The Emperor

By John V. Brennan


"So long as my pictures are hits I can afford to be unreasonable."
     --- Akira Kurosawa, as quoted by actor Minoru Chiaki

     Akira Kurosawa once said that himself minus films equaled nothing.  If Kurosawa minus films equaled nothing, imagine what films minus Kurosawa would look like.  Influenced by John Ford (his favorite), Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and George Stevens among others, Kurosawa in turn served as a major inspiration to such diverse and popular filmmakers as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, John Sturges, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino.

     In 1943, after marking time as a screenwriter and assistant director, Kurosawa directed his first film, SANSHIRO SUGATA, the story of the emergence of judo.  According to author Stephen Prince in his book The Warrior's Camera, SANSHIRO SUGATA showed an already fully-formed cinematic style. That style, flexible and changing over the years, was fashioned from many things.  Kurosawa loved the telephoto lens, which not only flattened images, giving them a false perspective, but also allowed him to stay far away from his actors, which he felt led to better performances.  He would employ long, static takes but was also a master of rapid cutting and montage, employing the "wipe" so often in his early years, it should be renamed the "Kurosawa" in his honor.  Kurosawa liked to use several cameras simultaneously, filming scenes from different angles, which allowed his cast to run through entire sequences without cutting.  And his use of  slow-motion for action, although only seen sparingly in his films, went on to influence action sequences worldwide for decades to come.

     His many depictions of foul weather - rare is a classic Kurosawa film that doesn't feature some sort of storm or fog as a portent of bad things to come - reportedly inspired a laconic, but accurate, statement from John Ford when the two directors met: "You really like rain."

     Prince described the style in SANSHIRO SUGATA as "...a powerful and profound visual form searching for an appropriate content."  But for Kurosawa, the "appropriate content" for which his style searched would not be found until after the government-imposed wartime "policy films" THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944) and SANSHIRO SUGATA PART TWO (1945), in which the titular judo champion pummels an American boxer.  The comical samurai tale THEY WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER'S TALE (1945), filmed near the end of the war, was held back for several years by General MacArthur and his SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) censors.  But even under the watchful eye of the generally sympathetic SCAP, Kurosawa began making the series of films that established him as one of the best directors in Japan, and in 1950, he directed the film which would make him world famous: RASHOMON.

     RASHOMON, a stylistic tour de force that told the tale of a rape and murder as described by four different witnesses, became a sensation after winning at the Venice Film Festival, and seven years after SANSHIRO SUGATA, Kurosawa was now the first Japanese director to be famous not only in his country but also in the Western world.  Outstanding period (jidaigeki) pieces that followed such as SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), THRONE OF BLOOD (1957), HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) and YOJIMBO (1961) were not only the films that solidified Kurosawa's reputation for being the master of the action-filled epic but were also top among the Kurosawa films that inspired several of the above-named directors.  SEVEN SAMURAI was remade in America by John Sturges as the western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, YOJIMBO's story was lifted by Italy's Sergio Leone for his western FOR A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and bits and pieces of several Kurosawa films found their way into George Lucas's STAR WARS films.

     Although best known for his jidaigeki movies, Kurosawa was an equal master of the gendaigeki or modern film, specifically those of Japan's shakai mono genre, the "social theme" film.  Kurosawa saw his films as a tool to effect social change, aiming them specifically at a Japanese public whom he felt needed to pick themselves up and get on with the business of life after the traumatic defeat of their empire.  NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948) and STRAY DOG (1949) all built their stories around on the problems of the youth of Japan, who, for better or worse, were now in line to inherit a new kind of homeland from their elders. His later shakai mono films such as THE BAD SLEEP WELL and HIGH AND LOW were indictments of the corrupt marriage in Japan of capitalism and government.  Despite the messages behind the movies, none of these films were didactic - STRAY DOG, THE BAD SLEEP WELL and HIGH AND LOW were all thrillers with exciting chases and intense suspense sequences, obviously inspired by the American films Kurosawa loved.  The director did not wish to preach in his films, but rather to entertain, and by entertaining, perhaps enlighten.

     Occasionally, as with HIDDEN FORTRESS and the YOJIMBO sequel SANJURO (1962), entertainment seemed to be his only desire, and he achieved it splendidly.  HIDDEN FORTRESS was said to be the huge commercial film Toho had asked for as a requirement for allowing Kurosawa to make the esoteric RASHOMON, while the light-hearted SANJURO came about when Toho rejected a proposed Kurosawa story, into which the director then injected the slovenly samurai bodyguard from the hit film YOJIMBO in order to make the new film more palatable.

     Though Kurosawa was an actor's director, he made them earn their pay, especially with his long takes, each of which usually took many attempts to perfect.  For films like SEVEN SAMURAI and THE LOWER DEPTHS (1957), a magnificent adaptation of the Maxim Gorky play, Kurosawa asked his cast to live in their flea-bitten costumes before the film began, to get a feel for their characters.  One of moviedom's most noted perfectionists, he colored his "rain" with black ink to make it show up better in RASHOMON, and waited for weeks for the perfect snowstorm to film a scene in RED BEARD (1965).  Actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who appeared in YOJIMBO, KAGEMUSHA (1980) and RAN (1985) among others, once described an all-day shoot Kurosawa put him through for what amounted to a one-second walk-by in SEVEN SAMURAI.

Toshiro     No actor was more associated with Kurosawa in the public's mind than Toshiro Mifune.  Kurosawa had meant DRUNKEN ANGEL to be about the title character, an alcoholic doctor played by the great character actor Takashi Shimura.  But it was Mifune, with his good looks and energetic magnetism, to whom audiences responded.  Mifune's continued presence in Kurosawa's films from that point on through 1965 (with the exception of 1954's superb IKIRU, starring Shimura) that made them favorites not only in Japan but also in the Western world. If Kurosawa made Mifune a star, then Mifune virtually guaranteed the good box-office results of Kurosawa's films. Mifune was such an important and indelible element of Kurosawa's best films that one may find themselves wishing in vain for Mifune to arrive in later films like DODESKADEN (1970), DERSU UZULA (1975) and KAGEMUSHA, the way one may sit through Scorsese's elegant AGE OF INNOCENCE hoping for a never-appearing Robert De Niro to bust in and and liven up the joint.

     After RED BEARD and 1970's critical failure DODESKADEN (shortly after which the director attempted suicide), Kurosawa seemed to give up the idea that film could be used to change society, and for several films, he adopted a bleak, despairing outlook on life seen previously only in his Macbeth adaptation THRONE OF BLOOD.  The final moments of several previous Kurosawa films may have left his characters with dubious prospects for happiness, but the tragic endings of DERSU UZULA, KAGEMUSHA and RAN went far beyond just bittersweet doubt.  Nevertheless, the epic RAN rightly became one of his most admired films, leading to a mini-career resurrection that allowed the director to helm three final, more introspective projects:  DREAMS (1990), RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991) and MADADAYO (1993).  Though he had other scripts he planned to film, he eventually became to ill to work, and died in 1998.

    Because of his reputation as the most "Western" of all Japanese directors, Kurosawa wasn't always loved as much as he should have been in his home country.  Unlike the fine films of his contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu (TOKYO STORY) and Kenji Mizoguchi (UGETSU), Kurosawa's films feel familiar and are almost always instantly accessible to western audiences without much mental work.  After seeing a few films, his actors will become as familiar as John Ford's hearty band of ruffians or Preston Sturges beloved group of comic actors.  Many of Kurosawa's films, even some of his jidaigekis, were based on Western source material.  YOJIMBO was inspired by Dashell Hammet's novel Red Harvest; THRONE OF BLOOD, THE BAD SLEEP WELL and RAN all had their origins in Shakespeare; HIGH AND LOW came from an Ed McBain police novel.  Watch YOJIMBO for the first time, without having scene any other Japanese film, and you will probably just settle back within fifteen minutes and enjoy it for the John Wayne/Gary Cooper western that it is at heart.

Kurosawa ends his career with MADADAYO     Ranking Kurosawa films on a five-star scale has been very difficult, especially having never seen a Kurosawa film except for RAN before creating this section.  Kurosawa, like Hitchcock and Ford, was a man who knew in his soul how to make above-average movies.  I would see a Kurosawa film and be blown away and think "Man, he can't get any better than that," and then, a few days later, another film would arive in the mail and I'd realize that I was wrong.  Seeing a few films more than once, I had to adjust my ratings up and down.  I resisted handing out five star ratings to half the films, and so some classic Kuroswa films missed a full star rating simply because one scene may have gone on a little too long. But things can change - after four viewings of SEVEN SAMURAI, I finally awarded it the full five stars.  Even films I awarded three and a half star like ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, THE BAD SLEEP WELL, RED BEARD and KAGEMUSHA were still rewarding experiences which left me with much affection for the films and the director.  But I came to realize that Kurosawa could do much better, I adjusted the ratings accordingly.  A three and a half star film by Kurosawa would probably be a four and a half star film from a lesser director.  

     A handful of Kurosawa's films, including RASHOMON, IKIRU, SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO and RAN, rank with the best of all time.  Roughly two-thirds of his entire output is of superior quality.  Taken as a group, the 30-odd films he directed from 1943 to 1994 make up one of cinema's most impressive and influential bodies of work. - JB 

Akira Kurosawa    The Stuff You Gotta Watch

Copyright © John V. Brennan, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee