson he attempts to teach the samurai he is helping in the opening scene, showing that they only think the chamberlain is corrupt because of how he looks, when the handsome superintendent is more likely corrupt. By Kurosawa’s logic, this makes perfect sense, since appearance very rarely correlates to reality in his films. Sanjuro is no different.

Sanjuro, resting while others are acting, allowing for events to unfold for him, rather than act on impulse.

As a samurai, Sanjuro is very unorthodox, accepting money for services, or unwilling to act in times of perceived urgent need. Yet Sanjuro is cunning, and realizes the value of waiting to strike. As mentioned previously, the hero weighs all things in his mind before acting upon them, because impulses can lead to mistakes and unneeded danger. There are several scenes in which this is shown to be exemplary of a Kurosawa hero, and all involve a subversion of one of Sanjuro’s plans by the rash actions of the youngsters. They have not learned patience, which Sanjuro understands. This relates directly to his unorthodox behavior, as it shows his understanding that he must do what he sees as fit. After saving the lives of the samurai, he accepts money because it is what he needs, not because it is honorable. He is unwilling to kill when it is not needed because it is simply not needed, despite honor. Sanjuro, in these and many more respects, is a walking critique on the code of honor that his society supposedly operates on.
SANJURO is a film which operates openly as a commentary and criticism on Japanese society, its films, and its constructed hierarchy. As a hero, Sanjuro is the facilitator of this criticism, and his subversion of almost every ideal the young samurai hold always succeeds because as a hero figure, he understands that perceived honor - honor which extends from outside sources rather than from within oneself - is meaningless.

There is also the film’s violent content, which Sanjuro himself is conscious of, but which is also commented upon by the chamberlain’s wife, who condemns all violence as unnecessary. While the latter assertion is disagreed upon by not only Sanjuro, but also Kurosawa himself as evidenced in his films, it is not a completely alien concept to be wary of violence and its horror. Both the film and Kurosawa seem to be very much in touch with this concept, presenting an anti-violent message in various ways during the film’s entire running time, yet simultaneously recognizing the need for violent action in certain instances. It is in this way that the film reaches into the realm of moral ambiguity, which has been viewed negatively by some scholars in previous Kurosawa films like THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, as discussed earlier. That ambiguity is not that different from this one in some ways, presenting a main character who can be perceived as evil, but is in fact not. Perhaps the only difference is that the real bad men are actually shown on screen and given names in SANJURO. Still, the issue of violence, and a seeming ambiguity about it, is one of the film’s main talking points.

Stephen Prince, for example, sees the film as a failure in its condemnation of violence, since it “helped inaugurate a new level of gore in samurai films.” The final duel is a point of much contention and debate in this regard, both condemning and glorifying violence in the same breath. Sanjuro, apprehensive of fighting Hanbei because of its uselessness (the narrative of the film at this point is complete, with Sanjuro’s objective of rescuing the chamberlain having been achieved), slices his sword so deep into his opponent’s chest that a geyser of blood erupts from within him. It is at this moment that the young samurai, looking on, admire Sanjuro, mistaking swordplay as the measure of someone to be admired. But as has been espoused throughout the film, violence is only necessary when it is the only option. In any other case, it is horrifying and purposeless. Hanbei, for example, had no reason to die, and he did so for no other reason than his honor, which Sanjuro already condemns as meaningless. Sanjuro’s heroic makeup hinges completely on his personal actions and methodology, caring not for honor or esoteric ideals, but instead attempting to understand the entirety of the situation and proceed as best he can.

The Seven Samurai at the ready, with Kambei in front.

THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a film which deals with this understanding in a few ways, mainly the characters of Kambei, the leader of the band of ronin, and the master swordsman. Both are deliberate in their actions and only act when it is necessary. Both are introduced into the film by showing their willingness to do only what is necessary, or in Kambei’s case, whatever is necessary, in order to achieve their goals. Kambei will be the main focus here, as the Kurosawa hero, but first I would like to discuss some of the other samurai, and the themes of heroism introduced in the film in order to gain a further understanding of the scope of THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The film is, in the words of Stephen Prince, an examination of heroism in Kurosawa‘s personal view, and as a film, it shows this heroism in many lights, not the least of which is the defense of the village which makes up much of the film‘s narrative. “This is the familiar Kurosawa insistence that true human action must carry a socially beneficial aim, that heroism is measured by the rectification of social oppression,” he writes, assuring that the central message of the Kurosawa hero is always to do what is right and just in order to help others as according to one’s personal values. This message is certainly not unlike that in SANJURO, where the main character helps save the chamberlain even though he has no vested interest in doing so, or THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, where Rokoruta’s concern for his people’s future compels him to do for his princess whatever is necessary in order for his clan to survive and be rebuilt.

