Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director who would have turned 100 this year, and whose muscular storytelling, moral inquisitiveness, and searing visual sense left an indelible impression on filmmaking.
Akira Kurosawa 101
By the time Akira Kurosawa directed his 1950 masterpiece Rashômon, he already had several films under his belt, including the Sanshirô Sugata judoka pictures and the noir-tinged procedural Stray Dog. But Rashômon, adapted from a Ryûnosuke Akutagawa short story, was the one that put him on the international map and helped alter the course of post-war cinema. Using a radical flashback structure, Kurosawa looks at a single incident—the murder of a samurai, the possible rape of his wife, and the bandit that may or may not have been involved—from four widely varied perspectives. In essence, the film is like a courtroom drama in reverse: The more testimony we hear from witnesses, the further the real truth recedes from view. Kurosawa and his great cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, underline the point through subtly deceptive bits of framing and lighting design, and the forest setting is itself a dense obstruction.
In the larger picture, Rashômon not only introduced Kurosawa—and reintroduced Japanese cinema—to the wider world, it heralded a new wave of filmmakers who would insistently question our assumptions. It held that the truth was often ambiguous and perhaps unknowable, subject to the perceptions of people who either see an incomplete picture, or seek to complete that picture in their own ways. The theme repeated itself throughout the second half of the 20th century—where would, say, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up be without it?—and the phrase “the Rashômon effect” would even become accepted legal lingo.
Kurosawa is often compared to John Ford, a comparison that can go too far. It’s ridiculous and reductive to think of a director of Kurosawa’s importance as merely the Japanese equivalent of an American master. Yet some insistent parallels remain. Just as Ford had, in John Wayne, a cinderblock of a leading man, able to convey unexpected depths, Kurosawa had Toshirô Mifune, a handsome, physically imposing star able to find the vulnerability in even the brusquest characters. And just as Ford directed movies from an array of genres but will forever be associated with the Western, Kurosawa remains inseparable from samurai films.
Released in 1954 (in Japan, at least), Seven Samurai rightfully deserves its reputation as the apex of the genre, and one of the best films of Kurosawa’s career. The much-imitated plot, which has provided the backbone for everything from Battle Beyond The Stars to A Bug’s Life, finds a poor farm village recruiting a ragtag assemblage of samurai to defend them against a bunch of bandits who have promised to steal the villagers’ harvest, their only means of support. Seen only in a shortened version in the U.S. for decades, the film in its full version is remarkable for its magnificent action scenes—which are breathtakingly exciting while creating a clear line of action—and for the depth of its detail and characterization. Each samurai has a complex personality and his own reason for taking on the charge, and the film creates a rich sense of village life. Simultaneously grandiose and intimate, it’s the story of men who fight, and sometimes die, to save a tiny patch of civilization from chaos, and the film makes that task seem like the most important mission they could ever assume—even though its success is solely for others to enjoy.
Though Kurosawa is primarily known for his historical films, some of his best movies had contemporary settings, and suggest a path he might’ve taken as a filmmaker, had he not garnered more kudos with robes and swords. The 1952 melodrama Ikiru rivals Yasujiro Ozu in its expression of the pathos of modern living, telling the story of a dying bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who confounds his self-absorbed children and jaded co-workers by dedicating his last months to clearing through red tape and getting an unsanitary lot of land turned into a children’s playground. Kurosawa is far more lyrical and overtly heartstring-tugging than Ozu, and he goes for broke in a final scene that sees Shimura sitting on a swing, quietly content as snow falls around him. It’s a moment as viscerally powerful as any corpse-strewn battle.
After the international successes of his grander, more epic samurai pictures, Kurosawa downshifted with 1961’s Yojimbo and 1962’s Sanjuro, two decidedly lighter action-adventures starring Mifune as a nameless ronin, wandering from town to town and working as a sword-for-hire. Kurosawa was never shy about acknowledging his debt to American Westerns and private-eye fiction, but Yojimbo and Sanjuro are his most overt homages, using a scruffy outsider to explore the strata of a close-knit, uptight community. They’re also Kurosawa’s funniest films, with a deadpan wit and sense of absurdity that belies their scenes of graphic violence (including one shocking Sanjuro scene that ends with a gusher of blood spurting from Mifune’s victim). A couple of years later, Sergio Leone gave Kurosawa’s Japanese version of the Western an Italian twist with his 1964 hit A Fistful Of Dollars, a loose Yojimbo remake that made a star out of Clint Eastwood.
Kurosawa portrayed post-war Tokyo as a city plagued by a pervading sense of fear and distress, with a committed few keeping chaos at bay, in a theme that would return in everything from Ikiru to Seven Samurai. The noir-inspired 1949 film Stray Dog casts Mifune as a rookie cop who loses his gun, then desperately tries to retrieve it, a task that takes him through the Tokyo underworld. It’s impressive both for its portrayal of the seedy underside of the metropolis, and for the way the task reshapes Mifune, who—under the tutelage of a sage veteran played by Shimura—goes from a nervous, green rookie to an effective cop, even though that makes him a harder person in the process.
George Lucas has frequently cited 1958’s The Hidden Fortress as a major influence on the first Star Wars movie. Anyone who shows up expecting robots and lasers might be a bit baffled, but they will find a pair of comical peasants who play roughly the same roles as C-3PO and R2-D2, and a familiar-seeming rescue-the-princess plot. Star Wars fans might also recognize the way Lucas borrows slow wipes to transition from one scene to another, and a little research will uncover that the Japanese word for a period drama is “jidaigeki,” which Lucas borrowed in part for the word “Jedi.” Beyond all that, the unusually light adventure film makes clear how much of a debt the Spielberg- and Lucas-dominated era of blockbuster filmmaking owed to Kurosawa. It whisks viewers along with high adventure, captivating action scenes, and characters who deserve our affection.
Following the one-two of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, few could have predicted that Kurosawa’s next movie would be a sparse, tense adaptation of an Ed McBain police procedural. In 1963’s High And Low, Mifune plays a successful businessman who receives news that his son has been kidnapped, and begins planning to raise the ruinous ransom. Then he learns that his child wasn’t snatched after all; the kidnappers mistakenly took his chauffeur’s son. The first half of High And Low is a pensive domestic drama, as Mifune grapples with whether he can afford to spend his fortune to help a servant, especially given that he’s in a tenuous position at his company, and might need that money to fend off a challenge from his board. The second half follows the police as they track down the kidnapper and discover his motivations, which are rooted in a feeling of economic powerlessness. Tense, pointed, and fraught with ironies, High And Low is something of an oddity in the Kurosawa filmography, but it’s a masterpiece of the first order, and marks a transition to the more challenging, sophisticated films to come.
For years, the critical line on Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha was that it was a trial run for Ran, a smaller-scale version of the grand-scale Shakespearean tragedy in feudal Japan. But it’s equally good, setting a personal story against a backdrop of spectacular conflict. Even after Kurosawa won an Oscar for 1975’s Dersu Uzala, his career had been left for dead, and it took the benevolent intervention of studio giants like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to secure financing for the project. Kurosawa’s status as a director in exile undoubtedly informed the story of a petty thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) whose resemblance to a fallen Takeda warlord leads him to become a puppet leader for three years—a part that consigns him to extreme isolation, and finally madness.
As good as Kagemusha is, however, Ran dwarfs it in scale. Released in 1985, it recasts the plot of King Lear as a struggle in feudal Japan. Justly hailed for its epic battle scenes, it doubles as a tragedy played out on a national scale as the wills of the wealthy lead to the clash of armies. Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, one aging man brings about his downfall when he tries to hold too tightly to the material world after gaining much wealth and respect, but not enough wisdom. Kurosawa was 75 when he made the film, and losing his sight, and Ran plays like a deeply personal work, one that despairs at the passing of all things, but refuses to ignore it.
Ran served as the climax of Kurosawa’s career, but not its end. Several smaller films followed, including his lovely final effort, Madadayo. Overlooked in 1993—it didn’t receive a release in America until after Kurosawa’s 1998 death—it’s the sentimental but moving story of a Japanese academic (Tatsuo Matsumura) who retires from teaching, then periodically reunites with his students. Between the meetings, times change, and the reunions reflect those changes, but the affection that binds students to teacher remains, keeping Matsumura grounded. The title means “Not yet,” a refusal of death. Kurosawa’s final statement focused on a character committed to holding onto life in spite of its disappointments and the inevitable decline that takes us all.
A nearly unrecognizable Toshirô Mifune stars in I Live In Fear as an aging patriarch convinced Japan will soon be destroyed in a nuclear attack, and determined to move his family to Brazil. It’s one of Kurosawa’s most unapologetically difficult efforts. Mifune’s family attempts to declare him incompetent, but Kurosawa toys with the idea that he might have the right idea after all. It’s an undiluted bit of Cold War paranoia that captures the madness of the age in ways that anticipate both Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Decades before Ran, Mifune turned to Shakespeare for another film, adapting Macbeth as Throne Of Blood in 1957. Mifune plays the Macbeth role, a man of tremendous competence and overweening ambition. The storytelling gets away from Kurosawa at times, but the film operates in lockstep with Shakespeare thematically, and it’s one of the director’s most visually arresting films, from the terrifying forest spirit who pronounces Mifune’s fate to the rain of arrows that seal it.
