Spotlight on Directors: Akira Kurosawa

Born in 1910, Akira Kurosawa was a Japanese director who reached critical acclaim through his film making prowess. Known to be involved in all aspects of his films (writing, directing, editing, etc.), Kurosawa’s films often featured heavy philosophical themes. These themes typically revolved around questions such as what is truth and when is violence justified? Also frequently appearing in Kurosawa’s films are messages underlining the dangers of unbridled passion and hubris, along with valiant heroes (typically outsiders) who rise to the challenge to defeat evil or accomplish some fantastic feat for the benefit of the community. If this sounds familiar to some westerns you have seen, there is a very good reason: Kurosawa was not only influenced greatly by Western filmmakers, but he also influenced, and continues to influence, an entire generation of moviemakers. Whether it’s George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the creators of A Bug’s Life, or countless others, Kurosawa’s influence is undeniable. [1]

Compiled below are all of Kurosawa’s films currently available at Herrick District Library. I’ve made sure to provide some information about each in the hopes they’ll pique your curiosity. Check some of these out, I think you’ll be surprised how similar some of these decades old Japanese films are to modern American movies. 

Released in 1950, Rashomon takes place sometime between 794-1185. The story revolves around the murder, or suicide, depending on who you ask, of a samurai. Following the discovery of the samurai’s body, three people are brought into court as the authorities try to determine what happened to the samurai. The three individuals who are brought in are a local bandit, the wife of the samurai, and a Shinto medium who speaks on behalf of the dead samurai. Each story is told with a different slant idealizing the person telling the story. In doing so, Kurosawa explores the idea of subjective truth and the fallibility in storytelling. Rashomon was met with critical acclaim outside of Japan and is often thought of as the first film to spark widespread interest in Japanese filmmaking outside of Japan. The film continues to influence television and film, with shows such as King of the Hill, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Frasier all having episodes based on the film. Likewise, recent movies such as The Last Duel and Star Wars: The Last Jedi heavily drew inspiration in the narrative style of Rashomon. [2]

A movie adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel of the same name, The Idiot, was released just one year after Rashomon in 1951. Originally this film was slated to be nearly four and a half hours long, before the studio made Kurosawa reduce it by 100 minutes, making the official runtime just shy of three hours. Similar to the novel it is based on, The Idiot tells the story of a kind hearted man suffering from “epileptic dementia” and the toll the world takes on his soul. Although a large portion of the film was cut from the final release, what was included is considered to be an accurate adaptation from the novel. [3] 

Ikiru is a 1952 movie directed by Kurosawa about a terminally ill bureaucrat trying to come to terms with his own mortality and find meaning in the final days of his life. Already a widow and estranged from his son, the protagonist, Kanji Watanabe, begins his search by pursuing a hedonistic lifestyle, only to find it meaningless. For the sake of not spoiling the entire story, I’ll end the synopsis here. This touching and inspirational work is often considered to be one of Kurosawa’s best films, earning high praise from Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese alike. Ikiru’s legacy continues to this day and was recently adapted as a British television show named Living. Although this movie was created over seventy years ago in a country over 5,000 miles away, the universal themes of this film make it easily accessible to all audiences. [4] 

Kurosawa didn’t pump the brakes following the success of his previous three movies; if anything, he went full speed ahead with his next film, Seven Samurai. Released in 1954, Seven Samurai tells the story of a Japanese village which finds itself at the mercy of a bandit gang. In need of help, one of the elders of the village decides they should hire a samurai to help them. As the village is poor, they seek out and hire a samurai who is willing to work for food rather than money. The village eventually finds a samurai who is desperate enough to help them, who in turn enlists the help of additional samurai. While the additional help is welcomed, the village and the mercenary samurai find themselves at odds with each other as questions of loyalty and trust arise. Will the samurai be able to defend the village? Will they get overpowered and lose? Or will they cut and run once things start to get difficult? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

