Akira Kurosawa on the set of Seven Samurai in 1953.
March 23, 1910|
Shinagawa, Tokyo, Japan
|Died||September 6, 1998
Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan
Cause of death
|Occupation||Director, screenwriter, producer, editor|
|Spouse(s)||Yōko Yaguchi (1945–1985) (her death)|
|Relatives||Yu Kurosawa (singer, granddaughter), Takayuki Kato (actor, grandson)|
Akira Kurosawa (Japanese: 黒澤 明 Hepburn: Kurosawa Akira?, March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a Japanese film director, screenwriter, producer, and editor. Regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, Kurosawa directed 30 films[note 1] in a career spanning 57 years.
Kurosawa entered the Japanese film industry in 1936, following a brief stint as a painter. After years of working on numerous films as an assistant director and scriptwriter, he made his debut as a director in 1943, during World War II, with the popular action film Sanshiro Sugata (a.k.a. Judo Saga). After the war, the critically acclaimed Drunken Angel (1948), in which Kurosawa cast then-unknown actor Toshiro Mifune in a starring role, cemented the director's reputation as one of the most important young filmmakers in Japan. The two men would go on to collaborate on another 15 films. His wife Yōko Yaguchi was also an actress in one of his films.
Rashomon, which premiered in Tokyo in August 1950, and which also starred Mifune, became, on September 10, 1951, the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was subsequently released in Europe and North America. The commercial and critical success of this film opened up Western film markets for the first time to the products of the Japanese film industry, which in turn led to international recognition for other Japanese filmmakers. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Kurosawa directed approximately a film a year, including a number of highly regarded films such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). After the mid-1960s, he became much less prolific, but his later work—including his final two epics, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985)—continued to win awards, including the Palme d'Or for Kagemusha, though more often abroad than in Japan.
In 1990, he accepted the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Posthumously, he was named "Asian of the Century" in the "Arts, Literature, and Culture" category by AsianWeek magazine and CNN, cited as "one of the [five] people who contributed most to the betterment of Asia in the past 100 years".
Kurosawa was born on 23 March 1910 in Ōimachi in the Ōmori district of Tokyo. His father Isamu, a member of a former samurai family from Akita Prefecture, worked as the director of the Army's Physical Education Institute's lower secondary school, while his mother Shima came from a merchant's family living in Osaka. Akira was the eighth and youngest child of the moderately wealthy family, with two of his siblings already grown up at the time of his birth and one deceased, leaving Kurosawa to grow up with three sisters and a brother.
In addition to promoting physical exercise, Isamu Kurosawa was open to western traditions and considered theater and motion pictures to have educational merit. He encouraged his children to watch films; young Akira viewed his first movies at the age of six. An important formative influence was his elementary school teacher Mr Tachikawa, whose progressive educational practices ignited in his young pupil first a love of drawing and then an interest in education in general. During this time, the boy also studied calligraphy and Kendo swordsmanship.
Another major childhood influence was Heigo Kurosawa, Akira's older brother by four years. In the aftermath of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, Heigo took the 13-year-old Akira to view the devastation. When the younger brother wanted to look away from the human corpses and animal carcasses scattered everywhere, Heigo forbade him to do so, instead encouraging Akira to face his fears by confronting them directly. Some commentators have suggested that this incident would influence Kurosawa's later artistic career, as the director was seldom hesitant to confront unpleasant truths in his work.
Heigo was academically gifted, but soon after failing to secure a place in Tokyo's foremost high school, he began to detach himself from the rest of the family, preferring to concentrate on his interest in foreign literature. In the late 1920s, Heigo became a benshi (silent film narrator) for Tokyo theaters showing foreign films, and quickly made a name for himself. Akira, who at this point planned to become a painter, moved in with him, and the two brothers became inseparable. Through Heigo, Akira devoured not only films but also theater and circus performances, while exhibiting his paintings and working for the left-wing Proletarian Artists' League. However, he was never able to make a living with his art, and, as he began to perceive most of the proletarian movement as "putting unfulfilled political ideals directly onto the canvas", he lost his enthusiasm for painting.
With the increasing production of talking pictures in the early 1930s, film narrators like Heigo began to lose work, and Akira moved back in with his parents. In July 1933, Heigo committed suicide. Kurosawa has commented on the lasting sense of loss he felt at his brother's death and the chapter of his autobiography (Something Like an Autobiography) that describes it—written nearly half a century after the event—is titled, "A Story I Don't Want to Tell." Only four months later, Kurosawa's eldest brother also died, leaving Akira, at age 23, the only one of the Kurosawa brothers still living, together with his three surviving sisters.
In 1935, the new film studio Photo Chemical Laboratories, known as P.C.L. (which later became the major studio, Toho), advertised for assistant directors. Although he had demonstrated no previous interest in film as a profession, Kurosawa submitted the required essay, which asked applicants to discuss the fundamental deficiencies of Japanese films and find ways to overcome them. His half-mocking view was that if the deficiencies were fundamental, there was no way to correct them. Kurosawa's essay earned him a call to take the follow-up exams, and director Kajirō Yamamoto, who was among the examiners, took a liking to Kurosawa and insisted that the studio hire him. The 25-year-old Kurosawa joined P.C.L. in February 1936.
During his five years as an assistant director, Kurosawa worked under numerous directors, but by far the most important figure in his development was Kajiro Yamamoto. Of his 24 films as A.D., he worked on 17 under Yamamoto, many of them comedies featuring the popular actor Kenichi Enomoto, known as "Enoken." Yamamoto nurtured Kurosawa's talent, promoting him directly from third assistant director to chief assistant director after a year. Kurosawa's responsibilities increased, and he worked at tasks ranging from stage construction and film development to location scouting, script polishing, rehearsals, lighting, dubbing, editing and second-unit directing. In the last of Kurosawa's films as an assistant director, Horse (Uma, 1941), Kurosawa took over most of the production, as Yamamoto was occupied with the shooting of another film.
One important piece of advice Yamamoto gave Kurosawa was that a good director needed to master screenwriting. Kurosawa soon realized that the potential earnings from his scripts were much higher than what he was paid as an assistant director. Kurosawa would later write or co-write all of his own films. He also frequently wrote screenplays for other directors such as for Satsuo Yamamoto's film, Tsubasa no gaika. This outside scriptwriting would serve Kurosawa as a lucrative sideline lasting well into the 1960s, long after he became world-famous.
In the two years following the release of Horse in 1941, Kurosawa searched for a story he could use to launch his directing career. Towards the end of 1942, about a year after the beginning of Japan's war with the United States, novelist Tsuneo Tomita published his Musashi Miyamoto inspired judo novel, Sanshiro Sugata, the advertisements for which intrigued Kurosawa. He bought the book on its publication day, devoured it in one sitting, and immediately asked Toho to secure the film rights. Kurosawa's initial instinct proved correct as, within a few days, three other major Japanese studios also offered to buy the rights. Toho prevailed, and Kurosawa began pre-production on his debut work as director.
Shooting of Sanshiro Sugata began on location in Yokohama in December 1942. Production proceeded smoothly, but getting the completed film past the censors was an entirely different matter. The censorship considered the work too "British-American" (an accusation tantamount, at that time, to a charge of treason), and it was only through the intervention of director Yasujirō Ozu, who championed the film, that Sanshiro Sugata was finally accepted for release on March 25, 1943. (Kurosawa had just turned 33.) The movie became both a critical and commercial success. Nevertheless, the censorship office would later decide to cut out some 18 minutes of footage, much of which is now considered lost.
He next turned to the subject of wartime female factory workers in The Most Beautiful, a propaganda film which he shot in a semi-documentary style in early 1944. In order to coax realistic performances from his actresses, the director had them live in a real factory during the shoot, eat the factory food and call each other by their character names. He would use similar methods with his performers throughout his career.
During production, the actress playing the leader of the factory workers, Yōko Yaguchi, was chosen by her colleagues to present their demands to the director. She and Kurosawa were constantly at loggerheads, and it was through these arguments that the two, paradoxically, became close. They married on May 21, 1945, with Yaguchi two months pregnant (she never resumed her acting career), and the couple would remain together until her death in 1985. They would have two children: a son, Hisao, born December 20, 1945, who would serve as producer on some of his father's last projects, and Kazuko, born April 29, 1954, who would become a costume designer.
Shortly before his marriage, Kurosawa was pressured by the studio against his will to direct a sequel to his debut film. The often blatantly propagandistic Sanshiro Sugata Part II, which premiered in May 1945, is generally considered one of his very weakest pictures.
Kurosawa decided to write the script for a film that would be both censor-friendly and less expensive to produce. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, based on the Kabuki play Kanjinchō and starring the comedian Enoken, with whom Kurosawa had often worked during his assistant director days, was completed in September 1945. By this time, Japan had surrendered and the occupation of Japan had begun. The new American censors interpreted the values allegedly promoted in the picture as overly "feudal" and banned the work. (It would not be released until 1952, the year another Kurosawa film, Ikiru, was also released.) Ironically, while in production, the film had already been savaged by Japanese wartime censors as too Western and "democratic" (they particularly disliked the comic porter played by Enoken), so the movie most probably would not have seen the light of day even if the war had continued beyond its completion.
