Akira Kurosawa’s name is instantly recognisable for fans of world cinema. Often cited as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time by critics as well as audiences, Kurosawa’s illustrious career spanned almost 60 years, during which he produced seminal masterpieces like Rashomon and Seven Samurai, among several others. On the 111th anniversary of his birth, we revisit the life and work of Akira Kurosawa as a tribute to one of the most extraordinary talents to have worked with the cinematic medium.
Born on March 23, 1910, in the Ōmori district of Tokyo, Kurosawa was the eighth child in the family and also the youngest. His father was a physical education instructor who emphasised the importance of physical activity as well as intellectual exercises. In opposition to nationalist attitudes, Kurosawa’s father saw the merits of Western culture and introduced Kurosawa to watch films since the age of six. As a result, the young boy grew up watching John Ford Westerns as well as influential silent movies, which would go on to shape his own artistic vision as a filmmaker.
Kurosawa’s childhood is now seen as a formative part of his development as an artist, especially his relationship with his elementary school teacher, who made him interested in painting and education, as well as his connection with his elder brother Heigo. When a major earthquake ravaged the country in 1923, Heigo encouraged a 13-year-old Kurosawa to look at the widespread destruction instead of avoiding it. This courageous inclination towards confronting problematic events would become evident in almost all his works.
Interested in gaining more knowledge about the world of art, Kurosawa enrolled in an art school that taught Western forms as well. Around this time, Heigo worked as a renowned benshi (silent film narrator), and Kurosawa learnt a lot about films, art, theatre and circus by interacting with him. He also consumed foreign literature, particularly enjoying the works of the famous Russian novelist Dostoevsky. The 1930s saw the increasing popularity of talking pictures, signalling a major development in the history of cinema. However, it wasn’t good news for silent film narrators like Heigo, who started losing their jobs. Disillusioned with the new landscape of modernity, Heigo committed suicide which left Kurosawa completely devastated. His eldest brother would soon pass away as well, leaving the future filmmaker as the only surviving Kurosawa brother. This period of intense sorrow and loss deeply affected the sensibilities of the young artist.
After trying his luck as a painter, Kurosawa finally entered the film industry in 1936 as an assistant director. Gifted with a critical eye, Kurosawa impressed his examiners with brilliant insights about the flaws in the Japanese industry and his own vision of the future of Japanese cinema. Over the course of five years, Kurosawa worked under various directors, but it was Kajirō Yamamoto who acted as a mentor for the promising talent. Following Yamamoto’s advice, Kurosawa focused on screenwriting and began to co-write not only his own works later on but also produced screenplays for other filmmakers. Slowly rising through the ranks of the Japanese film industry, Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943 with Sanshiro Sugata, which turned out to be a critical as well as commercial success. Battling with the censor board and studio executives, the burgeoning filmmaker made the propagandist sequel to his debut as well as the 1945 period drama The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.
Kurosawa’s artistic sensibilities took an interesting turn during the postwar period, espousing democratic values and asked questions about individual identity. There are several illustrious examples of this change, including No Regrets for Our Youth as well as One Wonderful Sunday, which was influenced by the works of Frank Capra, F.W. Murnau and D.W. Griffith. However, he only achieved proper international recognition with his groundbreaking 1950 masterpiece Rashomon. The film explored the philosophical problem of truth and dialectics, urging the audience to approach one event from several conflicting perspectives. This approach became so influential that it is now referred to in legal and philosophical domains as the “Rashomon Effect”. It won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and earned an honorary Academy Award for its breathtaking vision. With Rashomon, Kurosawa announced to the world that he was one of the top creative forces capable of dizzying achievements with the cinematic medium.
Before that, the work that brought Kurosawa proper fame and success within the country was the 1948 film Drunken Angel which featured a new actor who would go on to form one of the most iconic actor-director duos of all time with Kurosawa: Toshirō Mifune. They ended up working together in 16 films in 16 years, bringing out the best in each other. “A film director has to convince a great number of people to follow him and work with him,” Kurosawa once said 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 a golden period after Rashomon, slowly reaching the apotheosis of his vision with one masterpiece after another. Critics often cite his next project as one of his finest works, the 1952 film Ikiru, which launched a powerful meditation on life and death. With Ikiru, Kurosawa brilliantly showed that cinema could be used to explore just what it means to be alive. He didn’t stop there and went on to make some of the best Japanese films of all time, including the seminal Seven Samurai, which is now his best known work from his illustrious filmography. Some of his works, like Hidden Fortress, have enjoyed a formative influence on Western popular culture, with filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg drawing inspiration from Kurosawa’s masterful technique. Seven Samurai was Kurosawa’s interpretation of the westerns he grew up watching, and in turn, it became an inspiration for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Around this period, Kurosawa was one of the big three Japanese filmmakers who were proving the power of Japanese cinema. Alongside masters like Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, Kurosawa was enjoying a glorious artistic output and was paving the way for experimental Japanese New Wave artists like Nagisa Oshima and Takeshi Kitano, among several others who took inspiration from his works and set out to create something entirely different. Since he was a child, Kurosawa was an avid fan of literature, and his films reflected that love. He went on to make celebrated adaptations of seminal works of foreign literature like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran). Kurosawa considered Red Beard to be Mifune’s best work, but it marked the beginning of an inactive period until his 1970 box office failure Dodes’ka-den which led to a suicide attempt. Thankfully, Kurosawa found the will to carry on and produced one of the finest films of his career in 1975: Dersu Uzala. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and even received a gold medal at the Moscow Film Festival.
During his final years, Kurosawa’s artistic vision took a different turn. Films like Dreams (based on Kurosawa’s own dreams) and Rhapsody in August showed the maturity of an ageing auteur; they were beautiful reflections on the life he had lived. Perhaps this was most evident in his final project, Madadayo (1993), which translated to “Not Yet”. It was a startlingly ominous work about an old teacher who was loved by his students. They feared that he was going to die but he was unwilling to let go, displaying an infectious joy for life. After he slipped and suffered an injury to his spine, Kurosawa was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but his mind remained sharp as ever. He spent his last days reading, listening to music and watching television while slowly coming to terms with his new existential condition. The revered creative genius passed away at the age of 88 in 1998 after suffering a stroke. Kurosawa had always hoped that he would die while shooting on set, but the universe did not grant him his last wish.
More than two decades have passed since his death, but time has shown the world that Kurosawa’s legacy has been immortalised. His films are enjoyed by fans, students and scholars to this day and will continue to serve as inspiration for several generations of young filmmakers. In an interview, Kurosawa reflected:
“I suppose all of my films have a common theme. If I think about it, though, the only theme I can think of is really a question: Why can’t people be happier together?”