If this movie doesn’t sound like your thing, you can watch any multitude of the films and television shows inspired by it. There is no shortage of Westerns that are nearly direct remakes of this film but replace the samurai with cowboys instead. These soft-remakes include The Magnificent Seven, its 2016 remake, The Invincible Six, Star Wars: Rogue One, as well as an episode of both The Mandalorian and Star Wars: Clone Wars television shows. Likewise, Seven Samurai is responsible for the aptly named Seven Samurai formula, where a ragtag team of characters are brought together to accomplish a mission. The list of movies that follow this formula are endless, but a handful of them include Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, The Expendables, The Avengers, Saving Private Ryan, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Needless to say, it is almost impossible to have seen a movie at this point that hasn’t been shaped in some way by Seven Samurai. [5] 

We fast forward a few years to 1958 for the next film available for checkout, Hidden Fortress. Hidden Fortress follows the story of two peasant friends who decide to become soldiers in the Yamana clan, only to be mistaken for soldiers of their enemy clan, the Akizuki, and captured. They eventually gain their freedom, get into an argument, split up, and then reunite after being captured and forced into slave labor. While they are captured, they meet a mysterious man, who unbeknownst to them is a general of the defeated Akizuki clan, who has a plan for how to escape their forced labor. This plan will take them directly through Yamana territory to the Akizuki clan’s territory. To ensure they are safe when they get to Akizuki territory, they travel with a princess of the Akizuki, whose identity is kept hidden from all but the general of the Akizuki clan.

If any of this sounds familiar, there is good reason for it: George Lucas copied nearly everything in Hidden Fortress when he created Star Wars: A New Hope. Replace the Yamana clan with the Empire, the Akizuki clan with the Rebels, the two peasants with droids, Princess Yuki with Princess Leia, and the Akizuki general with Obi Wan, and you’ve got pretty much the exact same movie. Even parts of the movie Lucas didn’t take from Hidden Fortress for Star Wars: A New Hope, such as the general’s daughter playing the body double of Princess Yuki to ensure the real Princess Yuki is kept safe, would later make its way into the storyline of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace via Padme and her handmaidens. While a lot can be said about the movie Hidden Fortress itself, perhaps the biggest testament to the film’s influence is if it hadn’t been made, Star Wars, and everything that spawned from it, would not exist. This isn’t to say Lucas is a fraud, but there is a certain level of reverence belonging to Hidden Fortress for the impact it continues to have on popular culture to this day. [6] 

If Star Wars is considered to be an unofficial remake of Hidden Fortress, then A Fistful of Dollars should be thought of as a shot for shot remake of Yojimbo. As a matter of fact, A Fistful of Dollars is so similar to Yojimbo that Sergio Leone and his production company were sued by Kurosawa and his production company for not obtaining the rights to recreate Kurosawa’s film. The case was eventually settled out of court, which is not to say the similarities between the two films are any less. This is another instance of samurais being swapped out for cowboys. In Yojimbo, a lone samurai intercedes between two warring crime bosses to restore peace in a village torn apart by violence and bloodshed. In A Fistful of Dollars, a lone cowboy intercedes between two warring families to do the same. And while Star Wars and other movies might have changed around some aspects of Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress, A Fistful of Dollars contains many of the same scenes as Yojimbo. For this reason, Kurosawa says Leone made “a fine movie, but it was my movie.” [7]

With this being the case, Kurosawa, through the movie Sergio Leone made, had a significant impact on the Western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first in a series of three movies called the Man with No Name series that, along with A Fistful of Dollars, includes For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While these movies were derided as being overly violent and inferior to American made Westerns on their release, they had a long-lasting impact on the Western genre, and movie making as a whole. The Man with No Name series introduced a grittier and darker representation of the American West which directly contrasted with how the West was traditionally conceptualized. Likewise, this series introduced characters who were more morally ambiguous, rather than falling on either extreme of the good/bad spectrum. All this to say, the impact Kurosawa’s Yojimbo had is nothing short of genre defining. [8]  

