“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”—Akira Kurosawa
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is often regarded as one of the best and most influential directors in the history of cinema. Over a career of about sixty years, Kurosawa made critically acclaimed masterpieces like Seven Samurai and Rashomon. His films, like The Hidden Fortress, influenced popular culture and a generation of young filmmakers. Posthumously, he was named “Asian of the Century” in the ‘Arts, Literature, and Culture’ category by AsianWeek magazine and CNN, counted among the five people who most prominently contributed to the improvement of Asia in the 20th century.
A creative with a prolific appetite for the arts, Kurosawa never entered a project without the proper foresight, the desire and vision already ingrained in his mind. “When I start on a film I always have a number of ideas about my project,” he once commented. “Then one of them begins to germinate, to sprout, and it is this, which I take and work with. My films come from my need to say a particular thing at a particular time. The beginning of any film for me is this need to express something. It is to make it nurture and grow that I write my script- it is directing it that makes my tree blossom and bear fruit.”
“A film director has to convince a great number of people to follow him and work with him,” he added when discussing his approach. “I often say, although I am certainly not a militarist, that if you compare the production unit to an army, the script is the battle flag and the director is the commander of the front line. From the moment production begins to the moment it ends, there is no telling what will happen. The director must be able to respond to any situation, and he must have the leadership ability to make the whole unit go along with his responses.”
Kurosawa entered the Japanese film industry in 1936 after trying his luck at being a painter. Although his directorial debut was the 1943 film Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa gained international recognition when his 1950 effort Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. It even won an honorary Academy Award the next year. When he was asked about his inspiration for his stunning cinematic visuals, Kurosawa replied, “I studied John Ford.”
On the 22nd anniversary of his death, we revisit the ten finest works by Akira Kurosawa in fond remembrance of one of the greatest talents to have ever worked in cinema.
Akira Kurosawa’s Top 10 Films:
10. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Kurosawa’s 1958 film is widely celebrated for its influence on the beloved popular culture franchise Star Wars (a pair of comic side characters tell the story while on a quest to save a princess during war-time). Tremendously entertaining, it features a couple of peasants who chance upon a General and a princess but mistake them for members of a tribe.
For the role of the princess, Kurosawa put out a nationwide call to find a woman “with a fresh and princess-like dignity” who had “the intensity of a samurai’s daughter.” Misa Uehara, who was twenty at the time, had no previous experience but put up a memorable performance as the resilient princess.
9. Stray Dog (1949)
After a cop’s pistol is stolen by a pickpocket, he goes undercover to recover it. He worries about his gun being sold on the black market or being used as a murder weapon and embarks on a journey to prevent all of that from happening. However, he discovers that the man using his gun is an ex-soldier just like him who couldn’t recover from the nightmares of war.
A poignant chronicle of post-war Japan, Kurosawa uses two similar figures who have been treated differently by fate to highlight the ambiguity of human identity. Stray Dog is a brilliant commentary on the nature of crime and the poverty of post-war Japan.
8. Dersu Uzala (1975)
Set in the forests of Eastern Siberia at the turn of the century, the film is based on explorer Captain Vladimir Arsenyev’s 1923 autobiography. It follows Arsenyev’s encounter with an elderly scout from the nomadic Nanai tribe (a character that inspired Yoda in the Star Wars series). Kurosawa beautifully oscillates between the epic and the intimate.
“In Japan the industry has begun imitating television, producing films that are like television movies,” the acclaimed director said. “Few people are eccentric enough to enjoy paying a high ticket price to go to see a television movie in a movie theatre. I have digressed again, but it is difficult for a film director who is like a salmon. When the river he was born and raised in becomes polluted, he can’t climb back upstream to lay his eggs – he has trouble making his films.
“He ends up by complaining. One such salmon, seeing no other way, made a long journey to climb a Soviet river and give birth to some caviar. This is how my 1975 film Dersu Uzala came about. Nor do I think this is such a bad thing. But the most natural thing for a Japanese salmon to do is to lay its eggs in a Japanese river.”
7. Throne of Blood (1957)
To this day, Throne of Blood is counted among the finest film adaptations of Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth. Kurosawa takes Macbeth’s narrative and reframes it within the context of the sixteenth century, creating a mythology of its own and an interface between different timelines. Inspired by the austerity of traditional Noh theatre, Throne of Blood draws on a lot of influences but Kurosawa transforms them into something unique.
