A brief guide to Akira Kurosawa

James Oliver

Everything you need to know about the iconic Japanese filmmaker who inspired Martin Scorsese and George Lucas 

It all starts in Venice, or rather at that city's film festival, in 1951. The sensation of that year's festival—and eventual winner of the top prize—was a Japanese film called Rashomon, directed by someone called Akira Kurosawa.

Before going further, just take a moment to consider the significance. This was only six years since the end of the war, a war in which Japan had earned a reputation for grotesque brutality—and, during which, had been the subject of some especially regrettable propaganda.

Rashomon was able to transcend all that. Indeed, you could make a case that the films that Akira Kurosawa made went some way to overcoming those ingrained prejudices. Japanese film was scarcely acknowledged in the West before 1951; after that, Kurosawa's movies were seen—and, crucially, appreciated—right around the world, countries that once fought Japan among them.

Early beginnings 

Kurosawa was already a veteran filmmaker before Rashomon. Born in 1910, he'd begun directing in 1943 and had already mastered multiple genres before he took his fateful trip to Venice; he'd made action pictures (Sugata Sanshiro, 1943), costumed pageantry (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, 1945), modern romance (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) and tough social realism (Drunken Angel, 1948). This last was something of a breakthrough for Kurosawa, not least as it was the first time he worked with an actor with whom he would become synonymous, Toshiro Mifune.


Toshiro Mifune 

Mifune would star in virtually all of the director's best films over the next couple of decades and, of course, he was in Rashomon, playing the bandit who is on trial for his life. The film contrasts his account of the crime he committed with other memories of the same event: everyone insists their version is the truth.

Its role in world cinema is unassailable, of course, but Rashomon looks a bit long in the tooth these days, not least because of the masterpieces that followed it. The success of Rashomon emboldened its director: he turned up at the Berlin Film Festival a year or so later with Ikiru, one of his most beloved works; a small scale, deeply moving drama about a dying bureaucrat who accomplishes one last good thing before his end. And back at Venice in 1954, he brought something entirely different again: Seven Samurai is one of the very greatest action films ever made, a masterclass in movie dynamics and the fastest four hours you will ever spend in a cinema: no one could edit like AK.

In time, Seven Samurai was remade in the US as The Magnificent Seven (a classic in its own right, and shorter). His later Yojimbo (1960) would follow suit, being reborn as A Fistful of Dollars. Kurosawa was entirely sanguine about this, not least because he was a great fan of cross-cultural exchange: he adapted Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1951) (shifting its Russian setting to Japan), taken Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (1957) from a slum near the Volga to one in Tokyo and turned Macbeth into a samurai, stabbing his way up the shogunate in Throne of Blood (1957).

Trouble back home

This was noted with some displeasure in certain quarters of his homeland, as was his open admiration for American films. He was far too westernised, his critics decided. They contrasted him (unfavourably) to filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi—master directors and properly “Japanese” in their essence. It's an idiotic criticism (not least as the West has learned to love Ozu and Mizoguchi too) because Kurosawa was constantly probing and poking at his homeland.


Yasujiro Ozu

Westerners might take Yojimbo, for instance, as a magnificent kick-ass action flick but it's also a thoroughly cynical deconstruction of the Japanese codes of honour (its hero—Mifune, of course—sells his services to the highest bidder, happy to change allegiances if he can get a better deal). High and Low (1963), meanwhile, examines the hollowness of Japan's “economic miracle” through the framework of a barnstorming crime movie, doing both brilliantly.

And then it all changed. That happened on the set of Red Beard (1966). This is one of his very finest works, about a 19th-century doctor—played, as ever, by Mifune—treating the destitute and the beggarly. You'd never guess that it was made under the most difficult circumstances; director and star both had a temper and had locked horns before but their arguments on this film created a permanent breach: it's not clear if they ever spoke again but they certainly never worked together.

"So inspired was Lucas that he borrowed much of Kurosawa's film The Hidden Fortress for his film Star Wars"

Separated from his star, Kurosawa found it harder to get films made. During the 1970s, he made only two films: a return to the lower depths with Dodeskaden in 1970, and then a film made in the USSR. This was Dersu Uzala, the story of a (ethnically Japanese) Russian frontier scout. It's a great film but did not restore his fortunes. He was despairing of ever making another movie but help arrived from an unlikely source.

His early films had made quite an impression on viewers in the 1950s and 60s, and some of those had been inspired to go forth and make movies themselves. These included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and, above all, George Lucas. So inspired was Lucas that he borrowed much of Kurosawa's film The Hidden Fortress (1958) for his film Star Wars (the titular fortress became the Death Star, the two bickering servants were re-born as C-3PO and R2D2 and he originally asked Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi). Sensing a chance to pay back some of the debt, Lucas and Coppola kicked in money for Kurosawa to start work again.

Hitting restart 

This comeback movie was Kagemusha (1980). He'd been wanting to make it for years, and had been endlessly tweaking the design for most of that time. The result is one of his most purely beautiful films (it really pops in the newly released Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection), as well as his most thrilling: he'd lost none of his gifts for staging action. The master was back.


Kagemusha, 1980

Although he was no longer able to make films as quickly as he might have wanted—raising the money took longer by then—he remained productive. He followed Kagemusha with Ran (1985), a bold, multi-coloured re-working of King Lear, with battle scenes even better than those in its immediate predecessor. Dreams (1990) is a minor work, an account of—well, his dreams, but it does cast Martin Scorsese as Van Gogh, which is something.

And talking of questionable casting, Rhapsody in August (1991) has Richard Gere donning slitty-eye make-up to play an Asian American (the film is really good, though). Even his final film, Madadayo (1993), should not be overlooked: the title means “not yet” and concerns a retired schoolmaster as he navigates a retirement he is ill-prepared for.

Autobiographical? Probably. Kurosawa was deeply frustrated that he couldn't make all the films he wanted. By most accounts, he was a deeply boring man whose idea of relaxation was to think about camera angles: what else was there but cinema? He was still planning more movies when he died in 1998 (a year after Mifune).

Kurosawa was one of the great artists of his century, making us realise just how small the differences between us really are. The films he made showed that the Japanese were sometimes aggressive, yes. But also, sometimes, sad, tender, compassionate, anguished and confused. In other words, human.

Kagemusha is out on Criterion Collection Blu-ray now

 

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