The war now ended, Kurosawa, absorbing the democratic ideals of the Occupation, sought to make films that would establish a new respect towards the individual and the self. The first such film, No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), inspired by both the 1933 Takigawa incident and the Hotsumi Ozaki wartime spy case, criticized Japan's prewar regime for its political oppression. Atypically for the director, the heroic central character is a woman, Yukie (Setsuko Hara), born into upper-middle-class privilege, who comes to question her values in a time of political crisis. The original script had to be extensively rewritten and, because of its controversial theme (and because the protagonist was a woman), the completed work divided critics, but it nevertheless managed to win the approval of audiences, who turned variations on the film's title ("No regrets for...") into something of a postwar catchphrase.
His next film, One Wonderful Sunday premiered in July 1947 to mixed reviews. It is a relatively uncomplicated and sentimental love story dealing with an impoverished postwar couple trying to enjoy, within the devastation of postwar Tokyo, their one weekly day off. The movie bears the influence of Frank Capra, D. W. Griffith and F. W. Murnau. Another film released in 1947 with Kurosawa's involvement was the action-adventure thriller, Snow Trail, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi from Kurosawa's screenplay. It marked the debut of the intense young actor Toshiro Mifune. It was Kurosawa who, with his mentor Yamamoto, had intervened to persuade Toho to sign Mifune, during an audition in which the young man greatly impressed Kurosawa, but managed to alienate most of the other judges.
Drunken Angel is often considered the director's first major work. Although the script, like all of Kurosawa's occupation-era works, had to go through forced rewrites due to American censorship, Kurosawa felt that this was the first film in which he was able to express himself freely. A grittily realistic story of a doctor who tries to save a gangster (yakuza) with tuberculosis, it was also the director's first film with Toshiro Mifune, who would proceed to play either the main or a major character in all but one (Ikiru) of the director's next 16 films. While Mifune was not cast as the protagonist in Drunken Angel, his explosive performance as the gangster so dominates the drama that he shifted the focus from the title character, the alcoholic doctor played by Takashi Shimura, who had already appeared in several Kurosawa movies. However, Kurosawa did not want to smother the young actor's immense vitality, and Mifune's rebellious character electrified audiences in much the way that Marlon Brando's defiant stance would startle American film audiences a few years later. The film premiered in Tokyo in April 1948 to rave reviews and was chosen by the prestigious Kinema Junpo critics poll as the best film of its year, the first of three Kurosawa movies to be so honored.
Kurosawa, with producer Sōjirō Motoki and fellow directors and friends Kajiro Yamamoto, Mikio Naruse and Senkichi Taniguchi, formed a new independent production unit called Film Art Association (Eiga Geijutsu Kyōkai). For this organization's debut work, and first film for Daiei studios, Kurosawa turned to a contemporary play by Kazuo Kikuta and, together with Taniguchi, adapted it for the screen. The Quiet Duel starred Toshiro Mifune as an idealistic young doctor struggling with syphilis, a deliberate attempt by Kurosawa to break the actor away from being typecast as gangsters. Released in March 1949, it was a box office success, but is generally considered one of the director's lesser achievements.
His second film of 1949, also produced by Film Art Association and released by Shintoho, was Stray Dog. The most celebrated of Kurosawa's works from this period, it is a detective movie (perhaps the first important Japanese film in that genre) that explores the mood of Japan during its painful postwar recovery through the story of a young detective, played by Mifune, and his obsession over his handgun, stolen by a penniless young man who proceeds to use it to rob and murder. Adapted from an unpublished novel by Kurosawa in the style of a favorite writer of his, Georges Simenon, it was the director's first collaboration with screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima, who would later help to script eight other Kurosawa films. A famous, virtually wordless sequence, lasting over eight minutes, shows the detective, disguised as an impoverished veteran, wandering the streets in search of the gun thief; it employed actual documentary footage of war-ravaged Tokyo neighborhoods shot by Kurosawa's friend, Ishirō Honda, the future director of Gojira (aka, Godzilla). The film is considered a precursor to the contemporary police procedural and buddy cop film genres.
Scandal, released by Shochiku in April 1950, was inspired by the director's personal experiences with, and anger towards, Japanese yellow journalism. The work is an ambitious mixture of courtroom drama and social problem film about free speech and personal responsibility, but even Kurosawa regarded the finished product as dramatically unfocused and unsatisfactory, and almost all critics agree.
However, it would be Kurosawa's second film of 1950, Rashomon, that would ultimately win him a whole new audience.
After finishing Scandal, Kurosawa was approached by Daiei studios, which asked the director to make another film for them. Kurosawa picked a script by an aspiring young screenwriter, Shinobu Hashimoto. (They would eventually write nine films together.) It was based on Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's experimental short story In a Grove, which recounts the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife from various different and conflicting points-of-view. Kurosawa saw potential in the script, and with Hashimoto's help, polished and expanded it and then pitched it to Daiei, who were happy to accept the project due to its low budget.
Shooting of Rashomon began on July 7, 1950 and, after extensive location work in the primeval forest of Nara, wrapped on August 17. Just one week was spent in hurried post-production, hampered by a studio fire, and the finished film premiered at Tokyo's Imperial Theatre on August 25, expanding nationwide the following day. The movie was met by lukewarm reviews, with many critics puzzled by its unique theme and treatment, but it was nevertheless a moderate financial success for Daiei.
Kurosawa's next film, for Shochiku, was The Idiot, an adaptation of the novel by the director's favorite writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The filmmaker relocated the story from Russia to Hokkaido, but it is otherwise very faithful to the original, a fact seen by many critics as detrimental to the work. A studio-mandated edit shortened it from Kurosawa's original cut of 265 minutes (nearly four-and-a-half hours) to just 166 minutes, making the resulting narrative exceedingly difficult to follow. It is widely considered today to be one of the director's least successful works. Contemporary reviews were very negative, but the film was a moderate success at the box office, largely because of the popularity of one of its stars, Setsuko Hara.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Kurosawa, Rashomon had been entered in the prestigious Venice Film Festival, due to the efforts of Giuliana Stramigioli, a Japan-based representative of an Italian film company, who had seen and admired the movie and convinced Daiei to submit it. On September 10, 1951, Rashomon was awarded the festival's highest prize, the Golden Lion, shocking not only Daiei but the international film world, which at the time was largely unaware of Japan's decades-old cinematic tradition.
After Daiei very briefly exhibited a subtitled print of the film in Los Angeles, RKO purchased distribution rights to Rashomon in the United States. The company was taking a considerable gamble. It had put out only one prior subtitled film in the American market, and the only previous Japanese talkie commercially released in New York had been Mikio Naruse's comedy, Wife! Be Like a Rose, in 1937: a critical and box-office flop. However, Rashomon's commercial run, greatly helped by strong reviews from critics and even the columnist Ed Sullivan, was very successful. (It earned $35,000 in its first three weeks at a single New York theater, an almost unheard-of sum at the time.) This success in turn led to a vogue in America for Japanese movies throughout the 1950s, replacing the enthusiasm for Italian neorealist cinema. (The film was also released, by other distributors, in France, West Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.) Among the Japanese filmmakers whose work, as a result, began to win festival prizes and commercial release in the West were Kenji Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff) and, somewhat later, Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story, An Autumn Afternoon)—artists highly respected in Japan but, prior to this period, almost totally unknown in the West. Later generations of Japanese filmmakers who would find acclaim outside Japan—from Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura to Juzo Itami, Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike—were able to pass through the door that Kurosawa was the very first to open.
His career boosted by his sudden international fame, Kurosawa, now reunited with his original film studio, Toho (which would go on to produce his next 11 films), set to work on his next project, Ikiru. The movie stars Takashi Shimura as a cancer-ridden Tokyo bureaucrat, Watanabe, on a final quest for meaning before his death. For the screenplay, Kurosawa brought in Hashimoto as well as writer Hideo Oguni, who would go on to co-write 12 Kurosawa films. Despite the work's grim subject matter, the screenwriters took a satirical approach, which some have compared to the work of Brecht, to both the bureaucratic world of its hero and the U.S. cultural colonization of Japan. (American pop songs figure prominently in the film.) Because of this strategy, the filmmakers are usually credited with saving the picture from the kind of sentimentality common to dramas about characters with terminal illnesses. Ikiru opened in October 1952 to rave reviews—it won Kurosawa his second Kinema Junpo "Best Film" award—and enormous box office success. It remains the most acclaimed of all the artist's films set in the modern era.