Deviating from the last few movies we’ve looked at, High and Low is not a samurai movie. Instead, Kurosawa tried his hand at a police procedural based off of the book King’s Ransom by Ed McBain. As such, it follows a pretty similar formula to modern police drama TV shows. Kurosawa doesn’t reinvent the wheel with this film, but does tell an entertaining story. When wealthy businessman Kingo Gondo’s friend’s son is kidnapped, Gondo is placed between a rock and a hard place. Will Gondo pay the ransom, losing his opportunity to buyout the company he works for, or will Gondo have to make the difficult decision of ignoring the ransom? While not as impactful as some of his previous works, movie director Martin Scorsese includes it on his list of "39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker," demonstrating that even when Kurosawa deviates from the samurai-action genre, he still has inspiration to lend to other directors. [9] 

The next movie on our list is a 1965 movie by the name of Red Beard (also sometimes called Akahige), which was co-written and directed by Kurosawa. This movie tells the story of a young doctor at the end of the Tokugawa era, roughly around the 1860s, who has high aspirations to be the doctor of the Shogunate, the de facto ruler of Japan. Instead of being given a job in the military which would allow him to rise through the ranks, the films protagonist, Noboru Yasumoto, is given a job in a small rural village under the tutelage of Dr. Kyojō Niide. Infuriated by his assignment, Yasumoto responds with defiance until he learns more about the personal lives of the patients at the clinic. The themes of one’s life purpose and impact are explored heavily throughout the story. Although this film did poorly outside of Japan, within Japan Red Beard was considered to be Kurosawa’s masterpiece, particularly high praise given the influence some of his previous movies had.

This movie had a profound impact on Kurosawa’s own life as it was the last film he worked on with Toshiro Mifune. Prior to this film, Mifune acted in fifteen of Kurosawa’s films. After Red Beard, though, he had to throw in the towel on working alongside Kurosawa, citing Kurosawa’s long production schedule often caused him to miss opportunities to star in other films and movies. This film also demonstrates the amount of cachet Kurosawa had accumulated within the Japanese film industry. To demonstrate this point, the village this film takes place in is one giant set created to be the size of a town, complete with backroads and alleyways. In an effort to keep the set as historically accurate as possible, the set was constructed from lumber which came from farmhouses built in the time the film is supposed to take place. Even the bedding for the interior scenes were slept in for months prior to filming so they looked properly aged. In light of all of this work, the entirety of the village is shown for less than a minute. While this might demonstrate an excessive amount of waste, it also demonstrates how respected Kurosawa was to be able to get the funding to pull this off. [10] 

The 1970 World War II epic, Tora! Tora! Tora! would mark the start of a very difficult time in Kurosawa’s life. While the final cut of Tora! Tora! Tora! had no footage on it filmed by Kurosawa, despite working on the film for at least two years, this film would be a permanent blemish on the rest of his career. In light of the fact this movie isn’t a Kurosawa film in the same sense as the rest of the films on this list, I felt it was important to include because it contextualizes the reception some of his later films received. For this reason, I don’t want to spend too much time going over the film itself, besides some precursory information.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was envisioned to be a film which would present both an American and Japanese point of view of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. To achieve this, the film created two separate production companies, one to tell the American side of Pearl Harbor, and one to tell the Japanese side. In doing so, the film technically created two separate movies and joined them together to create the overall finished product. Originally, Kurosawa was hired to direct the Japanese sequence of the film. After only two weeks of filming, Kurosawa was fired and replaced by Japanese directors Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda. The cited reason for Kurosawa’s firing was because of a diagnosis of neurasthenia that caused him to be prescribed over two months of rest for treatment of fatigue. In reality, Kurosawa was likely experiencing the effects of burnout more than anything else. [11]

So, what was causing Kurosawa to feel such intense burnout? For one, the director who was hired to direct the American sequence was replaced with a new director, likely impacting any type of rapport he had with the American production team. Furthermore, the budget and the expected runtime for the Japanese sequence was cut. While Kurosawa’s original script ran for over four hours it now had to be cut to under ninety minutes. I am personally unsure how Kurosawa anticipated on helping to make a cohesive film when his sequence ran longer than the entire runtime of the final film with both the American and Japanese sequence.

