Akira Kurosawa was a Japanese director and painter. He helmed 30 films over a career that spanned 57 years. He is considered one of the greatest and most influential movie-makers in cinema history.
After a brief stint as an artist, Kurosawa joined the Japanese film industry. After many years as an assistant director, scriptwriter and director on many films, Kurosawa made his debut as director during World War II with the action film Sanshiro Sugata. Judo Saga). The critically acclaimed Drunken Angel (1948) in which Kurosawa starred the role of Toshiro Mizune, a young actor, cemented Kurosawa’s position as one the most important Japanese film-makers. They would collaborate on fifteen more films.
Rashomon was the surprise winner at the 1951 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. It premiered in Tokyo. This film’s commercial and critical success opened Western film markets to Japanese films for the first time. It also led to international recognition of other Japanese filmmakers. Kurosawa directed an average of one film per year in the 1950s and 1960s. This included a number highly regarded and often adapted films such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (544) and Yojimbo (61). He became less prolific after the 1960s. However, his later works, including Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (85), received great acclaim.
He was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. He was honored posthumously with the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in the “Arts, Literature, and Culture” category by AsianWeek magazine and CNN. This award recognizes him as one of the five individuals who have most significantly contributed to the development of Asia in the 20th Century. Many retrospectives, studies, and biographies of his career have been published in print and video.
Table of Contents
- 1 Biography
- 1.1 From childhood to war years (1910-1945)
- 1.2 Early postwar years to Red Beard (1946-1965)
- 1.3 Hollywood’s ambitions for last films (1966-1998)
- 2 Creative works/filmography
- 3 Style and the main themes
- 4 Legacy
- 5 Documentaries
From childhood to war years (1910-1945)
Childhood and youth (1910-1935)
Kurosawa was born in Oimachi, Tokyo’s Omori district, on March 23, 1910. His father, Isamu (1864-1948), was a member of a samurai clan from Akita Prefecture. While his mother Shima (1870-1952), came from an Osaka merchant’s family. Akira was the eighth child and youngest of the moderately well-off family. Two of his siblings were already grown up when he was born, and one had died, so Kurosawa grew up with three sisters, and a brother.
Isamu Kurosawa encouraged exercise and was open to Western traditions. He considered motion pictures and theatre to be educational. His children were encouraged to see films. Akira, a young boy, saw his first movie at six years old. His elementary school teacher, Mr. Tachikawa was a significant influence. His progressive educational practices instilled in his young pupil a love for drawing and then a curiosity about education in general. The boy also learned calligraphy and Kendo swordsmanship during this period.
Heigo Kurosawa (1906-1933), Akira’s older brother, was another significant influence in her childhood. Heigo took thirteen-year-old Akira with him to see the destruction after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Heigo disapproved of the younger brother’s desire to see the bodies of animals and humans scattered all around, instead encouraging Akira to confront his fears directly. Kurosawa’s artistic career could be influenced by this incident, according to some commentators. The director was not afraid to face unpleasant truths in his art and was never afraid of them.
Heigo was academically gifted. However, after being denied a place at Tokyo’s top high school, Heigo began to distance himself from his family and prefer to focus on his love of foreign literature. Heigo, who was a silent film narrator for Tokyo’s foreign cinemas in the 1920s, quickly became a well-known name. Akira, who had at that time planned to be a painter and moved in with him. Akira was able to enjoy not only movies but also circus and theater performances under Heigo’s supervision, as well as exhibiting his paintings and working with the Left-wing Proletarian Arts’ League. He was never able make a living from his art and began to lose his passion for painting as he saw most of the proletarian movement “putting unfulfilled social ideals directly onto the canvases”.
Film narrators such as Heigo started to lose their jobs in the 1930s due to the increased production of talking pictures. Akira returned home with his parents. Heigo killed himself in July 1933. Kurosawa commented on the loss that he felt after his brother’s suicide. The chapter in his autobiography ( Some Like an Autobiography) which describes this feeling–written almost half a century later–is entitled, “A Story That I Don’t Want To Tell”. Kurosawa’s oldest brother, also deceased, left Akira (age 23), the last of the Kurosawa siblings still alive, along with his three sisters.