In December 1952, Kurosawa took his Ikiru screenwriters, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, for a forty-five day secluded residence at an inn to create the screenplay for his next movie, Seven Samurai. The ensemble work was Kurosawa's first proper samurai film, the genre for which he would become most famous. The simple story, about a poor farming village in Sengoku period Japan that hires a group of samurai to defend it against an impending attack by bandits, was given a full epic treatment, with a huge cast (largely consisting of veterans of previous Kurosawa productions) and meticulously detailed action, stretching out to almost three-and-a-half hours of screen time.
Three months were spent in pre-production and a month in rehearsals. Shooting took up 148 days spread over almost a year, interrupted by production and financing troubles and Kurosawa's health problems. The film finally opened in April 1954, half a year behind its original release date and about three times over budget, making it at the time the most expensive Japanese film ever made. (However, by Hollywood standards, it was a quite modestly budgeted production, even for that time). The film received positive critical reaction and became a big hit, quickly making back the money invested in it and providing the studio with a product that they could, and did, market internationally—though with extensive edits. Over time—and with the theatrical and home video releases of the uncut version—its reputation has steadily grown. It is now regarded by some commentators as the greatest Japanese film ever made, and in 1979, a poll of Japanese film critics also voted it the best Japanese film ever made.
In 1954, nuclear tests in the Pacific were causing radioactive rainstorms in Japan and one particular incident in March had exposed a Japanese fishing boat to nuclear fallout, with disastrous results. It is in this anxious atmosphere that Kurosawa's next film, Record of a Living Being, was conceived. The story concerned an elderly factory owner (Toshiro Mifune) so terrified of the prospect of a nuclear attack that he becomes determined to move his entire extended family (both legal and extra-marital) to what he imagines is the safety of a farm in Brazil. Production went much more smoothly than the director's previous film, but a few days before shooting ended, Kurosawa's composer, collaborator and close friend Fumio Hayasaka passed away (of tuberculosis) at the age of only 41. The film's score was finished by Hayasaka's student, Masaru Sato, who would go on to score all of Kurosawa's next eight films. Record of a Living Being opened in November 1955 to mixed reviews and muted audience reaction, becoming the first Kurosawa film to lose money during its original theatrical run. Today, it is considered by many to be among the finest films dealing with the psychological effects of the global nuclear stalemate.
Kurosawa's next project, Throne of Blood, a lavishly produced adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth—set, like Seven Samurai, in the Sengoku Era—represented an ambitious transposition of the English work into an Asian context. Kurosawa instructed his leading actress, Isuzu Yamada, to regard the work as if it were a cinematic version of a Japanese rather than a European literary classic. Appropriately, the acting of the players, particularly Yamada, draws heavily on the stylized techniques of the Noh theater. It was filmed in 1956 and released in January 1957 to a slightly less negative domestic response than had been the case with the director's previous film. Abroad, Throne of Blood, regardless of the liberties it takes with its source material, quickly earned a place among the most celebrated Shakespeare adaptations.
Another adaptation of a classic European theatrical work followed almost immediately, with production of The Lower Depths, based on a play by Maxim Gorky, taking place in May and June 1957. In contrast to the gigantic scope and sweep of Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths was shot on only two confined sets, the better to emphasize the restricted nature of the characters' lives. Though faithful to the play, this adaptation of Russian material to a completely Japanese setting—in this case, the late Edo period—unlike his earlier The Idiot, was regarded as artistically successful. The film premiered in September 1957, receiving a mixed response similar to that of Throne of Blood. However, some critics rank it among the director's most underrated works.
Kurosawa's three consecutive movies after Seven Samurai had not managed to capture Japanese audiences in the way that that film had. The mood of the director's work had been growing increasingly pessimistic and dark, with the possibility of redemption through personal responsibility now very much questioned, particularly in Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths. He recognized this, and deliberately aimed for a more light-hearted and entertaining film for his next production, while switching to the new widescreen format that had been gaining popularity in Japan. The resulting film, The Hidden Fortress, is an action-adventure comedy-drama about a medieval princess, her loyal general and two peasants who all need to travel through enemy lines in order to reach their home region. Released in December 1958, The Hidden Fortress became an enormous box office success in Japan and was warmly received by critics. Today, the film is considered one of Kurosawa's most lightweight efforts, though it remains popular, not least because it is one of several major influences (as George Lucas himself has conceded) on Lucas' hugely popular 1977 space opera, Star Wars.
Starting with Rashomon, Kurosawa's productions had become increasingly large in scope and so had the director's budgets. Toho, concerned about this development, suggested that he might help finance his own works, therefore making the studio's potential losses smaller, while in turn allowing himself more artistic freedom as co-producer. Kurosawa agreed, and the Kurosawa Production Company was established in April 1959, with Toho as majority shareholder.
Despite now risking his own money, Kurosawa chose a story more directly critical of the Japanese business and political elites than any of his previous works. The Bad Sleep Well, based on a script by Kurosawa's nephew Mike Inoue, is a revenge drama about a young man who climbs the hierarchy of a corrupt Japanese company with the intention of exposing the men responsible for his father's death. Its theme proved topical: while the film was in production, mass demonstrations were held against the new U.S.-Japan Security treaty, which was seen by many Japanese, particularly the young, as threatening the country's democracy by giving too much power to corporations and politicians. The film opened in September 1960 to positive critical reaction and modest box office success. The 25-minute opening sequence, depicting a corporate wedding reception interrupted by reporters and police (who arrest an executive for corruption), is widely regarded as one of Kurosawa's most skillfully executed set pieces, but the remainder of the film is often perceived as disappointing by comparison. The movie has also been criticized for employing the conventional Kurosawan hero to combat a social evil that cannot be resolved through the actions of individuals, however courageous or cunning.
Yojimbo (The Bodyguard), Kurosawa Production's second film, centers on a masterless samurai, Sanjuro, who strolls into a 19th-century town ruled by two opposing violent factions and provokes them into destroying each other. The director used this work to play with many genre conventions, particularly the Western, while at the same time offering an unprecedentedly (for the Japanese screen) graphic portrayal of violence. Some commentators have seen the Sanjuro character in this film as a fantasy figure who magically reverses the historical triumph of the corrupt merchant class over the samurai class. Featuring Tatsuya Nakadai in his first major role in a Kurosawa movie, and with innovative photography by Kazuo Miyagawa (who shot Rashomon) and Takao Saito, the film premiered in April 1961 and was an immense success at the box office, earning more than any previous Kurosawa film. Critical reaction was equally positive, and the film proved a major influence on its genre in Japan, ushering in a new era of violent samurai films, known as "cruel films" (zankoku eiga). The movie and its blackly comic tone were also widely imitated abroad. Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars was a virtual (unauthorized) scene-by-scene remake.
Following the success of Yojimbo, Kurosawa found himself under pressure from Toho to create a sequel. Kurosawa turned to a script he had written before Yojimbo, reworking it to include the hero of his previous film. Sanjuro was the first of three Kurosawa films to be adapted from the work of the writer Shūgorō Yamamoto (the others would be Red Beard and Dodeskaden). It is lighter in tone and closer to a conventional period film than Yojimbo, though its story of a power struggle within a samurai clan is portrayed with strongly comic undertones. The film opened on January 1, 1962, quickly surpassing Yojimbo's box office success and garnering positive reviews.
Kurosawa had meanwhile instructed Toho to purchase the film rights to King's Ransom, a novel about a kidnapping written by American author and screenwriter Evan Hunter, under his pseudonym of Ed McBain, as one of his 87th Precinct series of crime books. The director intended to create a work condemning kidnapping, which he considered one of the very worst crimes. The suspense film, titled High and Low, was shot during the latter half of 1962 and released in March 1963. It broke Kurosawa's box office record (the third film in a row to do so), became the highest grossing Japanese film of the year, and won glowing reviews. However, his triumph was somewhat tarnished when, ironically, the film was blamed for a wave of kidnappings which occurred in Japan about this time (he himself received kidnapping threats directed at his young daughter, Kazuko). High and Low is considered by many commentators to be among the director's strongest works.
Kurosawa quickly moved on to his next project, Red Beard. Based on a short story collection by Shūgorō Yamamoto and incorporating elements from Dostoyevsky's novel The Insulted and Injured, it is a period film, set in a mid-19th century clinic for the poor, in which Kurosawa's humanist themes receive perhaps their fullest statement. A conceited and materialistic, foreign-trained young doctor, Yasumoto, is forced to become an intern at the clinic under the stern tutelage of Doctor Niide, known as "Akahige" ("Red Beard"), played by Mifune. Although he resists Red Beard initially, Yasumoto comes to admire his wisdom and courage, and to perceive the patients at the clinic, whom he at first despised, as worthy of compassion and dignity.
