A Beginner’s Guide To… Akira Kurosawa

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 [1961]), The Usual Suspects and Vantage Point (both Rashomon) and Star Wars (The Hidden Fortress [1958]).

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.

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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.

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Rashomon (1950): Several characters – including a ghostly medium – recount their version of events surrounding a rape and murder in a brilliantly inventive film.

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Ikiru (1952): Discovering he has cancer, a man must reassess his worth and identity in a changing world in an understated and moving film.

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Throne of Blood (1957): A period setting and the Japanese love of ghost stories combine to create a wonderfully atmospheric adaptation of MacBeth.

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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.

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A Japanese Master or overrated Westernised director? What would your top five Kurosawa films be? Let us know below.

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One response to “A Beginner’s Guide To… Akira Kurosawa

  1. Some thoughts on the films of Akira Kurosawa…

    High and Low. With the first half of the film being almost all mise-en-scéne, inside the millionaire’s apartment, and the second half being mostly montage, on location in Tokyo, with that incredible montage of the hand off of the ransom money on a train!

    Derzu Uzala. Bankrolled by those Russian financiers. Shot in 65 mm and released in 70 mm. Unfortunately, after premiering at Filmex (The Los Angeles International Film Exhibition), the film was shortened when picked up for distribution by Roger Corman (on the recommendation of Roger’s one time protoge, Francis Coppola). Not sure if any 70 mm prints of the uncut film still exist.

    Other Remakes of Kurosawa’s films:

    The Outrage. A remake of Rashomon. Directed by Martin Ritt. With Paul Newman as the bandit.

    Seven Samurai was not only remade as The Magnificent Seven, but the plot was used for many other films as well. Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (which starred The Magnificent Seven’s Robert Vaughn); The Italian sword and sandal epics, The Secret Seven (1964), and Gladiators Seven (1964 as well).

    As the plot of Yojimbo has been borrowed for other films, Kurosawa borrowed the plot from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest for Yojimbo. And specifically, George Lucas based the characters of feisty Princess Leia, and the comedy relief duo of R2D2 and C3PO on characters in The Hidden Fortress.

    Seven Samurai is not only one of the greatest films ever made, but arguably the greatest film ever made about warriors. As Donald Richie & Joseph L. Anderson write in The Japanese Film:

    “In [Seven Samurai, Kurosawa] made many technical experiments, one of the most original being his use of super-[high] powered telephoto lenses to get a feeling of intimacy. These lenses cause things on a line to and from the camera to “pile up” [foreshortening], and this efect causes them to seem much closer than they really are. The intimacy was heightened by a frequent dependence on close-ups, often recalling their use in Carl Dreyer’s “[The Passion of] Jeanne d’Arc”. Kurosawa also used deep focus,low key photography [pioneered by Gregg Toland and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane] and slow motion to accent death and killing scenes [a technique you could say reached its apotheosis in The Wild Bunch]. Throughout, editing was used with a vigor that one thought had died out with silent Soviet Films.”

    It’s a tragedy that Sergei Eisenstein did not live long enough to see Seven Samurai. I think he would’ve liked Kurosawa’s film very much!

    And…let’s all thank the gods of cinema that elements of Kurosawa’s full length version (3 hours 20 minutes), thought lost, were discovered in the late 70’s! So that we now not only have restored theatrical prints, but also that absolutely stunning digitally remastered DVD from The Criterion Collection!

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