Director of training (1935-1941)
1935 saw the opening of Photo Chemical Laboratories (now known as P.C.L. The new film studio Photo Chemical Laboratories, later known as P.C.L., advertised for assistant directors. Kurosawa, who had no prior interest in film as an occupation, submitted the essay. It asked applicants to address the fundamental flaws of Japanese films and suggest ways to fix them. Kurosawa’s half-mocking view was, if the defects were fundamental, there was no solution. Kurosawa’s essay won him a call to take the next-up exams. Kajiro Yamamoto (director) took a liking and suggested that Kurosawa be hired by the studio. Kurosawa, a 25-year-old, joined P.C.L. In February 1936.
Kurosawa spent five years as assistant director. Yamamoto was his most significant influence in Kurosawa’s development. Yamamoto was responsible for 17 of his 24 films, including many comedies with Ken’ichi Enomoto (also known as Enoken). Yamamoto encouraged Kurosawa’s talents and promoted him from third assistant director to chief deputy director within a year. Kurosawa was given more responsibilities. He worked on tasks such as stage construction, film development, location scouting and script polishing. Kurosawa was the assistant director of Yamamoto’s Horse film ( Uma) in 1941. His mentor was busy with another film.
Yamamoto advised Kurosawa to learn screenwriting in order to be a good director. Kurosawa quickly realized that his potential earnings from scripts was much greater than the amount he was earning as an assistant director. Later, he wrote or co-wrote all of his films and often penned screenplays to other directors, such as Satsuo Yomoto’s film A Triumph of Wings (19 Tsubasa nu gaika), 1942. Kurosawa’s lucrative side hustle of scriptwriting outside his filmmaking would last well into the 1960s, even after he was famous.
Films and marriages during wartime (1942-1945)
Kurosawa sought out a story to help him launch his career as a director in the two years that followed the 1941 release of horse. Tsuneo Tomita, a novelist inspired by Musashi Miyamoto, published Sanshiro Sugata in 1942. The advertisements intrigued Kurosawa. Kurosawa bought the book the day it was published, read it in one sitting and asked Toho for the rights to the film. Kurosawa’s instinct was right as three other Japanese studios offered to purchase the rights within days. Kurosawa started pre-production for his first work as director after Toho won.
The shooting of Sanshiro Sugata began in Yokohama, Japan in December 1942. Although production went smoothly, getting the finished film through the censors was a different story. The work was deemed objectionable “British American” according to wartime Japanese standards. It was only after Yasujiro Oz, the director, intervened, that Sanshiro Sugata could be released on March 25, 1943. (Kurosawa had just turned 33.) The film was a commercial and critical success. However, 18 minutes of footage were later removed by the censorship bureau, which was a significant decision. Much of this footage is now lost.
Next, he turned his attention to the topic of wartime female factory workers in The Most Beautiful. This propaganda film was shot in semi-documentary format in early 1944. The director made his actresses live in a factory to get realistic performances. They ate the factory food together and called each other by their names. He used similar techniques with his actors throughout his career.
Yoko Yaguchi was the leader of the factory workers and the actress she played was chosen by her coworkers to present their demands for the director. Kurosawa and Yaguchi were always at odds, and it was through these disputes that they became closer. Yaguchi was two months pregnant when they married May 21, 1945. She never returned to acting and the couple would stay together until her death in 1986. Two children were born to them, one son, Hisao (born December 20, 1945), who was a producer on his father’s last projects. Kazuko was born April 29, 1954 and became a costume designer.
Kurosawa was forced by the studio to direct a sequel shortly before his marriage. His weakest picture is the often propagandistic Sanshiro sugata Part 2, which was released in May 1945.
Kurosawa chose to write the script to make a film that was both easier to censor and more affordable to produce. The Men who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was based on the Kabuki play Kanjincho. It starred the comedian Enoken with whom Kurosawa had worked many times during his assistant director days. Japan had surrendered by this point and the Japanese occupation had begun. The American censors banned the film because they deemed the values promoted in it too “feudal”. It was released in 1952, the same year that Ikiru was released. Ironically, during production, the film was already savaged as too Western-sounding and “democratic” by Japanese wartimecensors (they especially disliked Enoken’s comic porter). The movie would have been lost even if the war had ended.
Early postwar years to Red Beard (1946-1965)
First postwar works (1946-50)
Kurosawa was influenced by democratic ideals of Occupation and sought films that would foster a new respect for the individual and self after the war. No regrets for Our Youth (1946) was the first such film. It was inspired by the 1933 Takigawa case and the Hotsumi Ozaki wartime surveillance case. This film criticized Japan’s prewar regime as a political oppressor. Yukie (SetsukoHara), a woman who was born into privilege and comes to question her beliefs during a period of political crisis, is the central character, which is unusual for the director. Due to the controversial topic and gender of the protagonist, the final script was rewritten extensively. This caused a split in the minds of critics. It was still well received by audiences who made variations of the title into a postwar catchphrase.
To mixed reviews, his next film, One Wonderful Sunday was released in July 1947. It’s a simple and touching love story about a postwar couple who try to find happiness in the midst of all the destruction that is postwar Tokyo. Frank Capra, D. W. Griffith, and F. W. Murnau all have a significant influence on the movie. Each of these directors was a favorite of Kurosawa’s. The action-adventure thriller Snow Trail was another film Kurosawa was involved in. It was directed by Senkichi Taniguchi using Kurosawa’s screenplay. Toshiro Mizune, a young and passionate actor, was the first to appear in the film. Kurosawa had acted as Yamamoto’s mentor to convince Toho to sign Mifune during an audition where the young man impressed Kurosawa but was unable to impress most of the other judges.
Drunken Angel has often been regarded as the director’s first major project. Kurosawa believed that this film was his first major work. The script had to be rewritten due to American censorship. It is a gritty tale about a doctor trying to save a gangster from tuberculosis. Kurosawa also directed Mifune for the first time. He went on to play major parts in every one of Kurosawa’s 16 subsequent films, with the exception of Ikiru. Mifune wasn’t cast as the protagonist of Drunken Angel but his dramatic performance as the gangster dominates the drama. Takashi Shimura played the title role, an alcoholic doctor, and he had previously appeared in many Kurosawa films. Kurosawa didn’t want to dampen the young actor’s vitality. Mifune’s rebellious personality electrified audiences much like Marlon Brando’s obstinate stance would shock American film audiences a few decades later. It premiered in Tokyo, April 1948 to rave reviews. The Kinema Junpo critics voted it the best film of the year. This was the first of three Kurosawa films to receive this honor.
Kurosawa formed an independent production unit called Film Art Association (Eiga Geijutsu Kyokai) with producer Sojiromotoki, Senkichi Taniguchi and other directors and friends Kajiro Nagamoto, Mikio Naruse, and Senkichi Yamamoto. Kurosawa, along with producer Sojiro Motoki, created the first film for Daiei studios. He also adapted a contemporary play by Kazuo Kikita for the organization. The Quiet Duel featured Toshiro Mizutune as an idealistic young doctor with syphilis. This was Kurosawa’s deliberate attempt to get him out of being stereotyped as gangsters. It was released in March 1949 and was a huge box office hit, but it is usually considered one of Kurosawa’s lesser successes.
The second film he made in 1949 was Stray Dog. It was also produced and released by Shintoho. This detective movie, perhaps the first in Japan of its kind, explores Japan’s postwar mood through the eyes of Mifune’s young detective. It tells the story of Mifune and his obsession with the recovery of his handgun. He was robbed by a homeless war veteran who uses it to rob and kill. It was adapted from a Kurosawa novel in the style Georges Simenon. This film was Mifune’s first collaboration with Ryuzo Kikishima, who would go on to write eight more Kurosawa films. The famous and almost unworded sequence of eight minutes shows the detective disguised as an elderly veteran wandering the streets looking for the gun thief. It was filmed using actual documentary footage taken in war-ravaged Tokyo neighborhoods by Kurosawa’s friend Ishiro Yamamoto, who would later be the director of Godzilla. This film is considered to be a precursor of the modern buddy cop and police procedural film genres.
Scandal was released by Shochiku on April 1950. It was inspired by director Kurosawa’s anger towards Japanese yellow journalism and his personal experiences. Although the work is a complex mixture of courtroom dramas and social problem films about free speech, Kurosawa and most critics agreed that it was not well-directed and satisfactory. It would be Kurosawa’s second film, Rashomon in 1950 that would win him and Japanese cinema a new international audience.
