To Dreams of Kurosawa; or, Space of Authorship and Homage in Johnnie To’s Throwdown (2004)
Between the last shot of Throwdown and its ending credits, Johnnie To reveals a dedication: ‘A Salute to Akira Kurosawa, the Greatest Filmmaker.’
This video essay is my attempt at not only drawing out a dialogue between To and Kurosawa that the former presents in his film, but also bringing in to this same dialogue Raúl Ruiz and Jorge Luis Borges. I look at Throwdown using the filter of both Raúl Ruiz’ notion of a ‘secret film’ through the practice of ‘double vision’ and Jorge Luis Borges’ elaboration of dreaming as a metaphor for authorship and influence in his short story ‘The Circular Ruins.’ Accordingly, the title of this video essay can and should be read in two ways: as an ode and as a declarative statement with To as the subject of the sentence.
Taking advantage of the capacity for stream-of-consciousness flow in digital editing, I present this dialogue by reading Throwdown as an act of cinephilic dreaming in the Borgesian sense – i.e. as a metaphor for authorship and artistic creation – all the better to draw out its dual mode of unfolding a narrative and paying tribute to Kurosawa.
The film’s tribute to Kurosawa can be read literally as a nod to his 1941 directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata, so that the link between To and Kurosawa’s films is the (re)discovery of judo not only as a martial art but also as a philosophy through which life (re)acquires meaning for the male protagonist. However, I forgo this literal approach in favour of a more varied one that brings together To’s film and a selection of Kurosawa’s films from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, whose interaction with Throwdown may be less obvious but just as interesting.
Part of Throwdown’s cinephilic dreaming is establishing the uncanny parallels between its former judo champion/currently inebriated protagonist in need of self-respect and redemption and one of Kurosawa’s own ‘drunken angels’ and his lopsided trajectory towards (re)gaining self-worth and redemption.
The objective is less to demonstrate To borrowing from Kurosawa and more to capture the ways in which Borgesian notions of authorship are circular and cyclical due to the junction of personal background and external influence. The result is a blurring of boundaries between the dreamer/author and dreamed/subject/story/character/style and a virtual dialogue between To and Kurosawa set in a nocturnal, defamiliarised Hong Kong, perhaps dreamed by Borges himself.
Preceding each section of the video essay are extracts from Borges’ aforementioned story, not exactly to overdetermine the clips that follow them, but rather to see what kind of illumination about Borges’ words, To’s film, and Kurosawa’s films their juxtaposition can elicit.
In Borges’ short story, he also uses the student-teacher relationship to express part of the process of authoring a creative work. Such a relationship somewhat guided my arrangement of clips from To and Kurosawa’s films, which highlights 1) how this mentoring relationship is of importance in Throwdown and of major importance in a number of Kurosawa’s films and 2) To’s grand gesture of salute to Kurosawa.
In staging this dialogue between To, Kurosawa, Ruiz, and Borges, I sought scenes and images that would reflect the task of authoring a work as akin to the moulding of something insubstantial into a material existence, like shifting from a body in stasis to a body in motion or a body sleeping/lying down as if dreaming. Also guiding my ‘digital dreaming’ of this dialogue is the language of the gestural that is so strong and prevalent in both To and Kurosawa’s films.
Once ‘awakened,’ the creative work is a body that goes out into the world. It is at once singular in its material existence/makeup and plural in its creation and meaning. So in the end, whose dreaming is it?
Above all else, this video essay is my way of paying a tribute to To and Kurosawa and Ruiz and Borges, each of whom has impacted my way of thinking, seeing, dreaming.