Yūzō Kayama, who plays Yasumoto, was an extremely popular film and music star at the time, particularly for his "Young Guy" (Wakadaishō) series of musical comedies, so signing him to appear in the film virtually guaranteed Kurosawa strong box-office. The shoot, the filmmaker's longest ever, lasted well over a year (after five months of pre-production), and wrapped in spring 1965, leaving the director, his crew and his actors exhausted. Red Beard premiered in April 1965, becoming the year's highest-grossing Japanese production and the third (and last) Kurosawa film to top the prestigious Kinema Jumpo yearly critics poll. It remains one of Kurosawa's best-known and most-loved works in his native country. Outside Japan, critics have been much more divided. Most commentators concede its technical merits and some praise it as among Kurosawa's best, while others insist that it lacks complexity and genuine narrative power, with still others claiming that it represents a retreat from the artist's previous commitment to social and political change.
The film marked something of an end of an era for its creator. The director himself recognized this at the time of its release, telling critic Donald Richie that a cycle of some kind had just come to an end and that his future films and production methods would be different. His prediction proved quite accurate. Beginning in the late 1950s, television began increasingly to dominate the leisure time of the formerly large and loyal Japanese cinema audience. And as film company revenues dropped, so did their appetite for risk—particularly the risk represented by Kurosawa's costly production methods.
Red Beard also marked the midway point, chronologically, in the artist's career. During his previous twenty-nine years in the film industry (which includes his five years as assistant director), he had directed twenty-three films, while during the remaining twenty-eight years, for many and complex reasons, he would complete only seven more. Also, for reasons never adequately explained, Red Beard would be his final film starring Toshiro Mifune. Yu Fujiki, an actor who worked on The Lower Depths, observed, regarding the closeness of the two men on the set, "Mr. Kurosawa's heart was in Mr. Mifune's body." Donald Richie has described the rapport between them as a unique "symbiosis." Virtually all critics agree that the strongest period of Kurosawa's career was the one between 1950 and 1965—bookended by Rashomon and Red Beard—and that it is not a coincidence that this phase corresponds almost exactly to the time that he and Mifune worked together.
When Kurosawa's exclusive contract with Toho came to an end in 1966, the 56-year-old director was seriously contemplating change. Observing the troubled state of the domestic film industry, and having already received dozens of offers from abroad, the idea of working outside Japan appealed to him as never before.
For his first foreign project, Kurosawa chose a story based on a Life magazine article. The Embassy Pictures action thriller, to be filmed in English and called simply Runaway Train, would have been his first in color. But the language barrier proved a major problem, and the English version of the screenplay was not even finished by the time filming was to begin in autumn 1966. The shoot, which required snow, was moved to autumn 1967, then canceled in 1968. Almost twenty years later, another foreigner working in Hollywood, Andrei Konchalovsky, would finally make Runaway Train, though from a script totally different from Kurosawa's.
The director meanwhile had become involved in a much more ambitious Hollywood project. Tora! Tora! Tora!, produced by 20th Century Fox and Kurosawa Production, would be a portrayal of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from both the American and the Japanese points-of-view, with Kurosawa helming the Japanese half and an English-speaking filmmaker directing the American half. He spent several months working on the script with Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni, but very soon the project began to unravel. The director chosen to film the American sequences turned out not to be the prestigious English filmmaker David Lean, as the producers had led Kurosawa to believe, but the much less celebrated special effects expert, Richard Fleischer. The budget was also cut, and the screen time allocated for the Japanese segment would now be no longer than 90 minutes—a major problem, considering that Kurosawa's script ran over four hours. After numerous revisions, a more or less finalized cut screenplay was agreed upon in May 1968. Shooting began in early December, but Kurosawa would last only a little over three weeks as director. He struggled to work with an unfamiliar crew and the requirements of a Hollywood production, while his working methods puzzled his American producers, who ultimately concluded that the director must be mentally ill. On Christmas Eve 1968, the Americans announced that Kurosawa had left the production due to "fatigue", effectively firing him. (He was ultimately replaced, for the film's Japanese sequences, with two directors, Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda.)
Tora! Tora! Tora!, finally released to unenthusiastic reviews in September 1970, was, as Donald Richie put it, an "almost unmitigated tragedy" in Kurosawa's career. He had spent years of his life on a logistically nightmarish project to which he ultimately did not contribute a foot of film shot by himself. (He had his name removed from the credits, though the script used for the Japanese half was still his and his co-writers'.) He became estranged from his longtime collaborator, writer Ryuzo Kikushima, and never worked with him again. The project had inadvertently exposed corruption in his own production company (a situation reminiscent of his own movie, The Bad Sleep Well). His very sanity had been called into question. Worst of all, the Japanese film industry—and perhaps the man himself—began to suspect that he would never make another film.
Knowing that his reputation was at stake following the much publicised Tora! Tora! Tora! debacle, Kurosawa moved quickly to a new project to prove he was still viable. To his aid came friends and famed directors Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa, who together with Kurosawa established in July 1969 a production company called the Club of the Four Knights (Yonki no kai). Although the plan was for the four directors to create a film each, it has been suggested that the real motivation for the other three directors was to make it easier for Kurosawa to successfully complete a film, and therefore find his way back into the business.
The first project proposed and worked on was a period film to be called Dora-Heita, but when this was deemed too expensive, attention shifted to Dodesukaden, an adaptation of yet another Shūgorō Yamamoto work, again about the poor and destitute. The film was shot quickly (by Kurosawa's standards) in about nine weeks, with Kurosawa determined to show he was still capable of working quickly and efficiently within a limited budget. For his first work in color, the dynamic editing and complex compositions of his earlier pictures were set aside, with the artist focusing on the creation of a bold, almost surreal palette of primary colors, in order to reveal the toxic environment in which the characters live. It was released in Japan in October 1970, but though a minor critical success, it was greeted with audience indifference. The picture lost money and caused the Club of the Four Knights to dissolve. Initial reception abroad was somewhat more favorable, but Dodesukaden has since been typically considered an interesting experiment not comparable to the director's best work.
Unable to secure funding for further work and allegedly suffering from health problems, Kurosawa apparently reached the breaking point: on December 22, 1971, he slit his wrists and throat multiple times. The suicide attempt proved unsuccessful and the director's health recovered fairly quickly, with Kurosawa now taking refuge in domestic life, uncertain if he would ever direct another film.
In early 1973, the Soviet studio Mosfilm approached the filmmaker to ask if he would be interested in working with them. Kurosawa proposed an adaptation of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev's autobiographical work Dersu Uzala. The book, about a Goldi hunter who lives in harmony with nature until destroyed by encroaching civilization, was one that he had wanted to make since the 1930s. In December 1973, the 63-year-old Kurosawa set off for the Soviet Union with four of his closest aides, beginning a year-and-a-half stay in the country. Shooting began in May 1974 in Siberia, with filming in exceedingly harsh natural conditions proving very difficult and demanding. The picture wrapped in April 1975, with a thoroughly exhausted and homesick Kurosawa returning to Japan and his family in June. Dersu Uzala had its world premiere in Japan on August 2, 1975, and did well at the box office. While critical reception in Japan was muted, the film was better reviewed abroad, winning the Golden Prize at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival, as well as an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Today, critics remain divided over the film: some see it as an example of Kurosawa's alleged artistic decline, while others count it among his finest works.
Although proposals for television projects were submitted to him, he had no interest in working outside the film world. Nevertheless, the hard-drinking director did agree to appear in a series of television ads for Suntory whiskey, which aired in 1976. While fearing that he might never be able to make another film, the director nevertheless continued working on various projects, writing scripts and creating detailed illustrations, intending to leave behind a visual record of his plans in case he would never be able to film his stories.
In 1977, American director George Lucas had released Star Wars, a wildly successful science fiction film influenced by Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, among other works. Lucas, like many other New Hollywood directors, revered Kurosawa and considered him a role model, and was shocked to discover that the Japanese filmmaker was unable to secure financing for any new work. The two met in San Francisco in July 1978 to discuss the project Kurosawa considered most financially viable: Kagemusha, the epic story of a thief hired as the double of a medieval Japanese lord of a great clan. Lucas, enthralled by the screenplay and Kurosawa's illustrations, leveraged his influence over 20th Century Fox to coerce the studio that had fired Kurosawa just ten years earlier to produce Kagemusha, then recruited fellow fan Francis Ford Coppola as co-producer.
Production began the following April, with Kurosawa in high spirits. Shooting lasted from June 1979 through March 1980 and was plagued with problems, not the least of which was the firing of the original lead actor, Shintaro Katsu—creator of the very popular Zatoichi character—due to an incident in which the actor insisted, against the director's wishes, on videotaping his own performance. (He was replaced by Tatsuya Nakadai, in his first of two consecutive leading roles in a Kurosawa movie.) The film was completed only a few weeks behind schedule and opened in Tokyo in April 1980. It quickly became a massive hit in Japan. The film was also a critical and box office success abroad, winning the coveted Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival in May, though some critics, then and now, have faulted the film for its alleged coldness. Kurosawa spent much of the rest of the year in Europe and America promoting Kagemusha, collecting awards and accolades, and exhibiting as art the drawings he had made to serve as storyboards for the film.
