Born March 23, 1910, in Tokyo, Japan; died of a stroke September 6, 1998, in Tokyo, Japan; son of Isamu (a physical education teacher) and Shima Kurosawa; married Kato Kiyo (an actress under the name Yoko Yaguchi), 1945 (died February 1, 1985); children: Hisao (son), Kazuko (daughter). Education: Graduated from Keika High School, 1928. Hobbies and other interests: Collecting Japanese lacquerware and antique French and Dutch glassware, golf, American football games.
Director, screenwriter, and producer of motion pictures. Photo Chemical Laboratory (PCL Studios; became Toho Films), Tokyo, Japan, assistant director to Yamamoto Kajiro on films, including Sengoku gunto den, Senman choja, and Uma, 1936-42; principal director, 1942-48 and 1952-98; also director for Daiei Motion Picture Company, Chofu City, Japan, and for Shochiku studios. Cofounder of Film Art Association, 1948; founder of Kurosawa Production Inc., 1960; cofounder of Yonki no Kai production company, c. 1970.
Named best director (Japan), 1947, for Subarashiki nichiyobi; Geijutsu Sai grand prize, Japan Ministry of Education, 1949, for Stray Dog; Grand Prix, Venice Film Festival, and Academy Award for best foreign-language film, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, both 1951, both for Rashomon; Silver Lion Award, Venice Film Festival, 1954, for The Seven Samurai; Director's Prize, Berlin Film Festival, and International Critics' Award, both 1959, both for The Hidden Fortress; Soviet Filmmakers' Association Prize, Moscow Film Festival, 1965, for Red Beard; Ramon Magsaysay Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (Philippines), 1965; Geijutsu Sai prize for excellence, Japan Ministry of Education, 1970, for Dodesukaden; named a "Person of Cultural Merits" by Japanese government, 1976; Academy Award for best foreign-language film, 1976, Donatello Prize (Italy), 1977, and Moscow Film Festival First Prize, all for Dersu Uzala; award for "humanistic contribution to society in film production," European Film Academy, 1978; co-winner of Golden Palm Award, Cannes Film Festival, award for direction, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Donatello Prize, all 1980, all for Kagemusha; Kokusai Koryu Kikin Sho award, Japanese Foundation, 1982; Academy Award nomination for best director, 1985, for Ran; Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award, Directors Guild of America, 1986; Decorated Order of Yugoslav Flag; special Academy Award, 1989, for lifetime achievement; D. W. Griffith award, Directors Guild of America, 1992.
(With Michel Mesnil) Kurosawa Presentation par Michel Mesnil, Seghers (Paris, France), 1973.
Something Like an Autobiography, translated from the Japanese by Audie E. Bock, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
(Author of foreword) Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, Princeton University Press, 1982.
(With Bertrand Raison and Serge Toubiana) Le livre de Ran, Cahiers du Cinema (Paris, France), 1985.
(With Michel Esteve) Akira Kurosawa, Lettres Modernes, 1990.
SCREENPLAYS; AND DIRECTOR
Sugata Sanshiro (title means "Judo Saga"; based on the novel by Tsueno Tomita), Toho Films, 1943.
Ichiban utsukushiku (title means "The Most Beautiful"), Toho Films, 1944.
Zoku Sugata Sanshiro (title means "Sanshiro Sugata, Part II"; based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita), Toho Films, 1945.
Tora no o o fumo otokotachi (adapted from the Kabuki play Kanjincho ["The Subscription List"]; released in the United States as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail ), Toho Films, 1945.
(Creator of scenario) Asu o tsukuru hitobito (title means "Those Who Make Tomorrow"), Toho Films, 1946.
(With Eijiro Hisaita) Waga seishun ni kui nashi (title means "No Regrets for Our Youth"), Toho Films, 1946.
(With Keinosuke Uekusa) Subarashiki nichiyobi (title means "One Wonderful Sunday"), Toho Films, 1947.
(With Keinosuke Uekusa) Yoidore tenshi (released in the United States as Drunken Angel), Toho Films, 1948.
(With Senkichi Taniguchi) Shizuka naru ketto (title means "The Quiet Duel"; based on the play by Kazuo Kikuta), Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1949.
(With Ryuzo Kikushima) Nora inu (released in the United States as Stray Dog), Shin Toho/Geijutsu Kyokai, 1949.
(With Ryuzo Kikushima) Skyandaru (released in the United States as Scandal), Shochiku, 1950.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto) Rashomon (adapted from the short stories "In the Grove" and "Rashomon" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; produced by Daiei Motion Picture Company, 1950), published English translation in Rashomon and Other Stories, translated from the Japanese by Takashi Kojimi and published separately, Liveright (New York, NY), 1952, translated by Donald Richie, Grove (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Eijiro Hisaita) Hakuchi (title means "The Idiot"; adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Shochiku, 1951.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni) Ikiru (title means "Living"; released in the United States as Doomed; produced by Toho Films, 1952), translated from the Japanese by Donald Richie, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1968.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni) Shichinin no samurai (released in the United States as The Seven Samurai; produced by Toho Films, 1954), translated from the Japanese by Donald Richie, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1970, published in The Seven Samurai and Other Screenplays, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1992.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni) Ikimono no kiroku (released in the United States as Record of a Living Being/I Live in Fear), Toho Films, 1955.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) Kumonosu-Jo (title means "Castle of the Spider's Web"; adapted from the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare; released in the United States as The Throne of Blood), Toho Films, 1957.
(With Hideo Oguni) Donzoko (adapted from the play by Maxim Gorky; released in the United States as The Lower Depths), Toho Films, 1957.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) Kakushi toride no san akunin (released in the United States as The Hidden Fortress), Toho Films, 1958.
(With Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) Warni yatsu hodo yoko nemuru (released in the United States as The Bad Sleep Well), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1960.
(With Ryuzo Kikushima) Yojimbo (title means "The Bodyguard"), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1961.
(With Shinubo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni) Sanjuro (adapted from the novel Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1962.
(With Shinubo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni) Tengoku to Jigoku (adapted from the novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain; released in the United States as High and Low), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1963.
(With Masato Ide, Shinubo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) Akahige (based on the novel by Shugoro Yamamoto; released in the United States as Red Beard), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1965.
(With Shinubo Hashimoto and Hidoe Oguni) Dodesukaden (adapted from the novel Shiki ga nai machi by Shugoro Yamamato; also released as Dodes'kaden), Yonki no Kai/Toho, 1970.
The Complete Works of Akira Kurosawa, nine volumes, Kinema Juniposha, 1970.
Dersu Uzala (based on the novel Dersu, the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev), translated by Malcolm Burr, Soviet MosFilm, 1975.
(With Masato Ide) Kagemusha (title means "Shadow Warrior" or "The Double"), Kurosawa Productions/Toho, 1980.
(With Masato Ide and Hideo Oguni) Ran (based on William Shakespeare's play King Lear; produced by Kurosawa Productions/Herald Ace Inc./Greenwich Film Production, 1985), translated from the Japanese by Tadashi Shishido, Shambhala, 1986.
Dreams, Kurosawa Productions, 1990.
Hachigatsu no Kyohshikyoku (released in the United States as Rhapsody in August), Kurosawa Productions/Feature Film Enterprise No. 2/Shochiku, 1991.
Madadayo (title means "Not Ready Yet"), Kurosawa Productions, 1993.
Also author of screenplays directed by others, including Uma, 1941; Seishun no kiryu (title means "Currents of Youth"), 1942; Tsubasa no gaika (title means "A Triumph of Wings"), 1942; Ginrei no hate (title means "To the End of the Silver Mountains"), 1947; Shozo, 1948; Jakoman to Tetsu (title means "Jakoman and Tetsu"), 1949; Akatsuki no dasso (title means "Escape at Dawn"), 1950; Tekichu odan sanbyakuri (title means "Three Hundred Miles through Enemy Lines"), 1957; and Last Man Standing, 1996. Also author of other screenplays, including Darumadera no doitsujin (title means "A German at Daruma Temple"); Dohyosai (title means "Wrestling Ring Festival"); Jajauma monogatari (title means "Story of a Bad Horse"); and Dokkoi kono yari (title means "The Lifted Spear"). Author of episode of Yotsu no koi no monogatari (title means "Four Love Stories"). Author of one-act play Shaberu (title means "Talking"), c. 1945. Some of Kurosawa's screenplays have been published in the periodical Eiga Hyoron.
The Seven Samurai was adapted as the western film The Magnificent Seven, United Artists, 1960, and was loosely remade as the science-fiction film Battle beyond the Stars, New World, 1980; Rashomon was remade as The Outrage, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1964; Yojimbo was adapted as A Fistful of Dollars, United Artists, 1964; the 1985 film Runaway Train was adapted from a screenplay written by Kurosawa during the late 1960s.
"I am not a special person. I am not especially strong; I am not especially gifted. I simply do not like to show my weakness, and I hate to lose, so I am a person who tries hard. That's all there is to me."
These humble words, voiced by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in his book Something Like an Autobiography, denote a vast understatement in the eyes of critics and film scholars. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Kurosawa built a reputation as one of film's premier directors and screenwriters. Through such critically acclaimed films as Rashomon, Throne of Blood, The Seven Samurai, Ran, and Dreams, Kurosawa depicted the contrasting sides of humanity—violence and compassion—in a visual style that was influenced by American Western films and his own training as an artist. His trademarks were epic, graphic battle scenes, tempestuous weather for backdrops, and beautifully rendered shots. Dabbling in a variety of genres, ranging from historical epics set in feudal Japan to modern-day detective stories and social commentaries, Kurosawa was credited with fashioning "some of the most vivid, physical-action sequences in the history of cinema," according to American Film contributor Gerald Peary. "No other filmmaker is so inspired as Kurosawa in finding visual analogues for emotional experience," related James Bowman in American Spectator. Kurosawa "is, above everything else, an exact psychological observer," assessed Tony Richardson in Sight and Sound. He's "a keen analyst of behaviour—in a fundamentally detached way."
