Where to begin with Akira Kurosawa

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or subgenre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the peerless films of Japanese master Akira Kurosawa

Alex Barrett
Updated:

Ran (1985)

Ran (1985)

Why this might not seem so easy

When it scooped the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 1951, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon became the first Japanese film to win a major award at a western festival. At the time, Japanese cinema was relatively unknown in the west, and Rashomon’s success opened the gates to a fertile cinematic culture. Soon, cinephiles were devouring the riches of Japan’s golden age, and it was Kurosawa who had led the way.

Such pioneering status seems unsurprising, given that Kurosawa’s work fused national influences with those from abroad: he listed John Ford, William Wyler and Frank Capra among his favourite directors, and adapted works by Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gorky and Ed McBain. This heady mix of sources drew disapproval from Japanese critics, who accused him of pandering to western tastes, which Kurosawa always denied.

In fact, Kurosawa’s work – even when set in the past – explored social issues relevant to postwar Japan, lending credence to his claim that his films were made for the Japanese youth.

Nevertheless, his films were extraordinarily popular abroad. Several received English-language remakes, and the Hollywood Movie Brats were among those who venerated him: indeed, in the 1980s and 90s, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg would come to Kurosawa’s rescue when he was no longer able to find funding in Japan. By then, Kurosawa was seen as belonging to a previous generation – already, by the 1970s, his star was falling, thanks in no small part to the 1960s Japanese New Wave.

Kurosawa’s work, which combines realism with stylised elements from Japanese theatre (kabuki, shingeki and particularly noh), belonged to another era, and Kurosawa became seen as a beleaguered dinosaur – albeit one who never lost his bite.

The best place to start – Rashomon

Just as Rashomon was the west’s introduction to Japanese cinema, so too is it a fitting introduction to Kurosawa: it includes a number of his key themes, and features the two actors most closely associated with his work – Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon (1950)

In the 11th century, a woodcutter (Shimura), a priest and a commoner huddle beneath a city gate to shield themselves from a torrential downpour (Kurosawa was a master of filming the elements, and weather often plays a key role in his work). They are discussing an investigation into the death of a samurai, and the rape of his wife. The woodcutter and the priest recount the varying testimonies given at the trial; along with their own statements, others were given by the bandit (Mifune) who perpetrated the rape, the defiled wife and the murdered samurai (who speaks through a medium).

As the testimonies unfold, Kurosawa replays events from each perspective, creating myriad viewpoints: none of the stories tally, and each character spins their tale to glorify themselves. Are they lying? Or merely presenting their own subjective truth?

Thus, the film questions the nature of truth itself, perfectly encapsulating the precaution with truth and lies, illusion and reality, that runs throughout Kurosawa’s work. Of Rashomon, he said: “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves… cannot survive without lies to make them feel better than they really are.”

Men lie because they are weak and, as the priest says, if we can’t trust one another then life on earth becomes a kind of hell – another idea that recurs throughout Kurosawa’s films. And yet, Rashomon ends on a note of hope: the rain cannot last forever and, through it all, Kurosawa’s unique brand of humanity shines through.

What to watch next

Though Kurosawa didn’t consider Rashomon a true jidaigeki (period drama), he soon became synonymous with the genre, making a string of films that at once celebrated and undermined the legacy of Japan’s samurai class – a dichotomy that gives depth to even his most action-packed films.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)
Credit: Toho Co., Ltd

In Seven Samurai (1954), the eponymous group are hired by a poor village seeking protection from bandits, but Mifune’s character – the son of a farmer now masquerading as a samurai – points to the fine line between the actions of the samurai and those of the bandits.

Kurosawa would explore this line – between good and bad – in many of his films: Kagemusha (1980), in which a thief, acting as the double for a feudal lord, slowly assumes the characteristics of his master, is one example; contemporary crime dramas Stray Dog (1949), about a policeman searching for his stolen pistol, and High and Low (1963), about an investigation into a kidnapping, are two more.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

In the period adventure spectacle The Hidden Fortress (1958), Kurosawa undercut the heroics by emphasising the importance of human emotion over feudal values, and by constructing the story around two lowly farmers. Kurosawa had previously used this technique in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), which added a comedic porter to a well-known kabuki drama about a lord attempting to pass through an enemy checkpoint.

For Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), he turned to the English stage, transposing Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear to the Japanese feudal era. Hamlet, meanwhile, inspired the plot of contemporary thriller The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which takes aim at corruption in postwar Japanese society, a theme also found in the samurai films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).

Another contemporary highlight, Ikiru (1952), concerns a civil servant searching for meaning while dying of cancer, but the past provided the backdrop for Kurosawa’s two richest films: The Lower Depths (1957) and Red Beard (1965). The former, adapted from Gorky’s play of the same name, is an ensemble drama about how illusion fuels survival in a world of hell, while the latter concerns the initiation of a young doctor into a public clinic. The culmination of Kurosawa’s golden era, Red Beard perfected many of his themes, including the master-pupil relationship, and the hero’s journey to self-realisation.

Where not to start

After a failed, unproductive stint in Hollywood, Kurosawa returned to Japan to make Dodes’ka-den (1970), about the slum-dwelling inhabitants of a shantytown. The initial response to the film was so negative that Kurosawa tried to kill himself.

Dodes’ka-den (1970)

Dodes’ka-den (1970)

In fact, it’s far better than this suggests (and much more interesting than, say, Kurosawa’s dull wartime propaganda piece The Most Beautiful, 1944). However, it undeniably represented a break from his previous work: not only was it Kurosawa’s first film in colour, but it abandoned dynamic action in favour of longer takes and a virtually plotless narrative.

Such an approach continued with his next film, Dersu Uzala (1975), which seemed almost deliberately anti-dramatic in its minimalistic recounting of the touching friendship between a Russian captain and a Goldi hunter. More than just an intimate portrait of the two men, the film is a bucolic paean to the smallness of man against the enormity of nature.

With Dreams (1990), Kurosawa pushed narrative reduction even further, presenting interpretations of eight unconnected dreams. His final two films, meanwhile, heightened the quiet, elegiac tone found in his colour work: Rhapsody in August (1991) explored the legacy of the Nagasaki H-bomb, while Madadayo (1993) presented a comedic meditation on old age. Light on plot but heavy on character, it was a charming conclusion to a long and illustrious career. 

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