Akira Kurosawa’s 57 year long career comprises an essential filmography for any aspiring director or true lover of film. This article could just have been a list of films; such is the visual power of Kurosawa. However, despite being called “the Beethoven of movie directors” by 12 Angry Men director Sidney Lumet, a sentiment much agreed upon by many in the industry, Kurosawa is far from a household name today and this comprises one of the great tragedies of western cinema. Kurosawa speaks to film as a global movement, his career and influences, and the careers of those he influenced form a bridge between cultures through filmmaking. By the end of this article I’m hoping you’ll be curious enough to see the master at work, and judge for yourselves whether he deserves a revival among younger movie fans.
Kurosawa was born in 1910, the youngest son of a moderately wealthy Tokyo family. His father was a fan of western cinema and so Akira grew up watching Westerns from the age of six. Akira’s brother, Heigo, became a Benshi; a narrator of silent films and through him, Kurosawa became infatuated with silent cinema. Alongside these perhaps more “Western” pursuits, Akira was also educated in kendo and calligraphy and even took up a career as an artist. In 1935, he began training to be a filmmaker at Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), which later became Toho Studios; beginning as an assistant director. Here we see from the beginning that Akira Kurosawa was an artistic talent that had the potential to combine the best parts of both his Japanese and Western influences.
Kurosawa’s work has influenced many films such as The Magnificent Seven and A Fist Full of Dollars but also a perhaps more topical franchise; Star Wars. Do two comically paired sidekicks, an endangered princess, an old master warrior, and a fight against an evil army sound familiar? Are you picturing an aged Alec Guinness and a couple of droids? Well you shouldn’t be, because that was the plot of The Hidden Fortress, a Kurosawa film from 1958. Yoda is based on Kimbei Shimada from Seven Samurai. The cantina arm-cutting scene from A New Hope was inspired by Yojimbo. Even the word ‘Jedi’ comes from the term ‘jidaigeki’, the Japanese genre of costume drama Kurosawa is most associated with. In short, without Kurosawa there would be no Star Wars.
Akira Kurosawa was famous for being in control of every stage of his films; as writer, director, storyboard artist, editor, and eventually producer, but he also created a group of actors, composers, cinematographers, and so forth that he regularly drew upon; the ‘Kurosawa-gumi’. Two of his most famous acting partners were Takashi Shimura, who would appear in 21 of his films, and most famously Toshiro Mifune, who would appear in 16. What this achieved was consistency; Kurosawa did his best work when those around him knew his methods and how to work with him- the very opposite of the crew behind Tora! Tora! Tora!, who eventually fired Kurosawa from the project. Such was the talent of Kurosawa and the loyalty of those with whom he chose to surround himself that Mifune was quoted as saying “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him” and watching the performances he produced for his director, it is easy to see why. The works of Kurosawa are a case of talent attracting talent, something rarely seen today to the same level of success.
Kurosawa was a beautifully visual director and it is one of the first things you notice when watching his films. His way of assembling actors within the frame showed a genius for the effective power of simple shapes in filmmaking and shows far more artistry than the common simple cuts from close up to close up prevalent today. Take a film like Seven Samurai for example; it is filled with group dynamics which are shown by having actors assemble in circles and in groups of seven. There is always something happening in the scene, be it group reaction or the movement of nature. The audience can see the reactions in real time and the stories flow better for it, power dynamics become instantly recognisable. This was done in 1954 and shows more ingenuity and artistry than even some of the best films coming out today.
Kurosawa also uses the movement of nature and the environment in very clever ways, not only to add contrasting movement to scenes but also to depict the emotions of characters through the world around them. All his films utilise wind, fire, rain and even the movement of background people to aid the story. It seems so simple, yet is a technique that requires a master to execute correctly. Moreover, Kurosawa was a master of cutting his shots on movement, creating scenes that would either flow or intentionally be jarring to the audience. Often a still, quiet scene would be contrasted with one containing lots of movement. Every second of a Kurosawa film is designed to contribute to the creation of a powerful story, and with Kurosawa present at every stage of production from writing to editing, you can be sure that these effects are no accident but rather the work of a great artist.
I urge you to watch Kurosawa’s films and see with your own eyes the power of his storytelling. His work has recognisably influenced many of our greatest directors, but now it is time we as film fans began a revival of Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy. It may sound like idealism, but if we as the consumers start placing directors such as Kurosawa into the spotlight as the kind of filmmakers we want to see, it may reverse the damage done by the likes of Michael Bay. Directors like Kurosawa speak to the international appeal of stories and cinema’s ability to tell them. We deserve to be given these stories in the best, most artistic way possible, if for no other reason than that good art speaks of a good artist. So again I urge those of you who have never seen a Kurosawa film, more importantly those of you looking to become filmmakers yourselves; go out and find one and learn the lessons he has to teach. You will not be disappointed.
Image: Wikimedia Commons