Known throughout the motion-picture industry for his own bursts of intemperate behavior, Kurosawa was regarded as a perfectionist. He continually strived to craft films of superior quality, despite demands from studio executives to work faster and cheaper. This drive caused him to go over budget on occasion, as he often slowed production to wait for proper conditions, particularly in situations involving weather. The result was films with ideas and visuals that are carefully and methodically developed. "Kurosawa's imagery is often violent and extreme," observed Ian Buruma in the New York Times. "He has said that he likes extreme weather conditions, and indeed many of his most memorable scenes take place in lashing rains, icy snowstorms or suffocating heat. His battle scenes are among the greatest ever put on film."
In addition to his use of vibrant imagery, Kurosawa often displayed a penchant for sentimentality. The scope of his screenplays ran the gambit from death and brutality, to the influences of the nuclear age, to the struggle and demonstration of hope in a cruel world. "Kurosawa is fond of insisting that every artist has, ultimately, only one theme," related Akira Iwasaki in Japan Quarterly. "In his own case, he says, it is the question of why men cannot live together more happily and with greater good will than they do." The critic added, "Most of his films have a theme expressible in one line, or even one word: good, evil, happiness, unhappiness, the beauty of love—problems that boil down in essence to the problems of the existence of man, its meaning and its forms." Alan P. Barr in Massachusetts Review opined that "Kurosawa, as obsessively as any other artist, [explores] the nature and possibility of heroic action in a world that is basically corrupt, corrupt almost as a consequence of its human-ness." And in his Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie, who translated some of the moviemaker's scripts into English, described Kurosawa's central theme: "The world is illusion, you yourself make reality, but this reality undoes you if you submit to being limited by what you have made."
A Descendant of Samurai
The filmmaker's reality began on March 23, 1910, in Tokyo, Japan. Born to Isamu and Shima Kurosawa, he was the youngest of eight children and a descendant of samurai—dual sword-carrying warriors who were part of the aristocratic class during Japan's Shogunate, or feudal society. His father's ancestry can be traced to Abe Sadato, an eleventh-century samurai who lived in northern Japan. Isamu, who had earlier moved the family from the north to Tokyo, had been in the first graduating class of the Toyama Army Academy and taught at the school before becoming a physical education instructor. In Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa described his father's love of sports, noting that he built the county's first swimming pool. Isamu Kurosawa's ardor for baseball was passed on to his son. Of his mother, Shima, he wrote that she was "a typical woman of the Meiji era, Japan's age of swift modernization, during which women were still expected to make extreme sacrifices so that their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons could advance....In such a way as to escape my father's notice, she would listen to all my complaints. Writing about her like this makes it sound as if I'm trying to set her up as a model for some moral tale. But that is not the case. She simply had such a gentle soul that she did these things naturally."
In his autobiography the filmmaker illuminates other details about his family and early years. While he admits that the Kurosawas were very traditional in many ways, they did take a special interest in one form of modern technology: the motion picture. During Kurosawa's childhood, the film industry was in its infancy, its silent era. The family took the train to the nearest theater as movie houses were not yet commonplace. The youngster delighted in watching comedies, including the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin. Although he later admitted that his early movie-going experiences did not influence his later decision to become a film director, he wrote: "I simply enjoyed the varied and pleasant stimulation added to ordinary everyday life by watching the motion-picture screen. I relished laughing, getting scared, feeling sad and being moved to tears." He added, however, "Looking back and reflecting on it, I think my father's attitude toward films reinforced my own inclinations and encouraged me to become what I am today. He was a strict man of military background, but at a time when the idea of watching movies was hardly well received in educators' circles, he took his whole family to the movies regularly." His parents also took the family to hear master storytellers—an activity that Kurosawa particularly enjoyed.
Other memories of his early childhood are not as pleasant. Describing himself as physically weak and a slow learner, Kurosawa recalled feeling like his head was in a cloud—a condition that prohibited him from adequately responding to school lessons and games. As a result, his teachers and fellow students often belittled him. When Kurosawa was in his second year of primary school, his fog began to lift after the family moved to another district in Tokyo. He remembered that his new school, Kuroda, was more traditional, with a militaristic atmosphere. "Imagine someone like me suddenly appearing among a group that lives by purely Japanese customs: a haircut like a sheltered little sissy's, a belted, double-breasted coat over short pants, red socks and low, buckled shoes," he related in Something Like an Autobiography. "What's more, I was still in a wide-eyed daze and had a face as white as a girl's. I immediately became a laughingstock."
Kurosawa continued to be taunted at his new school. He noted that the other students "pulled my long hair, poked at my knapsack, rubbed snot on my clothes and made me cry a lot. I had always been a crybaby, but at this new school I immediately got a new nickname on account of it. They called me Konbeto-san ('Mr. Gumdrop') after a popular song that had a verse something like this: Konbeto-san at our house, He's so much trouble, so much trouble. He's always in tears, in tears. Blubber blubber, blubber blubber." Apparently, the song equated the size of the crybaby's tears with gumdrops. "Even today I can't recall that name," Kurosawa added, "without a feeling of severe humiliation." His Konbeto-san period lasted only about a year as Kurosawa began to overcome his difficulties, partially through the help—masked as bullying—of his older brother Heigo. Later, as he gained respect, he became known as "Kuro-chan."
Kurosawa remembers that the first time he felt confident in his abilities was in an art class taught by Mr. Tachikawa. Tachikawa took a special interest in exposing his young students to art and invited them to his home for discussions. Devising an unusual picture in which he used his saliva to blend the colors, Kurosawa was mocked by other students when his teacher began to discuss the work in class. Tachikawa reprimanded the laughing pupils and lauded Kurosawa's picture, giving it the highest mark. Following the encouragement of his teacher, he developed an enthusiasm for art, especially drawing. Later, he would choose painting as his profession. His performance in his other studies improved as well, and he eventually became president of his class in primary school. His vice president was his friend Keinosuke Uekusa, who later worked on several filmscripts with him. Despite his successes, Kurosawa still had difficulties, especially with the teacher who succeeded Tachikawa. One day the instructor openly ridiculed his artwork in front of the other students. "I think this was the first time I ever experienced the savagery that lies in the human heart," Kurosawa recalled in Something Like an Autobiography. "But I acquired a determination to work so hard that this teacher would never be able to criticize me again."
Kurosawa's self-confidence continued to improve in the following years. When he was in the fifth grade he began to study kendo swordsmanship in school. Exhibiting prowess at the sport, he asked to be enrolled in private lessons, much to the delight of his father. During this time his daily schedule consisted of an eighty-minute walk to the fencing facility, more than thirty-minutes of kendo instruction, the lengthy walk back home for breakfast—including a stop at the Hachiman shrine for devotions—regular classwork at Kuroda, calligraphy lessons after school, and extra study at Tachikawa's house. Among Kurosawa's favorite subjects were history, composition, grammar, and art; he was not particularly fond of science and math.
Earthquake, Depression, and War
Following graduation from primary school, Kurosawa entered Keika High School. He became an avid reader, enjoying books by Japanese novelists such as Higuchi Ichiyo and Natsume Soseki and by Russian authors such as Ivan Turgenev. He was interested in stories focusing on nature rather than humanity. Kurosawa had to contend with the dark realities of these two worlds when they collided on September 1, 1923. On that day he experienced the Great Kanto Earthquake, an event that decimated buildings, altered the landscape, and brought death to thousands of Tokyo residents. Kurosawa, who had been in the city earlier that day, just missed being caught in the calamity and the fires that later roared through Tokyo. Although Kurosawa and his family were unharmed in the disaster, he and Heigo did witness firsthand the effects of the catastrophe, which also led to untold lootings and killings. Once the aftershocks died down, the pair journeyed into the tumbled city. "At first we saw only an occasional burned body, but as we drew closer to the downtown area, the numbers increased," he recalled. "The burned landscape for as far as the eye could see had a brownish red color. In the conflagration everything made of wood had been turned to ashes, which now occasionally drifted upward in the breeze.... Amid this expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable. I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, . . . and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, 'Akira, look carefully now.'"
Also during his high school days, he continued to have problems in matters concerning physical strength. In an effort to help his son overcome his weak constitution, Kurosawa's father sent him to the north of Japan one summer to live with relatives. Isamu hoped the demands of rural life would help his child's disposition. Back at school, Kurosawa began taking compulsory military training classes. Being a bit of a prankster, he ultimately failed the course. Despite his low military marks, he graduated from high school in 1928 and contemplated painting as a career. An enthusiast of French artist Paul Cezanne and Dutch impressionist Vincent Van Gogh, he set out to paint landscapes on Tokyo's periphery. But when his family encountered financial difficulties, Kurosawa considered getting a job with a more consistent income. He landed jobs painting pictures for women's magazines and illustrating romance novels. He was recognized early on for his talent and was twice selected to participate in Tokyo's prestigious Nika Exhibition.
Rocked by the Great Depression, which began in 1929, he soon had no money for painting supplies. Nevertheless, he tried to continue his pursuit of the arts, increasing his reading as books were inexpensive and visiting the cinema on occasion. He also found himself moved by Japan's changing political climate, which included the suppression of communist activity and a rise in proletarian movements. Although not a member of the Communist Party himself, he did join the leftist Proletarian Artists League and edited one of the group's newsletters. In 1930 he was summoned by the army to determine his eligibility for the service. Suffering from hunger and exhaustion, he failed his physical examination. By 1932 disinterest and a serious illness led Kurosawa away from his political activities.