“First, we built an open set at the base of Fuji with a flat castle rather than a real three-dimensional one,” Kurosawa recalled. “When it was ready, it just didn’t look right. For one thing, the roof tiles were too thin and this would not do. I insisted and held out, saying I could not possibly work with such limitations, that I wanted to get the feeling of the real thing from wherever I chose to shoot.”
6. High and Low (1963)
An adaptation of Ed McBain’s detective novel King’s Ransom, Kurosawa uses the strengths of the genre to create an engaging thriller but also indulges in powerful social commentary to make the film a more thoughtful artistic piece. Toshiro Mifune puts up an unforgettable performance as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family is targeted by a kidnapper.
The film lays bare the seedy underbelly of post-war Tokyo, revealing the anxieties and the impulses that were festering as societal maladies. Kurosawa displays technical mastery, managing to create a film of fierce originality and artistic power.
5. Ran (1985)
Ran is a reimagination of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set in sixteenth century feudal Japan. Kurosawa presents a compelling investigation of power relations, depicting violence as a recurring force throughout human history and a force that we can never escape. An old Lord bears witness to the destruction of his family, ravaged by the changing tides of modernity and greed.
Kurosawa said, “some of the essential scenes of this film are based on my wondering how God and Buddha, if they actually exist, perceive this human life, this mankind stuck in the same absurd behaviour patterns.”
He added, “We have to exorcise the essential evil in human nature, rather than presenting concrete solutions to problems or directly depicting social problems. Therefore, my films might have become more philosophical.”
4. Yojimbo (1961)
Toshiro Mifune stars as a nameless ronin who wanders into a desolate town overrun by grotesque rival criminal gangs in Kurosawa’s 1961 film. Partly inspired by George Steven’s Shane (1952), Kurosawa examines a cross-cultural phenomenon by combining the samurai genre with themes from westerns.
“I was so fed up with the world of Yakuza,” Kurosawa revealed. “So in order to attack their evil and irrationality, and thoroughly mess them up, I brought in the super-samurai played by Mifune. He was himself an outsider, a kind of outlaw, which enabled him to act flexibly, if sometimes recklessly. Only such a samurai of the imagination much more powerful than a real samurai, could mess up these gangsters. The film sort of evolved from there.”
3. Rashomon (1950)
Based on an amalgamation of two short stories, In A Grove and Rashomon, by Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Kurosawa’s 1950 film is a powerful philosophical investigation of the nature of dialectics. It fixates on a particular event involving a bandit called Tajomaru (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune), retelling it from multiple perspectives in a non-linear fashion.
International audiences were made aware of the power of Japanese cinema and Rashomon even won an honorary Academy Award in 1952. The legacy of Kurosawa’s masterpiece is enormous, not just in cinema but even in the domain of legal theory.
Lighting and electrical technician Genkon Nakaoka elaborated on how it four hours to film a seemingly minor scene, “Another thing the director praised me for, that scene with Machiko Kyo. She’s riding a horse and her veil opens up. It took us about four hours…it had to open evenly on the right and left or the director wouldn’t accept it.”
2. Ikiru (1952)
A beautiful reconciliation of life and death, Ikiru follows the story of a Tokyo bureaucrat who realises that he has a year to live due to stomach cancer. In an attempt to find meaning in the face of death, he starts building a children’s playground in a disease-ridden slum quarter. Kurosawa conducts a soulful exploration of what it means to be alive, a question that ironically rears its head only when we are dying.
While speaking about the film’s origins, Kurosawa explained, “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.”
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
Set in 16th century Japan, Kurosawa’s epic tale is a three-hour journey into the world of the samurai. It is a conflict between the conservative and rigid code of honour of medieval Japan’s finest warriors and the lawlessness of bandits, morally depraved and parasitic in nature. The seven samurai in the film are the last line of defence against the inevitable corruption of social order.
Kurosawa masterfully translates the conventions of the Noh theatre to a postmodern medium: cinema. The existence of the film itself becomes a site of the conflict that it is trying to portray, a tense contested space that harbours two irreconcilable ideals.
“Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene,“ Kurosawa wrote. “This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rainstorm.
“If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for I Live In Fear (1955).”