In 1980, flanked by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa received an honorary Academy Award for his achievements in filmmaking. The look on the faces of two of the biggest names in Hollywood said it all. This man was a giant, and both of them knew that their own greatness was due in part to this master of the cinema. Indeed, Kurosawa’s influence on filmmaking is immeasurable by all accounts. So who was this giant of the cinema?
Kurosawa was possessed of an artistic bent from a young age, and began his career as a painter in the late 1920’s. He did illustrations for popular magazines and joined Japans Proletariat Artists’ Group and associated with other young artists of a leftist political bent, often espousing Marxist philosophy. In 1936 he answered an advertisement seeking assistant directors in the studio that later came to be known as the Toho Motion Picture Company. He learnt basic filmmaking in director Kajiro Yamamoto’s group for six years and wrote scripts for government propaganda films. He began directing towards the end of this period and in 1943 he made his debut with Sanshiro Sugata, just before the collapse of the Japanese army war effort. The film was the story of a judo expert who was inspired by the samurai spirit at a time when the samurai class had ceased to exist. There is a scene where the protagonist knocks down an American boxer. This was seen as symbolizing the victory of the Japanese samurai spirit against western aggressiveness. The film was a runaway hit so a second part was also made.
It was after the war that Kurosawa’s work began to take root outside of Japan, and this is what set him apart from his contemporaries. Japanese filmmakers are catergorised by the time frames within which their work appears, and Kurosawa is one of the Postwar Humanists. Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikaw, and Masaki Kobayashi are the other three. Kurosawa believed that for postwar Japan to heal, it was important to place high value on the self, and this was the guiding principal he held to in his work. To understand his early work, we must take into account the American occupation forces policy of suppressing the cultural heritage of feudalism that led to Japan’s isolationism and aggression. As a consequence, several established filmmakers could not or would not create films after the war. However, the egalitarian values, altruism and universal themes of Kurosawa’s films made him an ideal ambassador for Japan’s cultural reintroduction to the West, a reintroduction that many did not see value in.
He achieved worldwide prominence when Rashomon (1950) won the grand prize at the 1951 Venice International Film Festival, thereby opening the way for the appreciation of Japanese cinema beyond the border of Japan, and so it was that Kurosawa came to be thought of the as the least Japanese of Japanese filmmakers within the country’s film industry. It was held that to be able to appeal to westerners, his films could not be truly Japanese, as the Japanese believed themselves to be inscrutable. This popularity was a break with the traditions of Japanese film, but did not deter him, as he himself put it ” If a work can’t have meaning to Japanese audiences, I-as a Japanese artist-am simply not interested.” Rashomon was an apt entry into the western world for a Japanese film. It tells the story of four eye-witness accounts of a murder, all of which differ, and in the end there is no solution. It probably wasn’t intended as a parable of the war but was certainly timely in that regard. The film was made reluctantly and the studio head disliked it so much he removed his name from the credits. A major embarrassment after it won the Golden Lion at the Venice festival.
The next film to capture the western imagination was 1954’s Seven Samurai. From 1910 onward Japanese films had feudal themes where the protagonists were either samurai or gangsters (yakuza), who had a samurai-like code of conduct. Such films were called jidaigeki (period films). One of the more common feudal themes was drawn from folklore about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during which Japan was in a constant state of civil war and gangs of outlaws terrorized the countryside, pillaging small villages. Stories of the time had it that some villages took to hiring wandering Samurai who had lost their Lords and would provide protection in exchange for food and shelter. Kurosawa, having been born into the Samurai cast, knew these stories well and drew upon them for the script of Seven Samurai. The film took a year to make. It was the most expensive ever produced by Toho Studios. It brought them to the brink of bankruptcy before it’s phenomenal success in the West. In the mainstream jidaigeki there were many stereotyped stories and acting styles and most of them were associated with the thoughts and emotions typical of a feudal society. The manner of expression of loyalty between the ruler and the ruled was stylised to the smallest detail and was embedded in tradition. Breaking the bonds of such a stylised form was the hallmark of Kurosawa’s jidaigeki. This is apparent in the fact that much has been made of the fact that the American western The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai, and that Sergio Leone pretty much stole the entire script of Yojimbo (1961) to make Fistful of Dollars, but Kurosawa has said that he, in turn, was inspired by American westerns in making his films.
Many of today’s best filmmakers claim him as a primary influence on their work. A short list of directors he has directly influenced are: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, John Sturges and Walter Hill. The slow, stylised death scenes in films by the likes of Sam Peckinpah and John Woo are tributes to Kursosawa.
Kurosawa is also known for his adaptations of western classics like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran) as well as his use of elements from Kabuki and Noh theatre.
He demonstrated his independent approach and control over his medium particularly in the matter of diction. He deliberately abandoned Shakespeare’s superb language, his colourful metaphors and similes in Throne of Blood (1957). Kurosawa was a strong believer in brevity. His characters spoke only when they needed to. What could be conveyed with gesture, facial expression and body language was much preferred. Some of this was no doubt due to the influence of traditional Japanese theatre, but it also known that his brother made a living narrating silent films for Japanese audiences in the time before sound films were available, and it is believed this also had an influence.
Among his many achievements Kurosawa won Academy Awards for his Siberian epic Dersu Uzala (1975) and Ran (1985), as well as Silver Lion and Lion of San Marco at the Venice film festivals and several New York Film Critics Circle awards. He is also credited with the discovery of the great actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many of his films. When he died in 1998 at the age of 88, 35,000 people attended his memorial service. He dedicated his life to his art and said near the end, “take myself, subtract movies, and the result is zero.” That is the essence of Akira Kurosawa, one the world’s greatest filmmakers to date