International recognition (1950-1958)
After finishing Scandal Kurosawa was approached to make another film by Daiei Studios. Kurosawa chose a script written by Shinobu Hashimoto (an aspiring screenwriter) who would later work on nine of his films. Their first collaboration was based upon Ryunosuke Hashimoto’s short story “In a Grove”, an experimental short story that recounts the murder of a samurai as well as the rape and slaying of his wife. It is a conflicting and diverse account of the events. Kurosawa recognized potential in the script and, with Hashimoto’s assistance, he refined it and pitched it to Daiei. Daiei was happy to accept it due to its low budget.
Rashomon was shot on July 7, 1950. After extensive location work in Nara’s primeval forest, the film was completed on August 17. The film was completed in just one week, with post-production hampered due to a studio fire. It premiered at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre on August 25th, expanding nationwide the next day. Although the movie received mixed reviews due to its unusual theme and treatment, it was a moderate financial success for Daiei.
Kurosawa’s next movie, Shochiku’s, was The Idiot. This adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel was Kurosawa’s second film. Although the story has been relocated from Russia and Hokkaido to tell the story, it is otherwise faithful to the original. This fact was criticized by many as being detrimental to the film’s quality. The studio mandated edit reduced the story from Kurosawa’s original 265-minute cut to only 166 minutes. This made it extremely difficult to follow. This severely edited version of the film is widely considered to have been one of Kurosawa’s most unsuccessful works. The original full-length version does not exist anymore. The film received very negative reviews in contemporary times, but it was moderately successful at the box-office due to the popularity of Setsuko Hara, one of its stars.
Unbeknownst to Kurosawa Rashomon was entered in the Venice Film Festival. This was due to Giuliana Stramigioli (a Japan-based representative for an Italian film company), who had seen the movie and encouraged Daiei. Rashomon won the festival’s highest award, the Golden Lion. This shocked not only Daiei, but also the international film community, who was unaware of Japan’s long-standing cinematic tradition.
RKO bought the United States distribution rights to Rashomon after Daiei had briefly shown a sub-titled copy of the film. It was a risky move. The company had only released one previous subtitled movie in America, and Wife, Mikio Naruse’s comedy about a Japanese wife, was the first Japanese talkie to be commercially released in New York. Be Like a Rose (1937): A box-office and critical failure. Rashomon’s commercial success was helped by strong reviews from critics, including Ed Sullivan. The film earned $35,000 its first three weeks in a New York theatre. This is an incredible sum for the time.
This led to an American and West fad for Japanese films in the 1950s. It replaced the passion for Italian neorealist cinema. Rashomon had been released in Japan, the United States and most of Europe by the end of 1952. Kenji Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu Ugetsu Sansho the Bailiff), and later Yasujiro Oz (Tokyo Story: An Autumn Afternoon) were two of the Japanese film-makers who won festival prizes and commercial releases in the West. These artists are highly respected in Japan, but almost unknown in the West before that period. Kurosawa’s increasing popularity among Western audiences during the 1950s would make it easier for Western audiences to accept later generations of Japanese filmmakers, including Kon Ichikawa (Masaki Kobayashi), Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, and Takashi Miike.
Kurosawa’s international fame boosted his career and he reunited with Toho, his original film studio. Toho would go on to produce 11 of his films. Kurosawa then set about working on Ikiru. Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, a Tokyo bureaucrat who has been diagnosed with cancer. He is on a final search for meaning before his passing. Kurosawa hired Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni to write the screenplay. They would go on co-writing twelve Kurosawa films. The work was dark in subject, but the screenwriters used a humorous approach to it. Some have compared it to Brecht’s work, and to the bureaucratic world of the hero, as well as the U.S. cultural colonization. The film features a lot of American pop songs. This strategy is often credited to the film-makers for saving the movie from sentimentality that is common in dramas about terminally ill characters. Ikiru was released in October 1952 to rave reviews. It won Kurosawa’s second Kinema Junpo award for “Best Film”, and was a huge box office hit. It is still the most beloved of all the films by Kurosawa set during the modern era.
