A dedicated perfectionist, throughout his career Kurosawa worked across an array of genres, including auteur cinema and action movies, as well as film adaptations of literature and costume dramas. More popular abroad than home and often considered the most non-Japanese director of his country, Kurosawa has created 30 works during 57 years of his filming career that inspired many great directors, among whom were Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas.
Growing up, the young Kurosawa was influenced by Dostoevsky’s and Gorky’s novels, John Ford’s films, Rouault’s paintings and Schubert’s music. All of them are reflected in his works alongside remarkable interpretations of Shakespeare’s dramas: Throne of Blood (1957) is based on Macbeth, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) on Hamlet and Ran (1985) on King Lear. Russian connoisseurs of Dostoevsky recognized Kurosawa’s The Idiot (1951) as the best film adaptation of the novel, while Shakespeare scholars agreed that Macbeth’s bloody vicissitudes were most vividly embodied in the Kurosawa’s version of the tragedy.
The director’s own films, in turn, were easily adapted into Euro-American versions and remakes. Seven Samurai (1954) became the legendary Magnificent Seven (1960) by John Sturges, Yojimbo (1961) turned into Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Corbucci’s Django (1966), Rashomon (1950) – into Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964). Moreover, according to George Lucas, one of the formative influences for the creation of Star Wars was Kurosawa’s samurai movie The Hidden Fortress (1958).
The charming genre elasticity of these adaptations only emphasizes the multidimensional depth of the primary sources. No matter what Kurosawa filmed – episodes of medieval turmoil, as in Kagemusha (1980), advances in medicine in 19th-century Japan, as in Red Beard (1965), or his famous samurai epics, he always turned to human passions, to a three-dimensional image of the world filled with questions of meaning and truth. Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or American crime fiction, Akira Kurosawa fashioned them into his own unique brand of cinema. Today, on his Birthday, we would like to highlight three of the director’s most memorable and influential works.
The movie presents a detective with elements of melodrama, mystical thriller and comedy, and is regarded as one of the peaks of world cinema. In Rashomon, which brought Kurosawa both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Oscar as the best foreign language film, the director explores the concept of justice, reflecting on philosophical searches and cultural transformations in the post-war world, tormented by social and political conflicts. Rashomon not only marked the beginning of the international recognition of Kurosawa, but of Japanese cinema in general, which had previously been aimed at a home audience and had no international circulation.
The plot is constructed around three men who seek shelter from a storm underneath an ancient city gate, which once stood at the entrance to the capital of the emperors. Two of them attended the trial that shattered their faith in human virtue. From what we know, a samurai was killed in a forest, and his wife’s honour was violated; however it seems that there is no clear account on the event. Showing us four contradictory versions of what has possibly happened, the director not only creates one of the best examples of a whodunnit, but also investigates justice and memory altered by guilt. Unreliable narration questions the nature of objectivity, and at the same time also provides high tension throughout the movie. The whole dramatic construction of Rashomon highlights the subjectivity of truth and the relativity of ethical codes. Even though the action is set in the XI century in Japan, the picture perfectly reflects the anxiety and uncertainty that humanity experienced in the first years after the Second World War.
Seven Samurai (1954)
The deconstruction of the idealized image of the samurai, which began in Rashomon, was continued in probably the most well-known of Kurosawa’s works, Seven Samurai. With this movie Kurosawa wanted to make a revision of the samurai epic and to push the boundaries of the genre. As a result, he succeeded even further and created a genre benchmark for years to come, inspiring numerous war, heist and caper movies that followed. The plot in the movie revolves around poor farmers, who decide to hire seven samurai to protect their village from the bandits who want to steal their harvest. Seven Samurai is not so much an action film as a parable about self-sacrifice, the price of a feat and the juxtaposition of personal and public. The movie’s formula has been embraced by different modern blockbusters, including Saving Private Ryan, The Expendables, The 13th Warrior, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Mandalorian, The Walking Dead, Marvel films and many others.
In contrast to using a single camera to shoot all the scenes, Kurosawa experimented with the multiple camera, shooting points and viewing angles – this became his innovative technique and, later, also his signature. Among his other recognizable features that are also presented in Seven Samurai are the use of long lenses, intricate editing, the plasticity and skill of the actors, the dynamism of the mise-en-scène and the virtuous work of the operator. The movie’s finale, both dramatic and joyful, can be considered the deepest and most transparent of Kurosawa’s works.
With spectacular battle scenes, vivid imagery of madness and villainess, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic is a mixture of ancient samurai legends, real historical facts and the most extravagant interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The director always appreciated accuracy in his movies and wanted them to look realistic. Specifically for Ran, two hundred trained horses were involved in the production, more than a thousand costumes were made by hand in two years’ time, and the medieval castle, which was set on fire in the middle of the picture, was built on the slope of Mount Fuji.
By the time filming began, Kurosawa was 75 and went almost completely blind, so supervised the shooting with the help of assistants who used his drawings as a guide for what should be obtained in the frame. He spent ten years working on the movie’s script and considered it as his most significant work. Ran, indeed, feels like a very personal story told on a grand scale, portraying a bewildered old man who has fallen from grace and is replete, firstly, with his pride, and then with inner turmoil and lost hope.
Kurosawa died on September 6, in 1998, leaving an indelible mark in the history of world cinema. Four thousand friends and colleagues came to honor his memory in the Golden Room – the scenery left over from the filming of Ran in Yokohama. He had a very intense life and experienced not only the world triumph and red carpets of film festivals, but also the misunderstanding of the audience, greatest struggles for artistic freedom, a suicide attempt and two bankrupt film companies. Remaining a great humanist all his life despite all the impediments, Akira Kurosawa left a lasting global legacy, with his works serving as a link between Western and Eastern cinema.
Cover image: Akira Kurosawa on the set of Dodes’ka-den (1970)