The international success of Kagemusha allowed Kurosawa to proceed with his next project, Ran, another epic in a similar vein. The script, partly based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, depicted a ruthless, bloodthirsty daimyo (warlord), played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who, after foolishly banishing his one loyal son, surrenders his kingdom to his other two sons, who then betray him, thus plunging the entire kingdom into war. As Japanese studios still felt wary about producing another film that would rank among the most expensive ever made in the country, international help was again needed. This time it came from French producer Serge Silberman, who had produced Luis Buñuel's final movies. Filming did not begin until December 1983 and lasted more than a year.
In January 1985, production of Ran was halted as Kurosawa's 64-year-old wife Yōko fell ill. She died on February 1. Kurosawa returned to finish his film and Ran premiered at the Tokyo Film Festival on May 31, with a wide release the next day. The film was a moderate financial success in Japan, but a larger one abroad and, as he had done with Kagemusha, Kurosawa embarked on a trip to Europe and America, where he attended the film's premieres in September and October.
Ran won several awards in Japan, but was not quite as honored there as many of the director's best films of the 1950s and 1960s had been. The film world was shocked, however, when Japan passed over the film in favor of another as its official entry to compete for an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Film category. Both the producer and Kurosawa himself attributed this to a misunderstanding: because of the Academy's arcane rules, no one was sure whether Ran qualified as a Japanese film, a French film (due to its financing), or both, so it was not submitted at all. In response to what at least appeared to be a blatant snub by his own countrymen, the director Sidney Lumet led a successful campaign to have Kurosawa receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director that year (Sydney Pollack ultimately won the award for directing Out of Africa). Ran's costume designer, Emi Wada, won the movie's only Oscar.
Kagemusha and Ran, particularly the latter, are often considered to be among Kurosawa's finest works. After Ran's release, Kurosawa would point to it as his best film, a major change of attitude for the director who, when asked which of his works was his best, had always previously answered "my next one."
For his next movie, Kurosawa chose a subject very different from any that he had ever filmed before. While some of his previous pictures (for example, Drunken Angel and Kagemusha) had included brief dream sequences, Dreams was to be entirely based upon the director's own dreams. Significantly, for the first time in over forty years, Kurosawa, for this deeply personal project, wrote the screenplay alone. Although its estimated budget was lower than the films immediately preceding it, Japanese studios were still unwilling to back one of his productions, so Kurosawa turned to another famous American fan, Steven Spielberg, who convinced Warner Bros. to buy the international rights to the completed film. This made it easier for Kurosawa's son, Hisao, as co-producer and soon-to-be head of Kurosawa Production, to negotiate a loan in Japan that would cover the film's production costs. Shooting took more than eight months to complete, and Dreams premiered at Cannes in May 1990 to a polite but muted reception, similar to the reaction the picture would generate elsewhere in the world.
Kurosawa now turned to a more conventional story with Rhapsody in August—the director's first film fully produced in Japan since Dodeskaden over twenty years before—which explored the scars of the nuclear bombing which destroyed Nagasaki at the very end of World War II. It was adapted from a Kiyoko Murata novel, but the film's references to the Nagasaki bombing came from the director rather than from the book. This was his only movie to include a role for an American movie star: Richard Gere, who plays a small role as the nephew of the elderly heroine. Shooting took place in early 1991, with the film opening on May 25 that year to a largely negative critical reaction, especially in the United States, where the director was accused of promulgating naïvely anti-American sentiments.
Kurosawa wasted no time moving onto his next project: Madadayo, or Not Yet. Based on autobiographical essays by Hyakken Uchida, the film follows the life of a Japanese professor of German through the Second World War and beyond. The narrative centers on yearly birthday celebrations with his former students, during which the protagonist declares his unwillingness to die just yet—a theme that was becoming increasingly relevant for the film's 81-year-old creator. Filming began in February 1992 and wrapped by the end of September. Its release on April 17, 1993, was greeted by an even more disappointed reaction than had been the case with his two preceding works.
Kurosawa nevertheless continued to work. He wrote the original screenplays The Sea is Watching in 1993 and After the Rain in 1995. While putting finishing touches on the latter work in 1995, Kurosawa slipped and broke the base of his spine. Following the accident, he would use a wheelchair for the rest of his life, putting an end to any hopes of him directing another film. His longtime wish—to die on the set while shooting a movie—was never to be fulfilled.
Following his accident in 1995, Kurosawa's health began to deteriorate. While his mind remained sharp and lively, his body was giving up, and for the last half year of his life, the director was largely confined to bed, listening to music and watching television at home. On September 6, 1998, Kurosawa died of a stroke in Setagaya, Tokyo, at the age of 88. Kurosawa was survived by his two children and four grandchildren, three from son Hisao's marriage to Hiroko Hayashi and one grandson, actor Takayuki Kato, from his daughter Kazuko Kurosawa.
Following Kurosawa's death, several posthumous works based on his unfilmed screenplays have been produced. After the Rain, directed by Takashi Koizumi, was released in 1998, and The Sea is Watching, directed by Kei Kumai, premiered in 2002. A script created by the Yonki no Kai ("Club of the Four Knights") (Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa), around the time that Dodeskaden was made, finally was filmed and released (in 2000) as Dora-Heita, by the only surviving founding member of the club, Kon Ichikawa.
All biographical sources, as well as the filmmaker's own comments, indicate that Kurosawa was a completely "hands-on" director, passionately involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process. As one interviewer summarized, "he (co-)writes his scripts, oversees the design, rehearses the actors, sets up all the shots and then does the editing." His active participation extended from the initial concept to the editing and scoring of the final product.
Kurosawa emphasized time and again that the screenplay was the absolute foundation of a successful film and that, though a mediocre director can sometimes make a passable film out of a good script, even an excellent director can never make a good film out of a bad script. During the postwar period, he began the practice of collaborating with a rotating group of five screenwriters: Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide. Whichever members of this group happened to be working on a particular film would gather around a table, often at a hot-springs resort, where they would not be distracted by the outside world. (Seven Samurai, for example, was written in this fashion.) Often they all (except Oguni, who acted as "referee") would work on exactly the same pages of the script, and Kurosawa would choose the best-written version from the different drafts of each particular scene. This method was adopted "so that each contributor might function as a kind of foil, checking the dominance of any one person's point-of-view."
In addition to the actual script, Kurosawa at this stage often produced extensive, fantastically detailed notes to elaborate his vision. For example, for Seven Samurai, he created six notebooks in which he created (among many other things) detailed biographies of the samurai, including what they wore and ate, how they walked, talked and behaved when greeted, and even how each tied his shoes. For the 101 peasant characters in the film, he created a registry consisting of 23 families and instructed the performers playing these roles to live and work as these "families" for the duration of shooting.
For his early films, although they were consistently well photographed, Kurosawa generally used standard lenses and deep-focus photography. Beginning with Seven Samurai (1954), however, Kurosawa's cinematic technique changed drastically with his extensive use of long lens and multiple cameras. The director claimed that he used these lenses and several cameras rolling at once to help the actors—allowing them to be photographed at some distance from the lens, and without any knowledge of which particular camera's image would be utilized in the final cut—making their performances much more natural. (In fact, Tatsuya Nakadai agreed that the multiple cameras greatly helped his performances with the director.) But these changes had a powerful effect as well on the look of the action scenes in that film, particularly the final battle in the rain. Says Stephen Prince: "He can use the telephoto lenses to get under the horses, in between their hooves, to plunge us into the chaos of that battle in a visual way that is really quite unprecedented, both in Kurosawa's own work and in the samurai genre as a whole."
With The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa began to utilize the widescreen (anamorphic) process for the first time in his work. These three techniques—long lenses, multiple cameras and widescreen—were in later works fully exploited, even in sequences with little or no overt action, such as the early scenes of High and Low that take place in the central character's home, in which they are employed to dramatize tensions and power relationships between the characters within a highly confined space.
For all his films, but particularly for his jidaigeki, Kurosawa insisted on absolute authenticity of sets, costumes and props. Numerous instances of his fanatical devotion to detail have been recorded, of which the following are only a few examples.
For Throne of Blood, in the scene where Washizu (Mifune) is attacked with arrows by his own men, the director had archers shoot real arrows, hollowed out and running along wires, toward Toshiro Mifune from a distance of about ten feet, with the actor carefully following chalk marks on the ground to avoid being hit. (Some of the arrows missed him by an inch; the actor, who admitted that he was not merely acting terrified in the film, suffered nightmares afterward).
For Red Beard, to construct the gate for the clinic set, Kurosawa had his assistants dismantle rotten wood from old sets and then create the prop from scratch with this old wood, so the gate would look properly ravaged by time. For the same film, for teacups that appeared in the movie, he ordered his crew to pour fifty years' worth of tea into the cups so they would appear appropriately stained.