The ailing Kurosawa, who had been living on his own for several years in unheated boarders' rooms, was taken in by his brother Heigo while he recovered. Heigo was a film narrator who specialized in Japanese narrations for silent foreign films at a local movie house. A sensitive man known for his psychological depth, Heigo also had a lighter side: he introduced Kurosawa to Japanese vaudeville, known as "yose," and to "kodan," a form of storytelling involving traditional samurai tales. However, Heigo soon faced losing his job with the advent of sound motion pictures and led a workers' strike in an effort to secure other employment opportunities. Meanwhile Kurosawa moved back with his parents. Some time after he was fired, Heigo committed suicide, and Kurosawa lost not only a brother but a role model. As Kurosawa toyed with the idea of painting, he took odd jobs preparing illustrations for periodicals. At the age of twenty-five, he applied for a job at Photo Chemical Laboratory (PCL Studios) as an assistant director, never dreaming that the position would lead to some sixty years in the motion-picture industry.
In order to obtain the job at PCL Studios—which later became Toho—Kurosawa had to convince his future employers that he was one of the five best candidates among the more than five hundred people who applied. The first part of the screening process was the composition of an essay about the problems inherent in the Japanese film industry. Despite his lack of formal studies in the film field, Kurosawa relied on his observations as a motion-picture enthusiast. "In my answer I suggested, humorously, that if weakness were basic, there could be no cure," Kurosawa later said in Show Business Illustrated. "I also said that films could always be made better." After a couple of interviews, he was offered the position that paid $560 per month. Although he accepted, he planned on returning to painting one day. For Kurosawa, assuming the duties of an assistant director involved further education: hands-on training. His "teacher" throughout his introduction to the behind-the-scenes world of Japanese cinema was director Yamamoto "Yamasan" Kajiro.
Under Kajiro's tutelage, Kurosawa became familiar with all aspects of film production. "Management theory at P.C.L. Studios regarded the assistant directors as cadets who would later become managers and directors," noted Kurosawa in his autobiography. "They were therefore required to gain a thorough mastery of every field necessary to the production of a film. We had to help in the developing laboratory, carry a bag of nails, a hammer and a level from our belts and help with scriptwriting and editing as well. We even had to appear as extras in place of actors and do the accounts for location shooting." Kajiro allowed his assistants to experiment in the various duties of the director. Kurosawa's mentor would include the unaltered work of his assistants in his films, even if the picture could be improved through his intervention. After several years, Kurosawa eagerly anticipated becoming a director.
Kurosawa struggled to make his dream a reality. Engulfed in World War II, the Japanese government began to exercise more censorship. Film scripts were reviewed by a board, which included army officials, and were rejected if deemed unpatriotic. For example, movies could not feature any symbols that looked like chrysanthemums, the emblem of the former imperial government. And since Japan was siding with Germany during the war, censors were eager to axe any film that used concepts or themes that could be associated with England or the United States. After several rejections, Kurosawa finally was permitted to take the helm on his first film. Like Kajiro, he adopted the tradition of writing or cowriting the screenplays of the pictures he directed.
Directs First Feature
Based on a story by Tsueno Tomita, Kurosawa's 1943 debut, Sugata Sanshiro, follows the adventures of a young man versed in the martial arts. As the film progresses, the protagonist comes to understand that judo is a spiritual discipline, not a form of fancy fighting. Among the film's cast is Takashi Shimura, an actor who went on to appear in many of the director's films. During production of the movie, Kurosawa began to establish his reputation for filming under proper weather conditions. Seeking to film the picture's final battle scene under extremely windy conditions, Kurosawa took his crew to an area noted for its gales and waited for the breeze to turn gusty. The studio allowed three days for the location shooting, and Kurosawa finally got his violent winds on the third day. Winds would also figure prominently in some of his later films.
In his next feature, Ichiban utsukushiku, Kurosawa entered the world of workers in a military lens factory. Centering around the efforts of a group of teenaged, female volunteers, the picture depicts the struggle of one girl to maintain the same production speed as her male peers. Before bringing his screenplay to film, Kurosawa deemed that his actresses needed to shed their glamorous images, and he required them to institute a schedule consisting of running, volleyball, and marching. Representing the other actresses, Yoko Yaguchi approached Kurosawa to argue against some of these practices. Described by Kurosawa as both head-strong and stubborn, Yaguchi eventually married the director in 1945 amid the war. A day after the wedding, the shrine in which they were married was damaged when the U.S. Air Force led an air raid over Tokyo. Times were tough, especially for Yoko, who gave up her career for marriage; she had been receiving a salary three times that of Kurosawa's.
In 1945 Kurosawa also made a sequel to Sugata Sanshiro, and he later began work on Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail. During production of the latter film, Japan was defeated by the Allied forces. Under the terms of Japan's surrender, the country was occupied by Allied soldiers, including Americans. Occasionally such personnel would visit Toho studios—some of the foreign servicemen enjoyed having their pictures taken. Unbeknownst to Kurosawa at the time, one of his favorite directors, American western master John Ford, toured the set with a group of officials.
Although the war and its aftermath had brought about a shortage of film stock in Japan, Kurosawa managed to finish The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail. Based on the Kabuki play Kanjincho, otherwise known as "The Subscription List," the film centers on the life of a medieval warrior. Upon completion the picture was reviewed by a new censorship board consisting of Allied officials. The film was initially rejected due to its feudal setting, a theme the occupying forces opposed. The movie was finally released some seven years later.
Despite the decision to ban the film, Kurosawa generally found Allied censors to be more progressive than the defunct, strict Japanese censors. His next project was Asu o tsukuru hitobito ("Those Who Make Tomorrow"). According to Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors, "Kurosawa denies any responsibility for this film, which was a company command slapped together in one week." He then turned his energy to film Waga seishun ni kui nashi ("No Regrets for Our Youth"), cowritten by Eijiro Hisaita. The tale, beginning in the liberal 1930s, delves into the oppression that a leftist couple experiences during the war. Met with critical success, the picture achieved some international recognition. Kurosawa's next two pictures, Subarashiki nichiyobi ("One Wonderful Sunday") and Drunken Angel, were also social commentaries. Teaming with his former schoolmate Uekusa to write the former film, Kurosawa attempted to portray the plight of impoverished lovers who cannot afford to attend a concert. The picture concludes with the despondent sweethearts seeking solace in an empty amphitheater. In an unusual ending, the young woman tries to cheer her boyfriend, asking the audience to join in as her beau conducts an imaginary orchestra. The finale and the movie itself proved more successful with Parisian viewers than with those in Kurosawa's homeland. One elderly Japanese gentleman, however, did send a postcard describing the sobering effect of the movie and its impact. Kurosawa and Uekusa were delighted to see that the note was from their former teacher, Mr. Tachikawa.
In 1948 Kurosawa produced the film many critics consider his initial masterpiece, Drunken Angel. Reflecting the cynical mood of post-war Japan, the film concerns an alcoholic doctor and his strained relationship with a young gangster who has tuberculosis. The part of the racketeer was played by aspiring actor Toshiro Mifune, who continued to head the cast in many of Kurosawa's films. The movie, considered by many critics to be one of the director's most important early films, earned him national kudos. During his successes, however, Kurosawa was saddened by the death of his father. He also had to contend with several workers' strikes at Toho. Disgruntled with management's handling of the situation, he left Toho to work at other studios. His first picture outside of Toho was Shizuka naru ketto ("The Quiet Duel") for Daiei in 1949. Co-written by Kurosawa, the story delves into the life of a young doctor who operates on a patient with syphilis during the war. As a result of the surgery, the physician contracts the disease himself and cancels his plans to wed his betrothed once he arrives back home. The film met with little critical success as some reviewers found the tale overly sentimental.
Kurosawa's next picture, Stray Dog, was produced by Shin Toho and Geijutsu Kyokai. Also released in 1949, the film is set amid the chaos and corruption of the post-war underworld. The tale delineates the saga of a police officer whose gun is stolen on a crowded Tokyo bus. Attempting to catch the thief and recover the weapon, the detective follows a trail of robberies and killings involving the pistol. Soon the young officer, whose search takes him to both affluent and poverty-stricken areas, begins to understand that the criminal's impulses are not so unlike his own. A number of critics noted Kurosawa's use of strong imagery in the film, suggesting that the lawman's shame regarding his lost revolver is symbolic of the country's loss of face during the Second World War. In other instances, reviewers pointed out that Western music is prevalent in scenes depicting the unscrupulous activities of black marketeers, while traditional Japanese music is heard when the villain is finally apprehended.
Rebels against Sensationalism
In 1950's Scandal, made for Shochiku studios, Kurosawa relates the tale of a singer and a painter who become the targets of sensationalizing journalists in need of a spicy story. Although the couple meet by chance, their innocent relationship is falsely presented as an impassioned, sordid love affair by the press. The duo team with an aging lawyer to take the fabricating reporters to court. But the attorney, who needs money to help his ailing daughter, accepts a bribe to lose the case. Eventually justice prevails as the lawyer confesses and the muckrakers are found guilty.
According to Kurosawa, the impetus for the project was a defamatory article he read in a tabloid about the alleged, scandalous sexual behavior of a woman he refers to as "X." In his autobiography, he recalls: "When I saw the sensationalistic way this headline article was presented, I couldn't help thinking about how helpless she must feel. Outraged, I reacted as if the thing had been written about me, and I couldn't remain silent. Such slander cannot be permitted. This was not freedom of expression, I felt, it was violence against a person on the part of those who possess the weapon of publicity." His anger and frustration with unjust journalism remained with him for the rest of his life.
Despite Kurosawa's skeptical view of reporters, the foreign press voiced high praise for the director's next film, Rashomon, made for Daiei. Based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the work is set in eleventh-century Japan and concerns the alleged murder of a nobleman and the rape of his wife. The couple, traveling through a forest, encounter the renowned bandit Tajomaru. Feeling a bit lethargic, the sleepy brigand initially opts to let the couple pass his resting spot, but changes his mind after a strong, cool breeze interrupts his nap. The disruptive wind not only awakens the dozing outlaw but causes the traveling woman's veil to flutter from her face, revealing her beauty to the thief. Deciding he must have the object of such radiance, the miscreant quickly plots to fool the couple and sets out after them. Critics were particularly impressed with the innovative method Kurosawa used in recounting the Rashomon parable. As the details of the alleged assault and death unfold via flashbacks, the viewer is subjected to four very different versions of the events: the accounts of the bandit, the wife, the husband (through a medium), and a woodcutter who witnessed the occurrence. In courtroom scenes the oft-scratching villain claims he raped the wife and stabbed the husband at the woman's urging; she could not face life knowing that two living men had witnessed her defilement. The nobleman maintains that his wife enjoyed having sex with Tajomaru and pleaded with the bandit to kill him. Disgraced and dejected, he took his own life when the robber refused to carry out the murder. The woman asserts that her husband held her in such contempt after the rape that her intense feelings of shame overcame her and she killed him. Finally, the woodcutter recalls that the nobleman and bandit dueled, the latter defeating his cowardly foe.
