Akira Kurosawa (黒澤明, Modern spelling (新字体): 黒沢明 Kurosawa Akira, * March 23, 1910 in Ōmori, Ebara County († September 6, 1998 in Setagaya, ibid) was a Japanese film director.With a body of work of 30 films over a period of 57 years, he is considered one of the most influential directors of all time.
After a brief period as a painter, Kurosawa entered the Japanese film industry in 1938, where he first worked as a screenwriter and assistant director before launching his career as a director in 1943 with the action film Judo Saga – The Legend of Great Judo.
After some minor local successes during World War II, Kurosawa published the drama Angel of the Lost with the Tōhō Film Studio in 1948. The film was a great success commercially and critically, and fortified him in his position as one of Japan”s best-known directors. For one of the leading roles, he hired the then-unknown young actor Toshirō Mifune, who also achieved great local fame overnight and subsequently collaborated with Kurosawa on sixteen more films.
The film Rashomon – The Pleasure Grove, released in 1950, surprisingly won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, bringing Kurosawa to international attention. The film”s critical and commercial success brought Western attention to products of the Japanese film industry for the first time and is considered seminal to the rising popularity of Japanese film internationally.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Kurosawa released new films almost annually, including a number of classics such as Ikiru (1952), The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo – The Bodyguard (1961), Between Heaven and Hell (1963), and Red Beard (1965). From the 1970s on, Kurosawa increasingly suffered from depressive episodes, which is why his productivity declined sharply. The popularity of his works remained, however, and many of his later films, such as Uzala the Kirghiz (1975), Kagemusha – The Shadow of the Warrior (1980), Ran (1985) and Madadayo (1993), are generally considered classics of film history and have won several awards, including the Oscar.
In 1990, Kurosawa was honored with the Honorary Oscar for his life”s work and posthumously named “Asian of the Century” in the category “Art, Literature and Culture” by CNN. Even many years after his death, numerous retrospectives, studies and biographies about him and his career appear in visual and auditory form.
Childhood and beginnings in the film industry (1910-1945)
Akira Kurosawa was born on March 23, 1910 in the Ōmori district of Tokyo, the youngest of eight children. His father Isamu (1864-1948), a member of a samurai family from Akita Prefecture, was the principal of a middle school, while his mother Shima (1870-1952) was part of a merchant family based in Osaka. One of his brothers died at a young age, while his two oldest brothers had already started their own families, leaving him with three sisters and two brothers.
Kurosawa describes his mother as a very gentle person, but his father as very strict. He placed less emphasis on an artistic education for his sons than on a traditional, spartan-military education. In addition, he had a great affinity for Western traditions, especially plays and films from the West, to which he attributed great educational value. Because of this, Kurosawa developed a fascination with Western entertainment at a young age that would later have a great influence on his films. The young Akira was interested in art and painting, and a teacher in elementary school in particular is said to have recognized and encouraged this interest. The athletic-military component of his school education, however, which consisted largely of Kendō training, remained alien to him. His father, “although an inflexible military man,” according to Kurosawa, supported this artistic vein.
Another major influence on Kurosawa”s later work was his older brother Heigo. After the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, he forced Akira, then 13 years old, to accompany him to the disaster area to confront him with his fears and take a closer look at the devastation. This event provided the basis for Kurosawa”s later career, in which he often artistically processed his own fears, traumas and problems in his films.
After middle school, Kurosawa went to the Doshusha School of Western Painting in 1927. He earned his living with illustrations and painting of all kinds, but rather unsuccessfully. During this time he was closely associated with his brother Heigo, who increasingly separated himself from his family and led a successful career as a benshi in the silent film business. Through his contacts in the film industry, Heigo inspired the young Akira with all forms of entertainment, including old samurai stories, local literature, circuses, and the medium of film. With the rising popularity of talkies, Heigo became unemployed in the early 1930s and subsequently fell into a severe depression, which culminated tragically in his suicide in 1933. According to Kurosawa, he was never able to completely get over his brother”s suicide. The event would later influence many of his works, much of which was dedicated to Heigo.
In 1935, the newly founded film studio Photo Chemical Laboratories (P.C.L. for short), later known as Tōhō, was looking for applicants for the position of assistant director. Despite doubts about his own competence, Kurosawa wrote the required essay on the topic of “What are the fundamental flaws in Japanese film and how can they be overcome.” With no hope of making the shortlist, Kurosawa wrote a very cynical essay with the basic message that flaws that were fundamental could not be overcome even by definition. Director and P.C.L. collaborator Kajirō Yamamoto, who would later become Kurosawa”s mentor, was, contrary to expectations, very taken with the essay, calling it “charismatic.” Kurosawa was shortlisted and, with Yamamoto”s support, was allowed to take up the post of assistant director from February 1936.
During his five years as assistant director, Kurosawa worked with several Japanese film directors, but the most significant remained Yamamoto, with whom he collaborated seventeen times. Despite Kurosawa”s lack of experience, Yamamoto promoted him to senior assistant on the film set after only one year, expanding his responsibilities from stage construction to script revision, lighting, dubbing, sound production, etc. This development is considered instrumental in his later mentality of taking charge of most of his film production himself, including script, camera, editing and directing.
On the advice of his mentor, Kurosawa began writing his own screenplays alongside his work as an assistant director and selling them to other Japanese directors. In a very short time, he made a name for himself as a screenwriter and was motivated by this success to continue writing all his own scripts in his later career. Even into the 1960s, when he was already internationally successful, Kurosawa still sporadically wrote screenplays for other directors.
Toward the end of 1942, about a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese author Tsuneo Tomita published his novella Sanshiro Sugata, a judo story inspired by the novel Musashi. Kurosawa, whose interest was piqued by the book”s publicity, bought the novella the day it was published, read it through the same day, and shortly thereafter approached Tomita about a cinematic adaptation, which he signed off on. His instinct about the emerging popularity of the work proved correct, as just a few days later many more Japanese film studios wanted to buy the rights to the novella.
Filming of the adaptation began in Yokohama in December 1942 and went smoothly for the most part, but obtaining publication permission from the Japanese censorship authorities was problematic. They labeled the film “unpleasantly British-American” and counterproductive to the Pacific War; only an intervention by the well-known director Ozu Yasujirō was able to change the authority”s mind. The film was finally released in Japanese theaters on March 25, 1943, as Judo Saga – The Legend of Great Judo, and was a local success both critically and commercially. Despite all this, when the film was re-released in 1946, the censorship authorities made the decision to have it cut by 17 minutes to remove “anti-constitutional material.” The lost content is considered lost to this day.
Kurosawa”s next project, the propaganda film At its Most Beautiful, is an exception in his filmography in terms of content. Kurosawa, who unlike many other well-known personalities of his time was rather politically contained, treated women factory workers during World War II in the film in a strongly subjectively colored way, and also exhibits clearly patriotic traits. The origin of this is unknown, but the most widely accepted theory sees Kurosawa”s strained relationship with Japan”s censorship board and constitutional protection agency as instrumental, and interprets the change in style and content as an appeasing gesture. The film”s production process also represents a peculiarity, as Kurosawa required his actors to live in a factory building during film production, eat only in the canteen, and address each other only by their fictitious names. This unusual production contrasts with the usual course of his debut work and marks the beginning of his habit of using similarly drastic means in future films to make them seem more authentic.
Many of the actors were angered by Kurosawa”s perfectionist behavior and therefore chose Yōko Yaguchi, the film”s leading lady, to discuss with him. Paradoxically, the discussions between the two did not cause discord; instead, they fell in love and were married another year later, on May 21, 1945. The couple had two children, a boy named Hisao and a girl named Kazuko, and remained together until Yaguchi”s death in 1985.
Shortly before his marriage, Kurosawa was pressured by his film studio to make a sequel to his debut film. Kurosawa vehemently rejected the idea at first, but gave in after a lengthy discussion and released the film Sugata Sanshiro sequel in May 1945. The film was successful at the box office, but is considered by viewers and the director himself to be his weakest film.
