Akiro Kurosawa was one of the great movie directors of Japan. For a number of reasons, he is the most popular among film aficionados of the western world. He was influenced by western classics and some of his films inspired European and American directors to use the ideas from their stories.
Born in Tokyo in March 1910, Kurosawa was somewhat privileged in coming from a well-respected family, with a schoolteacher father from a former samurai family. He had three brothers and four sisters, of whom he was the youngest. Sadly all his brothers and sisters died young, and he was the only son left when he was 23 years old.
One of his brothers had died before Kurosawa was born, and, as a child, he was close to another older brother, Heigo. His family survived the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, but Heigo took his 13 year old brother, Akiro, through the town afterwards. The terrible sights they saw were an experience he never forgot.
Heigo does not seem to have had a happy nature. He took his own life after losing his work as a narrator in a film theater. In Japan, narrators talked through the old silent movies for the audience, but, of course, they were not needed once films were made with sound. Kurosawa had already lost a sister he loved. She became ill and died when he was only ten. His third brother died soon after Heigo. The loss of his siblings must have been very hard for him.
His father believed in the educational possibilities of the medium of film, so he had been introduced to motion pictures when he was very young. He began his directing career, after a six year apprenticeship to Kajiro Yamamoto, at the age of 32.
This was in 1942, during the Second World War, so his early movies were really propagandist in relation to the war. Under the eye of the Japanese state officials, he cut his teeth and proved his worth. His first movie, released in 1943, was Sanshiro Sugata. It included a fantastic martial arts sequence that was the first forerunner of those in recent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The drama was also reinforced by wild, windy weather, which was to become a feature of his movies and earn him the nickname, “wind man”.
Employing the weather to echo the content was just one of the regular features of his movies. Kurosawa also frequently used the “wipe” to great effect when moving from scene to scene, a technique that was to become famous through its use in the Star Wars films. Whenever possible he shot with several cameras, and his films included many long shots as he felt actors were more at ease at a distance from the camera, so that his characters looked more natural.
The stories he chose to film were mainly about Japanese people, but their themes were universal. That is why he was able to adapt his ideas and his scripts from western literature as well as from Japanese. His movies were about the problems of the human condition, and how his characters dealt with them.
But Kurosawa’s first love was art. When he took up his film apprenticeship, it was for financial reasons. He hadn’t been able to make an adequate living from drawing and painting, or from the articles he wrote for the radical press in Tokyo. But he was able to take these skills into his new career, depicting his ideas for the scenes in his films, and writing his own scripts. In fact, he was so hands-on that he is also known for doing his own editing as well.
Once he was involved in making motion pictures, his life was submerged in the medium. If he wasn’t involved in production, he was writing or planning the next movie. When he married, in 1945, it was to actress Yoko Yaguchi, who starred in one of his early films, The Most Beautiful. She knew about film-making and she must have realized how her husband’s career would impact their family life. They had two children. Hisao, their son, is following in his father’s footsteps as a movie director, while their daughter, Kazuko, designs costumes for films.
Kurosawa was fully occupied through most of his lengthy career. International recognition came in 1951 when his historical movie, Rashoman, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. However, it seems that, although he continued to make a film nearly every year throughout the 1950sand well into the 60s, he was still not highly valued in his mother country.
His films were great because of his perfectionism, but this was expensive and time consuming. For the film, Red Beard, he dragged out the production over two years to take the newness out of the sets and costumes and get the effects he wanted.
He eventually found it difficult to find funding for his film projects. His first color movie, Dodes’ka-den, was released in 1970 after a break of five years. The movie was about the lives of poor slum dwellers and their struggle for survival, dour and unpleasant subject matter. It was not well received by the critics of Japan. This affected him so badly that he tried to commit suicide. Fortunately he was not successful and lived to continue to provide the world’s film buffs with some great movies.
But his most prolific time was past. Before 1951, when his talents were recognized by the film world with Rashomon, the film he released the previous year, Kurosawa had already made 11 movies. As well as Sanshiro Sugata Parts I (1943) & II (1945) and The Most Beautiful (1944), these were Those Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945); Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), No Regrets For Our Youth (1946); One Wonderful Sunday (1947); Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949); Stray Dog (1949); Scandal (1950).
