The great Akira Kurosawa, a famed Japanese filmmaker who directed 30 films across a career spanning 57 years, initially began life as an aspiring painter.
Kurosawa’s elementary school teacher, Mr Tachikawa, was one of the first major influences on his life. Tachikawa’s progressive teaching methods—which encouraged his students to draw with free will—proved to be a moment which set the foundations for Kurosawa’s desire to spill his thoughts into a creative form. Set for a career in art, a young Kurosawa began focusing on the working class of his homeland, aiming to put “unfulfilled political ideals directly onto the canvas.”
However, after heavy influence from his eldest brother Heigo—who was obsessed with foreign film—Kurosawa decided to live with his sibling in Tokyo and began to indulge as much cinema as he could. “I intended to be a painter before I became involved in film,” Kurosawa is quoted as saying in Stephen Prince’s book The Warrior’s Camera. “A curious turn of events, however, brought me to cinema, where I began my present career.”
Kurosawa continued: “When I changed careers, I burnt all the pictures that I had painted up until then. I intended to forget painting once and for all. As a well-known Japanese proverb says, ‘If you chase two rabbits, you may not catch even one’.
“I did no artwork at all once I began to work in cinema. But since becoming a film director, I have found that drawing rough sketches was often a useful means of explaining ideas to my staff.”
Despite having gone on to earn cult status as a film director off the back of losing his passion for painting, Kurosawa revealed later in life that his initial ambition to become a leading artist always existed: “When I was young and still an art student, I used to dream of publishing a collection of my paintings or having an exhibition in Paris. These dreams were unexpectedly realised with the publication of my pictures for Kagemusha. Life is strange indeed.”
Later, following the significant critical success of some of his feature films, Kurosawa released his book Ran, a publication which details his screenplay from the film of the same name, Kurosawa also includes his illustrated images and original colour storyboards. In it, he writes: “I cannot help but be fascinated by the fact that when I tried to paint well, I could only produce mediocre pictures. But when I concentrated on delineating the ideas for my films, I unconsciously produced works that people find interesting.”
Below, enjoy a series of Kurosawa’s hand-painted storyboards which set out his cinematic vision.
Akira Kurosawa – Dreams (1990)
In 1990, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa release Dreams, his 28th feature film which marked the first film in 45 years on which he was the sole author of the screenplay. The film would go on to define Kurosawa’s back catalogue and involved another legendary filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, this time taking on an acting role.
Made up of eight different vignettes, Dreams was categorised as ‘magical realist’ picture and was, according to Kurosawa himself, inspired by actual dreams that the filmmaker had actually experienced throughout his life. It was this level of integrity that propelled the film into a new space.
With support from the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the differing areas of Dreams are generally tied together by themes of environment, nature, childhood and spirituality.
Official synopsis: “An imaginative Japanese production presents a series of short films by lauded director Akira Kurosawa. In one chapter, a young boy spies on foxes that are holding a wedding ceremony; the following instalment features another youth, who witnesses a magical moment in an orchard.
“In the segment ‘Crows’, an aspiring artist enters the world of a painting and encounters Vincent van Gogh. Many of the films in this inventive movie are tied together by an environmental theme.”
Akira Kurosawa – Kagemusha (1980)
At this time in Akira Kurosawa’s career, was struggling financially after his previous two projects, Dodeskaden and Dersu Uzala, had dramatically flopped at the box office. Learning of his difficulties, George Lucas and hatched a plan alongside Francis Ford Coppola.
Knowing of Kurosawa’s brilliance and learning about his planned film Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior, Lucas and Coppola approached 20th Century Fox and urged them to back Kurosawa and invest the money in his next project. As insurance, they both promised to act as executive producers on Kagemusha to give it some more weight and, of course, it worked.
Kurosawa’s film, which tells the story of a petty thief who is recruited to impersonate an ageing warlord, went on to be a critical and commercial success which won the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and was subsequently nominated for the Academy Award for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’.
Official synopsis: “Akira Kurosawa’s lauded feudal epic presents the tale of a petty thief who is recruited to impersonate Shingen, an ageing warlord, in order to avoid attacks by competing clans.
“When Shingen dies, his generals reluctantly agree to have the impostor take over as the powerful ruler. He soon begins to appreciate life as Shingen, but his commitment to the role is tested when he must lead his troops into battle against the forces of a rival warlord.”
Akira Kurosawa – Ran (1985)
Taking inspiration from William Shakespeare’s King Lear for his screenplay, Kurosawa joined forces with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide to forge his epic war feature which leans on historic Japanese myths.
In what marked Kurosawa’s second attempt at working from Shakespeare inspiration, the filmmaker had been sat on the idea of Ran for some 15 years before it finally came to fruition. After such a long period of time forging ideas, the director was rewarded with a lavish $11million budget which, in turn, made Ran the most expensive Japanese film of all time.
Of course, the financial faith placed in Kurosawa would eventually be rewarded, the film cementing itself as one of the fines examples of cinema of all time.
Official synopsis: “At the age of seventy, after years of consolidating his empire, the Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji decides to abdicate and divide his domain amongst his three sons.
“Taro, the eldest, will rule. Jiro, his second son, and Saburo will take command of the Second and Third Castles but are expected to obey and support their elder brother. Saburo defies the pledge of obedience and is banished.”
Akira Kurosawa – Madadayo (1993)
In what arrived as a landmark moment for Kurosawa, 1993 saw the iconic director release his 30th film to date with Madadayo, a comedy which was widely celebrated in Japan but struggled somewhat internationally.
Starring the likes of Tatsuo Matsumura, Kyoko Kagawa, Hisashi Igawa, George Tokoro and more, Madadayo cleaned up at the Japanese Academy Awards and won a host of their most prestigious awards. With optimism surrounding the project, it was put forward as the Japanese entry for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at the Oscars but failed to progress.
While the film arrived later in Kurosawa’s career, he still continued to work in the same method that had served him so much success in previous years. While storyboarding his vision, the director turned to the easel to allow the colours to spill out.
Official synopsis: “In 1943, as the tide of war shifts against Japan, Professor Hyakken Uchida leaves his teaching position to begin his career as a writer. With the warm wishes of his students, he sets out to start anew.
“His former students decide to visit the professor to thank him for all the good he had done as their dutiful teacher. Through their frequent visits, they develop a new admiration for his wisdom and his offbeat sense of humour.