Because of the controversy surrounding his first film and what he said was the unnecessarily high budget for its sequel, Kurosawa decided for his next project to produce a film that would be less expensive and more censorship-friendly than those before it. Filming on The Men Who Stepped on the Tiger”s Tail, based on the Kakubi drama Kanjinchō and starring noted actor Enomoto Ken”ichi, was completed in September 1945. At the same time, Japan surrendered and the occupation period in Japan began, so the film had to be controlled by the new, American censorship authorities, who classified it as “too feudal” and put it on the index. Ironically, however, the film would have suffered the same fate had Japan not surrendered, as old documents from Japanese authorities reveal that they wanted to put it on the index for being “too Western and democratic values.” It was not until seven years later, in 1952, that the film was released along with his new work, Ikiru – Once Really Alive.
Postwar to red beard
Inspired by the democratic values of the Western occupation, Kurosawa henceforth thought to produce films more oriented to the individualistic worldview. The first of these films was to be No Regrets for My Youth in 1946, a critique of the Japanese regime”s political oppression during World War II. He was particularly motivated by the “Takigawa Incident” as well as the wartime spy Hotsumi Ozaki, but also by his own experiences with domestic censorship. The protagonist is – uncharacteristically for the director – a woman, Yukie (played by Setsuko Hara), who grows up in a wealthy family and questions her own ideals through the crises of those around her. The original screenplay had to be rewritten several times and received a divided reception from critics of its time because of its controversial themes and because the main character is a woman. Nevertheless, the film was a great success commercially and with viewers, and variations on the film”s title established themselves as postwar catchphrases.
The love story A Beautiful Sunday premiered in July 1947 and tells the story of a young couple about to enjoy their first vacation together amid the devastation of Japan. The film was heavily influenced by David Wark Griffith, Frank Capra, and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, all three of whom were among Kurosawa”s favorite directors, and represents a unique feature in his filmography with its repeated breaking of the fourth wall. The same year saw the release of Path of Snow, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, for which Kurosawa had written the screenplay. The film is special in that it featured the debut of aspiring young actor Toshirō Mifune, who was so convincing to Kurosawa that he got him a contract with Tōhō despite the skepticism of the other casting judges. Mifune appeared in sixteen of Kurosawa”s later films, in most cases in the lead role.
Angel of the Lost is considered by many, including himself, to be Kurosawa”s first major work; it was the beginning of his series of critics” and audiences” favorites, which appeared almost every year. Although the script was rewritten several times due to the influence of American censors, Kurosawa later said the film was the first in which he had been free to express himself. The story follows a doctor and alcoholic who tries to save a yakuza with tuberculosis, and established the collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshirō Mifune. Although Mifune was not hired for the lead role, which was held by Takashi Shimura, a longtime working colleague of Kurosawa”s, his performance as the gangster so thrilled those on the film set that Kurosawa briefly restaged the film”s dramaturgy, shifting more of the focus from Shimura to him. Angel of the Lost premiered in Tokyo in April 1948 and was euphorically received by critics and viewers. Among others, Kinema Junpo, the oldest and best-known film magazine in Japan, awarded it Film of the Year.
Motivated by the film”s success, Kurosawa founded the film studio Eiga Geijutsu Kyōkai (German: Filmkunst-Verbund) with producer Sōjirō Motoki and directors Kajiro Yamamoto, Mikio Naruse and Senkichi Taniguchi. To inaugurate the studio, Kurosawa released the film The Silent Duel, his only adaptation of a play, in March 1949. Toshirō Mifune was hired for the lead role as an aspiring doctor struggling with the effects of his syphilis disease. Kurosawa”s intention here was to break through the crisis of Mifune, who had been typecast as a gangster by other directors due to his performance in Angel of the Lost, but also wanted to excel in other roles. Despite the very short work on the film – Kurosawa himself saw it more as a small side project than a truly large-scale work – it received good reviews and was also convincing at the box office. Even in retrospective, the film still gets good reviews, although many critics classify it as one of the less important in Kurosawa”s filmography.
His second film of the same year, A Stray Dog, represents Kurosawa”s first of three films noirs. The detective film metaphorically describes the mood of Japan during the postwar period through the story of a young policeman, played by Mifune, who is searching for his stolen gun. As in most of his films, the direction, casting, and screenplay are all by Kurosawa, who in this case took stylistic cues from crime writer Georges Simenon. In an iconic, wordless, eight-minute sequence, the policeman searches the streets for his gun. The scene was later imitated by numerous directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Andrei Tarkovsky. Another distinctive feature of the film are the images of destroyed Tokyo, which show real footage of the director friend Ishirō Honda, who would later have his breakthrough with Godzilla. The film was a critical and commercial success similar to Angel of the Lost, and is also considered the founder of the later internationally popular buddy cop film, as well as the Japanese detective film in general.
The film Scandal, published in 1950 by Shōchiku, was a critique of the emerging Japanese tabloid press, particularly its disregard for privacy, and heavily inspired by the director”s own experiences. Its alternation of courtroom conversations and long, philosophical monologues about freedom of expression and social responsibility made the film”s final product highly experimental, much to the displeasure of Kurosawa, who later described it as unfinished and unfocused. Nevertheless, the film, like those before it, became locally successful in every way. Yet it was his second work of the same year, Rashomon – The Pleasure Grove, that would make him and Japanese cinema an international force in the first place.
After completing Scandal, the film studio Kadokawa Daiei successfully asked Kurosawa to collaborate. Inspired by the short story In the Grove by the well-known author Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, which describes the rape of a samurai woman in various angles, Kurosawa began work on the accompanying script in the middle of the year, which was completed in June 1950 after several rewrites. Unlike his previous Toho-financed films, Kurosawa calculated a relatively low budget for the project. Kadokawa Daiei was accordingly enthusiastic and began casting shortly thereafter.
Filming of Rashomon – The Pleasure Forest began on July 7, 1950 and ended on August 17 of the same year. The primary forest in Nara served as the setting. Post-production was completed in a week after complications caused by a studio fire, so the film was still able to premiere at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo on August 25, 1950; a day later, the national wide release took place. The film, like most of Kurosawa”s films up to that point, was a local success with critics and commercially, but was still unknown internationally.
With the commercial success of Rashomon and his artistic freedom from being tied to a single production studio, Kurosawa fulfilled a wish for his next film by adapting The Idiot, the novel of the same name by his favorite author, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Although he changed the location of the action from Russia to Hokkaidō in Japan, the adaptation is very faithful to the original, making it an exception in the director”s filmography, who usually merely adopted the rough premise when adapting well-known works. The first version of the film clocked in at around four and a half hours, much to the displeasure of the Shōchiku production studio, which deemed it too long for the typical viewer and cut it from 265 to 166 minutes. The gesture established a long enmity between Shōchiku and Kurosawa, who, according to some sources, even demanded that the film not be published in its abridged form, and only granted its release upon the request of actress Setsuko Hara. The reconciliation of the two parties occurred only forty years later and resulted in their third and final collaboration Rhapsody in August. According to British director and close confidant Alex Cox, on this occasion Kurosawa unsuccessfully searched the studio”s archives for the original version of the film, which is still considered lost today.
The edited version was first released on May 23, 1951 to mixed reviews and is still considered by critics to be one of the director”s weakest films, particularly because of the hard-to-follow plot, which seems disjointed due to Shōchiku”s radical editing and must be explained by title cards. Nevertheless, the film was convincing at the box office, not least because of Kurosawa”s newfound popularity as well as Setsuko Hara”s co-starring.
At the same time, through the efforts of Italian film representative Giuliana Stramigioli, Rashomon – The Pleasure Grove was nominated at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival, which admitted it to the shortlist. Against all expectations, the film won the top prize, the Golden Lion, on September 10, 1951, surprising not only Kurosawa and his studio, but also the international film landscape, to which products from Japan had previously been completely unknown for decades.