Perhaps most notably, what was most difficult for Kurosawa was working in a movie making environment completely different than the one he often found himself in. Unlike when he worked on films in the past, Tora! Tora! Tora! put him in a position where he didn’t have the same autonomy he was used to. Instead of being able to dictate most aspects of the film, as he did when he created the prior films on this list, he now had a boss he had to answer to. He now had to deal with things like rewrites, schedule changes, budgets, and deadlines that were dictated by someone other than himself. All of this put Kurosawa under an immense level of stress he seldom, if ever, found himself under when creating films in the past. This stress, along with his unconventional style of directing, led to questions being raised about his own sanity, leading him to his neurasthenia diagnosis. [12]

When the press caught wind of Kurosawa’s condition, questions quickly began to surface about his stability and his ability to create another great film. Those who were often eager to finance his films distanced themselves from him. In an effort to show he was still a viable director, Kurosawa quickly directed the film Dodes'ka-den in 1970. Due to lack of funding, Kurosawa had to mortgage his house to be able to pay for the creation of the film. The success of this film was necessary to Kurosawa because its success would mean that even after the Tora! Tora! Tora! debacle, he could still be considered a worthy investment to those wishing to make a film. Unfortunately, Dodes'ka-den was a failure, leaving Kurosawa racked with debt and a future perhaps even more uncertain than it was prior to the release of the film. After this film, Kurosawa would survive an attempted death by suicide and take a temporary break from film making. [13]

Kurosawa’s detour into the domestic life would come to a halt in 1972, when he was approached by Mosfilm to create a movie based on the 1923 memoir by Russian explorer and author Vladimir Arsenyev titled Dersu Uzala. This was a film Kurosawa had wanted to create earlier in his life, but because the book takes place in Siberia, and due to the restrictions imposed on foreigners wishing to film in the Soviet Union, he was unable to. Being approached by Mosfilm and receiving full creative control provided Kurosawa with the perfect opportunity to fulfil his wish.

The film itself was released in 1975 and, similar to the memoir, is about the friendship between explorer Vladimir Arsenyev and Nanai trapper Dersu Uzala and the travels the two found themselves on. As Siberia is a harsh and cold environment, the film follows Arsenyev’s surveying group as Dersu Uzala leads them through harrowing expeditions. Since most of the story unfolds throughout these expeditions, I don’t want to say much more and spoil the film besides for the fact the film looks beautiful. Being shot onsite in Siberia, the viewer gets a bit of a feel for how intense the area can be. Although the film lacked some of the acclaim his earlier films garnered, it was by no means the failure Dodes'ka-den was. If anything, the extended (nearly a year and a half) period of filming on location demonstrated Kurosawa was still serious about making movies in a period of life where his ability was being called into question.

Although I cannot say for certain, my assumption is the lack of acclaim this film received was less to do with the content and more to do with the distribution. The majority of screenings appear to have been mostly in the Soviet Union and Japan, with limited screenings in the United States, Canada, and France. Because this film was less accessible, it was likely looked over by filmgoers as this year also saw the release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jaws, Barry Lyndon, The Mirror (also from Mosfilm), Dog Day Afternoon, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. [14]  

The story behind the creation of Kagemusha brings Kurosawa’s influence on George Lucas and other Hollywood directors full-circle. Upon hearing Kurosawa was struggling to secure the finances to create another movie, George Lucas met with Kurosawa in 1978, a year after the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, to try to help the director for who he owed much of his newfound success to. During this meeting, Lucas and Kurosawa decided Kagemusha would be the most viable project to fund. Following this, Lucas used his connections to influence 20th Century Fox, who fired Kurosawa no more than a decade earlier while working on Tora! Tora! Tora!, to help produce and distribute the film. At this same time, Lucas recruited director Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and overall Kurosawa fan, to help co-produce the film. [15]

