Exoskeletonism: Writing Poetry about the Films of Akira Kurosawa

By | 1 May 2021

It had been raining. I was a PhD student, permanently housesitting for one of my supervisors who had retired and gone to live elsewhere. This suburban Brisbane property was on the side of steep hill, full of granite, overgrown with ferns, and it was very prone to snakes. Down the bottom of the property was a chicken house with four chickens.

You didn’t have to feed the chickens every day, which was great for times like these when torrential rain was making the walk to the back of the overgrown, stair-filled property slippery and unpleasant. The chickens had a big feeder silo, so you really only had to feed them every couple of days. But this was day three. I knew they needed feeding, perhaps their hay replaced if the coop was leaking, and of course there would be eggs. Snakes like eggs.

I knew there would be a python in the chicken house. I just knew it. As I sat there in the lounge room, watching Throne of Blood, I knew I would have to just get down there and see what was going on, as waiting another day or two only to discover dead chickens in the sodden hay was something I would be deeply ashamed about.

I watched the General Washizu and his ‘Banquo’, Miki, stalk through the ghostly forest. I thought, ‘right, get your samurai general on and get down there’. In the torrential rain I made my way down the series of steep steps, through the soaking ferns, through the new spiders’ webs, and as I entered the chicken house, there it was: a python curled in the bottom left nest. In the nest box above, two chickens eyed me. I could see eggs beneath them, which I took. They pecked my hands. At least if I took the eggs, the python would probably stay down in its own nest, with the little treasure it already had there.

This idea of the samurai being a spiritual-visual entity the viewer could psychologically don, like an archetype-suit, not only became real to me, but – because of the intensity of the setting with the python in that confined space – it potently concretised itself. The idea incorporated the surrounding images – of snakeskin, eggshell – and the significance of having to walk, unwillingly, through a torrential downpour. It also magnetised to it several additional images of ‘armour’ or ‘exterior’ from my experience.

Throne of Blood ends with the astoundingly impressive scene of Washizu, now Lord of the Spiders’s Web Castle, being assassinated by his own archers. In a recent re-issue of the film, there is a brilliant, 3-minute ‘extras’ segment (it’s actually on YouTube, on Criterion’s own channel), in which the head archer on the film recounts how the scene was prepared.

‘Mifune said he had recurring dreams about the 21 arrows coming towards him,’ says the archer. He goes through how the arrows were tipped with needles, like sewing needles, so that when fired they would fix straight into the heavy wooden board that Mifune now wore for the scene under his costume armour.

I now think of Kurosawa directing Mifune as the director playing with his favourite life-sized action figure. Kurosawa truly uses his actors in this way to perfectly create his visions, knowing that they are accomplished enough to carry their character’s exoskeleton and to activate it entirely and give it life. They have that level of devotion. The exoskeleton image is perpetuated in the extras segment where it highlights the reality of the troubled and anxious Mifune dwelling inside the heavily armoured costume that is attacked with arrows day after day, causing him to dream about it over and over.

As to Dreams, Kurosawa’s dream images reinforced his role as director – the general in ‘The Tunnel’ sequence, and the leader of the mountaineering group in ‘The Blizzard’ are obvious symbolic manifestations of his feelings of responsibility as a leader of a large group. So many of his most well-known films had a main character who was a general, or a king, or a samurai who leads a band in a great fight against injustice.

In my eyes, Kurosawa was able to realise his visions; he was able to use visual language in a masterful way that, collected from one subconscious (his own), was effectively conveyed to that of his audience. As I mentioned earlier, with Tarkovsky I am consciously struck by the images, and start actively interpreting them. With Kurosawa, I never even thought to interrogate his images in the same way, and now I notice the refined mastery which he effected upon me.

What this means for my poetry – and for completing an image enough so that I feel I have defined or resolved why it came to me – has to do with this sense of leading or commanding the memories, just like the general at the mouth of the tunnel. It may not be a one hundred percent effective method for me to resolve what images and metaphors I am taken by, but the effort of leading oneself is what the symbols require of us. The entire purpose of the activity is to gain a sense of self-determination amid the seemingly overwhelming.

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