Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has produced some of the most iconic films of the 1950s and 1960s, including Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, as well as influencing countless western directors including Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, and Tarantino.
The descendant of an 11th century samurai warrior, Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the youngest of eight children. Although a strict disciplinarian who adhered to certain Samurai customs, Kurosawa’s father was a film lover and regularly took his children to the cinema. In his late teens Kurosawa attempted to become an artist, but saw his work as lacking originality. During this period his older brother, Heigo, became a benshi – providing live dialogue and sound effects to silent films during the 1920s. Kurosawa was very close to his brother, and when the introduction of sound films left Heigo unemployed and depressed, his subsequent suicide had a marked effect on the younger sibling.
During the 1930s Kurosawa was an assistant director to many of Japan’s leading filmmakers at PCL (later Toho) Studios, filling many roles including writer and editor. During WWII he moved into directing with the martial arts film Sanshiro Sugata (1943), before producing the emotive propaganda film The Most Beautiful (1944), where he also met his future wife. In the post-war years the allies governed the Japanese film industry, but Kurosawa pushed the confines of their dictates and created the Italian-Neorealism-inspired One Wonderful Sunday (1947) as well as crime dramas Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).
His breakthrough came with 1950’s Rashomon, a period drama of rape and murder told from multiple perspectives, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival after an Italian distributor urged him to enter it. When it became clear Kurosawa had western appeal, his films were pushed towards those markets by the Japanese studio while his work was denied entry into Japanese Film Festivals, creating a common misconception that Kurosawa’s films are less Japanese than those of other quintessential directors like Mizoguchi and Ozu.
Nonetheless, Kurosawa continued to mine the aesthetics and customs of his native culture to produce such incredible historical dramas (jidai-geki) and sword-fighting films (chambara) as Seven Samurai (1954), Sanjuro (1962) and his retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957), as well as contemporary dramas like Ikiru (1952). Kurosawa collaborated with friend and actor Toshiro Mifune on 15 films over 17 years, but during 1965’s Red Beard the pair fell-out, never again speaking. When Kurosawa’s films also lost favour with the Japanese box office in the late 1960s and early 70s, the director lost heart and attempted suicide.
Salvation came at first from Russian financiers after Japanese studios refused to wholly fund his films, and then from his fans in Hollywood: namely Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas. The latter two helped fund his film, Kagemusha (1985), which was followed by his epic samurai-retelling of King Lear, Ran (1987). Lucas and Spielberg later presented Kurosawa with a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1990, where the eighty-year-old director modestly thanked the Academy but did not feel he had yet earned it. He continued to work, still searching for what he called the “essence of cinema”, until his death in 1998.
Alongside complaints of being overly ‘westernised’, Kurosawa’s films have sometimes been criticised for lacking emotional warmth, their slow pacing, and being overly indulgent in their running time. With the notable exception of The Most Beautiful, his films rarely contain developed female characters, focusing instead on issues of honour, masculinity, identity, and the master/pupil relationship.
Kurosawa’s films possess a complex display of visual technique, with him regularly using long takes in interior scenes with tracking shots dictated by character movement. Each static position would reveal a precise composition within the frame, often using staging to create multiple planes of interest within a deep focus shot. As many of his films involve action, he also used rapid editing to a far greater extent than his contemporaries. His work inspired replication, and have regularly been remade or have influenced subsequent films, including The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai), A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing (both Yojimbo ), The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point (both Rashomon) and Star Wars (The Hidden Fortress ).
Kurosawa’s style may have appealed to the west and his influence evident, even today. Nevertheless, he remains one of Japan’s finest filmmakers who utilised his culture’s aesthetic and history to remarkable effect in some of cinemas most enduring and iconic films.
Top 5 Akira Kurosawa Films:
Seven Samurai (1954): The eponymous warriors must unite and defend a small village from bandits in an epic that explores its characters and builds to one of the most memorable – and unglamorous – battles ever committed to film.
Rashomon (1950): Several characters – including a ghostly medium – recount their version of events surrounding a rape and murder in a brilliantly inventive film.
Ikiru (1952): Discovering he has cancer, a man must reassess his worth and identity in a changing world in an understated and moving film.
Throne of Blood (1957): A period setting and the Japanese love of ghost stories combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric adaptation of MacBeth.
One Wonderful Sunday (1947): Although melodramatic, the romantic invention and heartfelt drama of a young couple who only meet one day a week during the post-war ruins of Tokyo is a heartwarming tale.
A Japanese Master or overrated Westernised director? What would your top five Kurosawa films be? Let us know below.