Kurosawa went to Japan in December 1952 with his Ikiru screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto (and Hideo Oguni) for a forty-five day secluded stay at an inn where he would create the screenplay for Seven Samurai. Kurosawa would be most known for his ensemble film. This simple story about a Sengoku period Japanese village that hires a group samurai to protect it from an impending attack of bandits was given an epic treatment. It featured a large cast, largely veterans of previous Kurosawa productions, and detailed action that lasted almost three-and-a half hours.
Pre-production took three months, and rehearsals took a month. The shooting took place over 148 days, with Kurosawa’s health problems and production and financing difficulties interspersed. It finally opened in April 1954. This was half a year after its original release date. The budget was also three times higher than the original. At the time, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. It was, however, a modestly budgeted production by Hollywood standards. The film received positive critical reaction and became a big hit, quickly making back the money invested in it and providing the studio with a product that they could, and did, market internationally–though with extensive edits. Its reputation has grown steadily over time, thanks to the theatrical and home-video releases of the uncut version. Some commentators consider it to be the greatest Japanese film. In 1979, Japanese film critics voted it the best Japanese movie ever made. The most recent (2012) British Film Institute (BFI Sight and Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” poll placed Seven Samurai 17th out of all films from any country in both the critics’ and directors’ polls. It was also included in the Top Ten lists of 48 directors and 22 critics.
1954 saw the Pacific nuclear test causing radioactive rainstorms to Japan. One particular incident in March exposed a Japanese fishing vessel to nuclear fallout. In this anxious environment, Kurosawa’s next film Record of a Living Being was created. Toshiro Mifune, an elderly factory owner, became so afraid of the possibility of nuclear attack that he decided to move his entire extended family (legal and extra-marital), to what he believes to be a safe place on a Brazilian farm. The production went more smoothly than his previous film. However, Kurosawa’s collaborator, composer and close friend Fumiohayasaka, died of tuberculosis just days before the film was finished. Hayasaka’s student Masaru Sato completed the film’s music. He would go on to score every one of Kurosawa’s eight subsequent films. Record of a Living Being was released in November 1955 to mixed reviews. It also received a muted audience response. This film became the first Kurosawa film that lost money during its theatrical run. It is still considered one of the best films about the psychological effects caused by the nuclear crisis.
Kurosawa’s next project Throne of Blood was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It was set, like Seven Samurai in the Sengoku Era. This ambitious transposition of the English text into a Japanese context was Kurosawa’s next project. Kurosawa directed his leading actress Isuzu Yamada to view the work as a cinematic version a Japanese and not as an English literary classic. Kurosawa is a big fan of traditional Japanese stage acting and Yamada’s acting draws heavily from the Noh theater’s stylized techniques. The film was shot in 1956 and released in January 1957. It received a slightly better domestic response than the previous film. Throne of Blood was quickly recognized abroad, despite the many liberties taken with the source material.
A second adaptation of a classic European theatrical piece followed nearly immediately with The Lower Depths. This was a production based on Maxim Gorky’s play. It was produced in May and June 1957. The Lower Depths was shot in two restricted sets to highlight the character’s limited lives, as opposed to the Shakespearean sweep of Throne of Blood. Although faithful to the original play, this adaptation to Japanese material, in this case the late Edo period, was considered artistically successful. It premiered in September 1957 and received a mixed reaction, similar to Throne Of Blood. It is still considered one of the most underrated films by critics.
The three movies that Kurosawa made after Seven Samurai failed to attract Japanese audiences the same way as that film. The director’s mood was becoming more pessimistic and darker, and the possibility of redemption through personal accountability was now being seriously questioned. This was something he recognized and he decided to make a lighter and more entertaining film for his next production. He also switched to the widescreen format that was gaining popularity in Japan. The film The Hidden Fortress is an action-adventure comedy drama about a medieval princess and her loyal general, as well as two peasants, who must all travel through enemy lines to reach their home regions. The Hidden Fortress was released in December 1958 and enjoyed a great reception by both Japanese and foreign critics. Although the film is today considered to be Kurosawa’s lightest effort, it is still popular because it was one of many major influences on George Lucas’s 1977 space opera Star Wars.