For Ran, art director Yoshirō Muraki, constructing the "third castle" set under the director's supervision, created the "stones" of that castle by having photographs taken of actual stones from a celebrated castle, then painting Styrofoam blocks to exactly resemble those stones and gluing them to the castle "wall" through a process known as "rough-stone piling", which required months of work. Later, before shooting the famous scene in which the castle is attacked and set on fire, in order to prevent the Styrofoam "stones" from melting in the heat, the art department coated the surface with four layers of cement, then painted the colors of the ancient stones onto the cement.
Kurosawa both directed and edited most of his films, which is nearly unique among prominent filmmakers. Kurosawa often remarked that he shot a film simply in order to have material to edit, because the editing of a picture was the most important and creatively interesting part of the process for him. Kurosawa's creative team believed that the director's skill with editing was his greatest talent. Hiroshi Nezu, a longtime production supervisor on his films, said, "Among ourselves, we think that he is Toho's best director, that he is Japan's best scenarist, and that he is the best editor in the world. He is most concerned with the flowing quality which a film must have ... The Kurosawa film flows over the cut, as it were."
The director's frequent crew member Teruyo Nogami confirms this view. "Akira Kurosawa's editing was exceptional, the inimitable work of a genius ... No one was a match for him." She claimed that Kurosawa carried in his head all the information about all shots filmed, and if, in the editing room, he asked for a piece of film and she handed him the wrong one, he would immediately recognize the error, though she had taken detailed notes on each shot and he had not. She compared his mind to a computer, which could do with edited segments of film what computers do today.
Kurosawa's habitual method was to edit a film daily, bit by bit, during production. This helped particularly when he started using multiple cameras, which resulted in a large amount of film to assemble. "I always edit in the evening if we have a fair amount of footage in the can. After watching the rushes, I usually go to the editing room and work." Because of this practice of editing as he went along, the post-production period for a Kurosawa film could be startlingly brief: Yojimbo had its Japanese premiere on April 20, 1961, four days after shooting concluded on April 16.
Throughout his career, Kurosawa worked constantly with people drawn from the same pool of creative technicians, crew members and actors, popularly known as the "Kurosawa-gumi" (Kurosawa group). The following is a partial list of this group, divided by profession. This information is derived from the IMDB pages for Kurosawa's films and Stuart Galbraith IV's filmography:
Composers: Fumio Hayasaka (Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Scandal, Rashomon, The Idiot, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Record of a Living Being); Masaru Sato (Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Red Beard); Tōru Takemitsu (Dodeskaden, Ran); Shin-ichirō Ikebe (Kagemusha, Dreams, Rhapsody in August, Madadayo).
Cinematographers: Asakazu Nakai (No Regrets for Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Stray Dog, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Record of a Living Being, Throne of Blood, High and Low, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala, Ran); Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Yojimbo);[note 2] Takao Saitō (Sanjuro, High and Low, Red Beard, Dodeskaden, Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams, Rhapsody in August, Madadayo).
Art Department: Yoshirō Muraki served as either assistant art director, art director or production designer for all Kurosawa's films (except for Dersu Uzala) from Drunken Angel until the end of the director's career.
Production Crew: Teruyo Nogami served as script supervisor, production manager, associate director or assistant to the producer on all Kurosawa's films from Rashomon to the end of the director's career. Hiroshi Nezu was production supervisor or unit production manager on all the films from Seven Samurai to Dodeskaden, except Sanjuro. After retiring as a director, Ishirō Honda returned more than 30 years later to work again for his friend and former mentor as a directorial advisor, production coordinator and creative consultant on Kurosawa's last five films (Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Madadayo). Allegedly one segment of Dreams was actually directed by Honda following Kurosawa's detailed storyboards.
Actors: Leading actors: Takashi Shimura (21 films); Toshiro Mifune (16 films), Susumu Fujita (8 films), Tatsuya Nakadai (6 films) and Masayuki Mori (5 films). Supporting performers (in alphabetical order): Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Bokuzen Hidari, Fumiko Homma, Hisashi Igawa, Yunosuke Ito, Kyoko Kagawa, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Kokuten Kodo, Akitake Kono, Yoshio Kosugi, Koji Mitsui, Seiji Miyaguchi, Eiko Miyoshi, Nobuo Nakamura, Akemi Negishi, Denjiro Okochi, Noriko Sengoku, Gen Shimizu, Ichiro Sugai, Haruo Tanaka, Akira Terao, Eijiro Tono, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kichijiro Ueda, Atsushi Watanabe, Isuzu Yamada, Tsutomu Yamazaki and Yoshitaka Zushi.
Virtually all commentators have noted Kurosawa's bold, dynamic style, which many have compared to the traditional Hollywood style of narrative moviemaking, one that emphasizes, in the words of one such scholar, "chronological, causal, linear and historical thinking." But it has also been claimed that, from his very first film, the director displayed a technique quite distinct from the seamless style of classic Hollywood. This technique involved a disruptive depiction of screen space through the use of numerous unrepeated camera setups, a disregard for the traditional 180-degree axis of action around which Hollywood scenes have usually been constructed, and an approach in which "narrative time becomes spatialized", with fluid camera movement often replacing conventional editing. The following are some idiosyncratic aspects of the artist's style.
In his films of the 1940s and 1950s, Kurosawa frequently employs the "axial cut," in which the camera moves closer to, or further away from, the subject, not through the use of tracking shots or dissolves, but through a series of matched jump cuts. For example, in Sanshiro Sugata II, the hero takes leave of the woman he loves, but then, after walking away a short distance, turns and bows to her, and then, after walking further, turns and bows once more. This sequence of shots is illustrated on film scholar David Bordwell's blog. The three shots are not connected in the film by camera movements or dissolves, but by a series of two jump cuts. The effect is to stress the duration of Sanshiro's departure.
In the opening sequence of Seven Samurai in the peasant village, the axial cut is used twice. When the villagers are outdoors, gathered in a circle, weeping and lamenting the imminent arrival of the bandits, they are glimpsed from above in extreme long shot, then, after the cut, in a much closer shot, then in an even closer shot at ground level as the dialogue begins. A few minutes later, when the villagers go to the mill to ask the village elder's advice, there is a long shot of the mill, with a slowly turning wheel in the river, then a closer shot of this wheel, and then a still closer shot of it. (As the mill is where the elder lives, these shots forge a mental association in the viewer's mind between that character and the mill.)
A number of scholars have pointed out Kurosawa's tendency to "cut on motion": that is, to edit a sequence of a character or characters in motion so that an action is depicted in two or more separate shots, rather than one uninterrupted shot. One scholar, as an example, describes a tense scene in Seven Samurai in which the samurai Shichirôji, who is standing, wishes to console the peasant Manzo, who is sitting on the ground, and he gets down on one knee to talk to him. Kurosawa chooses to film this simple action in two shots rather than one (cutting between the two only after the action of kneeling has begun) to fully convey Shichirôji's humility. Numerous other instances of this device are evident in the movie. "Kurosawa [frequently] breaks up the action, fragments it, in order to create an emotional effect."
A form of cinematic punctuation very strongly identified with Kurosawa is the wipe. This is an effect created through an optical printer, in which, when a scene ends, a line or bar appears to move across the screen, "wiping" away the image while simultaneously revealing the first image of the subsequent scene. As a transitional device, it is used as a substitute for the straight cut or the dissolve (though Kurosawa, of course, often used both of those devices as well). In his mature work, Kurosawa employed the wipe so frequently that it became a kind of signature. For example, one blogger has counted no fewer than 12 instances of the wipe in Drunken Angel.
There are a number of theories concerning the purpose of this device, which, as James Goodwin notes, was common in silent cinema but became considerably rarer in the more "realistic" sound cinema. Goodwin claims that the wipes in Rashomon, for instance, fulfill one of three purposes: emphasizing motion in traveling shots, marking narrative shifts in the courtyard scenes and marking temporal ellipses between actions (e.g., between the end of one character's testimony and the beginning of another's). He also points out that in The Lower Depths, in which Kurosawa completely avoided the use of wipes, the director cleverly manipulated people and props "in order to slide new visual images in and out of view much as a wipe cut does."
An instance of the wipe used as a satirical device can be seen in Ikiru. A group of women visit the local government office to petition the bureaucrats to turn a waste area into a children's playground. The viewer is then shown a series of point of view shots of various bureaucrats, connected by wipe transitions, each of whom refers the group to another department. Nora Tennessen comments in her blog (which shows one example) that "the wipe technique makes [the sequence] funnier—images of bureaucrats are stacked like cards, each more punctilious than the last."
Kurosawa by all accounts always gave great attention to the soundtracks of his films (Teruyo Nogami's memoir gives many such examples). In the late 1940s, he began to employ music for what he called "counterpoint" to the emotional content of a scene, rather than merely to reinforce the emotion, as Hollywood traditionally did (and still does). The inspiration for this innovation came from a family tragedy. When news reached Kurosawa of his father's death in 1948, he wandered aimlessly through the streets of Tokyo. His sorrow was magnified rather than diminished when he suddenly heard the cheerful, vapid song "The Cuckoo Waltz", and he hurried to escape from this "awful music." He then told his composer, Fumio Hayasaka, with whom he was working on Drunken Angel, to use "The Cuckoo Waltz" as ironic accompaniment to the scene in which the dying gangster, Matsunaga, sinks to his lowest point in the narrative.
This ironic approach to music can also be found in Stray Dog, a film released a year after Drunken Angel. In the climactic scene, the detective Murakami is fighting furiously with the murderer Yusa in a muddy field. The sound of a Mozart piece is suddenly heard, played on the piano by a woman in a nearby house. As one commentator notes, "In contrast to this scene of primitive violence, the serenity of the Mozart is, literally, other-worldly" and "the power of this elemental encounter is heightened by the music." Nor was Kurosawa's "ironic" use of the soundtrack limited to music. One critic observes that, in Seven Samurai, "During episodes of murder and mayhem, birds chirp in the background, as they do in the first scene when the farmers lament their seemingly hopeless fate."
Many commentators have noted the frequent occurrence in Kurosawa's work of the complex relationship between an older and a younger man, who serve each other as master and disciple, respectively. This theme was clearly an expression of the director's life experience. "Kurosawa revered his teachers, in particular Kajiro Yamamoto, his mentor at Toho", according to Joan Mellen. "The salutary image of an older person instructing the young evokes always in Kurosawa's films high moments of pathos." The critic Tadao Sato considers the recurring character of the "master" to be a type of surrogate father, whose role it is to witness the young protagonist's moral growth and approve of it.
In his very first film, Sanshiro Sugata, after the Judo master Yano becomes the title character's teacher and spiritual guide, "the narrative [is] cast in the form of a chronicle studying the stages of the hero's growing mastery and maturity." The master-pupil relationship in the films of the postwar era—as depicted in such works as Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, Red Beard and Dersu Uzala—involves very little direct instruction, but much learning through experience and example; Stephen Prince relates this tendency to the private and nonverbal nature of the concept of Zen enlightenment.
By the time of Kagemusha, however, according to Prince, the meaning of this relationship has changed. A thief chosen to act as the double of a great lord continues his impersonation even after his master's death: "the relationship has become spectral and is generated from beyond the grave with the master maintaining a ghostly presence. Its end is death, not the renewal of commitment to the living that typified its outcome in earlier films." However, according to the director's biographer, in his final film, Madadayo—which deals with a teacher and his relationship with an entire group of ex-pupils—a sunnier vision of the theme emerges. "The students hold an annual party for their professor, attended by dozens of former students, now adults of varying age ... This extended sequence ... expresses, as only Kurosawa can, the simple joys of student-teacher relationships, of kinship, of being alive."
Kurosawa's is a heroic cinema, a series of dramas (mostly) concerned with the deeds and fates of larger-than-life heroes. Stephen Prince has identified the emergence of the unique Kurosawa protagonist with the immediate post-World War II period. The goal of the American Occupation to replace Japanese feudalism with individualism coincided with the director's artistic and social agenda: "Kurosawa welcomed the changed political climate and sought to fashion his own mature cinematic voice." The Japanese critic Tadao Sato concurs: "With defeat in World War II, many Japanese ... were dumbfounded to find that the government had lied to them and was neither just nor dependable. During this uncertain time Akira Kurosawa, in a series of first-rate films, sustained the people by his consistent assertion that the meaning of life is not dictated by the nation but something each individual should discover for himself through suffering." The filmmaker himself remarked that, during this period, "I felt that without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy."
The first such postwar hero was, atypically for the artist, a heroine—Yukie, played by Setsuko Hara, in No Regrets for Our Youth. According to Prince, her "desertion of family and class background to assist a poor village, her perseverance in the face of enormous obstacles, her assumption of responsibility for her own life and for the well-being of others, and her existential loneliness ... are essential to Kurosawan heroism and make of Yukie the first coherent ... example." This "existential loneliness" is also exemplified by Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura) in Drunken Angel: "Kurosawa insists that his heroes take their stand, alone, against tradition and battle for a better world, even if the path there is not clear. Separation from a corrupt social system in order to alleviate human suffering, as Sanada does, is the only honorable course."
Many commentators regard Seven Samurai as the ultimate expression of the artist's heroic ideal. Joan Mellen's comments are typical of this view: "Seven Samurai is above all a homage to the samurai class at its most noble ... Samurai for Kurosawa represent the best of Japanese tradition and integrity." Ironically, it is because of, not in spite of, the chaotic times of civil war depicted in the film that the seven rise to greatness. "Kurosawa locates the unexpected benefits no less than the tragedy of this historical moment. The upheaval forces samurai to channel the selflessness of their credo of loyal service into working for peasants." However, this heroism is futile because "there was already rising ... a merchant class which would supplant the warrior aristocracy." So the courage and supreme skill of the central characters will not prevent the ultimate destruction of themselves or their class.
As Kurosawa's career progressed he seemed to find it increasingly difficult to sustain the heroic ideal. As Prince notes, "Kurosawa's is an essentially tragic vision of life, and this sensibility ... impedes his efforts to realize a socially committed mode of filmmaking." Furthermore, the director's ideal of heroism is subverted by history itself: "When history is articulated as it is in Throne of Blood, as a blind force ... heroism ceases to be a problem or a reality." According to Prince, the filmmaker's vision eventually became so bleak that he would come to view history merely as eternally recurring patterns of violence, within which the individual is depicted as not only unheroic, but utterly helpless (see "Cycles of violence" below).
Nature is a crucial element in Kurosawa's films. According to Stephen Prince, "Kurosawa's sensibility, like that of many Japanese artists, is keenly sensitive to the subtleties and beauties of season and scenery." He has never hesitated to exploit climate and weather as plot elements, to the point where they become "active participants in the drama ... The oppressive heat in Stray Dog and Record of a Living Being is omnipresent and becomes thematized as a signifier of a world disjointed by economic collapse and the atomic threat." The director himself once said, "I like hot summers, cold winters, heavy rains and snows, and I think most of my pictures show this. I like extremes because I find them most alive."
Wind is also a powerful symbol: "The persistent metaphor of Kurosawa's work is that of wind, the winds of change, of fortune and adversity." "The visually flamboyant [final] battle [of Yojimbo] takes place in the main street, as huge clouds of dust swirl around the combatants ... The winds that stir the dust ... have brought firearms to the town along with the culture of the West, which will end the warrior tradition."
It is also difficult not to notice the importance of rain to Kurosawa: "Rain in Kurosawa's films is never treated neutrally. When it occurs ... it is never a drizzle or a light mist but always a frenzied downpour, a driving storm." "The final battle [in Seven Samurai] is a supreme spiritual and physical struggle, and it is fought in a blinding rainstorm, which enables Kurosawa to visualize an ultimate fusion of social groups ... but this climactic vision of classlessness, with typical Kurosawan ambivalence, has become a vision of horror. The battle is a vortex of swirling rain and mud ... The ultimate fusion of social identity emerges as an expression of hellish chaos."
Beginning with Throne of Blood (1957), an obsession with historical cycles of inexorable savage violence—what Stephen Prince calls "the countertradition to the committed, heroic mode of Kurosawa's cinema"—first appears. According to Donald Richie, within the world of that film, "Cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist." and Prince claims that its events "are inscribed in a cycle of time that infinitely repeats." (He uses as evidence the fact that Washizu's lord, unlike the kindly King Duncan of Shakespeare's play, had murdered his own lord years before to seize power, and is then murdered in turn by Washizu (the Macbeth character) for the same reason.) "The fated quality to the action of Macbeth ... was transposed by Kurosawa with a sharpened emphasis upon predetermined action and the crushing of human freedom beneath the laws of karma."
Prince claims that Kurosawa's last epics, Kagemusha and particularly Ran, mark a major turning point in the director's vision of the world. In Kagemusha, "where once [in the world of his films] the individual [hero] could grasp events tightly and demand that they conform to his or her impulses, now the self is but the epiphenomenon of a ruthless and bloody temporal process, ground to dust beneath the weight and force of history." The following epic, Ran, is "a relentless chronicle of base lust for power, betrayal of the father by his sons, and pervasive wars and murders." The historical setting of the film is used as "a commentary on what Kurosawa now perceives as the timelessness of human impulses toward violence and self-destruction." "History has given way to a perception of life as a wheel of endless suffering, ever turning, ever repeating", which is compared in many instances in the screenplay with hell. "Kurosawa has found hell to be both the inevitable outcome of human behavior and the appropriate visualization of his own bitterness and disappointment."
Despite the extraordinary acclaim that Kurosawa's work has received in Japan and abroad, his films, as well as Kurosawa as an individual, have also been subject to considerable criticism, much of it harsh. Below are summarized some of the more common criticisms of the director, both those made generally and those that are primarily voiced in Japan.
In the early to mid-1950s, a number of critics belonging to the French New Wave championed the films of the older Japanese master, Kenji Mizoguchi, at the expense of Kurosawa's work. New Wave critic-filmmaker Jacques Rivette, said: "You can compare only what is comparable and that which aims high enough ... [Mizoguchi] seems to be the only Japanese director who is completely Japanese and yet is also the only one that achieves a true universality, that of an individual."  According to such French commentators, Mizoguchi seemed, of the two artists, the more authentically Japanese. But at least one film scholar has questioned the validity of this dichotomy between "Japanese" Mizoguchi and "Western" Kurosawa by pointing out that "Mizo" had been as influenced by Western cinema and Western culture in general as Kurosawa, and that this is reflected in his work.
A criticism frequently directed at Kurosawa's films is that the director's preoccupation with ethical and moral themes led him at times to create what some commentators regard as sentimental or naïve work. Speaking of the postwar "slice of life" drama One Wonderful Sunday, for example, film scholar (and future politician) Audie Bock claimed that not even Kurosawa's celebrated prowess as an editor could save one particular scene from bathos: "The last sequence ... is an excruciating twelve minutes of the boy conducting an imaginary orchestra in an empty amphitheater while his girlfriend appeals directly to the camera for the viewer to join in. Angles and focal lengths change, details of leaves scattering in the wind are intercut, but nothing makes the scene go any faster."
Some controversy exists about the extent to which Kurosawa's films of the Second World War period could be considered propaganda. The cultural historian Peter B. High sees Kurosawa's wartime cinema as part of the propagandistic trend of Japan at war and as an example of many of these wartime conventions. High refers to his second film, The Most Beautiful, as a "dark and gloomy rendition of the standard formulas of the [home front] genre." Another controversy centers on his alleged refusal to acknowledge Japan's wartime guilt. In one of Kurosawa's last films, Rhapsody in August, an elderly survivor of the atomic attack on Nagasaki is visited by her half-Japanese, half-American nephew, Clark (Richard Gere), who appears (at least to some viewers) to apologize, as an American, for the city's wartime destruction. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote about this film: "A lot of people at Cannes were outraged that the film makes no mention of Pearl Harbor and Japan's atrocities in China ... If Clark can apologize for bombing Nagasaki, why can't Granny apologize for the raid on Pearl Harbor?"
A number of critics have reacted negatively to the female characters in Kurosawa's movies. Joan Mellen, in her examination of this subject, has maintained that, by the time of Red Beard (1965), "women in Kurosawa have become not only unreal and incapable of kindness, but totally bereft of autonomy, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional ... Women at their best may only imitate the truths men discover." Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince concurs with Mellen's view, though less censoriously: "Unlike a male-oriented director like Sam Peckinpah, Kurosawa is not hostile to women, but his general lack of interest in them should be regarded as a major limitation of his work."
In Japan, both critics and other filmmakers have sometimes accused his work of elitism, because of his focus on exceptional, heroic individuals and groups of men. In her commentary on the deluxe DVD edition of Seven Samurai, Joan Mellen maintains that certain shots of the samurai characters Kambei and Kyuzo, which to her reveal Kurosawa "privileging" these samurai, "support the argument voiced by several Japanese critics that Kurosawa was an elitist ... Kurosawa was hardly a progressive director, they argued, since his peasants could not discover among their own ranks leaders who might rescue the village. Instead, justifying the inequitable class structure of their society and ours, the peasants must rely on the aristocracy, the upper class, and in particular samurai, to ensure their survival ... Kurosawa defended himself against this charge in his interview with me. 'I wanted to say that after everything the peasants were the stronger, closely clinging to the earth ... It was the samurai who were weak because they were being blown by the winds of time.'"
Because of Kurosawa's popularity with European and American audiences from the early 1950s onward, he has not escaped the charge of deliberately catering to the tastes of Westerners to achieve or maintain that popularity. Joan Mellen, recording the violently negative reaction (in the 1970s) of the left-wing director Nagisa Oshima to Kurosawa and his work, states: "That Kurosawa had brought Japanese film to a Western audience meant [to Oshima] that he must be pandering to Western values and politics." Kurosawa always strongly denied pandering to Western tastes: "He has never catered to a foreign audience" writes Audie Bock, "and has condemned those who do."
Kurosawa was often criticized by his countrymen for perceived "arrogant" behavior. It was in Japan that the (initially) disparaging nickname "Kurosawa Tennō"—"The Emperor Kurosawa"—was coined. "Like tennō", Yoshimoto claimed, "Kurosawa is said to cloister himself in his own small world, which is completely cut off from the everyday reality of the majority of Japanese. The nickname tennō is used in this sense to create an image of Kurosawa as a director who abuses his power solely for the purpose of self-indulgence."
Many celebrated directors have been influenced by Kurosawa and/or have expressed admiration for his work. The filmmakers cited below are grouped according to three categories: a) those who, like Kurosawa himself, established international critical reputations in the 1950s and early 1960s; b) the so-called "New Hollywood" directors, that is, American moviemakers who, for the most part, established their reputations in the early to mid-1970s; and c) other Asian directors.
Ingmar Bergman called his own film The Virgin Spring "touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa", and added, "At that time my admiration for the Japanese cinema was at its height. I was almost a samurai myself!" Federico Fellini in an interview declared the director "the greatest living example of all that an author of the cinema should be"—despite admitting to having seen only one of his films, Seven Samurai. Roman Polanski in 1965 cited Kurosawa as one of his three favorite filmmakers (with Fellini and Orson Welles), singling out Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress for praise. Bernardo Bertolucci considered the Japanese master's influence to be seminal: "Kurosawa's movies and La Dolce Vita of Fellini are the things that pushed me, sucked me into being a film director."
Kurosawa's "New Hollywood" admirers have included Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and John Milius. Robert Altman, when he first saw Rashomon (during the period when he worked regularly in television rather than feature films), was so impressed by its cinematographer's achievement of shooting several shots with the camera aimed directly at the sun—allegedly it was the first film in which this was done successfully—that he claims he was inspired the very next day to begin incorporating shots of the sun into his television work. It was Coppola who said of Kurosawa, "One thing that distinguishes [him] is that he didn't make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces." Both Spielberg and Scorsese have praised the older man's role as teacher and role model—as a sensei, to use the Japanese term. Spielberg has declared, "I have learned more from him than from almost any other filmmaker on the face of the earth", while Scorsese remarked, "Let me say it simply: Akira Kurosawa was my master, and ... the master of so many other filmmakers over the years." As already noted above, several of these moviemakers were also instrumental in helping Kurosawa obtain financing for his late films: Lucas and Coppola served as co-producers on Kagemusha, while the Spielberg name, lent to the 1990 production, Dreams, helped bring that picture to fruition.
As the first Asian filmmaker to achieve international prominence, Kurosawa has naturally served as an inspiration for other Asian auteurs. Of Rashomon, the most famous director of India, Satyajit Ray, said: "The effect of the film on me [upon first seeing it in Calcutta in 1952] was electric. I saw it three times on consecutive days, and wondered each time if there was another film anywhere which gave such sustained and dazzling proof of a director's command over every aspect of film making." Other Asian admirers include the Japanese actor and director Takeshi Kitano, Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo and mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who called Kurosawa "the quintessential Asian director."
Kurosawa Production Co., established in 1959, continues to oversee much of Kurosawa's legacy. The director's son, Hisao Kurosawa, is the current head of the company. Its American subsidiary, Kurosawa Enterprises, is located in Los Angeles. Rights to Kurosawa's works are held by Kurosawa Production and the film studios under which he worked, most notably Toho. Kurosawa Production works closely with the Akira Kurosawa Foundation, established in December 2003 and also run by Hisao Kurosawa. The foundation organizes an annual short film competition and spearheads Kurosawa-related projects, including a recently shelved one to build a memorial museum for the director.
In 1981, the Kurosawa Film Studio was opened in Yokohama; two additional locations have since been launched in Japan. A large collection of archive material, including scanned screenplays, photos and news articles, has been made available through the Akira Kurosawa Digital Archive, a Japanese website maintained by Ryukoku University Digital Archives Research Center in collaboration with Kurosawa Production. Anaheim University's Akira Kurosawa School of Film was launched in spring 2009 with the backing of Kurosawa Production. It offers online programs in digital film making, with headquarters in Anaheim and a learning center in Tokyo.
Two film awards have also been named in Kurosawa's honor. The Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film Directing is awarded during the San Francisco International Film Festival, while the Akira Kurosawa Award is given during the Tokyo International Film Festival. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth in 2010, a project called AK100 was launched in 2008. The AK100 Project aims to "expose young people who are the representatives of the next generation, and all people everywhere, to the light and spirit of Akira Kurosawa and the wonderful world he created."
Anaheim University in cooperation with the Kurosawa Family established the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film to offer online and blended learning programs on Akira Kurosawa and filmmaking.
All thirty films directed by Kurosawa are available on DVD worldwide, most of them from more than one distributor and in more than one region code. His films have begun to be released on Blu-ray.
Work with Akira Kurosawa credited as writer, by year:
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