Inquiring into the relativity of truth, Rashomon goes further in casting doubt about what actually happened in the forest. The audience learns that the woodcutter himself had an ulterior motive to lie about the happenings; he had stolen the dagger used in the husband's death. A priest who has heard all of the accounts—some in court and others via the woodcutter while they wait out a severe rainstorm under the dilapidating Rashomon gate—voices his disgust for and distrust of the dark nature of humankind. Kurosawa added a glimmer of hope, however, as the storm dodgers hear the cries of an abandoned baby and the woodcutter volunteers to take the child into his family. When the story concludes, viewers are left to ponder which accounts constitute reality and if each participant truly believes his/her embellished version of the tale.
While Rashomon fared well in Japan, the film received a more enthusiastic recognition abroad. Its foreign debut signaled the introduction of Japanese cinema to many American audiences. The feature won best picture honors at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, and was the first Japanese film to receive a wide distribution in the West. "Rashomon is a symphony of sight, sound, light, and shadow, in celluloid," judged Jesse Zunser in Cue magazine. Calling the film "as brilliant in its multifaceted plot as a cut gem," the critic further deemed it "as fascinating in the variety of its engrossing complexities as a chess problem." Other reviewers lauded the film for showing the contrasting sides of good and bad in humanity. Rashomon is a "torpid, stylish Japanese study in human frailty," summarized Manny Farber in Nation. Still others perceived that the players were perfectly cast, including Mifune as the bandit and Shimura as the woodcutter. Some years later Hollywood remade Rashomon as The Outrage starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, and William Shatner.
Hakuchi ("The Idiot"), Kurosawa's next feature after Rashomon, marked the director/writer's entry into adapting foreign tales into Japanese settings. Based on a story by Kurosawa's favorite novelist, nineteenth-century Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hakuchi features an epileptic, shell-shocked soldier who seeks to win the affections of another man's girlfriend. His rival, a wealthy businessman (played by Mifune), intervenes, and passions mount. Originally filmed at 245 minutes, the work was substantially cut by its studio, Shochiku, despite Kurosawa's protests. It was his contention that such alterations would make the film difficult to follow and ultimately would lead to the movie being synonymous with its title. In his The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Richie commented on the negative critical response toward the final version of the film: Kurosawa's "desire to 'preserve' Dostoyevsky weakens the film at every turn because Kurosawa's faith in his author was so strong, and so blind, that he seemed to feel that the mere act of photographing scenes from the novel would give the same effect on the screen as they do on the page. What occurs, however, is merely a devastating simplification."
Reviewers were much more laudatory about Kurosawa's next film, Ikiru, released as Doomed in the United States. Considered one of his best films, the contemporary social commentary concerns a Japanese civil servant who is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Realizing that he has wasted his days by merely going through the motions of living, he decides to experience life. He attempts to revitalize his life by taking a wild, all-night trip to show clubs with a hack novelist he meets in a bar. Trying to cast off his nickname "Mummy," he determines to do something good for the world before he expires. He takes on a project to clean up an area tainted with sewage and turn it into a park for children. To achieve his goal he must bypass governmental red tape by pestering officials to act. Following the opening of the playground, for which all the stalling bureaucrats then claim credit, the ailing man dies in his park. Friends, family, coworkers, and bureaucrats gather at his wake and exchange compliments for the job they did building the park. Finally the funeral-goers find themselves acknowledging the deceased's achievements. Written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni, the central message of Ikiru is spoken by the novelist to the dying man in a bar: "Man finds truth in misfortune. Having cancer has opened your eyes to life. Men are such fools! They only realize how beautiful life is, when they're face to face with death. And even these people are rare. Some die without knowing what life is.... Man's duty is to enjoy life. It's against God's will not to do so. Man must have a lust for life. Lust is considered immoral, but it isn't. A lust for life is a virtue."
Films Japanese "Western"
Ikiru served to bring Kurosawa more recognition from Western audiences. The film also marked the director's return to Toho. His next film, considered by critics to be his most successful and polished work to date, was 1954's Seven Samurai. He again teamed with Hashimoto and Oguni to create the script. Set in the sixteenth century, the film opens onto a Japan with a class structure composed of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Amid widespread hunger, a group of farmers becomes enraged when its crops are again raided by ruthless brigands who leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Weak and defenseless, the agrarians send a few men into town to hire skilled samurai to defend their homes. The farmers have no means of payment, however, and only offer shelter and meals as compensation. While most samurai laugh at the farmers' request, one warrior accepts the challenge, believing that honor and justice must triumph. Played by Shimura, the leader recruits six others to assist in defending the farmers.
In The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa presents vivid characterizations of the warriors, including the farmer's son (Mifune) who tries to pass himself off as a samurai to join in the fight. Mifune's scene-stealing protagonist, who is accepted into the ranks of the true soldiers, adds an element of humor through his actions and expressions. The benevolent nature of the samurai is also depicted in segments that show the warriors training the farmers in combat tactics. The final battle footage, filmed in torrential rain and mud, features fancy horsemanship, fervent sword fights, and tragic deaths. When would-be warrior Mifune is eventually killed, he dies as a full-fledged samurai. The picture ends with the surviving soldiers realizing that they are indeed a dying breed, while the farmers begin planting anew.
Kurosawa's interest in making a film like The Seven Samurai was discussed by Lillian Ross in the New Yorker. She noted that the director's interest was fueled by "the desire to have modern Japanese learn that the great old powerful samurai left a rich cultural heritage, which means much more than the physical strength and swordsmanship depicted in many Japanese movies. He feels it's important to show the high level of education, the sense of beauty, the spiritual training, and the mental sharpness of the samurai class. That is the spirit of the Japanese heritage."
Critical and public response to the three-and-a-half-hour film was positive, especially in the West. The film won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. Some reviewers compared Kurosawa's work to that of American western veteran John Ford. Enthusiasm was so high in Hollywood, in fact, that the film was remade as the epic western The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Colburn. The rights to The Seven Samurai were initially secured by Hollywood producer Lou Morheim for $250. According to a reviewer in Motion Picture Guide, "When interviewed, Morheim stated that Kurosawa had been asked why he made The Seven Samurai and how it came to pass, and the Japanese master was quoted as having said, 'All I was doing was trying to make a Japanese western.' Morheim saw that and quickly nailed down the remake rights." The adapted storyline concerns a group of Mexican villagers who are frequently subjected to raiding parties led by Wallach. The desperate townspeople hire seven gunslingers to help them thwart their foes.
Continuing his work for Toho, Kurosawa made Record of a Living Being/I Live in Fear in 1955. The film revolves around an old man who, believing his homeland may be targeted for destruction via the atom bomb, seeks to move his family to South America. Kurosawa's next two projects, both released in 1957, were adaptations of earlier works. The Throne of Blood, a look at a Japanese warlord's demise due to greedy ambition, was based on British writer William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth. The Lower Depths, a view of how a priest inspires a group of insufferable land barons and seedy characters to change their ways, was adapted from Russian writer Maxim Gorky's story.
Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress is also set in feudal Japan. Compared to the western genre by various critics, the picture focuses on the adventures of a princess as she attempts to pass through battle-torn territory to reclaim her crown. A number of humorous situations arise as the royal youth, her protector, and two peasants try to outwit the enemy forces. American filmmaker George Lucas, director of Star Wars, cited The Hidden Fortress as the inspiration for his science-fiction/fantasy adventure. Lucas has said he modeled his Princess Leia after Kurosawa's Princess Yukihime and turned the Japanese director's peasants into robots R2-D2 and C-3PO. After the release of Star Wars, Hidden Fortress, which won an International Critics' Award and the Berlin Film Festival Director's Prize, saw a revival in the early 1980s.
Kurosawa followed The Hidden Fortress with The Bad Sleep Well, a modern-day suspense drama about a man who goes undercover to reveal the real reasons behind his father's suicide: the construction company for which he worked made him the scapegoat after its underhanded dealings were exposed. The son will not rest until he wreaks havoc within the firm, pitting the guilty executives against each other. During the course of his mission, he inadvertently falls in love with the boss's daughter. The film, according to a number of commentators, is said to borrow from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. A number of critics, however, including American filmmaker Frances Ford Coppola, asserted that the work is superior to Shakespeare's.
With the filming of The Bad Sleep Well, the director debuted his own company, Kurosawa Production Inc., although the picture was also underwritten by Toho. In his subsequent features, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa returned to the samurai/western genre. In the former work, an itinerant, masterless samurai brings peace to a feuding village after conning both warring factions to hire him to defeat the other side. As the battle for control of the area ensues, the hero sits idle, watching the opposing forces eliminate each other. Yojimbo was sequeled by Sanjuro, which finds the title character helping a small group of men overcome a ruthless gang. Sensing the western potential in Yojimbo, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone remade the picture into the classic "spaghetti western" A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood, in 1964. Noting this and other remakes, Audie Bock stated in the preface of Kurosawa's autobiography that "no other Japanese director has ever received such homage from the West."
