Akira Kurosawa (23 March 1910 — 6 September 1998) is one of Japanese cinema’s few household names in the west, due to such groundbreaking jidaigeki period action films as Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kagemusha (1980).
The enduring popularity of such titles lies in no small part to their open influence from Hollywood, particularly the westerns of directors such as John Ford. This in itself is reflected in the ease by which they’ve in turn established an action template so readily adapted by filmmakers from all over the world. Take a look at any recent historical epic, or indeed the Manichean battle scenes that comprise so much of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, and try to imagine how they might look in an alternate universe in which Kurosawa never existed.
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The obvious influence of these more monumental titles makes it easy to overlook the more humanistic, personal aspects of the master’s wide array of low-key, contemporary dramas and potent literary adaptations. With 30 titles to his name as a director since his 1943 debut Sanshiro Sugata (and many more as a screenwriter), distilling Kurosawa’s must-see titles into a tidy top 10 list is something of a fools errand. There is nothing subpar within this large and varied body of work, and I’ve omitted many a worthy title in the aim of giving a fuller picture of the fruits of an incredible 6-decade filmmaking career.
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Inspired by several real-life incidents, No Regrets for Our Youth is an intelligent and balanced drama about wavering ideologies and personal allegiances set between 1933-46, the years of imperial Japan’s increasing militarisation through to its wartime defeat.
Yukie is the privileged daughter of a Kyoto University law professor who is controversially removed from his post for his leftist beliefs. The film portrays her relationships over the years with 2 of his former students, both rival for her affections, and her love affair and ensuing marriage to one of them, who is arrested for his anti-government activities and subsequently disappears from public view.
Kurosawa’s oeuvre is not particularly regarded for its focus on sympathetic female characters, but the central turn by Setsuko Hara (better known for her work with Yasujiro Ozu) in his fifth feature (and first of the postwar period) showcases another side to the director, and also counts as his most overtly political work.
The first of 2 films Kurosawa made for the Shochiku studio (alongside the Dostoevsky adaptation The Idiot in 1951), this punchy social drama takes a righteous swipe at the gutter press, as Toshiro Mifune’s up-and-coming painter is snapped by the paparazzi while sitting on a hotel balcony with a famous singer (played by Yoshiko Yamaguchi), the photo inspiring a fabricated story in a popular gossip magazine. Needless to say, the outraged artist refuses to take things lying down and vows to take the magazine’s editor to court.
A lesser-known work from the master, Scandal is nonetheless worth checking out not only as an example of Kurosawa’s technical virtuosity and strong compositional approach, but for its critique of some of the less palatable aspects of westernisation.
The film that launched Kurosawa’s name outside his homeland (and those of its stars Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo), Rashomon’s Golden Lion Award at Venice in 1951 awakened a postwar generation of international festival and arthouse audiences to the manifold pleasures of Japanese cinema.
Combining 2 short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, its script also broke the mould of conventional cinema plotting, introducing the concept of the unreliable narrator in its contradictory accounts of the rape of a samurai’s wife as relayed by the key suspects and witnesses to the crime, including one testimony delivered from the murdered samurai himself by a medium. The masterful atmospheric cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, and the late-10th-century Heian period setting adds to the haunting, purgatorial ambience.
The story of an undistinguished, time-serving civil servant who, upon learning he has stomach cancer, channels his energies into one final positive act, building a children’s playground in a disease-ridden slum quarter, is truly heart-rending stuff. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura is wonderful as the man who only finds meaning in his life as death rears its ugly head, while his in-laws wrangle over his pension pot. His absent presence in the final sections provides a more down-to-earth mirror inverse to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Seven Samurai (1954)
Set during the civil war of the late-16th-century Warring States period, Kurosawa’s massively influential magnum opus depicts a group of masterless samurai recruited by a farming community to fend off frequent raids by a gang of bandits.
The most expensive Japanese production of its day, it introduced all the hallmarks associated with Kurosawa’s name: an epic runtime detailing the recruitment of the mercenary force, the training of the farmers, and the fortification of the village in anticipation of the climactic attack (the original western release was trimmed down from the original 207 minutes); on-location shooting with a strong focus on landscapes and environmental conditions to reflect the inner psychologies of the human elements within them; a fastidious recreation of sets, costumes and weaponry of the era; and lots and lots of stunning horse-bound battle sequences shot using multiple camera setups.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Although the script uses not a single line from its source, Kurosawa’s celebrated transplantation of Macbeth to the lawless realm of 16th-century Japan counts among the finest screen adaptations of Shakespeare ever realised, a faithful rendition of the story that works perfectly within its own historical context.