Birth of a company, Red Beard (1959-1965)
Beginning with Rashomon Kurosawa’s productions grew in size and budget. Toho was concerned by this development and suggested that he finance his own productions, thereby reducing the studio’s losses and allowing him more artistic freedom as a co-producer. Kurosawa accepted, and in April 1959 the Kurosawa Production Company was founded with Toho as majority shareholder.
Kurosawa, despite the risk of losing his own money chose a story that was directly critical of Japanese business and political elites. The Bad Sleep Well is a revenge drama about an 18-year-old man who manages to penetrate the Japanese corporate hierarchy with the intent of uncovering the men responsible for his father’s death. The film’s theme was timely because, while it was being made, massive Anpo protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty were held. This treaty was seen as threatening Japan’s democracy and giving too much power over corporations and politicians. It was released in September 1960 to positive reviews and modest box-office success. Although the 25-minute opening sequence, which depicts a corporate wedding reception, is widely considered one of Kurosawa’s most skilledly executed set pieces of cinematography, the rest of the film is often criticized for being disappointing. It also uses the Kurosawan hero as a means to defeat a social evil that cannot only be solved by individuals’ courage or dexterity.
Yojimbo is Kurosawa Production’s second movie. It centers on Sanjuro, a masterless samurai who wanders into a town ruled over by two violent factions in 19th century Japan and causes them to destroy each other. This film was used by the director to experiment with genre conventions, especially the Western. However, it also featured a shockingly graphic depiction of violence for the Japanese screen. Some have interpreted the Sanjuro character as a mythical figure that reverses the historic triumph of the corrupt merchants over the samurai classes. The film, which featured Tatsuya Nakadai as his first major role in Kurosawa movies, was produced in April 1961. It was also a commercially and critically successful film, with Takao Saito and Kazuo Miyagawa taking innovative photographs. It was also popularized abroad due to its darkly comic tone. Sergio Leone’s Fistful Of Dollars was a scene-by-scene (unauthorized) remake. Toho filed a lawsuit against Kurosawa and won.
Toho put Kurosawa under pressure to make a sequel after the success of Yojimbo. Kurosawa reworked a script he had previously written Yojimbo to include his hero from the previous film. Sanjuro, the first of three Kurosawa films adapted from Shugoro Yamamoto’s work, was Red Beard or Dodeskaden. Although it is more conventionally period than Yojimbo in tone, the film is still lighter and more like a movie about a power struggle between a samurai family. However, its story is infused with strong comic undertones. It was released on January 1, 1962 and quickly surpassed Yojimbo in box office sales. The film received positive reviews.
Kurosawa had instructed Toho to buy the film rights to King’s Ransom. This novel, which is about a kidnapping, was written by Evan Hunter (American screenwriter and author), as part of his 87th Precinct crime series. Director Kurosawa wanted to make a work condemning kidnapping. He considered it one of the most serious crimes. The suspense movie, High and Lower was made in the second half of 1962 and was released in March 1963. Kurosawa’s box-office record was broken by the film, which became the third consecutive film to break the record. It also received glowing reviews and became the highest grossing Japanese film. His triumph was marred by irony: the film was blamed in part for a series of kidnappings that occurred in Japan around this time. Kurosawa himself was threatened with kidnapping. Many commentators consider High and Lower to be the director’s best work.
Kurosawa moved quickly to his next project, Red Beard. It is based on Shugoro Yamamoto’s short story collection and incorporates elements from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Insulted and Injured. This film is period, and takes place in a clinic for the poor in mid-nineteenth-century. Kurosawa’s humanist themes are perhaps at their best. Yasumoto is a conceited, materialistic, and foreign-trained young physician who is forced to work as an intern at the clinic. He is played by Mifune as “Akahige”, or “Red Beard” (Dr Niide). Yasumoto initially resists Red Beard, but he soon comes to appreciate his wisdom and courage and see the patients at the clinic as worthy of compassion, dignity, and respect.
Yuzo Kayama played Yasumoto. He was a very popular film and music actor at that time, especially for his “Young Guy ( Wakadaisho series of musical comedy). So signing him to the film almost guaranteed Kurosawa strong box office. After five months of preproduction, the shoot lasted over a year and was completed in spring 1965. It left Kurosawa, his crew, and his actors exhausted. Red Beard was released in April 1965. It became the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year and the third (and final) Kurosawa film that topped the Kinema Jumpo annual critics poll. It is still one of Kurosawa’s most beloved and well-known works in Japan. The opinions of critics outside Japan are more divided. While most commentators acknowledge its technical merits, some praise it as one of Kurosawa’s finest, others claim that it lacks complexity or genuine narrative power. Still others argue that it is a retreat from Kurosawa’s commitment to social and politically progressive change.
