Kurosawa and the Jewish Question

"We are fighting an internal culture war that threatens to divide and diminish us."

Kings 1 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Kings 1 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE GENIUS of film director Akira Kurosawa in early 1985. I was then a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. The Metro Theater in Manhattan was presenting a festival to honor 50 years of Japanese cinema. For three weeks I watched the best of Japanese film.
I was not disappointed. In such films as “Rashomon,” “Yojimbo” and “Kagemusha,” Kurosawa proved a master storyteller with a sharp eye for detail, a keen sense of pathos and humor, a seminal understanding of the acting craft and, in his later films, he showed a brilliant ability to exploit color.
What impressed me most was Kurosawa’s use of Japanese history as the backdrop of his films. “The Seven Samurai” is a tale about warriors for hire who protect a village from marauding bandits.
The director sets the story in the civil wars that devastated feudal Japan during the medieval period. Both “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” depict the life of the samurai – Japan’s warrior class – during their decline in the 19th century. “Kagemusha” is a wonderful story set during the period of the Tokugawa shoguns, the leaders who united Japan in 1603.
Seeing these films both exhilarated and disappointed me. I discovered a world of which I knew little and found the works of a master craftsman. I wondered, however, why more Jewish filmmakers, both in Israel and the Diaspora, were not making movies that told the tales of thousands of years of Jewish history.
Jewish screenwriters and directors do not set their films in Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages. That is tragic. This exciting epoch produced such luminaries as Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. The true story of Samuel Hanagid, a Jew who commanded Muslim armies as prime minister of Granada, would make a film that could rival such epics as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Braveheart” and “Gladiator.” It could be the perfect vehicle to suggest a different model for the relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East today. The life of Dona Gracia Nasi – a woman who made her name as a philanthropist and political activist nearly 500 years ago – is tailormade for a celluloid biography.
Imaginative and knowledgeable filmmakers should be presenting to audiences our incredible history: the rise and fall of the ancient Jewish kingdom of the Hasmoneans, the chronicle of the Jews of Ashkenaz during the First Crusade (1096-1099) and the intriguing life of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Isaac Babel’s colorful accounts of Jewish criminals in Odessa before the Bolshevik Revolution and his description of his life as a Jew fighting alongside the Cossacks are waiting to be translated into film. Jewish history provides a wealth of stories that deserve to make it to a mass audience.
But Jewish history has not made its way to the big screen. Both Jews and non-Jews are ignorant of Jewish history, religion and culture.
I applaud the efforts of Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski to bring the horrors and heroism of the Shoah to the public. But the world has yet to see a more in-depth and rounded picture of the Jewish people. There is more to Jewish history than genocide.
Jewish creativity in the religious, cultural, economic and political realms, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, should not be marginalized by disaster and pogroms.
Historian Salo Baron warned of the tendency to view Jewish history as lachrymose and dark. Jewish filmmakers following in his footsteps would be challenged with a lifetime of work. They would no longer dwell on numbing images of Jews being herded into gas chambers, giving a false impression of Jews as history’s official victims. Our ancestors, in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi realms, were advisors to kings, prime ministers, physicians, inventors, community leaders, great thinkers, artists, poets, musicians and successful businessmen. Yet we tend to see them only as a prelude to Auschwitz or Tel Aviv. The best of times and the worst of times are our obsession. We judge the past by our narrow band of experience. How selfish and self-defeating! Akira Kurosawa died more than a decade ago. His legacy will live on in his films. He masterfully incorporated the history of his country and people into many of his masterpieces. As Jews, we could learn many important lessons from the life and work of one of the world’s greatest directors.
We should use culture as a neutral ground, available to both Jew and non-Jew, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, men and women, religious and secular, to educate the world in our history and to create a sense of Jewish identity that obviates any need for religious coercion.
We are fighting an internal culture war that threatens to divide and diminish us. We should find a demilitarized zone in which to enlighten ourselves and the world. We must revive our greatest stories – to present a truer image of the Jew, to address the issues of the day and to make us proud of who we were and who we are.
Eli Kavon is on the faculty of Nova Southeastern University’s Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida.