The history of cinema encompasses a rather huge chunk of world history. And within this vast stretch of time, there is but one man who stands above all and has rightly been hailed the ‘Emperor’. Akira Kurosawa is one of the first Japanese filmmakers to achieve international acclaim. Compared to the great filmmakers of classical Japanese cinema — Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse — there’s a tendency to question Kurosawa films’ Japanese-ness. While the films he made between 1950 and 1965 highly influenced US pop culture, his works at home have faced the criticism for being ‘too Western.’
Akira Kurosawa is a great artist who actually used the film form to transcend the boundaries of culture and make movies for the world. At the same time his works’ deeply loaded meanings are steeped in Japanese culture. Kurosawa’s films feature some of the most groundbreaking and modern conceptualizations ever put to film. Even moviegoers who have never seen his works will be aware of his influences. And it can be said with absolute certainty that his movies have advanced the industry of cinema by light years. So, here’s revisiting the masterworks that moulded modern cinema into what it is today.
10. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
The Bad Sleep Well is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Unlike Kurosawa’s adaptation of other Shakespeare plays such as Throne of Blood and Ran, this film is set in post-war Tokyo. The film’s title and its aesthetics also remind us of film noir’s cynical world view. It’s well known that Kurosawa’s skill at staging scenes is unparalleled. This becomes apparent in the opening wedding scene, where the principal players and the inherent conflicts are brilliantly laid out.
The narrative largely revolves around a young mild-mannered business executive, played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune. He tries to expose large-scale corporate corruption as well as seek revenge for the death of his father. The Bad Sleep Well marks Kurosawa’s first independent production. The commercial success of Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress pushed the filmmaker to form his own production company. For a perfectionist like Kurosawa, this step was significant in order to attain total creative control of his works.
9. Kagemusha (1980)
Kurosawa faced hard times in the 1970s. The huge commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den nearly made it impossible for him to find financial support inside Japan. Later, citing artistic disagreements he pulled out of Tora! Tora! Tora!, an American-Japanese production about Pearl Harbour. Kurosawa became so depressed, and in December 1971 tried to commit suicide. The only other film he made in the 70s was Dersu Uzala, funded by the Soviet National Film Production Company. However, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, he returned to epic filmmaking with Kagemusha.
The story revolves around the journey of a man who has the responsibility and the weight of honour thrust upon him. His unexpected predicament aids him in rediscovering himself as an honourable man. This visually brilliant feature may pale in comparison to Ran, the more well-rounded epic drama that followed Kagemusha. But it holds its own amongst Kurosawa’s ambitious cinematic works. Kagemusha also sees the ace film director reflecting on his favourite theme of illusion and reality.
8. Red Beard (1965)
Red Beard (Akahige) is one of Kurosawa’s deeply humanist works. It is based on the short stories of Shuguro Yamamato and drew inspiration from Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. The narrative largely revolves around the turbulent relationship between a 19th century doctor and his young trainee. Doctor Niide (Mifune), also known as Red Beard runs a clinic in the slums. A young doctor named Yasumoto is unwillingly sent to serve in the impoverished area.
The film unfolds in an episodic manner. On one hand, it tracks down the challenges involved in helping the poor, suffering people. On the other hand, we witness the gradual transformation of Yasumoto as he gets indoctrinated into Red Beard’s noble cause. This is a film without much action. But Kurosawa’s meticulous framing and poetic touches immerse us into this heartfelt drama. Toshiro Mifune offers one of his most subdued performances. Sadly, this marked his last collaboration with Kurosawa.
7. Throne of Blood (1957)
Throne of Blood is a fascinating creative interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kurosawa set the drama in medieval Japan with hyper-stylized atmospherics. His utilization of the play’s supernatural elements is absolutely flawless. At the same time, Throne of Blood somehow lacks the emotional depth of Seven Samurai or his later work like Ran (1985). The Noh-influenced formal stylization is often cited as the reason behind its emotional shallowness. ‘Noh’ is a form of traditional Japanese theatre which uses exaggerated movements or posturing to meditate on different emotions.
The most intriguing aspect of Noh play is the masks. There’s said to be 200 different kinds of Noh masks to emphasize each facial expression. Moreover, each mask will evoke in the performer a set of body language and movements. In Throne of Blood, the actors perform in Noh style, which might seem bizarre to the uninitiated. But irrespective of the alleged emotional austerity, Kurosawa stuns us with his imagery. The climactic, arrow-laden scene alongside Mifune’s distinctive over-the-top performance will always be one of cinema’s greatest death scenes.
6. Yojimbo (1961)
Yojimbo could somewhat be considered as a homage to classic Western and hard-boiled fiction. Interestingly the film and its central character, Sanjuro in turn inspired Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Yojimbo is hands down the second most entertaining Kurosawa film, and could be a fine entry point into the filmmaker’s works. Of course, the samurai epic Seven Samurai is an easily accessible film. But Seven Samurai, in my opinion, has such a complex directorial style that a viewer might miss it the first time.
In Yojimbo, it’s easy to comprehend the genius of Kurosawa’s staging and blocking. Moreover, Kurosawa’s use of widescreen framing gives the movie a more stylized feel. The narrative revolves around a 19th century ronin, who sees the opportunity to make money by escalating the rivalry between two gangs. Apart from perfectly combining Toshiro Mifune’s star power and samurai action, the film also has an engaging undercurrent of dark comedy. Kurosawa successfully followed-up Yojimbo with a sequel titled Sanjuro the following year.
5. Rashomon (1950)
After the commercial and critical disaster of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951), the studio-heads told Kurosawa that they were withdrawing the offer to do another film with them. After hearing the sad news, Kurosawa says he walked back home that day, he didn’t take the usual train. When the depressed Kurosawa reached home, his elated wife shared the news of Rashomon winning top prize at Venice Film Festival. Kurosawa was baffled since he wasn’t even aware Rashomon had been submitted to the Festival. Later, the film won an Academy Award.
Though Kurosawa directed his first film in 1943, it was Rashomon that brought him international recognition. The film was based on Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s two short stories. Set in 11th century Japan, the narrative revolves around four people who give different accounts of a grisly crime. Rashomon is a meditation on the nature of truth and the complexities of human nature. The narrative set-up still remains fascinating and there’s a hypnotic power in the way Kurosawa stages everything. However, its philosophical core now looks didactic, simplistic, and has lost its vigour.
4. Ikiru (1952)
In Ikiru, Kurosawa uses one man’s experiences of facing a fatal illness to provide a harrowing picture of post-war Japanese society. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura plays the central character Kanji Watanabe, an ideal bureaucrat at Tokyo City Hall. He has never missed a day’s work. But the deadening routine has pushed him to neglect his own personal life. When Watanabe receives the news of terminal stomach cancer, he goes through various stages of grief while using his remaining time to passionately work on a project.
Though Ikiru sounds like a melodrama, Kurosawa’s complex and masterful compositions make it a profound look at the human condition. He employs highly specific positioning of actors to gradually build the dramatic intensity. In fact, such bravura blocking techniques reached its zenith in High and Low (1963).
Kurosawa might be well-known for his jidai-geki (period drama) films. But he has made quite a few grounded social dramas, set in the contemporary period. Ikiru is one of his most triumphant humanist cinemas. It’s a haunting as well as heartfelt reminder of our own mortality.
3. Ran (1985)
In Kurosawa’s distinct adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, veteran Japanese actor Tetsuya Nakadai played the 16th century elderly Lord. Lord decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three sons. Soon, he’s caught in the maelstrom of power struggle and military uprisings. Ran is a near perfect film in Kurosawa’s illustrious career. The narrative is episodic in nature, and it takes time to comprehend the character motivations and the thematic breadth. But the painterly visuals, ambitious set-pieces, and Toru Takemitsu’s incredible music score are wonderfully captivating.
Similar to Throne of Blood, Kurosawa utilizes traditional Noh theatre archetype. However, the characterizations are much stronger here. Ran is one of the filmmaker’s passion projects. He spent nearly a decade storyboarding every shot in the film as paintings. The collection of these images was an integral part of the final screenplay. Moreover, Kurosawa was nearly blind when he started shooting. His long-time cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and production designer Yoshiro Muraki, along with his assistants and the storyboard aided him in framing the shots. The breathtaking scale of the climactic battle scenes is a testament to Kurosawa’s grand artistic expression.
2. High and Low (1963)
High and Low is one of the greatest thrillers ever made. It explores the socio-economic disparities in the post-war, rapidly modernizing Japan. The narrative largely revolves around a shrewd and wealthy shoe-company executive named Gondo, who gets a call from a stranger that his little son is kidnapped. What ensues is a profound drama focusing on individual ethical dilemmas and social ills.
High and Low comprises two distinct halves that’re full of strong contrasts. The first is confined within Gondo’s posh expansive living room as he intensely negotiates with the kidnapper. The second half moves at a frantic pace as Gondo and police officers rush to save the kid. There’s also ample twists and unflinching social commentary that thoroughly takes us by surprise.
Eventually, what makes High and Low an edge-of-the-seat thriller is Kurosawa’s remarkably inventive staging. The dramatic encounters inside the living room and the suspenseful scene set on a bullet train are incredibly thrilling. Besides, the film gives us one of the most unforgettable endings among Kurosawa’s works. Though the crime is solved, the ending leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions to ponder over.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
If only time could slow down every time I watched this film! The 207-minute epic masterpiece Seven Samurai. I have seen it countless times now, and each viewing is as exciting as the last and strengthens my conviction that it’s one of the best films ever made. Seven Samurai has a simple story which has been reworked multiple times in Asian and Western cinema. The most direct imitation was John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The narrative is set in feudal Japan where an impoverished farming village is threatened by bandits. The hardworking yet docile peasants decide to hire samurais to protect them. A group of distinguishable and good warriors are brought together to take on the evil mob. Though it sounds simple, Kurosawa and his long-time screenwriters Hashimoto & Oguni impart the narrative with a lot of emotional nuance and philosophy. There’s a wealth of invigorating and engrossing character details.
In Kurosawa’s hands, the landscapes and the weather itself become characters in their own right. Rain, wind, clouds, and sunlight have never been used in this way to convey the mood, before or since. Its reign as the greatest film ever made in over six decades of its existence shows no signs of waning anytime soon.
Kurosawa has directed 31 feature films in a career of six decades. Therefore, it’s hard to pick only ten of his best works. Even his less meritorious works like some of the later films in his career — Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1990) and Akira Kurosawa’s last movie Madadayo (1993) — may not have been as well received but all boasted remarkable storytelling techniques. The greatly entertaining Hidden Fortress (1958), the film that influenced Star Wars, deserves a special mention. And so is Kurosawa’s first great film, Stray Dog (1949). Over to you, now! What are your favorite Kurosawa movies? What, according to you, are his greatest works?
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’