After Kadokawa Daiei sold the film with subtitles to various theaters in the Los Angeles area for a short time, RKO Pictures secured the rights to Rashomon in the USA. The purchase was considered a big risk at the time, as the only Japanese film previously released in the U.S., Woman Be Like a Rose by Mikio Naruse, had been a flop with critics and audiences. The campaign paid off in the end, however. Rashomon, due in no small part to euphoric reviews and publicity from Ed Sullivan and others, became a huge success and solidified Kurosawa”s name among the ranks of the most famous directors of the time, alongside big names like Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder. For example, Rashomon, which was first released as a home production in selected theaters in Japan in 1950, became the first Asian film ever to be released worldwide by mid-1952.
The film”s success helped the Japanese film industry gain widespread attention and popularity in the Western market, which continues to this day, replacing Italian neorealism, which enjoyed great popularity for a long time through directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica. Japanese directors who were subsequently awarded film prizes and released commercially in the West as a result of the aftershock of Rashomon include Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirō. Many years later, the Western market was still open to the new generation of Japanese filmmakers such as Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Ōshima, Shōhei Imamura, Jūzō Itami, Takeshi Kitano, and Takashi Miike.
With his international breakthrough, Kurosawa felt artistically and also financially free, so he fulfilled his desire to film another drama with his next film. The result was Ikiru – Once Really Live, a film about a bureaucrat named Watanabe who suffers from stomach cancer and goes in search of meaning before his death. Despite its somber subject matter, the screenplay addresses both the protagonist”s bureaucratic niche and the cultural colonization of Japan by the U.S. with a satirical approach that was often compared to Bertolt Brecht by contemporary reviews. Ikiru celebrated its opening on October 9, 1952 to euphoric ticket sales and reviews, in no small part due to its satirical tone, which was perceived by the general public as a refreshing general overhaul of the otherwise mostly campy drama genre. Even to this day, Ikiru is listed in numerous lists as one of the best films of all time.
In December of that year, Kurosawa booked himself a room in a remote inn for 45 days to work in isolation on the script of a new film: The Seven Samurai. The ensemble was his first samurai film, the genre he would revolutionize with this and several of his later works. The story about a poor village in the Sengoku period that hires a group of samurai to protect itself from bandits was rehashed in epic style: With a large cast, meticulously detailed action sequences and a running time of about three and a half hours.
Pre-production lasted around three months, and rehearsals another. The filming, however, is considered particularly excessive, taking about 148 days (almost five months) over the course of about a year. The shooting was accompanied by numerous complications, among other things, Kurosawa miscalculated the budget of the film and had to find money in parallel through several corners to be able to pay the immense costs. This stress also caused him health problems, which also had a counterproductive effect on the production. The film finally opened in April 1954, six months after the planned theatrical release and with a budget three times as high as originally planned, making it the most expensive Japanese film of all time to that point. Like Kurosawa”s two previous works, the epic was praised to the skies by critics and quickly became an unparalleled box office success internationally. The film”s reputation continued to grow over time, and it is now considered one of the best films of all time. In 1979, for example, various Japanese directors voted it the best Japanese film of all time in a poll, the British Film Institute”s Sight & Sound magazine ranked it the 17th best film of all time, and the Internet Movie Database currently ranks it fifteenth.
In 1954, nuclear tests caused radioactive fallout over much of Japan; in particular, the contamination of the crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Happy Dragon V caused headlines and unrest among the Japanese population. Plagued by panic attacks and paranoia, Kurosawa released his contribution in November 1955 in the form of the film Balance of a Life, a semi-autobiographical story about an old factory owner who, fearing a nuclear attack, resolutely moves each of his family members (related by blood and out of wedlock) to a supposedly safe farm in Brazil. For long stretches, the production was much less conflictual than those of his previous films, until the death of his composer and close friend Fumio Hayasaka from tuberculosis a few days before the end of shooting. The film soundtrack was finished by Masaru Satō, who would also compose the music for Kurosawa”s next eight films. Balance of a Life was a critical and financial success, but fell far short of its predecessor”s reputation. Over the years, the film nevertheless gained increasing popularity and is now considered by many notable reviewers to be one of the best psychoanalytic portrayals of human angst in film format.
Kurosawa”s next project, The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, a rough adaptation of William Shakespeare”s Macbeth, presented an ambitious recasting of the English work into a Japanese context. For example, the director instructed his lead actress Yamada Isuzu to view the work as a cinematic representation of Japanese literature, rather than European. To give the film the unique atmosphere of ancient Japanese literature, as well as a tribute to Japanese theatrical art in general, Kurosawa required his actors to learn and use gesticulation and emphasis from traditional Nō theater. The final product was released in Japan on January 15, 1957, and internationally the following day to very good reviews and renewed financial success. To this day, The Castle in the Cobweb Forest is listed as one of Kurosawa”s best films and is considered one of the most popular Shakespeare adaptations, despite the creative liberties taken with the original.
Another loose adaptation of a classic European play followed with Nachtasyl, based on the play of the same name by Maxim Gorky. The story about a married couple who rent beds to strangers during the Edo period and subsequently become involved in unexpected situations is set in May and June 1957, correlating with the time of filming. Unlike The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, an expensive and highly ambitious film, Night Asylum was shot on only two constricted film sets, with the intention of being able to point out the emotional confinement of the characters. Unlike Kurosawa”s first interpretation of Russian literature, The Idiot, the attempt was deemed successful by viewers and reviewers. Nachtasyl is often considered one of the director”s most underrated works to this day.
The atmosphere of the three films that followed The Seven Samurai became increasingly pessimistic and gloomy, especially through the critical consideration of the question of whether redemption can really be achieved through personal responsibility. If Balance of a Life was already very gloomy, the two films that followed were especially dominated by that nihilistic philosophy. Kurosawa noticed this himself and accordingly made a conscious decision to make his next film lighter and more entertaining, while at the same time trying his hand at the new widescreen format, which was attracting increasing attention, especially in Japan. The result, The Hidden Fortress, is a comedic adventure film about a medieval princess, her loyal general, and two peasants who face dangerous situations to reach their home region. Released in December 1958, The Hidden Fortress was an enormous commercial success and also managed to delight critics, both locally and internationally. Nowadays, the work is considered one of Kurosawa”s lightest, but still enjoys great popularity and is regularly included in best director lists. U.S. film director George Lucas later named the film as the greatest inspiration for his space opera Star Wars, adopting some entire scenes as homages to Kurosawa”s work.
Beginning with Rashomon, Kurosawa”s works began to become more and more ambitious; accordingly, the budget steadily increased. Out of an abundance of caution, after the release of The Hidden Fortress, Toho made the proposal to act as sponsor for a new Kurosawa-directed venture. This would have the advantage for Toho that a commercial failure would not entail such high potential losses, while Kurosawa would be freer than ever to control the production and release of his works. Kurosawa was taken with the idea and founded the Kurosawa Production Company in April 1959, with Toho as an investor.
Despite a high risk of loss, Kurosawa chose to inaugurate his studio with his clearest critique yet of Japan”s economic and political elite. The Wicked Sleep Well is a film noir about a man who infiltrates the hierarchy of a corrupt Japanese corporation to find those responsible for his father”s death. The subject proved ironically topical: parallel to the film”s production, crowds demonstrated in the streets of Japan against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, an agreement that many young Japanese felt posed a massive threat to the country”s democratic constitution, especially by clearly shifting power to large corporations and politicians. The film was released, contrary to Kurosawa”s pessimistic expectations, in September 1960 to positive audience and critical acclaim. In particular, the 25-minute opening sequence is often cited as one of the strongest in film history.
Due to the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa was asked by Toho to develop a sequel. Enamored with the idea, he searched his archives for his discarded scripts, found what he was looking for, and rewrote one of them for the promised sequel. Sanjuro, named after the title character, is much lighter in tone than its predecessor, despite its serious story about a samurai clan with internal conflicts and power struggles. It is also unusually humorous, questioning the rules and values taught in traditional jidai-geki through ironizing and unsuccessfulness of the respective protagonists. The film was released on New Year”s Day 1962 and was an even greater success than its already critically and financially euphoric predecessor. Even today, the film, like Yojimbo, is regularly listed as one of Kurosawa”s best.