Kurosawa spent two years and vaultloads of his studio’s money making 1965’s Red Beard, his final collaboration with Mifune, in which the latter plays a grizzled 19th-century doctor who helps an ambitious young intern understand that the reality of medical practice is a combination of nuts-and-bolts mechanics and pastoral care. The movie runs just over three hours, draws on a variety of sources for its episodic story (including Fyodor Dostoevsky), and was Kurosawa’s most visually fussed-over film to that point. It’s also his rawest. Though Red Beard has a streak of humanism and sentimentality to rival Ikiru, Kurosawa is vicious in his depiction of the insulated rich, and unsparing in his vision of human bodies as malfunctioning machines. Some of the emergency medicine scenes in Red Beard are as frank and harrowing as anything in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, released five years later.
After Red Beard, Kurosawa had a rough back half of the ’60s, as he dealt with abortive overtures from Hollywood and rumors that he’d become impossibly arrogant, perhaps even gone insane. He didn’t do much to dispel those rumors with 1970’s Dodes’ka-den, an offbeat drama about a group of people whose respective failures have led them to live in the city dump. The title comes from a nonsense sound repeated incessantly by a mentally handicapped boy, emulating the sound of passing streetcars; it also evokes the feeling of life passing by the citizens of this shantytown. Dodes’ka-den was Kurosawa’s first color film, and he took full advantage of the palette to show the lives of his homeless characters as rich in their own way. But the movie was still a financial disaster, rejected by audiences who wondered what had become of one of the greatest genre filmmakers of all time.
For his 1975 Japanese-Soviet co-production Dersu Uzala, which collected an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Kurosawa literally left his comfort zone by shooting the film’s exteriors in deepest Siberia. Detailing the relationship between an early-20th-century Russian explorer who mapped the Krai territory of Russia’s Far East, and the nomadic hunter who serves as his guide, the film bears some of the awkwardness inherent in culture-clash productions. But it also showcases Kurosawa’s mastery over the elements, and features sequences so tactile in their Siberian frigidness that they could air condition an entire theater. When the two adventurers get caught in the open, frozen marshland as day turns to night and the Arctic winds kick in, Kurosawa memorably captures their desperate efforts to find shelter in a place where nothing grows.
Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is exactly what it sounds like: an anthology film composed of dreams Kurosawa had throughout his life, presented with much of the visual splendor left over from Ran several years earlier. As dreams, the segments aren’t terribly abstract, and as with all anthology films, some bits are stronger than others. But the best serve as an effective clearinghouse of Kurosawa’s ongoing themes and concerns, touching on art, war, nature, and the looming specter of death. “Crows” offers the odd novelty of Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, but the concept of placing the artist in the world of his paintings—rendered via Industrial Light And Magic—is playful and illuminating. Better still are the “nightmares” like “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel”: The former a metaphorical climb up a snowbound mountain to certain death, the latter a devastating tale about a dead soldier returning from war.
It used to be difficult to track down Kurosawa’s pre-Rashômon films, but repertory houses, Turner Classic Movies, and home-video companies (especially Criterion) have helped plug that gap in recent years. It’s a fascinating hodgepodge of work, too: the two-part martial-arts epic Sanshiro Sugata, the World War II pro-munitions propaganda piece The Most Beautiful, the anti-war romance No Regrets For Our Youth, the tabloid-bashing melodrama Scandal, and more, all exploring different genres and different aspects of Japanese culture and history, laying the groundwork for the masterpieces to come. Of particular note: the 1948 gangster/doctor drama Drunken Angel, Kurosawa’s first film with Toshirô Mifune, who plays a tubercular thug. Here, Kurosawa equates urban crime with disease, and craftily critiques the effects of the American occupation, in one of his most audacious early efforts.
A curiosity from the other end of Kurosawa’s career, Rhapsody In August examines the legacy of the atomic bomb in Japan as seen by several generations of one family affected by it. With a guest appearance by Richard Gere, it’s equally ponderous and mournful, but its finer moments make it worth a look, and the last shot is tough to forget.
1. The Seven Samurai
The man whose name is practically synonymous with the samurai film is, naturally, responsible for the quintessential example of the genre: a rousing action-adventure that doubles as a study of a culture in transition. It’s exciting, funny, elegiac, and the perfect introduction to Kurosawa, the samurai genre, and Japanese cinema in general.
Roger Ebert has described Ikiru as one of the few movies that could make its viewers into better people, and he might be on to something. If any film could change hearts, it’s this gently unsparing examination of what really matters during the short time we have on Earth.
Kurosawa made rousing entertainment that also explored the big questions. This short-story adaptation ponders whether we can ever really know the truth, by telling the same story through multiple angles, each as compelling and incomplete as the last.
4. High And Low
Kurosawa melds a chamber morality trail with a gritty procedural, and finds desperate people making hard choices on both sides of the law. One of the director’s most unpredictable films, it also gives Mifune one of his best showcases.
After returning to international prominence with 1980’s Kagemusha, Kurosawa capped his comeback with Ran, one last big historical epic with Shakespearean overtones. It’s a nice bookend with The Seven Samurai, too, showing an older man’s perspective on the past.