Austin Langdon’s review published on Letterboxd:
Is God or Man to blame for human tragedy?
One of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. 3 of his films are in my top 15 and this is one of them.
The first battle scene is one of my favorite scenes in film. It is stripped of all personal elements. We are aware of characters but we’re detached as a viewer, given a gods-eye perspective. The first half of the battle is silent, with only a soft score to set a solemn tone. We are not just seeing a family at war. We are seeing the failure of humanity in the eyes of The Gods. It is the purest and deepest rendering of human tragedy put to film. The sequence is stripped of all the elements of a battle commonly associated with one. There is no glory, no hope, no protagonist or antagonist. No victory, no defeat... just pointless death. Nothing outside of tragedy in its truest form. It is like humanity taking up the role of Anakin Skywalker only for the Gods to watch us fall as they mourn the people we could have become.
It is easy to make someone care for an individual. It is much harder to get someone to care about humanity as a whole. This is what Kurosawa achieves. The heartbreak a God must feel seeing humanity fall into self-afflicted despair and chaos. I mentioned Anakin earlier because there is light and dark in humanity and If the Gods gave man free will, they must mourn our fall into the dark, knowing that it is us who failed them not they who failed us. Like Anakin, humanity can become lost, and collapse under the weight of their own ambitions and fears. It is the apocalypse and moral failure of humanity captured in beautiful color and editing. Man has shown a great capacity to create hell on earth. Is God responsible for this or does he look down on us and mourn the world we created and the suffering they witness and are unable to end?
It is not the action that makes this battle sequence so powerful. The action isn’t the content of the sequence. It is used like color, to paint the scene of human tragedy. It’s not exciting, you follow no characters, nor do you follow the politics behind it. All of that is small and meaningless. We are witnessing something much more important that Kurosawa wants us to focus on. The moral failing and folly of man. It’s like Picasso’s Guernica put to film. This is where Hidetora goes insane. He sees the killing and bloodshed he has caused in 50 years of warfare and it appears to him like a ghost. Abruptly and as something he doesn’t fully understand but still feels.
It’s like looking at a painting of the apocalypse.
The cinematography leaves the viewer feeling detached from the individuals, giving us the much more tragic big picture of humanity. This detachment gives us the perspective to see the tragedy not as a consequence of the characters but as a consequence of humanity.
Saburo dies in the end because the innocent has to die. And that’s when the the characters begin to blame God for their predicament and it’s unfairness. Yes, evil exists, but why do the good have to die and suffer while the evil continue on? But is God responsible for this? Kurosawa has god as a mournful observer of the world men have created.
“Are you so bored up there, you must crush us like ants! Is it such fun to see men weep!”
“Enough! Do not blaspheme! It is the Gods who weep. They see us killing each other, over and over since time began. They can’t save us from ourselves.”
“Such is the Human Condition”
Is Humanity doomed to chaos?
“This path, I remember... We came this way before.”
“Men always travel the same road. If you’re tired of it, Jump!”