Its title translates literally as ‘Spider’s Web Castle’, and the gothic setting of a deserted castle filled with dark shadows and swathed in fog forms the perfect frame for Mifune’s tortured turn as Washizu, the samurai usurper haunted by past crimes. The austere staging and performances, drawing upon traditional Noh theatre, lend an appropriate note of theatricality to proceedings, blurring the gap between the real and the supernatural, while Kurosawa surpasses even himself with the quite jaw-dropping climax as Washizu’s violent misdeeds catch up with him.
Partly inspired by George Stevens’s Shane (1952), Kurosawa’s quintessential ‘samurai/western’ Yojimbo (‘The Bodyguard’) thrives on this cross-cultural synergy, right down to the soundtrack. As Mifune’s enigmatic masterless samurai roams into a desolate town overrun by grotesque rival criminal gangs, the whistling wind whisks leaves down deserted streets through which a dog runs with a severed human hand clamped in its mouth and the grimy residents, cowering behind shutters, fear to tread.
The relatively modest 110-minute runtime makes this (and its shorter 1962 follow-up Sanjuro) a more accessible entry point into Kurosawa’s oeuvre than his more grandiose swords-and-samurai sagas. With Japan’s studio system increasingly incapable of accommodating the costs of the long shooting periods and large-scale sets and action sequences required for his productions, Kurosawa left his studio Toho after Red Beard (1965). Aside from the independently produced Dodes’ka-den in 1970 (remarkably, his first film in colour), he would not direct another film in his homeland for 15 years.
Dersu Uzala (1975)
With the financial and critical failure of Dodes’ka-den, a portrait of the grimy denizens of a shantytown on the outskirts of Tokyo, an attempted suicide threatened to put an end to Kurosawa’s career. Fortunately an invitation from the Soviet Union’s Mosfilm to helm this Siberia-set 70mm adaptation of explorer Captain Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1923 autobiography put him firmly back on the international map.
Based on Arsenyev’s encounters in 1902 with the elderly, gnomic, nature-loving scout from the nomadic Nanai tribe who lends his name to the film (and served as a model for George Lucas’s creation, Yoda), it sees Kurosawa back in epic form as the 2 wrestle against the ice and snow of the steppes. It received the year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Following his reappearance on the world stage, Kurosawa returned to the world of jidaigeki epic with 2 international co-productions, Kagemusha (1980), which George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola persuaded 20th Century Fox to part-finance, and this lavish French-Japanese co-production, which saw him returning to Shakespeare with an adaptation of King Lear.
Possessing a similar synthesis of psychological tension and austere formal elegance to its more claustrophobic companion piece, Throne of Blood, it is even bigger and bolder in ambition. With its accumulated wide-shots of threatening ranks of horsemen clutching banners assembled on distant hilltops and a standout scene in which overthrown warlord Hidetora wanders in a confused daze from the apocalyptic conflagration of his besieged castle, every image is so meticulously composed, every scene so perfectly constructed, as to provide the kind of satori moments of transcendent stupefaction all but lost in the CG age.
Devoid of the elaborate action sequences and intense inner dramas for which he is renowned, and featuring a whimsical mid-section involving a missing cat that lasts almost half an hour, Kurosawa’s directorial swansong initially seems slightly underwhelming. A portrait of the academic and author Hyakken Uchida (1889–1971), unfolding across the decades following Uchida’s retirement just prior to the beginning of Second World War, much of its runtime is given over to the good cheer accompanying the riotous annual drinking parties held every year to mark his birthday by the former students who venerate him.
While the relentless verbal punning in the dialogue is occasionally lost in translation (the title, meaning ‘Not Yet’, alludes to a legend about an old man who refuses to relinquish his hold on life), the discernible self-reflective aspect to this celebration of a life well-lived nevertheless has an undeniable poignancy. The final sequence is as fitting a coda to the astounding career of this legendary filmmaker as one could ever wish for.