From Failures to Comebacks
As Kurosawa continued filmmaking in the 1960s, he found it increasingly difficult to produce pictures of his renowned quality within budget. Although Japanese studios proffered a mere pittance compared to the sums expended by Hollywood, Kurosawa's insistence on filming under precise conditions often slowed production and required additional funding. In 1963 he saw the release of High and Low, the saga of a wealthy businessman who risks all to help free his chauffeur's kidnapped son. His next film, Red Beard, was some two years in the making. The winner of the Moscow Film Festival Soviet Filmmakers' Association Prize, the work concerns a young, arrogant doctor who discovers strength of character through the example of an old physician. However, the picture received a number of negative reviews, as critics voiced concerned over the movie's length. The prolonged production time itself also cost Kurosawa as a frustrated Mifune announced he would not work with the director again.
Kurosawa's perfectionism led to further problems as the 1970s approached. He was hired to direct the Japanese portion of Hollywood's World War II epic Tora, Tora, Tora, which tells the saga of Japan's bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from the perspective of both military forces. Kurosawa, a man called "the emperor" by the Japanese press due to his directorial methods, was unaccustomed to working with American actors, and some of the performers allegedly complained that working for Kurosawa was no different than being in the confines of the army itself. Following some disagreements with the studio over scheduling and its right to edit his work, Kurosawa left the project and began working on Dodesukaden. His first color film, the feature delves into the lives of people in an urban slum. The picture, made for Toho, also received funding from Yonki no Kai, a production company Kurosawa founded with other Japanese directors. Critical reaction to the film was indifferent, although the production later received the Geijutsu Sai prize for excellence.
Discouraged, Kurosawa found himself facing increased financial difficulties. He was also physically ill, suffering from an undiagnosed gallbladder condition. In 1971 he attempted suicide. It would be several years before he returned to filmmaking. However, he demonstrated his fighting spirit by making a successful comeback with 1975's Dersu Uzala. The film marked a significant departure for Kurosawa as it was made outside his native Japan in Siberia with a Soviet cast. Kurosawa had been asked by officials in the Soviet Union to make the feature, and he wrote the screenplay based on a story by Vladimir Arseniev. The tale depicts the life of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century wilderness man who assists and befriends an army captain on a surveying expedition. In the end the title character must come to terms with civilization when he finally encounters it. Lauded for its inclusion of scenes depicting man against severe nature, the work won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film and similar honors in Italy.
Through the achievement of Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa also confirmed that he was able to make quality films if given an adequate budget. However, the funding problems he had encountered with Toho in the past had caused a considerable rift, leading him to accept foreign financial support for his subsequent films. Offering to help Kurosawa obtain funding were various American admirers, including Coppola and Lucas. The latter, in fact, assisted Kurosawa in obtaining an advance for the international distribution rights for the director's next film, Kagemusha. At that point Toho, too, contributed monies, creating the largest budget for a Japanese picture to date.
When filming 1980's Kagemusha, Kurosawa returned to the feudal Japan setting to render the plight of a condemned thief who tries to escape his sentence by impersonating a dead warlord. Delving into concepts such as loyalty and class structure, the picture was a cowinner of the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Kurosawa's next film, 1985's Ran, is also a period piece, set in sixteenth-century Japan. Based on Shakespeare's King Lear, the project was the culmination of a ten-year dream that began when Kurosawa was having trouble finding funding. Through the assistance of French film producer Serge Silberman, the director was able to acquire an $11.5 million budget—then the highest in Japan. Reportedly, Kurosawa viewed Kagemusha as a dress rehearsal for Ran, a film requiring some 1,400 costumes that took three years to create.
Ran, a Japanese word meaning "chaos" or "madness," alters the Shakespearean story by chronicling the lives of a ruthless overlord and his three sons, rather than a king and his three daughters. The story begins as the ruler Hidetora announces plans to retire and redistribute his lands to his children Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. While the eldest siblings appear pleased with the decision, the youngest brother voices concern that the situation will lead to violence as the sons will surely battle each other for control of the empire. For his protestations, Saburo is banished and eventually marries the daughter of another warlord. As predicted, the remaining brothers begin preparations to fight, both exiling their father from their castles. Hidetora is left to wander the countryside with a few loyal samurai and his court jester, played by transvestite rock singer Peter. When Saburo hears of the mistreatment of Hidetora, he readies his army to defend his father.
In Ran, Taro is eventually killed by Jiro's men. The deceased's wife, Lady Kaede, whose home was destroyed by the vicious and greedy Hidetora in his days of conquest, attacks her brother-in-law Jiro, cutting his neck. In a scene that critics lauded for its intensity, Lady Kaede turns from potential murderess to seductress as she sucks the blood from Jiro's wound and thrusts herself upon him sexually. She becomes Jiro's lover and uses him to exact her revenge on Hidetora's family; she will not rest until all are destroyed. As the tragedy continues, Saburo is reunited with his father, only to be shot by his brother's forces. As the son dies in Hidetora's arms, the old man is overcome with grief and succumbs to death as well. The stage is set for Saburo's awaiting army to begin combat with Jiro's troops.
Receiving widespread international distribution, Ran was a critical and box-office success. "There are moments in Ran . . . when the screen throbs with so much life, so many soldiers on horseback, such extraordinary battles, that one thinks, this is what [Russian writer Leo] Tolstoy saw in his mind when he wrote about [French emperor] Napoleon's invasion of Russia in War and Peace," noted Gerald Peary in American Film. Kurosawa "can make 1,000 soldiers seem three times as strong and do the same for his $11.5 million budget," assessed Peter Travers in People. Newsweek's David Ansen exclaimed, "At its best, this film reminds us of what movies can achieve." And Jan Kott said in the New York Review of Books, "Kurosawa is a peerless master of battle scenes," adding that "even the cruelest of them makes you gasp in amazement. They are a vision of the apocalypse rendered with the highest artistic perfection." Some two years after Ran, Kurosawa saw the release of his partial life story, Something like an Autobiography. Describing events shaping his existence since "babyhood," the filmmaker concludes his work with the making of Rashomon in 1950. He wrote: "Rashomon became the gateway for my entry into the international film world, and yet as an autobiographer it is impossible for me to pass through the Rashomon gate and on to the rest of my life. Perhaps someday I will be able to do so." He added, "I am a maker of films; films are my true medium. I think that to learn what became of me after Rashomon the most reasonable procedure would be to look for me in the characters in the films I made after Rashomon. Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid the truth while pretending to be other people."
Three years later, in 1990, an eighty-year-old Kurosawa saw the release of his next film Dreams. Again the director turned to foreign investors for the picture's $12 million budget. Among those aiding in the production were American directors Martin Scorsese, who appears as painter Vincent Van Gogh in the feature, George Lucas, whose Industrial Light and Music studios lent some special effects work, and Steven Spielberg. Described by reviewers as one of Kurosawa's most personal productions, Dreams contains eight segments depicting a range of colors and images resembling a painting. In one sequence a youth sneaks away to watch a secret, magical wedding of foxes in the forest. In two other pieces, "Mt. Fuji in Red" and "The Weeping Demon," the horrors of nuclear destruction are observed. In another Dreams vignette, a child becomes upset after his family chops down a peach tree orchard. He watches as the distraught spirits come to life as dolls to bring their message of sorrow. Other segments deal with unrequited love, a mountain climber's brush with death, and the faceless ghosts that haunt a soldier. Richard Schickel
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
of Time called the movie "one of the most lucid dreamworks ever placed on film." Dreams was deemed "a spiritual autobiography, a closing of worldly concerns" by Peter Rainer in American Film.
Kurosawa continued his exploration of nuclear devastation in his 1991 film, Rhapsody in August. Centering on the bombing of Nagasaki during World War II by the U.S. Air Force, the anti-war story uses an elderly protagonist to reveal some of the effects of the nuclear blast that claimed the lives of thousands of Japanese. That character, a grandmother who lost her husband when the bomb decimated the area in August of 1945, tells her grandchildren about the explosion that occurred a short distance from her home. Her intent is not to encourage ill will, but to help the youths realize that without acknowledging the past, humankind is condemned to repeat its atrocities. She is concerned that the youngsters' parents have been caught up in materialism and have chosen to ignore their country's history. In turn, her grandchildren have come to regard the bombing as an ancient fairy tale. Though the subject matter could be considered horrific and overwhelming, Mark Goodman of People described the film as "a work so delicate that it seems to have sprung from a Japanese watercolor rather than the flames of Nagasaki." Conversely, James Bowman of American Spectator summarized the film as possessing "simplistic characters . . . [and] puerile ideology with truly sumptuous imagery."
In 1993, Kurosawa completed work on a new film, titled Madadayo ("Not Ready Yet"). Mike Y. Inoue, director on the board of Kurosawa Production Inc., described the motion picture to AAYA as "a story about a heart-warming exchange between a professor and his former students." Noting that the film was invited to the year's Cannes Film Festival, Inoue added: "According to Kurosawa, there is something very precious in this film which has been forgotten these days. He hopes that the audience, after seeing this film, will leave the theater with broad smiles on their faces, feeling very refreshed." Madadayo, the tale of an ex-professor who lives in a hut and refuses to accept the reality of approaching death, proved to be Kurosawa's last film. In the mid-1990s, several of Kurosawa's screen treatments were turned into films, most notably in the 1996 Bruce Willis vehicle Last Man Standing.
During his later years, Kurosawa had his share of confrontations with the Japanese press. An outspoken critic of his country's cinema, he often received negative assessments for his work from Japanese reviewers and film students despite the popularity of his films at home and abroad. In Kurosawa's films, "his strong views are stated with a directness that many Japanese find disconcerting," explained New York Times reporter Ian Buruma. "His extraordinary talent, his directness, his egotism, make Kurosawa stick out in Japan. He has, at considerable personal cost, always resisted this maxim of mediocrity, as have the heroes in his films. He refuses to conform to a society that tends to celebrate the ordinary . . . as a virtue." Buruma added: "Despite his zest for making films, paintings, sculptures, anything that will serve as an outlet for his prodigious energy, he seems a bit out of step with the society around him—a society which, in his mind, appears to have let him down. Young critics tend to regard him as an anachronism, an arrogant dinosaur trying in ever more grandiose fashion to recreate a forgotten and, today, irrelevant past. His humanistic concerns and worship of classical art seem out of place in postmodern Tokyo."