Despite the runaway success of his last two samurai films, Kurosawa was tapped to produce another film noir that would deal with the subject of kidnapping – the crime Kurosawa was most afraid of. The film Between Heaven and Hell was shot in the second half of 1962 and released internationally in March 1963. It was the third film in a row to break Kurosawa”s box office record and became the most successful film of the entire year. The film also scored huge successes with critics, who briefly paused after the film was blamed for a wave of mass kidnappings in Japan. Even Kurosawa received threats directed at his daughter Kazuko. The scandal died down after some time and nowadays the film is unanimously listed as one of Kurosawa”s best productions. It was to be the last of three films noirs in the director”s repertoire.
Not long after, he set to work on his new project, Red Beard. Influenced in places by Dostoevsky”s novel Humiliated and Insulted, the period film is set in a 19th-century clinic and is considered Kurosawa”s clearest cinematic manifesto of a humanistic view of man. A selfish and materialistic young doctor named Yasumoto feels compelled to work as an intern in a clinic under the strict tutelage of Doctor Niide, known as Red Beard. After initially resisting Red Beard, he soon begins to admire his courage and subsequently reconsiders his opinion of the clinic”s patients, whom he previously detested.
Yūzō Kayama, the actor who played Yasumoto, was a very popular musician in Japan; therefore, Toho as well as Kurosawa felt that his appearance was a safeguard for the film”s hoped-for financial success. The shoot was the longest of Kurosawa”s career and spanned a year of intense work, despite five months of pre-production. The film was officially declared complete in the spring of 1965, yet the stress proved bad for the already failing health of Kurosawa and some of the cast. Red Beard opened worldwide in April 1965 and became one of the most successful films of the year. It remains to this day as one of Kurosawa”s most highly acclaimed productions, though isolated voices, especially in the West, missed Kurosawa”s commitment to political and social change.
In a way, the film marks the end of an era. Kurosawa noted this himself; in an interview with film critic Donald Richie, for example, he told us that Red Beard marked the end of a cycle for him and that his future films and production methods would be different from those before. His prediction proved correct. Beginning in the early 1960s, television shows increasingly replaced theatrical productions, and as film studios” revenues declined, so did their willingness to take risks, especially in terms of the financial risk that Kurosawa”s expensive productions and daring ideas represented.
Red Beard also chronologically marked about halfway through his career. In the previous 29 years in the film industry (including the five as assistant director), he had produced 23 films, while there would be only seven more in the next 28 years. Likewise, Red Beard marked the last collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. The reasons for this were never made public, even after repeated requests.
The Second Era (1966-1998)
After Kurosawa”s contract with Toho expired in 1966, the then 56-year-old director considered a drastic turnaround. With the ever-increasing dominance of television and numerous contract offers from abroad, he became more and more sympathetic to the idea of working outside Japan.
For his first foreign project, Kurosawa chose a story based on an article in Life magazine. The action thriller, to be filmed in English as Runaway Train, would have been his first color film. The language barrier proved to be a major problem, however, and the English version of the script was not even ready by the time shooting was scheduled to begin in the fall of 1966. The shoot, which required snow, was eventually postponed for a year and abandoned altogether in 1968. It was not until two decades later that Andrei Konchalovsky adapted the film as Runaway Train, loosely based on Kurosawa”s script.
Kurosawa has since become involved in a much more ambitious Hollywood project. Tora! Tora! Tora! produced by 20th Century Fox and Kurosawa Productions, was planned as a portrait of the attack on Pearl Harbor from the perspective of the United States and Japan. For this, Kurosawa was to shoot the Japanese half and an initially undetermined English-language director was to shoot the U.S. side. After months of intense, ambitious work on Kurosawa”s part, the project began to fall apart. The prestigious David Lean was not hired for the English-language half of the film, as Kurosawa had been promised, but the much less well-known Richard Fleischer. In addition, the budget was cut short and the Japanese portion of the film was to be no longer than 90 minutes – a major problem since Kurosawa had been commissioned to make an epic and had put several months of work into an eventual four-and-a-half hour script. After several discussions and a brief intervention by the film”s producer Darryl F. Zanuck, they finally agreed on a more or less finished final product in May 1968.
Shooting began in early December, but Kurosawa only worked on location as director for barely three weeks. He had problems working with a film crew that was completely unfamiliar to him; moreover, his working methods irritated the American producers, who ultimately concluded that Kurosawa was mentally ill. After a brief discussion, he decided to be examined at Kyōto University by neuropsychologist Dr. Murakami, who diagnosed him with neurasthenia, stating, “He suffers from sleep disorders stirred up by anxiety and manic excitement caused by the above-mentioned clinical picture. It is necessary that he rest and receive medical treatment for the next two months.” Around Christmas 1968, the film”s producers announced that Kurosawa had left the film”s production because of fatigue. In truth, he had been summarily fired and was eventually replaced by two Japanese directors, Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda.
Tora! Tora! Tora! was finally released in September 1970 to lukewarm reviews – a result that Donald Richie said represented an “almost unmitigated tragedy” in Kurosawa”s career. “He (Kurosawa) wasted years of his life on a logistically sketchy project to which he was ultimately to contribute nothing.” The incident caused a number of negative events: Kurosawa”s name was dropped from the credits, even though the script for the Japanese sequences came from him, and he got into a dispute with his longtime collaborator and friend Ryuzo Kikushima that would not be settled until his death. According to Kurosawa, the project also exposed corruption in his own company, something he had ironically dealt with well in The Wicked Sleep. In addition, he felt compelled to question his own health for the first time. As Kurosawa later made known in an interview, he was certain at this point that he no longer wanted to make a film, let alone contribute to the movie business in any other way.
Through the debacle with Tora! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa knew that his reputation was at stake if he did not pick himself up. For support, therefore, came Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa, themselves directors and longtime friends of Kurosawa, who founded a new production company with him in July 1969: Yonki no kai (“The Four Knights Club”). Although the official plan was for each director to use the platform for his own releases, many retrospectives agree that the real motivation was to help Kurosawa finish his work, to reintegrate him into the film business.
After working briefly on a period film called Dora-heita, which proved too expensive, Kurosawa decided to make the experimental film Dodeskaden about the poor and destitute. The film was shot very quickly by Kurosawa”s standards in only nine weeks, not least because he wanted to prove how he could produce great films on a small budget even after a long absence. For his first color film, Kurosawa eschewed his old focus of dynamic editing and complex image compositions and concentrated more on creating striking, already surreal color palettes, with the goal of exposing the toxic environment of his characters. The film debuted in Japan in October 1970 and elicited restrained reactions from viewers, who found the film too pessimistic and surreal. The film was financially a minus business and led to the dissolution of Yonki no kai. After some time, the reception to the film became far more positive – among other things, it was nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 1972 Academy Awards -; however, this did nothing to change the psychological state of the director, who fell into a deep depression after his failure.
Unable to produce any more films due to excessive spending, as well as suffering severely from health problems, Kurosawa hit rock bottom on December 22, 1971, slitting his wrists and his throat. The suicide attempt proved unsuccessful and the director recovered from it relatively quickly, but decided for the second time that he no longer wanted to contribute to the film business.
In early 1973, the most famous Russian film studio Mosfilm approached Kurosawa and asked for a collaboration. Despite initial skepticism, he accepted the offer to fulfill his old dream of filming the life of the hunter Dersu Usala. The foundation for this was laid by the writings of the Russian explorer Vladimir Klawdiyevich Arsenyev (1872-1930). Kurosawa had been harboring the plan since the mid-1930s, but had not found anyone interested in the project until then. In December 1973, the 63-year-old director settled in the Soviet Union, where he would live for another year and a half. Shooting began in May 1974 in Siberia and proved challenging due to the harsh conditions of nature there, which is why the film was not shot until April 1975. Uzala the Kirghiz, as the film was to be called in the end, celebrated its world premiere on August 2, 1975 as a huge success with critics and viewers. Not only did the film become one of the most successful films of the year internationally alongside names like Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo”s Nest, it also proved successful at various awards ceremonies. Among other things, it was awarded the Oscar in 1976. To this day, Uzala the Kirghiz is considered one of Kurosawa”s best films.
Although he received a steady stream of offers for television, Kurosawa never showed any serious interest in acting outside the film world. Until his death, the self-confessed whiskey lover only made an exception for a series of commercials for the Japanese manufacturer Suntory in the spring of 1976. Even though the mentally ill director was permanently plagued by the fear of never being able to make films again since his suicide attempt, he permanently wrote further scripts, paintings and sketches that he wanted to record for posterity, even if they would never be filmed.
In 1977, U.S. director George Lucas released Star Wars, an adaptation of Kurosawa”s The Hidden Fortress, to great acclaim. Lucas, like many other New Hollywood directors, revered Kurosawa and was shocked to learn that the latter was unable to finance his films. The two met in San Francisco in July 1978 to discuss financing a new Kurosawa film: Kagemusha – The Shadow of the Warrior, the epic tale of a thief hired to double as a Japanese warlord. Lucas was so enthusiastic about the script and paintings that he used his newfound contacts to persuade 20th Century Fox to produce the film. The studio agreed, despite its turbulent past with the Japanese director, and recruited Francis Ford Coppola, another fan of Kurosawa, as co-producer.
Production began the following April, and shooting ranged from June 1979 to March 1980, interrupted at times by various complications, including an impromptu second casting after the original protagonist Shintarō Katsu was replaced by Tatsuya Nakadai due to disagreements. The film was completed a few weeks behind schedule, but still managed to premiere in Tokyo on the scheduled date in April 1980. It quickly became an international hit – including winning the Palme d”Or at the 1980 Cannes International Film Festival – and, to Kurosawa”s delight, successful in Japan as well. Kurosawa used the rest of the year intensively to promote the film in Europe and America, as well as for award ceremonies and an art exhibition featuring concept drawings of the epic.
The great success of Kagemusha enabled Kurosawa to finance his dream project Ran, a historical film of unimagined magnitude. The film describes the fall of Hidetora Ichimonji, a Daimyō of the Sengoku period, who decides to step down in favor of his sons. His empire visibly disintegrates under the intrigues and struggles of the sons; in the process, Hidetora falls prey to madness. With a budget of $12 million, Ran was the most expensive Japanese film to date, so Kurosawa received renewed financing help, this time from French producer Serge Silberman, who had become particularly well known for his work with Luis Buñuel. Shooting began in December 1983 and dragged on for just over a year.
In January 1985, the post-production of Ran was paused by the illness of Kurosawa”s wife Yōko, who died on February 1 of the same year. Amidst his grief, Kurosawa worked meticulously to complete the film so that Ran could still premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival on May 31, 1985. The film was released worldwide the following day. It enjoyed moderate success in Japan and very great success abroad, especially in America and Europe. In September and October of that year, Kurosawa traveled the world to promote his film, as he had done for Kagemusha.
Ran won a variety of awards around the world, including in Japan. The film world was thus surprised when Japan did not submit Ran for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 1986 Academy Awards in favor of another film. The Academy announced shortly thereafter that Ran was thus officially excluded from the competition, as it was not clear whether it was considered a Japanese film, a French film, or both at the same time. Many Hollywood industry figures, especially influential director Sidney Lumet, were incensed by the seemingly questionable decision. Lumet then successfully launched a campaign to have Kurosawa awarded in the “Best Director” category instead. In addition, Ran won an Oscar for “Best Costume Design”.
Kagemusha and Ran are usually counted among Kurosawa”s most important works. The Japanese filmmaker himself called Ran his best film after its release, breaking his habit of not favoring any of his films.
For his next film, Kurosawa chose a very special theme, different from all his previously released works. Even though some of his films already included short dream sequences (for example Angel of the Lost and Kagemusha), Akira Kurosawa”s Dreams is entirely based on actual dreams of the director from different stages of his life. The film is very colorful and contains very little dialogue, instead telling its stories largely through images. Although the film”s budget was much smaller than it had been for Ran, Japanese film studios refused to fully finance it, so Steven Spielberg, another well-known Kurosawa admirer, sought help from Warner Bros. Entertainment, which shortly thereafter secured international rights to the film. This made it easier for Kurosawa”s son Hisao, the film”s co-producer, to find a compromise with Japanese film studios. Shooting of the film took around eight months before Akira Kurosawa”s Dreams premiered at Cannes in May 1990. The film was well received by critics and was a financial success, though not on the scale of Ran or Kagemusha. Although Akira Kurosawa”s Dreams is not considered one of the director”s greatest achievements, it still has a certain cult status among viewers today. At the end of 1990, Kurosawa accepted the Honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement.
His next work was Rhapsody in August, another conventional story. The film deals with the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. It was produced entirely in Japan for the first time since Dodeskaden, and also features a U.S. movie star for the first time, Richard Gere in the role of the main character”s nephew. Shooting began in January 1991 and the film was released internationally on May 25. Although financially successful, the film was largely negatively received, especially in the U.S., which accused the Japanese director of holding anti-American views. Kurosawa himself denied the accusations.
Madadayo was to be the aging director”s last film. It follows the life of Japanese German teacher Uchida Hyakken through World War II and beyond. Much of the film”s narrative is confined to a birthday party with his students, to whom he expounds on his reluctance to die – a subject matter that was becoming increasingly relevant to the 81-year-old director. Shooting ran from February to September 1992; it was released on April 17, 1993. Madadayo proved to be a great success, winning various awards internationally as well as in Japan, including four categories of the Japanese Academy Award, Japan”s most prestigious film prize. In 1994, it received the Kyoto Prize.
Even after Madadayo, Kurosawa did not become less productive, writing the screenplays for The Sea Comes (1993) and After the Rain (1995), among others. Shortly before completing the last script, he slipped and broke his back. The incident left the director a paraplegic, thus depriving him of the possibility of ever making another film. His wish to die on the set of his film shoot did not come true.
After the accident, Kurosawa”s health deteriorated immensely. Although his mind remained unaffected, his body increasingly gave out, and for the last six months of his life he was largely bedridden. Kurosawa finally died on September 6, 1998, at the age of 88, as a result of a cerebral stroke. His resting place is in the cemetery of the An”yō-in Buddhist temple in Kamakura. Both of the screenplays he left behind were made into films in his honor, 1999”s The Sea Comes by Takashi Koizumi and 2002”s After the Rain by Kei Kumai. His grandson, Takayuki Kato, was cast as a supporting actor in both of the films.
Akira Kurosawa left a diverse and internationally influential legacy to subsequent generations of directors. This ranged from his working methods to his style to his selective choice of certain subject areas and the philosophies they dealt with. Kurosawa”s working methods included extensive involvement in numerous aspects of film production. Among other things, he was known as a gifted but perfectionist screenwriter, who reworked or even overhauled his script several times.
As a trained painter, Kurosawa placed just as much importance on the aesthetics of his films. To that end, he also controlled the camera and was notorious for reshooting or briefly replacing some shots just for cinematography. Kurosawa also handled post-production, including film and sound editing, on most of his films. Performing his work as a film editor in parallel with directing is unusual to this day.
Kurosawa worked with the same actors in most of the films. His trusted group was later nicknamed “Kurosawa-gumi” (translated: “Kurosawa troupe”).
Kurosawa passionately emphasized that, for him, the screenplay was the foundation of a good film. He went so far as to claim that a mediocre director could sometimes make a passable film from a good script, but no good director could ever make a passable film from a bad script. Kurosawa therefore took care of his scripts to a large extent himself and then passed them on for suggestions for improvement to a trusted group of friends, mostly the five professional screenwriters Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide. However, the final word on the final version was always kept by the director himself.