It marked the end of an era in filmmaking for its director. This was something that the director acknowledged at the film’s release. He told critic Donald Richie that a certain cycle had ended and that his future films would use different production methods. He was right. Television began to dominate leisure time in Japan’s once loyal cinema audience in the late 1950s. As film company revenues declined, so did their appetite to take on risk, especially Kurosawa’s high-end production methods.
Red Beard marked the halfway point in the artist’s career. He had directed 23 films in his twenty-nine-year career, which includes five years as an assistant director. However, he would only complete seven films during his remaining 28 years of filmmaking. For reasons that were not fully understood, Red Beard would also be his last film starring Toshiro Mizune. Yu Fujiki, an actor from The Lower Depths commented on the closeness between the men. He said that Mr. Kurosawa’s heart was in Mr. Mifune. Donald Richie described the relationship between them as an “unique” “symbiosis.”
Hollywood’s ambitions for last films (1966-1998)
Hollywood detour (1966-1968)
Kurosawa, 56, was considering a change when his exclusive contract with Toho ended in 1966. After seeing the state of Japan’s film industry and receiving numerous offers from overseas, Kurosawa was intrigued by the possibility of working abroad.
Kurosawa chose to use a Life magazine article as his first foreign project. His first color film, the Embassy Pictures action thriller called Runaway Train (filmed in English) The language barrier proved to be a problem and the English screenplay was not finished when filming began in autumn 1966. The snow-related shoot was moved to autumn 1967 and then cancelled in 1968. Andrei Konchalovsky (a foreign director who worked in Hollywood nearly two decades later) finally made Runaway Train (1985), although he used a script loosely inspired by Kurosawa’s.
In the meantime, the director was involved in a more ambitious Hollywood project. Tora! Tora! Tora! is produced by 20th Century Fox, Kurosawa Production and Kurosawa Production. It depicts the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor from both the American as well as the Japanese perspectives. Kurosawa will be the Japanese director and Anglophonic film-maker the American one. The script was written by Kurosawa and Hideo Okuni over several months. But the project quickly fell apart. It turned out that Richard Fleischer, not David Lean, was the American director for the American sequences. Budget was cut and the Japanese segment’s screen time would be reduced to 90 minutes. This is a significant problem considering Kurosawa’s four-hour script. Darryl Zanuck was involved in numerous revisions that resulted in a screenplay that was more or less complete. This was reached after many rounds of revisions.
Kurosawa was only in charge for a little more than three weeks after shooting began in December. Kurosawa struggled with a new crew and Hollywood production requirements. His working methods also puzzled American producers who concluded that Kurosawa had a diagnosis for neurasthenia. Darryl Zanuck and Richard Zanuck, both at Fox studios, were notified that Kurosawa was suffering from disturbed sleep and agitated by anxiety and manic excitement. He must be allowed to rest for two months and receive medical treatment. The Americans declared Kurosawa’s departure from the film production on Christmas Eve 1968. This effectively fired him. For the film’s Japanese sequences, he was replaced by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, who were then appointed as his replacements.
Tora! Tora! Tora! was finally released in September 1970 to mixed reviews. He had spent many years working on this logistically difficult project, but he never contributed a single foot of film shot by him. He had his name removed from credits. However, the script for the Japanese part was his and his co-writers. He split from Ryuzo Kikushima his long-time collaborator and never worked again with him. The project had accidentally exposed corruption within his own production company (a situation that reminded him of his movie The Bad Sleep Well). His sanity was in doubt. Worst, the Japanese film industry and perhaps even the man themselves began to suspect that he would never produce another film.
A difficult decade (1969-77)
His reputation was at risk after the Tora scandal! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa was assisted by famed directors Keisuke Kinshita and Masaki Kobayashi, who founded a production company called the Club of the Four Knights (Yonki no kai) in July 1969. The plan was to have each of the four directors create a film. However, it was suggested that Kurosawa was motivated by the desire to be able to complete a film and get back in the business.