Film critic Donald Richie suggested that the reason Kurosawa's films have not fared better in Japan is due to their success abroad. As he wrote in American Film: "The Japanese have a very strong opinion that anyone who makes it in the West cannot be any good, and Kurosawa did make it. He has always had to pay for this appreciation from the West, although he himself has never wooed the West." Kurosawa, in fact, stated that he was unsure why he has had such success with American audiences. Contending that his films were truly "Japanese" and not geared for American audiences, the director also acknowledged the universal message of his work.
If you enjoy the works of Akira Kurosawa
If you enjoy the works of Akira Kurosawa, you may also want to check out the following films:
Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, 1977.
Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, 1995.
The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, 2003.
Kurosawa died in his home in Tokyo on September 5, 1998. His last years were filled with awards from around the world, including an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1989. The obituary writer for the Economist summed up Kurosawa's long life with these words: "He left an oeuvre of 30 films produced over a period of about 50 years.... Although no one questioned that he was world class as an artist, some Japanese, still among the most nationalistic of people, wondered whether he was too fond of western ideas. Mr. Kurosawa would point to his collection of antiques. Alongside Japanese lacquerware was French glass. Both were beautiful. Japan and the West, he said, lived side by side in his mind." Richie, in his Films of Akira Kurosawa, quoted the filmmaker explaining how an artist must work: "I think that to find what is real one must look very closely at one's world.... To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, Kodansha International, 1985, p. 182.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 16, 1981.
Contemporary Literary Criticism Yearbook, 1998, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Desser, David, The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa, UMI Research Press, 1983.
Erens, Patricia, Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources, G. K. Hall, 1979.
Galbraith, Stuart, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Faber (London, England), 2002.
Goodwin, James, Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1994.
Goodwin, James, editor, Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, G. K. Hall (New York, NY), 1994.
Grady, Beverly, The Emperor of the Japanese Cinema: Akira Kurosawa, Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, 1979.
Kurosawa, Akira, Something Like an Autobiography, translated and prefaced by Audie E. Bock, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1983.
Kurosawa, Akira, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto, Ikiru, Toho/Brando, 1960.
Kurosawa, Akira, and Michel Esteve, Akira Kurosawa, Lettres Modernes, 1990.
Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Liveright (New York, NY), 1975.
Mellen, Joan, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan through Its Cinema, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1976.
Prince, Stephen, The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1991, revised edition, 1999.
Richie, Donald, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1970, expanded and updated edition, 1996.
Yoshimoto, Mitsuhiro, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 2000.
American Film, April, 1982, Donald Richie, "He's the Pure Artist," p. 50; April, 1989, Gerald Peary, "Akira Kurosawa: Japan's Existential Cowboy Looks West and Thinks East," pp. 80-82; April, 1991, Peter Rainer, review of Dreams.
American Spectator, April, 1992, James Bowman, "Going down in History," pp. 63-64.
Cue, December 29, 1951, Jesse Zunser, review of Rashomon.
Investor's Business Daily, April 7, 2004, Jonah Keri, "Darkness! Camera! Action!; Innovate: Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa Brought Dark Dreams to Vivid Life," p. A4.
Japan Quarterly, January-March, 1965, Akira Iwasaki, "Kurosawa and His Work," pp. 21-31.
Massachusetts Review, winter, 1975, Alan P. Barr, "Exquisite Comedy and the Dimensions of Heroism: Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo," pp. 158-168.
Nation, January 19, 1952, Manny Farber, review of Rashomon.
Newsweek, January 6, 1986, David Ansen, "A Japanese 'King Lear': Kurosawa's Shakespearean Epic," pp. 64-65.
New Yorker, December 21, 1981, Lillian Ross, "Profiles: Kurosawa Frames."
New York Review of Books, April 24, 1986, Jan Kott, "The Edo Lear."
New York Times, October 29, 1989, Ian Buruma, "Japan's Emperor of Film."
People, December 2, 1985, Peter Travers, review of Ran; February 9, 1991; December 9, 1991.
Show Business Illustrated, April, 1962, interview with Kurosawa.
Sight and Sound, spring, 1955, Tony Richardson, review of The Seven Samurai, pp. 195-196.
Time, September 10, 1990, Richard Schickel, review of Dreams.
British Film Institute Web site,http://www.bfi.org.uk/ (February 28, 2005), "Ikira Kurosawa."
Economist, September 12, 1998, p. 100.
Maclean's, September 21, 1998, p. 15.
People, September 21, 1998, p. 131.
Time, September 21, 1998, Martin Scorsese, "Eulogy," p. 29.
U.S. News & World Report, September 21, 1998, p. 12.
Variety, September 14, 1998, p. 92.*
Nationality: Japanese. Born: Tokyo, 23 March 1910. Education: Kuroda Primary School, Edogawa; Keika High School; studied at Doshusha School of Western Painting, 1927. Family: Married Yoko Yaguchi, 1945 (died, 1985), one son (producer Hisao Kurosawa), one daughter. Career: Painter, illustrator, and member, Japan Proletariat Artists' Group, from late 1920s; assistant director, P.C.L. Studios (Photo-Chemical Laboratory, later Toho Motion Picture Co.), studying in Kajiro Yamamoto's production group, from 1936; also scriptwriter, from late 1930s; directed first film, Sugata Sanshiro, 1943; began association with actor Toshiro Mifune on Yoidore tenshi, and founder, with Yamamoto and others, Motion Picture Artists Association (Eiga Gei jutsuka Kyokai), 1948; formed Kurosawa Productions, 1959; signed contract with producer Joseph E. Levine to work in United States, 1966 (engaged in several aborted projects through 1968); with directors Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi, formed Yonki no Kai production company, 1971. Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Grand Prix, Venice Festival, for Rashomon, 1951; Golden Bear Award for Best Direction and International Critics Prize, Berlin Festival, for The Hidden Fortress, 1959; Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, for Dersu Uzala, 1976; European Film Academy Award, for "humanistic contribution to society in film production," 1978; Best Director, British Academy Award, and Palme d'Or, Cannes Festival, for Kagemusha, 1980; Order of Culture of Japan, 1985; British Film Institute fellowship, 1986; Honorary Academy Award, 1989. Died: 6 September 1998, in Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan, of stroke.
Films as Director:
Sugata Sanshiro (Sanshiro Sugata, Judo Saga) (remade as same title by Shigeo Tanaka, 1955, and by Seiichiro Uchikawa, 1965, and edited by Kurosawa) (+ sc)
Ichiban utsukushiku (The Most Beautiful) (+ sc)
Zoku Sugata Sanshiro (Sanshiro Sugata—Part 2; Judo Saga—II) (+ sc); Tora no o o fumu otokotachi (Men Who Tread onthe Tiger's Tail) (+ sc)
Asu o tsukuru hitobito (Those Who Make Tomorrow); Wagaseishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets for Our Youth) (+ co-sc)
Subarashiki nichiyobi (One Wonderful Sunday) (+ co-sc)
Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) (+ co-sc)
Shizukanaru ketto (A Silent Duel) (+ co-sc); Nora inu (StrayDog) (+ co-sc)
Shubun (Scandal) (+ co-sc); Rashomon (+ co-sc)
Hakuchi (The Idiot) (+ co-sc)
Ikiru (To Live, Doomed) (+ co-sc)
Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (+ co-sc)
Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being; I Live in Fear; What the Birds Knew) (+ co-sc)
Kumonosu-jo (The Throne of Blood; The Castle of the Spider's Web) (+ co-sc, co-pr); Donzoko (The Lower Depths) (+ co-sc, co-pr)
Kakushi toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress; ThreeBad Men in a Hidden Fortress) (+ co-sc, co-pr)
Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Worse You Are the BetterYou Sleep; The Rose in the Mud) (+ co-sc, co-pr); Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) (+ co-sc)
Sanjuro (+ co-sc)
Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low; Heaven and Hell; TheRansom) (+ co-sc)
Akahige (Red Beard) (+ co-sc)
Dodesukaden (Dodeskaden) (+ co-sc, co-pr)
Dersu Uzala (+ co-sc)
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) (+ co-sc, co-pr)
Ran (+ sc)
Dreams (Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) (+ sc)
Hachigatsu No Kyohshikyoku (Rhapsody in August) (+ sc)
Madadayo (+ sc, ed)
Sengoku gunto den (Sage of the Vagabond) (sc, asst dir)
Uma (Horses) (Yamamoto) (co-sc)
Seishun no kiryu (Currents of Youth) (Fushimizi) (sc); Tsubasano gaika (A Triumph of Wings) (Yamamoto) (sc)
Dohyo-matsuri (Wrestling-Ring Festival) (Marune) (sc)
Appare Isshin Tasuke (Bravo, Tasuke Isshin!) (Saeki) (sc)
Ginrei no hate (To the End of the Silver Mountains) (Taniguchi) (co-sc); Hatsukoi (First Love) segment of Yottsu no koi nomonogatari (Four Love Stories) (Toyoda) (sc)
Shozo (The Portrait) (Kinoshita) (sc)
Yakoman to Tetsu (Yakoman and Tetsu) (Taniguchi) (sc); Jigoku no kifujin (The Lady from Hell) (Oda) (sc)
Akatsuki no dasso (Escape at Dawn) (Taniguchi) (sc); Jirubano Tetsu (Tetsu 'Jilba') (Kosugi) (sc); Tateshi danpei (Fencing Master) (Makino) (sc)
Ai to nikushimi no kanata e (Beyond Love and Hate) (Taniguchi) (sc); Kedamono no yado (The Den of Beasts) (Osone) (sc); Ketto Kagiya no tsuji (The Duel at Kagiya Corner) (Mori) (sc)
Tekichu odan sanbyakuri (Three Hundred Miles throughEnemy Lines) (Mori) (sc)
Sengoku guntoden (The Saga of the Vagabond) (Sugie) (sc)
Ame agaru (After the Rain) (co-sc)
By KUROSAWA: books—
Ikiru, with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, edited by Donald Richie, New York, 1968.