In addition to the script, Kurosawa often wrote detailed notes, sketches and concept drawings. This served to elaborate his vision and, not least, to ensure authenticity, which was always a priority for the director. For example, for The Seven Samurai, he wrote seven notebooks with meticulous details about the backgrounds of the film”s characters, what they eat and wear, how they walk, how they talk and behave toward other people, and even how they should tie their shoes. For the 101 farmers in the film, he created a register consisting of over 23 meticulously planned family trees, and instructed his actors to “live” fictitiously in the families while on set, even outside of filming. He used similarly drastic methods in a large number of his works.
Although they were consistently well filmed, Kurosawa used regular camera lenses and deep focus cinematography in his first films. Beginning with The Seven Samurai, his technique changed drastically with long focus lenses and the simultaneous use of multiple cameras. The filmmaker himself said that this shooting technique made for more authenticity and better performances from his actors, as they never knew which of the cameras would ultimately be used in the film, let alone where they would be placed. The spasmodic focus on the camera thus shifts to the actors or scenery in which the characters find themselves. The experimental approach obviously proved successful. Among others, one of the actors, Tatsuya Nakadai, said in an interview that Kurosawa”s way of shooting significantly contributed to his performance. But this shooting style also had an effect on the film visually, especially the action sequences.
With The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa began to use an anamorphic process. These three techniques – telephoto lens, multiple cameras, and widescreen format – were used extensively in his later works, even in scenes with little to no action. An example is the opening scenes in Between Heaven and Hell at the protagonists” home. There, the means are used to dramatize tension within a very limited space, as well as to strengthen the characters” relationships.
In one scene of The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, in which Washizu is attacked with arrows by his own men, the director had real archers shoot hollowed-out arrows at Washizu”s actor Toshiro Mifune. The latter carefully followed chalk marks on the ground to avoid being hit. Even though Mifune was not injured, he later recounted that some arrows narrowly missed. He carried trauma from the experience for many months afterward. Kurosawa”s eccentric intention to make Mifune”s fear more authentic, however, worked out perfectly, so the scene only had to be shot once.
To make the clinic set in Red Beard look grungier, Kurosawa had his assistants dismantle rotten wood from old sets and reassemble it for the props. He also instructed his film crew to pour gallons of old tea on all the teacups to create the effect of them being stale.
Art director and scenic designer Muraki Yoshirō was instructed for the design of the third castle in Ran to photograph the stones of a real castle and accurately recreate them using Styrofoam blocks. He then glued the Styrofoam blocks together piece by piece to simulate the look of the castle. The entire process happened under Kurosawa”s most precise instructions and took several months. In a famous scene in the film, the castle is attacked and set on fire, so parts of the team were afraid the heat would melt the Styrofoam blocks. On Kurosawa”s orders, the blocks were therefore doused with four layers of cement and then painted over in the color of the old blocks.
Kurosawa often remarked that he only made a film to have material that he could edit later. The process of creating a final product from raw material was always the most important and exciting part for him. Hiroshi Nezu, a longtime production supervisor, once said, “We believe he is Toho”s best director, Japan”s best scenarist, and the best film editor in the world. A Kurosawa film is made through editing, so to speak.”
Teruyo Nogami, who served Kurosawa as assistant editor on several films, confirmed this view: “Akira Kurosawa”s editing was extraordinary, the inimitable work of a genius. No one was his equal”. She claimed that Kurosawa carried every piece of information about every shot in his head: “When he asked about a shot in the editing room and I gave him the wrong one, he noticed the mistake immediately. I had made notes on every scene; he just had it in his head.” She likened his thoughts to a computer that can do with edited film segments what technology does these days.
Kurosawa”s habitual method was to edit the film piece by piece in parallel with production, usually daily. This proved especially useful when he switched to multiple cameras.
Due to the intensive work on editing, the process became routine over the course of his career. Accordingly, the post-production of a typical Kurosawa film could be extraordinarily short. As an example: Yojimbo premiered on April 20, 1961, only four days after shooting had been completed.
Virtually all commentators noted a bold, dynamic style in Kurosawa that was initially nothing unusual in Hollywood. However, they also noted that from the beginning, the director displayed a technique that was quite different from the seamless style of classical Hollywood. This technique included, among other things, a distressed depiction of the screen through the use of numerous, non-repetitive camera angles, a disregard for the traditional 180-degree axis of action around which Hollywood scenes are usually constructed, and fluid camera movements that frequently occur in place of conventional editing to make the narrative more spatial. Kurosawa made use of many stylistic devices attributed to him throughout his career, though some appeared more frequently.
In his films of the 1940s and 1950s, Kurosawa frequently used what he called a jump cut, a type of film editing in which the camera zooms in or out in a graduated manner not through dissolves or a tracking shot, but through a series of coordinated jump cuts. An example from the film Sanshiro Sugata sequel is illustrated by film scholar David Bordwell in his blog. There, Sanshiro, the hero of the film, leaves his lover Sayo, repetitively performing the same action: He walks a few feet away from her, turns to face her, and she leans forward. This happens three times without the camera following the hero; instead, each shot is a separate, juxtaposed scene. By cutting in quick succession, unnatural and ever increasing distance, the film emphasizes the duration of Sanshiro”s absence.
In the opening sequence of The Seven Samurai, the rim jump is used twice. As the villagers are gathered in a circle, they are seen in extreme long distance from above, then there is a cut and the camera is closer, and then another cut to ground level where the dialogue can begin. A few minutes later, when the villagers go to the mill for the village elder”s advice, we see a long shot of the mill with a slowly turning wheel, then after a cut, an even closer view of the turning wheel, and finally a close-up. Since it was previously established that the village elder lives in the mill, these images create a later important connection between the village elder and the mill.
A variety of analysts pointed to Kurosawa”s tendency to cut in one motion. That is, to divide a flowing scene between two moving characters into two or more separate portions, rather than one uninterrupted shot. An example can be found again in The Seven Samurai, when the standing samurai Shichirōji wants to comfort the peasant Manzo, who is sitting on the ground, and kneels down to talk to him. Kurosawa filmed this simple action of kneeling in two shots instead of one to convey Shichirōji”s humility more powerfully. In the same film alone, there are countless such examples. Joan Mellen commented on the special Criterion Collection edition of the epic: “Kurosawa interrupts and fragments the action to create an emotional effect.”
One form of cinematic punctuation particularly often associated with Kurosawa is the so-called “wipe” transition. The effect is created through the use of an optical printer. When a scene ends, a line or bar appears to move across the screen, “wiping away” the image while simultaneously revealing the first frame of the following scene. Kurosawa often used this technique in place of the usual dissolve or normal cut. Especially in his later works, the director used the transition method as a trademark; in the film Angel of the Lost, for example, it is used twelve times.
There are a lot of theories as to why Kurosawa was so fond of this specific transitional method. Since “wiping” was used primarily in silent films, but became increasingly rare with talkies, film scholar James Goodwin suggested it was a tribute to Kurosawa”s late brother Heigo, who had worked as a benshi in silent films and committed suicide because of the popularity of talkies and his resulting unemployment. Beyond that, however, the “wiping” has stylistic reasons. For example, Goodwin claims that “wiping” in Rashomon always serves one of three purposes: To highlight a traveling character”s movement, to mark narrative shifts in court sequences, and to form temporal ellipses between actions (for example, between two characters” statements). He also points out that Kurosawa does not use the “wiping” method in Nachtasyl, but instead stages his actors and props to simulate “wiping” from frame to frame.
An example of a satirical use of this method can be found in Ikiru – Once Really Live. A group of women visit the local government office to petition the bureaucrats to turn a waste area into a children”s playground. The viewer is then shown a series of point-of-view shots of various bureaucrats using the “swipe” method, all of whom pass the group on to another department. Film analyst Nora Tennessen described the effect of the method as follows: “The wiping makes the scene funnier. The settings of the bureaucrats are stacked like cards, with each one more pedantic than the one before it.”
