Films worth making a fuss about

Philip Kerr (The Back Half, 7 January) concentrated on the aspect of Akira Kurosawa's work - the unemployed samurai action man - that has had a great influence on western cinema. I think it a pity that he did not devote a paragraph to Kurosawa's film Dodeskaden, which deals with the life of the burakumin, down-and-outs who are descendants of those who worked in slaughterhouses, graveyards or in leather goods. They are treated as inferior beings, and the stigma (contained in all documents referring to them) accompanies them throughout life. There are five million of these untouchables, who must scrape a living at the bottom of the social pile and are exploited by the yakuza. Japanese hatred of the burakumin, or eta, is intense, and every effort is made to conceal this aspect of Japanese life from foreigners; Kurosawa committed the unforgivable sin of revealing the truth. The film flopped, and Kurosawa tried to commit suicide.

He also made another magnificent film, Dersu Uzala, about tsarist Russian exploration of the Far East, in which, in the person of a Goldi tribesman, he reflects the fate of the Ainu (whose Japanese nickname is inu, or dogs), the Caucasoid predecessors of the Japanese in the islands, who have been deliberately wiped out to maintain the racial homogeneity or purity that obsesses the Japanese. Neither the Americans nor the Australians have been as successful as the Japanese in wiping out the aboriginal population, reduced today to a few hundred half-breeds in Hokkaido.

Kurosawa had to get foreign (in this case, Soviet) financial backing for the film, as he did for many other films following the boycotting of Dodeskaden. To my knowledge, the only western film-maker to refer to the suffering of the burakumin was John Pilger, in a TV documentary a number of years ago. If readers think I'm making a fuss about two films, they should reflect that Kurosawa was on the point of dying for his temerity, and we would not have had many magnificent films. Dodeskaden and Dersu Uzala are at least as important in any estimate of Kurosawa's work as Hollywood's version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Andrew Lockhart Walker
Dollar, Clackmannanshire

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?