The Seven Samurai, New York, 1970.
Kurosawa Akira eiga taikei [Complete Works of Akira Kurosawa], edited by Takamaro Shimaji, in 12 volumes, Tokyo, 1970/72.
Something like an Autobiography, New York, 1982.
Ran, London, 1986.
By KUROSAWA: articles—
"Waga eiga jinsei no ki," [Diary of My Movie Life], in Kinemajumpo (Tokyo), April 1963.
"Why Mifune's Beard Won't Be Red," in Cinema (Los Angeles), July 1964.
"L'Empereur: entretien avec Kurosawa," with Yoshio Shirai and others, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1966.
Interview with Donald Richie, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
Interview with Joan Mellen, in Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.
"Tokyo Stories: Kurosawa," interview with Tony Rayns, in Sightand Sound (London), Summer 1981.
Interview with E. Decaux and B. Villien, in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1982.
"Kurosawa on Kurosawa," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), April 1982.
Interview with Kyoko Hirano, in Cineaste (New York), May 1986.
Kurosawa, Akira, "Lat oss halla ut tillsammaus," in Chaplin (Stock-holm), vol. 30, no. 2/3, 1988.
Interview in Time Out (London), 9 May 1990.
Interview in Etudes Cinematographiques (Paris), no. 165/169, 1990.
Interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1991.
"Moments with Kurosawa," an interview with Shawn Levy and James Fee, in American Film (New York), January/February 1992.
On KUROSAWA: books—
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art andIndustry, New York, 1960; revised edition, Princeton, New Jer-sey, 1982.
Sato, Tadao, Kurosawa Akira no sekai [The World of Akira Kurosawa], Tokyo, 1968.
Richie, Donald, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Berkeley, California, 1970; revised edition, 1984.
Richie, Donald, Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character, New York, 1971.
Richie, Donald, editor, Focus on Rashomon, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.
Mesnil, Michel, Kurosawa, Paris, 1973.
Mellen, Joan, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan through Its Cinema, New York, 1976.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1978.
Erens, Patricia, Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1979.
Tassone, Aldo, Akira Kurosawa, Florence, 1981.
Bazin, André, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock, New York, 1982.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Tokyo, 1982.
Desser, David, The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983.
Tassone, Aldo, Akira Kurosawa, Paris, 1983.
Ito, Kosuke, Kurosawa Akira 'Ran' no sekai, Tokyo, 1985.
Achternbusch, Herbert, and others, Akira Kurosawa, Munich, 1988.
Chang, Kevin K., Kurosawa: Perceptions on Life, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1991.
Prince, Stephen, The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of AkiraKurosawa, Princeton, New Jersey, 1991.
Goodwin, James, editor, Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, New York, 1994.
On KUROSAWA: articles—
Leyda, Jay, "The Films of Kurosawa," in Sight and Sound (London), October/December 1954.
Anderson, Lindsay, "Two Inches off the Ground," in Sight andSound (London), Winter 1957.
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, "Traditional Theater and the Film in Japan," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1958.
McVay, Douglas, "The Rebel in a Kimono," and "Samurai and Small Beer," in Films and Filming (London), July and August 1961.
"Kurosawa Issues" of Kinema jumpo (Tokyo), April 1963 and 5 September 1964.
"Akira Kurosawa," in Cinema (Los Angeles), August/September 1963.
"Kurosawa Issue" of Études Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 30–31, Spring 1964.
Akira, Iwasaki, "Kurosawa and His Work," in Japan Quarterly (New York), January/March 1965.
"Director of the Year," International Film Guide (London, New York), 1966.
"Akira Kurosawa: Japan's Poet Laureate of Film," in Film Makerson Film Making, edited by Harry Geduld, Bloomington, Indi-ana, 1967.
Richie, Donald, "Dostoevsky with a Japanese Camera," in TheEmergence of Film Art, edited by Lewis Jacobs, New York, 1969.
Manvell, Roger, "Akira Kurosawa's Macbeth, The Castle of theSpider's Web," in Shakespeare and the Film, London, 1971.
Tessier, Max, "Cinq japonais en quete de films: Akira Kurosawa," in Ecran (Paris), March 1972.
Mellen, Joan, "The Epic Cinema of Kurosawa," in Take One (Montreal), June 1972.
Kaminsky, Stuart, "The Samurai Film and the Western," in TheJournal of Popular Film (Bowling Green, Ohio), Fall 1972.
Tucker, Richard, "Kurosawa and Ichikawa: Feudalist and Individualist," in Japan: Film Image, London, 1973.
"Kurosawa Issue" of Kinema jumpo (Tokyo), 7 May 1974.
Richie, Donald, "Kurosawa: A Television Script," in 1000 Eyes (New York), May 1976.
Silver, Alain, "Akira Kurosawa," in The Samurai Film, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1977.
McCormick, Ruth, "Kurosawa: The Nature of Heroism," in 1000Eyes (New York), April 1977.
Ray, Satyajit, "Tokyo, Kyoto, et Kurosawa," in Positif (Paris), December 1979.
Mitchell, G., "Kurosawa in Winter," in American Film (Washing-ton, D.C.), April 1982.
Dossier on Ran, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), September 1985.
"Kurosawa Section" of Positif (Paris), October 1985.
Boyd, D., "Rashomon: from Akutagawa to Kurosawa," in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 3, 1987.
Kusakabe, K., "Akira Kurosawa, the Emperor of Cinema," in Cinema India International (Bombay), vol. 4, no. 13, 1987.
Lannes-Lacroutz, M., "Le Sabra et la camélia," in Positif (Paris), March 1987.
McCarthy, T., "Kurosawa Mum on Next Film during Audience in Tokyo," in Variety (New York), 7 October 1987.
Prince, S., "Zen and Selfhood: Patterns of Eastern Thought in Kurosawa's Films," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Winter 1988.
Ostria, V., "Kurosawa en vogue," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1989.
Stein, Elliot, "Film: Foreign Affairs," in Village Voice (New York), 31 January 1989.
Peary, G., "Akira Kurosawa," in American Film (New York), April 1989.
Positif (Paris), June 1990.
Biofilmography in L'avant Scene Cinéma (Paris), June 1990.
Weisman, S.R., "Kurosawa Is Sailing Unfamiliar Seas," New YorkTimes, October 1, 1990.
Bibliography in L'avant Scene Cinéma (Paris), June-July 1991.
Bourguignon, Thomas, article in Positif (Paris), November 1991.
Medine, David, "Law and Kurosawa's 'Rashomon,"' in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1992.
Sterngold, James, "Kurosawa, in His Own Style, Is Planning His Next Film," in New York Times, 1 February 1992.
Helm, Leslie, "Is Kurosawa Ready to Stop Making Films? Not Yet . . . ," in Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1992.
Segers, F., "Kurosawa and Toho Go Way Back," in Variety (New York), 9 November 1992.
Seltzer, Alex, "Akira Kurosawa: Seeing through the Eyes of the Audience," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1993.
Reid, T.R., "The Setting Sun of Akira Kurosawa; Japan's Famed Director Draws Yawns for Film Memoir," in Washington Post, 28 December 1993.
Crowl, Samuel, "The Bow Is Bent and Drawn: Kurosawa's 'Ran' and the Shakespearean Arrow of Desire," in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1994.
Manheim, Michael, "The Function of Battle Imagery in Kurosawa's Histories and the 'Henry V' Films," in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1994.
James, Caryn, "Gleaning a Master Director's Painted Clues. . . ," in New York Times, 5 June 1994.
Masson, Alain, and others, "Akira Kurosawa," in Positif (Paris), January 1996.
Bovkis, Elen A., "Ikiru: The Role of Women in a Male Narrative," in CineAction (Toronto), May 1996.
Carr, Barbara, "Goethe and Kurosawa: Faust and the Totality of Human Experience—West and East," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 3, 1996.
Obituary, in Filmrutan (Sundsvall), Fall 1998.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 14 September 1998.
Obituary, in Sight and Sound (London), October 1998.
Obituary, in Positif (Paris), November 1998.
Obituary, in 24 Images (Montreal), no. 95, Winter 1998.
On KUROSAWA: film—
Richie, Donald, Akira Kurosawa: Film Director, 1975.* * *
Unquestionably Japan's best-known film director, Akira Kurosawa introduced his country's cinema to the world with his 1951 Venice Festival Grand Prize winner, Rashomon. His international reputation has broadened over the years with numerous citations, and when 20th Century-Fox distributed his 1980 Cannes Grand Prize winner, Kagemusha, it was the first time a Japanese film achieved worldwide circulation through a major Hollywood studio.
At the time Rashomon took the world by surprise, Kurosawa was already a well-established director in his own country. He had received his six-year assistant director's training at the Toho Studios under the redoubtable Kajiro Yamamoto, director of both low-budget comedies and vast war epics such as The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya. Yamamoto described Kurosawa as more than fully prepared to direct when he first grasped the megaphone for his own screenplay, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943. This film, based on a best-selling novel about the founding of judo, launched lead actor Susumu Fujita as a star and director Kurosawa as a powerful new force in the film world.
Despite numerous battles with wartime censors, Kurosawa managed to get production approval for three more of his scripts before the Pacific War ended in 1945. By this time he was fully established with his studio and his audience as a writer-director. His films were so successful commercially that he would, until late in his career, receive a free creative hand from his producers, ever-increasing budgets, and extended schedules. In addition, he was never subjected to a project that was not of his own initiation and his own writing.
In the pro-documentary, female emancipation atmosphere that reigned briefly under the Allied Occupation of Japan, Kurosawa created his strongest woman protagonist and produced his most explicit pro-left message in No Regrets for Our Youth. But internal political struggles at Toho left bitterness and creative disarray in the wake of a series of strikes. As a result, Kurosawa's 1947 One Wonderful Sunday is perhaps his weakest film, an innocuous and sentimental story of a young couple who are too poor to get married.
