Our lives are full of authority figures. Each day we encounter a plethora of individuals who claim position over us, who hold the power to alter our lives in meaningful and meaningless ways. Power, often official, and more often capricious, is everywhere: a bus driver who refuses to grant you passage; a bartender who asks for your ID even though you’re old enough to be a Korean War veteran; an umpire who strikes you out on a pitch high enough to decapitate you. There can be little surprise, then, that authority figures line our art forms. Artists heavily impacted by the arbitrary actions of others seem to be preoccupied by it to the point of obsession. One of the most fluent examples of this is Akira Kurosawa.
Bosses populate Kurosawa’s world more than might seem ordinary. Whatever their position, they are largely painted in a negative light, sometimes in a way that is apparent to all, including the audience, and sometimes in a way that is only consequential to the film’s protagonist. Kurosawa’s bosses saturate every corner: they are government bureaucrats (Ikiru), yakuza underbosses and doctors (Drunken Angel), family patriarchs (I Live in Fear; Ran), and high-level company men (The Bad Sleep Well).
Kurosawa’s personal experiences go some way to explain why the director was so interested in chiefs and commanding figures. His life was pockmarked by the shadows of those that were inclined to limit his progress, exploit his talent, claim his successes as their own, or, indeed, carry out some crushing combination of the three.
In elementary school, where he struggled academically (likely owing to what today would be diagnosed as dyslexia), his teachers made fun of him, criticized him, and insulted him before his classmates. He battled censors during his formative years as a director, men who attacked his films, finding petty and non-existent faults. He argued with studio heads during the production of Rashomon, and ignored the studio as it threw the film under the bus upon release, for Rashomon was deemed to be too abnormal, too radical, too revolutionary for audiences to understand, and when it won the top award at the Venice Film Festival for precisely those reasons, the studio head took all credit for the film in an acceptance speech and never so much as mentioned Kurosawa’s name.
To that end, Kurosawa’s favored targets were bureaucratic officers. He also showed interest in traditional power figures in Japanese society, such as male heads of family. The director never ran smear campaigns in his works against such characters. If that was the case, films like Ikiru would be devastatingly different. Rather, he used power struggles as a method through which to discuss human nature and human behavior. Kurosawa wasn’t interested in saying, ‘Look how bad bureaucrats are.’ Instead, he recognized that all men are flawed, each in different ways, and often as a result of other factors over which they have no control.
Kurosawa’s power figures fall into two distinct categories, a binary system where a boss is either bad at his job and is neglectful of others, or, alternatively, where a boss is a legitimately malignant person interested only in personal gain. The latter trope was reserved solely for villains, while the former was significantly more widespread, appearing in many of Kurosawa’s most popular pictures. For instance, in Ran, the head power figure is Lord Hidetora, a flawed individual who severely misunderstands his family and his world and is largely inattentive toward his sons. When he attempts to show affection for them, he mistakenly insults them and sets in motion a power struggle that destroys his kingdom. An almost identical patriarch appears in I Live in Fear, set in post-war Tokyo, where an industry magnate grows paranoid of atomic weapons and the possibility of another conflict breaking out. He wants to move his entire family to Brazil, a place he deems safer than Japan, and when they refuse, he becomes mentally unstable and destroys his factory in a twisted attempt to curry favor.
But Kurosawa’s most moving boss can be found in Ikiru. Much like the men in Ran and I Live in Fear, Ikiru’s Watanabe, a petty official working high up in City Hall, has no real relationship with those close to him. He is a blank slate, an incredibly careless person who is shuffling his way through Japan’s intimidating government system until he reaches retirement. He has an amicable but otherwise flat relationship with his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he resides. He is an empty shell, and in our eyes we are tempted to identify him as an antagonistic figure, the type of higher-up person who arbitrarily makes decisions that bear little consequence for him.
Watanabe is, by all accounts, Kurosawa’s nemesis, but it is only when he is threatened by impending death that he bucks into action. He realizes his flaws; he sees he has lived a life of brutal inattention towards the world, and he sets out to correct his ways as best he can. He limps into work in a sickly state and approves projects that are for the good of all. Most famously, in a redemptive act, he helps construct a playground for children in an area that was once a village dump.
He is a boss that has mended himself. What he becomes is precisely what we want our bosses to be. His attentiveness is unparalleled. And, certainly in the filmmaker’s and audience’s eyes, at the film’s conclusion, he is to be forgiven for past behaviors. Even the most horrible of individuals, Kurosawa suggests, can recover, and set things straight. Kurosawa is not beyond a dash of cynicism – it might take a terrible wakeup call to break one from their inaction – but, importantly, even then that person still has to make the personal choice to turn good and behave correctly.
In a final, brilliant twist, following Watanabe’s demise we learn that his bosses have taken credit for the work Watanabe did. It is a story ripped directly from Kurosawa’s own life. Those close to Watanabe know better, but, in a tragic blow, we have to remember that there will always be people above us, and there is a significant chance that altruism is not a quality that runs deep in those ranks.
It’s difficult to know whether Kurosawa remained bitter about his many troubling encounters. If he did, he didn’t show it. In his twilight years he found a new lease on life and grew incredibly happy and content. Kurosawa himself wasn’t the greatest boss of all time -- the list of abuses against his staff is lengthy, but fortunately, many instances were harmless and largely comedic in nature, such as the time he rolled up a newspaper and struck several members of his crew on the head -- but he was fundamentally a good person. He never gave up. To not give up when facing such people is the lesson that we should likely take from him.