As can be seen from Teruyo Nogami”s memoirs, Kurosawa always paid great attention to the soundtrack of his films. In the late 1940s, he first made use of his later habit of using music as a counterpoint to the emotional content of a scene. In traditional Hollywood, music was and is usually matched to the atmosphere of a scene; for example, if a scene is supposed to be sad, a sad piece of music plays. Kurosawa”s trick of doing the exact opposite of this stems from a family tragedy. When Kurosawa learned of his father”s death in 1948, he wandered aimlessly through the streets of Tokyo. His grief was compounded when he heard the cheerful song The Cuckoo Waltz on the radio. The artist then commissioned his film composer Fumio Hasayaka, with whom he was working on Angel of the Lost at the time, to record the song as an ironic accompaniment in Matsunaga”s death scene, the saddest scene in the entire film.
Another example is the film A Stray Dog. In the climactic scene in which Murakami fights Yusa in a muddy field, a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is suddenly playing, played on the piano by a woman in a neighbor”s house. One commentator noted, “In contrast to the scene of primitive violence, the serenity of Mozart seems literally “otherworldly.” The power of this primal clash is intensified by the music.” Kurosawa”s revolutionary use of sound was not limited to music, however. One critic pointed out in his review of The Seven Samurai: “In settings of murder and mayhem, birds chirp in the background, as in the first scene when the peasants lament their seemingly hopeless fate.”
Many commentators noted the regular occurrence in Kurosawa”s films of a complex relationship between an older and a younger man, or a master and a disciple. This theme was undoubtedly autobiographically influenced. As Joan Mellen commented in a retrospective, “Kurosawa revered his teachers, especially Kajiro Yamamoto, his mentor at Toho. The instructive image of an older person teaching an inexperienced one always evokes the moments of pathos in Kurosawa”s films.” Critic Tadao Sato considers the recurring figure of the “master” as a kind of surrogate father whose role is to witness and approve the moral growth of the young protagonist.
In his very first film, Judo Sage, the narrative form changes after Judo Master Yano becomes the title character”s teacher and spiritual guide, “in the form of a chronicle , exploring the stages of the hero”s growing mastery and maturity.” The master-disciple relationship in his postwar films-such as Angel of the Lost, A Stray Dog, The Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and Uzala the Kirghiz-involves very little direct instruction; instead, the student learns through his own experiences. Stephen Prince relates this tendency to the private and nonverbal nature of the concept of Zen enlightenment.
With Kagemusha, however, according to Prince, the meaning of this relationship has changed to the pessimistic. A thief chosen as a doppelganger of a Daimyō continues his identity after the latter”s death: “The relationship has become spectral and is generated from beyond, with the master as a ghostly presence. Its end is death, not the renewal of commitment to the living, as in his films before.” However, according to a biographer, a more optimistic vision of this theme emerged in Madadayo: “The students hold an annual celebration for their professor, attended by dozens of alumni, now of varying ages. This extended sequence expresses, as only Kurosawa can, the simple joys of student-teacher relationships, of kinship, and of life itself.”
Kurosawa”s films often deal with the fates and deeds of heroic personalities. The typical Kurosawa hero was the result of the postwar period, in which feudalistic values were replaced by individualistic ones due to the occupation of Japan. Kurosawa, who was more oriented to Western values from a young age, welcomed this change and adopted it as an artistic and social agenda. As Stephen Prince described it, “Kurosawa welcomed the changing political climate and strove to shape it in his own cinematic voice.” Japanese film critic Tadao Sato concurred, “Japan”s defeat in World War II left many Japanese citizens with the realization that the government had lied to them for years and was neither just nor trustworthy. During this time, Akira Kurosawa gave the irritated population the message that the meaning of life is not directed by a nation, but must be found by everyone individually through their suffering.” The filmmaker himself commented on the subject, ” I always thought that without the establishment of the self as a positive ideal, there could be no freedom and no democracy.”
The first of these heroic heroic figures was, uncharacteristically for the director, a woman: Yukie, played by Setsuko Hara in No Regrets for My Youth. According to Prince, her “desertion of her family, her background of helping out a poor village, her perseverance despite enormous obstacles, her acceptance of personal responsibility and altruism, and her existential loneliness” are essential parts of a Kurosawa hero. This existential loneliness also characterizes the character of Dr. Sanada, played by Takashi Shimura, in Angel of the Lost: “Kurosawa insists that his heroes remain true to themselves and fight alone against traditions and obstacles for a better world, even if the outcome is not completely clear to them. Separation from a corrupt, socially stigmatizing system to alleviate a person”s suffering, as Dr. Sanada does, is the honorable course.”
Many commentators see The Seven Samurai as the ultimate expression of the artist”s heroic ideals. Joan Mellen describes this view as follows: “The Seven Samurai is above all a tribute to the samurai class at its noblest. For Kurosawa, the samurai represents the best of Japanese tradition and integrity.” The Seven rise to unexpected greatness because of the chaotic times of civil war, not in spite of it. “Kurosawa looks no further for the unexpected benefits than in the tragedy of this historic moment. The upheaval forces the samurai to prove the selflessness of their creed of loyal service by working for the lower people, the peasants.” This heroism is in vain, however, because “there was already an emerging class that would replace the aristocracy of warriors.” Their courage, then, is entirely selfless, since they cannot stop the internal destruction of their class anyway.
As his career progressed, the director seemed to find it increasingly difficult to maintain the heroic ideal. Prince notes, “Kurosawa”s vision is essentially a tragic vision of life. So his sensibility hinders his efforts.” Moreover, the narrative of his later films undermines the heroic ideal itself: “When history is presented as a blind force, as in The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, heroism ceases to be reality.” According to Prince, the filmmaker”s vision eventually became so bleak and nihilistic that he saw history merely as an eternally recurring pattern of violence within which the individual is portrayed not only as unheroic but as utterly helpless. (see below: “The Cycle of Violence”).
Nature is a significant element in Kurosawa”s films. According to Prince, “Kurosawa”s sensibility is strongly focused on the subtleties and beauties of seasons and landscapes.” The director never shied away from using climate and weather as significant plot elements, to the point where they became “active participants in the work.” “The stifling heat in A Stray Dog and Balance of a Life is omnipresent, underscoring the theme of a world torn apart by economic collapse or nuclear threat.” Kurosawa himself once said, “I like hot summers, cold winters, heavy rain and lots of snow, and I think most of my films show that. I like the extremes, because they feel the most alive.”
Wind is also a significant symbol: “A persistent metaphor in Kurosawa”s works is that of the wind, the wind of change, happiness and misfortune. Battle in Yojimbo takes place on the main street while great clouds of dust surround the fighters. The winds that stir the dust have brought firearms to the city along with Western culture. The things that will end warrior tradition.”
Rain is also used separately in Kurosawa”s films: “Rain is never treated neutrally in Kurosawa”s films. When it appears, it is never in the form of a small drizzle, but always in a furious downpour. The final battle in The Seven Samurai is an extreme spiritual and physical struggle and is accompanied by a raging rainstorm, which allows Kurosawa to visualize an ultimate merging of social groups. But with Kurosawa”s typical ambivalence, this climatic vision of classlessness becomes a horror-like one. The battle is a maelstrom of swirling rain and mud. The fusion of social identity emerges as an expression of hellish chaos.”
Beginning with The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, Kurosawa”s films repeatedly dealt with historical cycles of unrelenting savage violence, which Stephen Prince describes as “a countermovement to the heroic tone of his films.” According to Donald Richie, in the film “cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist.” Prince claims that events are “inscribed in a temporal cycle that repeats itself over and over.” He takes as the basis for his thesis that, contrary to Shakespeare”s original play, Washizu”s master had previously killed his own master for reasons of power before finally dying himself at the hands of Washizu. “The development of the events of Macbeth was conveyed by Kurosawa with a sharper emphasis on preordained events and human irrelevance through the laws of karma.”
Kurosawa”s epics Kagemusha and Ran mark a drastic turning point in the director”s worldview. For Kagemusha, Prince states that “whereas once the individual could accurately grasp and demand events so that they conform to his impulses, now the self is but an epiphenomenon of a ruthless and bloody temporal process, ground to dust under the weight and force of history.”