Kurosawa never compromised on selecting risky subject matter, his next film that also came out in 1951, was The Idiot, which was based on the novel by Dostoevsky. This was a lengthy film that, to his chagrin, was cut by over an hour and a half by the studio, supposedly to make it more popular with audiences. His original cut has never been found since.
Next followed Living in 1952, about the way a terminally ill man chose to spend his final days. In 1954, he released The Seven Samurai, the plot of which has been copied and adapted a number of times, resulting in movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and even the computer animation, A Bug’s Life (1998).
I Live in Fear was released in 1955, telling the story of a man who was terrified of a nuclear holocaust after the end of the Second World War. Throne of Blood, one of his two films released in 1957, was based on the William Shakespeare play, Macbeth. The second film that year was The Lower Depths, an adaptation of the play by Maxim Gorky. This fascination of his with western literature was one of the factors that contributed to Kurosawa’s unpopularity with Japanese studios in the later years.
The movie that followed in 1958 was The Hidden Fortress or, to give it the full translation of its Japanese title, The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress. This was based on a Japanese legend in which a princess turns herself into a peasant in order to save her realm. If this makes you think of the Star Wars films, you are not alone. There is much east/west cross-fertilization of ideas.
The story of The Bad Sleep Well, from 1960, might remind you of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although it is set in contemporary Japan. Then Kurosawa turned back to the samurai theme for Yojimbo and Sanjuro, released the next two years consecutively. The way he shot the first was clearly reminiscent of the Hollywood western genre. It soon inspired another western, A Fistful of Dollars (1960),and later a remake called Last Man Standing (1996) in the genre of the gangster thriller.
After these pictures firmly set in Japan’s past, Kurosawa demonstrated his versatility by returning to a contemporary city setting. High and Low (1963) is a tale of business strategies, a kidnapping and a moral dilemma, plus some great cops and robbers sequences.
The final masterpiece in this long run of consecutive films was Red Beard (1965). Set in nineteenth century Japan, this tells of the way a young doctor’s learns the true meaning of his calling and becomes a better person. The meticulous attention to detail that made this film so costly was the last straw for Japanese producers so that it was several years before he could get the backing for Dodes’ka-den (1970), the movie that was so pilloried in his own country that he wanted to end his life.
Unable to get Japanese backing, Kurosawa eventually made his next film in Siberia, eastern Russia, and in the Russian language. How ironic that, while a number of his other movies were nominated, the beautiful Dersu Uzala should be the film that took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975.
Five years later, Kurosawa is back in 16th century Japan with the epic Kagemussha or The Shadow Warrior. This movie had many award nominations and was joint BAFTA winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.
By 1985, when he released his next outstanding epic, Ran, the 75 year old Kurosawa’s eyesight was failing. During the making of this film, he lost his wife of nearly 40 years, but only allowed himself one day of mourning away from the set. The translation of Ran is ‘Chaos’ and the film’s story has similarities to Shakespeare’s King Lear, although Kurosawa himself said he had not realized that as he was writing the script some seven years earlier. Again he had to seek funding from overseas to satisfy his need for perfection, this time finding it in the form of a $12 million budget from French producer, Serge Silberman. Film politics ensured that Ran was not considered for many of the top awards of its year, although Kurosawa himself won an honorary award.
That was Kurosawa’s last epic, but he was able to make three more films before his health forced him to stop. Dreams (1990), as its title suggests, was a sequence of eight dreams with Japanese significance. Rhapsody in August (1991) is set in contemporary Japan and returns to the theme of the aftermath of the atomic bombings at the end of the Second World War. Unusually, an American actor, Richard Gere, is one of the stars in this movie. His final film, Madadayo (1993), is a gentle, even sentimental, story of the life, and approaching death, of a university professor beloved by his students.
Kurosawa died in September 1993, leaving the world of film a little diminished, while enriched by his heritage of movies. Covering so many different genres and themes, they all display his genius for getting to the heart of the matter and portraying it superbly, with perfection in every little detail on the screen.