First, Kyuzo, the master swordsman, is skillful and deadly. His skill is demonstrated early on during his first scene in the film, in which he is engaged in a duel. During the initial phase of this duel, the two men keep their swords sheathed, showing the master swordsman’s interest in swordsmanship as purely academic; a means to improve both his skill and knowledge of form. When his opponent, whom the master swordsman insists he has beaten, insists on a real duel for proof, the swordsman hesitates, knowing he has already won and that a real duel would only end in senseless death. Like all of Kurosawa’s heroes, he is uninterested in meaningless acts of violence, and sure enough, his opponent falls from a single movement. This skill is later demonstrated two other times: when he jaunts off to take out one of the three guns possessed by the bandits, and again when he and Kikuchiyo run after three advance scouts and kill them.

As for the character of Kikuchiyo, he is an interesting examination of the hero in and of himself. He is virtuous and full of pure intentions in helping the farmers (it is later revealed he is a farmer’s son himself), yet he is impulsive and does not contemplate his actions. He is an example of how the hero can go astray under certain circumstances, particularly in a quest for recognition. Kikuchiyo attempts to emulate the master swordsman and gain admiration for his skill as well, yet he returns to the camp with another musket, after abandoning his post, and is greeted with scolding from Kambei, who realizes how foolish it is to act in such a rash manner. He does not understand Kambei’s distaste because Kikuchiyo does not understand why the swordsman is admired while he is not for performing the same task. Here Kambei is shown as a leader who “knows his men - knows that the swordsman can safely do this, and knows that Mifune cannot, that his getting the gun and returning alive is only luck.”

Which returns us to Kambei, who is indeed the leader of the samurai, and the central character of the film, as well as the prime example of the Kurosawa hero model. In all instances he is shown to do what is right and just, accepting the mission to save the village from bandits despite his status as a samurai. When he shaves his head at the beginning, he foregoes the visible status of the samurai, but Kurosawa shows what matters is Kambei’s spirit and intent, which is truly deserving of recognition as a hero. Again, later in the film, when confronted with the battle, Kambei insists on everyone doing exactly as they are told, recognizing, much like Sanjuro, that a well thought-out plan is more valuable than even skill or rage.

Kambei Shimada - The Kurosawa Hero embodied in one character.

Kambei, like all other Kurosawa heroes, also strives for knowledge which will help him achieve his mission’s goal. Without everyone‘s honesty, the samurai will fail in their mission. This is why Kambei becomes so upset with Kikuchiyo when he runs off to take out another gunman. He left his post completely open, not informing anyone, and thus put the entire group in jeopardy. By misinforming or excluding the samurai defending the village from any information whatsoever, their trust is violated, and the samurai question themselves. But more importantly, Kambei realizes that information is the basis of truth and that truth is the essence of his decision making abilities. In other words, “information must be the property of the group, and private knowledge is a threat to its security.” For Kurosawa, as well as Kambei, Rokoruta, and Sanjuro, a just judgement can only be made with as much information as possible.

Kambei, of all of Kurosawa’s heroes, seems to come closest to conforming to all the ideals of the hero model. He is just, powerful, self-sacrificing, and compassionate. He is willing to do what needs to be done in order to succeed in his tasks, and he always comes forth with a plan. While Rokoruta and Sanjuro also embody these marks of the Kurosawa hero, they are not as evenly fleshed out as Kambei, who exemplifies these merits across a fairly even canvas as a character.

The Kurosawa hero, as observed, is powerful and intelligent, willing to help whoever is in need, and above all else, make the social climate a better place for everyone to live, not just himself. A hero is self-sacrificing, and has a keen sense of what should be done in a given situation. In THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, SANJURO, and THE SEVEN SAMURAI, examples of this figure abound, and come in different variations on overall emphasis and makeup. Although not all of Kurosawa’s heroes are perfect, they all embody something which Kurosawa holds dear in all his films: truth. They are true to themselves, to others, and to their goals.

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