His subsequent epic, Ran, is, according to Prince, “an unrelenting chronicle of the basest hunger for power, the betrayal of a father by his sons, and ubiquitous wars and murders.” The film”s historical setting is used only as an “explanatory commentary on what Kurosawa has come to perceive as the timelessness of the human propensity for violence and self-destruction.” “History gives way to the perception of life as a wheel of endless suffering, constantly turning and always repeating itself,” Prince said; that process is usually characterized as hell in conventional Hollywood screenplays. According to Prince, Kurosawa “found that hell is both the inevitable result of human behavior and the appropriate visualization of his own bitterness and disappointment.”
Reputation among directors
Many well-known directors were inspired by Kurosawa and revered his work. Those mentioned below represent a selection and can be roughly divided into four categories: first, those who, like Kurosawa himself, gained their notoriety in the 1950s and 1960s; second, the so-called New Hollywood directors around 1970; third, other Asian directors; and fourth, directors from more recent times.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman called his own film The Maiden”s Spring a “lousy imitation of Kurosawa” and added, “At that time, my admiration of Japanese cinema was at its peak. I was almost a samurai myself.” In Italy, Federico Fellini declared Kurosawa “the best example of everything a filmmaker should be.” In France in 1965, Roman Polanski counted the Japanese artist among his three favorite directors, along with Fellini and Orson Welles, and named The Seven Samurai, The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, and The Hidden Fortress as allusion points to track his euphoria. Film pioneer Bernardo Bertolucci said of him in an interview, “Kurosawa”s films are the things that inspired me. They pulled me into wanting to be a director myself.” German director Werner Herzog, representative of the New German Cinema, listed Kurosawa among his greatest idols: “When I think about my favorite directors, Griffith, Buñuel, Kurosawa and Eisenstein come to mind.” When asked to list his favorite directors, Russian film pioneer Andrei Tarkovsky named Kurosawa as the best and The Seven Samurai as one of his ten favorite films. For U.S. film visionary Stanley Kubrick, Kurosawa was “one of the greatest film directors of all time.” Kubrick”s closest friend Anthony Frewin added, “I can”t remember any director he talked about so often and so admiringly. If Stanley were on a desert island and could only take a limited number of films with him, I”d guess Battle of Algiers, Danton, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and The Castle in the Cobweb Forest.”
Kurosawa”s admirers in the New Hollywood circle include Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and John Milius. In his early years as a producer for television, Robert Altman told the anecdote that he was so fascinated by how Kurosawa could make different, beautiful shots while the camera was pointed directly at the sun – Rashomon is considered the first to do this successfully – that he tried it directly the next day for his own television show, albeit unsuccessfully.Coppola said of Kurosawa, “One thing that sets him apart from any other director is that he didn”t just make one or two or three masterpieces. He made, well, eight masterpieces. “Spielberg and Scorsese called Kurosawa their teacher and great role model. Scorsese called him “sensei,” the Japanese term for a teacher. Spielberg stated on the subject, “I learned more from him than from almost anyone else in the film business,” while Scorsese noted, “Let me explain it simply: Akira Kurosawa was my master and the master of so many other directors around the world.”
As the first world-famous film director from Asia, Akira Kurosawa served as inspiration for quite a few other Asian auteurs. About Rashomon, Satyajit Ray, the most famous Indian director, said: “The effect the film had on me after I saw it for the first time in Calcutta in 1952 was electrifying. I saw it three times in the ensuing three days and wondered each time if there was another film like it in the world that showed such lasting evidence of a director”s total control on the set.” Other well-known Asian admirers include Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, actor-director Takeshi Kitano, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo and Mainland China director Zhang Yimou, who called Kurosawa “the quintessence of Asian cinema.”
Even in the 21st century, Kurosawa”s productions inspire quite a few filmmakers around the world. Alexander Payne spent the early years of his career watching and inspecting Kurosawa films in detail, especially Ikiru – Once Really Alive. Guillermo del Toro called Kurosawa one of his “fundamental masters” and listed The Castle in the Cobweb Forest, Between Heaven and Hell and Ran among what he considered the best films of all time. Kathryn Bigelow praised Kurosawa as one of the “most influential directors” who managed to create the most emotionally profound characters. J.J. Abrams said he drew significant inspiration from Kurosawa when he made the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Alejandro González Iñárritu talked in an interview about how he was emotionally taken away by Ikiru – Once Really Alive at the age of nineteen like never before, and praised Kurosawa as one of the “first storytelling geniuses who could turn the conventional narrative of movies on its head.” Spike Lee released a list of 87 films that every film fan should see, including three Kurosawa films, Rashomon, Yojimbo and Ran. Wes Anderson”s film Isle of Dogs – Atari”s Journey was heavily inspired by Kurosawa and his extravagant film techniques.
After Kurosawa”s death, some of his unrealized screenplays were made into films. After the Rain, directed by Takashi Koizumi, was released in 1999 as a posthumous tribute to the director, with whom Koizumi had a close friendship. The Sea Comes by Kei Kumai premiered in 2002, and a script written in the days of the production cooperative Yonki no kai and never realized in favor of Dodeskaden was realized in 2000 by the only surviving member Kon Ichikawa under the name Dora-heita. Huayi Brothers announced in 2017 the filming of a realized adaptation by Kurosawa of Edgar Allan Poe”s tale The Masque of the Red Death. The final product is slated for international release in 2020. Patrick Frater, editor of Variety magazine, wrote in his paper in 2017 that two other discarded scripts had been found in Toho”s archives and were still being filmed. The shooting of the first film began in 2018 under the name of the project Silvering Spear.
Kurosawa Production Company
In September 2011, it was reported that the rights to all Akira Kurosawa remakes or adaptations of his unrealized screenplays were signed over to Los Angeles-based Splendent. Splendent”s spokesperson said that it was aimed at helping other directors introduce a new generation of viewers to these “unforgettable stories.
Kurosawa Production Co, founded in 1959, still has control over all projects made in Akira Kurosawa”s name. The director”s son, Hisao Kurosawa, is the current head of the company as well as its U.S.-based subsidiary, Kurosawa Enterprises. To date, the rights to Kurosawa were held solely by Kurosawa Production Company and the film studios under which he worked, mostly Toho. Those rights were eventually signed over to the Akira Kurosawa 100 project and, as it currently stands, are with Splendent. Kurosawa Production Co. works closely with the Akira Kurosawa Foundation, established in 2003. The organization hosts an annual short film competition and regulates Kurosawa-related projects, such as the planned construction of a memorial museum.
A large number of feature-length and short documentaries focused on the life and work of Akira Kurosawa. A.K. was released in 1985 while the director was still alive. It was directed by French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Even though the documentary appeared during the work on Ran, it is less concerned with the making of the film than with Kurosawa”s personality. Marker later named this film as the reason for his interest in the culture of Japan and the inspiration for his most famous film Sans Soleil – Invisible Sun. The film first screened at the 1985 Cannes International Film Festival. A small selection of other critically acclaimed documentaries about Akira Kurosawa include:
In 1965, Kurosawa was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1976 he was honored as a person of special cultural merit, and in 1985 he was awarded the Order of Culture.
On February 18, 2011, an asteroid was named after Akira Kurosawa: (254749) Kurosawa.
In June 2013, Kurosawa”s film Once Really Lived was included in the Internet Movie Database”s Top 250. This gave Kurosawa more than four films in the IMDb Top 250, along with ten other directors. He is thus among the highest-rated directors on IMDb. In June 2015, he was joined by The Castle in the Spiderweb Forest, followed a little later by Between Heaven and Hell and Uzala, the Kirghiz. He thus holds the record of eight films in the top 250 IMDb list along with Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. Other of his films, including The Hidden Fortress, Red Beard, Sanjuro, The Discarded Sleep Well and Kagemusha – The Shadow of the Warrior all have high ratings on the platform and may eventually be included in the list in the future.