The mature Kurosawa appeared in the 1948 Drunken Angel. Here he displays not only a full command of black-and-white filmmaking technique with his characteristic variety of pacing, lighting, and camera angles for maximum editorial effect, but his first use of sound-image counterpoints in the "Cuckoo Waltz" scene, where lively music contrasts with the dying gangster's dark mood. Here too is the full-blown appearance of the typical Kurosawan master-disciple relationship first suggested in Sanshiro Sugata, as well as an overriding humanitarian message despite the story's tragic outcome. The master-disciple roles assume great depth in Takashi Shimura's portrayal of the blustery alcoholic doctor and Toshiro Mifune's characterization of the vain, hotheaded young gangster. The film's tension is generated by Shimura's questionable worthiness as a mentor and Mifune's violent unwillingness as a pupil. These two actors would recreate similar testy relationships in numerous Kurosawa films from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, including the noir police drama Stray Dog, the doctor dilemma film Quiet Duel, and the all-time classic Seven Samurai. In the 1960s Yuzo Kayama would assume the disciple role to Mifune's master in the feudal comedy Sanjuro and in Red Beard, a work about humanity's struggle to modernize.
Kurosawa's films of the 1990s were minor asterisks to the career of this formidable, legendary director. Dreams (Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) is a disappointingly uneven recreation of eight of the director's dreams; Hachigatsu No Kyohshikyoku (Rhapsody in August) is a slight account of the recollection of a grandmother who remembers the bombing of Nagasaki.
These films are linked to Madadayo, Kurosawa's last film, in that all are deeply personal and reflective. Madadayo, released when Kurosawa was 83 years old, is an account of 17 years in the retirement of a beloved teacher who is respected by the generations of his former students. As he ages into a "genuine old man," he remains as feisty and vigorous as ever; his favorite phrase is the film's title, the English translation of which is "not yet." But he is as equally vulnerable to the ravages of time and life's losses, as illustrated by his grieving upon the disappearance of his pet cat. Madadayo is a flawed film, if only because one too many sequences ramble. While it most decidedly is the work of an old man, it and his other latter-period work do not negate the vitality of Kurosawa's many all-time classics.
Part of Kurosawa's characteristic technique throughout his career involved the typical Japanese studio practice of using the same crew or "group" on each production. He consistently worked with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and composer Fumio Hayasaka, for example. Kurosawa's group became a kind of family that extended to actors as well. Mifune and Shimura were the most prominent names of the virtual private repertory company that, through lifetime studio contracts, could survive protracted months of production on a Kurosawa film and fill in with more normal four-to-eight-week shoots in between. Kurosawa was thus assured of getting the performance he wanted every time.
Kurosawa's own studio contract and consistent box-office record enabled him to exercise creativity never permitted lesser talents in Japan. He was responsible for numerous technical innovations as a result. He pioneered the use of long lenses and multiple cameras in the famous final battle scenes in the driving rain and splashing mud of Seven Samurai. He introduced the first use of widescreen in Japan in the 1958 samurai entertainment classic Hidden Fortress. To the dismay of leftist critics and the delight of audiences, he invented realistic portrayals of swordfighting and other violence in such extravagant confrontations as those of Yojimbo, which spawned the entire Clint Eastwood spaghetti western genre in Italy. Kurosawa further experimented with long lenses on the set in Red Beard, and accomplished breathtaking work with his first color film Dodeskaden, now no longer restorable. A firm believer in the importance of motion picture science, Kurosawa pioneered the use of Panavision and multi-track Dolby sound in Japan with Kagemusha. His only reactionary practice was his editing, which he did entirely himself on an antique Moviola, better and faster than anyone else in the world.
Western critics often chastised Kurosawa for using symphonic music in his films. His reply to this is to point out that he and his entire generation grew up on music that was more Western in quality than native Japanese. As a result, native Japanese music can sound artificially exotic to a contemporary audience. Nevertheless, he succeeded in his films in adapting not only boleros and elements of Beethoven, but snatches of Japanese popular songs and musical instrumentation from Noh theater and folk song.
Perhaps most startling of Kurosawa's achievements in a Japanese context, however, was his innate grasp of a story-telling technique that is not culture bound, and his flair for adapting Western classical literature to the screen. No other Japanese director would have dared to set Dostoevski's Idiot, Gorki's Lower Depths, or Shakespeare's Macbeth (Throne of Blood) and King Lear (Ran) in Japan. But he also adapted works from the Japanese Kabuki theater (Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) and used Noh staging techniques and music in both Throne of Blood and Kagemusha. Like his counterparts and most admired models, Jean Renoir, John Ford, and Kenji Mizoguchi, Kurosawa took his cinematic inspirations from the full store of world film, literature, and music. And yet the completely original screenplays of his two greatest films, Ikiru, the story of a bureaucrat dying of cancer who at last finds purpose in life, and Seven Samurai, the saga of seven hungry warriors who pit their wits and lives against marauding bandits in the defense of a poor farming village, reveal that his natural story-telling ability and humanistic convictions transcended all limitations of genre, period, and nationality.
—Audie Bock, updated by Rob Edelman
The Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (born 1910) is noted for his visually arresting and intellectually adventurous evocations of Japan's mythic past and agonized present. His films have established him as one of the great epic poets of the cinema.
Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo and educated there at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting. He entered the world of film almost accidentally, by winning an essay contest on the major weakness of Japanese cinema. After working for five years in various capacities at Toho Studios, he made his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943), an intimate study of the life of a judo champion.
Kurosawa's second venture, Most Beautifully (1944), focuses on the Japanese working-class woman, producing a vivid and authentic documentary. The Men Who Tread on the Tails of Tigers (1944), a brilliant parody of a Kabuki story, was banned by the Japanese government because of its religious irreverence and lack of national patriotism. His other major works of this period were One Wonderful Sunday (1945); Drunken Angel (1946), a poignant study of the confrontation between a slum doctor and a gangster dying of tuberculosis; Stray Dog (1949), a portrayal of postwar Japanese life in the form of a detective melodrama; and Scandal (1950), an exposé on the concomitant evils of yellow journalism and unbridled public curiosity.
With Rashomon (1950), a sophisticated inquiry into the elusiveness of objective reality, Kurosawa won international recognition. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Rashomon was highly influential in theme and technique in both East and West. The Idiot (1951), based on the Dostoevsky novel, drew a less enthusiastic response. But his two subsequent works—Ikiru (1952), a profound exploration of the psychology of dying, and the great battle epic The Seven Samurai (1954)—are secure among the great achievements of contemporary cinema.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a productive time for Kurosawa. His films of this period included Throne of Blood (1957), a moving though eccentric adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth; The Lower Depths (1957), a profound treatment of the Gorky play; The Hidden Fortress (1959), a powerful medieval fresco; Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), two dynamic samurai epics; and High and Low (1963), an intriguing crime thriller.
Around this time, Kurosawa's notorious perfectionism began to take its toll on his career. He spent two years filming Aka Hige (Red Beard; 1965), an ambitious medical drama. But the film flopped at the box office and its star, Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, vowed never to work with the director again. After a long fallow period, Kurosawa next signed on to direct a segment of the Hollywood Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He resigned amid arguments over control of the project and rumors that he was mentally unhinged. Kurosawa could not even get financing for his next film, Dodes' ka-den (1970), his first in color, only completing the project when two other Japanese directors stepped in as co-producers. Savaged by critics, this drama about Tokyo slum life failed with audiences as well. The cumulative disappointments drove Kurosawa to attempt suicide in 1971. He recovered from multiple slash wounds but did not return to work until the mid-1970s.
In 1975 Kurosawa began shooting Dersu Uzala (1976), a powerful survival story set in the Siberian wilderness. With strong financial backing from Soviet and Japanese sources, the director was once again equipped with the time and budget to create on the epic scale. The resulting film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Gold Medal at the Moscow Film Festival. It signaled a major comeback by Kurosawa.
In 1980, with financial support from American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Kurosawa made Kagemusha (1980), a spectacular—but deeply humanistic—Samurai epic about a condemned thief who impersonates a slain warlord. The film captured the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in addition to numerous international awards. Kurosawa's first Oscar nomination for Best Director came for Ran (1985), a Japanese retelling of King Lear that featured some of the most breathtaking battle sequences ever filmed. The success of these two epics solidified Kurosawa's reputation as one of the masters of modern cinema.
Then 80 years old, Kurosawa next directed Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) a rendering on film of the director's own nighttime fantasies. The intensely personal film met with mixed critical reception, though few could deny its visual splendor. Rhapsody in August (1991), a more mainstream release aimed at Western audiences and starring the American actor Richard Gere, met with an even less favorable response. Madadayo (1993) was a return to more uniquely Japanese subject matter, in its tale of an ex-professor who lives in a hut and refuses to accept the reality of approaching death. In the mid-1990s, several of Kurosawa's screen treatments were turned into films, most notably in the Bruce Willis's vehicle Last Man Standing (1996).
An artist of subtle inventiveness, Kurosawa deliberately avoided the stylistic tricks and emotional exhibitionism of many of his postwar contemporaries in favor of logical but complex structural development, compositional precision, and studied character analysis. His indifference to restrictive cultural ritual helped to make him the most catholic of his country's motion picture directors. In 1989, the director was presented with an honorary Academy Award "for accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched, and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."
For Kurosawa's views on his own early productions see Andrew Sarris, ed., Interviews with Film Directors (1968). The definitive early study of the cinema of Kurosawa is the full-length work by Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965). See also Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1960). Perceptive critical commentary can be found in Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (1965) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968); Stanley Kauffmann, A World on Film: Criticism and Comment (1966); John Ivan Simon, Private Screenings (1967); and wight Macdonald, Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969). Kurosawa's own account of his life is presented in Something Like an Autobiography (1982). Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1996) covers all of Kurosawa's films to that point. □