The film itself takes place in the late 1500s and tells the story of a thief who has the uncanny resemblance to the leader of the Takeda Clan. After the leader of the Takeda Clan is killed, the thief is fills in for the clan leader fulltime in an effort to convince the enemies of the clan they are not without a leader and thus vulnerable to attack. With a runtime of three hours, this wide sweeping epic covers the life of the thief as he finds himself in a position of leadership he could never have imagined being in. Unlike the previous two films after Tora! Tora! Tora!, Kagemusha was met with rave reviews and an assortment of awards and accolades, winning Kurosawa the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as two Mainichi Film Awards. While Kurosawa may not have been able to command the same level of respect from those within the Japanese film industry as he once did, the inspiration he provided to the next generation of filmmakers paid off for him with the help he received from Lucas and Coppola. [16] 

For all of the acclaim Kurosawa received for Kagemusha, he considered it a “dress rehearsal” for the film that would follow it, Ran. Released in 1985, Ran is Kurosawa’s twist on Shakespeare’s King Lear, combining aspects of King Lear with the various legends of the daimyō Mōri Motonari. Taking place between the 15th and 16th century, Ran follows the story of a powerful warlord, Hidetora, who, wishing to retire in his old age, divides his kingdom among his three sons under the condition he retains the title of Great Lord. However, he quickly exiles one of his sons after he criticizes him, leaving the kingdom divided two ways rather than three. Seduced by the idea of leading the entire kingdom, Hidetora’s sons begin a campaign of warfare and political wrangling to take the title of Great Lord from him, which carries on throughout the film.

Although it has never been as popular as Seven Samurai or Rashomon, Ran is often considered to be Kurosawa’s crowning achievement. Kurosawa himself even considers Ran to be his best work. [17] Besides for being the most expensive film Kurosawa ever made, it was also the most expensive Japanese film created at the time. Similar to Dersu Uzala, Ran was filmed on location at Mount Aso and the surrounding environs. Kurosawa likewise obtained permission to film at Himeji and Kumamoto, which, being protected landmarks, in of itself is impressive. Grand in nature and stylistically beautiful, Ran is a can’t miss for anyone who loves historical epics. [18] 

Coming off of the success of two historical war epics, Kurosawa took a stylistic 180-degree turn with the creation of Dreams. Rather than focusing on long format storytelling, Kurosawa instead opted to make eight self-contained vignettes based on dreams he had throughout his life. These dreams run the gambit of themes, ranging from the whimsical, to the reflective, to the downright horrifying. At the time of release, critics applauded Kurosawa for trying something new so late in his career, while at the same time managing to do it so well. Similar to his previous two films, funding was secured outside of Japan, with Warner Brothers footing the bill. This movie also sees George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic special effects company lending a helping hand for one of the vignettes, once again demonstrating the reciprocal relationship between Kurosawa and those he influenced. [19] 

The last film on our list, and perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most controversial works, is an emotionally heavy 1991 film called Rhapsody in August. The story of Rhapsody in August revolves around an elderly woman, Kane, and her family in Nagasaki in the year 1990 as they grapple with the intergenerational trauma of the atomic bombing of the city. Kane, who not only survived the bombing but was also made a widow by it, struggles with her family as they try to convince her to visit her dying brother in Hawaii. Not interested in visiting America because of the trauma she feels was inflicted on her during the bombings, Kane rebuffs their invitations. Following this, Kane’s American nephew, played by Richard Gere, comes to visit from Hawaii to reconcile with her. What unfolds is a beautiful film about forgiveness and family.

The reception for this film was mixed to negative depending on the audience. Both Japanese and American critics found the subject matter, trauma stemming from the bombing of Nagasaki, may have downplayed Japan’s role in World War Two. Likewise, many American audiences felt the film had an anti-American slant to it by demonstrating the trauma the atomic bombs caused while ignoring the war-crimes committed on behalf of the Japanese government during the war. Some viewers were also uncomfortable with Gere’s character apologizing to Kane for being insensitive to her trauma and viewed the apology as an apology for the bombing. Kurosawa himself rejected any notion Rhapsody in August had any anti-American undertones. [20] 

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