First, a period film was proposed to be called Dora–heita. However, this was deemed too costly so attention was shifted to Dodesukaden which is an adaptation of another Shugoro Yamamoto movie about the poor and destitute. Kurosawa was determined to prove that he could still work efficiently and quickly within a tight budget. The film was shot in nine weeks (by Kurosawa’s standards). His earlier work in color was discarded. Kurosawa focused on creating a bold palette of primary colors that is almost surreal to show the toxic environment the characters live in. The film was released in Japan in October 1970. It was not a major success in Japan, but it was well received by the audience. The film lost money, and the Club of the Four Knights was forced to dissolve. Although the picture received a favorable reception in Japan, Dodesukaden was not as well received abroad. However, it has been viewed as an interesting experiment that isn’t comparable to the director.
After struggling to produce Dodesukaden Kurosawa switched to television the next year. It was Song of the Horse a documentary about thoroughbred horse racing. The voice-over was narrated and performed by a fictional child and man (voiced by the same actors who voiced the son and the beggar in Dodesukaden). This is Kurosawa’s only documentary. His frequent collaborator Masaru Sato composed the music. Song of the Horse also stands out in Kurosawa’s filmography in that it has an editor’s credit. This suggests that it is the only Kurosawa movie he didn’t cut.
Kurosawa, who was reportedly unable to secure additional funding and suffering from severe health problems, apparently reached breaking point and cut his wrists, throat, and neck multiple times on December 22, 1971. Kurosawa was able to recover his health quickly after the suicide attempt. He now lives with his family, uncertain if he will ever again direct a film.
The Soviet studio Mosfilm approached Kurosawa in 1973 to inquire if he was interested in working with them. Kurosawa suggested a film adaptation of the autobiographical work Dersu Urzala by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. Kurosawa had long wanted to write the book about a Goldi hunter, who lives in harmony and nature until it is destroyed by civilization. Kurosawa, a 63-year old, set out for the Soviet Union in December 1973 with four of his closest aides. This marked the beginning of a year and a half-long stay in the country. Filming began in Siberia in May 1974. It was difficult and challenging to film in extreme natural conditions. Kurosawa, who was exhausted and homesick, returned to Japan with his family in June 1975. Dersu Urzala was released in Japan’s world premiere on August 2, 1975. It did well at the box-office. Although the film received a muted reception in Japan, it was well-received abroad. It won the Golden Prize at Moscow’s 9th International Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Today, the film is still controversial. Some critics see it as a sign of Kurosawa’s artistic decline while others consider it one of his best works.
He was not interested in working in the television industry, even though he received proposals for TV projects. The hard-drinking director agreed to appear in a series for Suntory whiskey television ads, which aired in 1976. The director was worried that he wouldn’t be able make another film. He continued to work on different projects, creating scripts and detailed illustrations. He wanted to keep a visual record of all his plans, in case he couldn’t film them.
Two epics (1978-86)
George Lucas, an American director, released Star Wars in 1977. This film was a huge success and was influenced by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Like many New Hollywood directors, Lucas revered Kurosawa. He considered him a role-model and was shocked when he was unable secure funding for new works. In July 1978, Kurosawa and Lucas met in San Francisco to discuss the most financially viable project: Kagemusha. This epic tale of a thief who is hired to be the double of a medieval Japanese nobleman of a great clan. Lucas was captivated by Kurosawa’s screenplay and Kurosawa’s illustrations. He used his influence over 20th Century Fox in order to get the studio that fired Kurosawa ten years before to produce Kagemusha. The studio then hired Francis Ford Coppola, another fan, as co-producer.
Kurosawa was in good spirits when production began in April. The filming took place from June 1979 to March 1980. It was fraught with problems. Shintaro Katsu, the original lead actor and creator of Zatoichi, was fired after he demanded that the director videotape his performance. He was replaced by Tatsuya Nagadai in his first of two leading roles in Kurosawa movies. The film was only a few days late and opened in Tokyo in March 1980. It was a huge success in Japan. It was also a huge success in Japan, with the film winning the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival 1980 in May. However, some critics have criticized the film’s alleged coldness. Kurosawa spent the remainder of the year traveling extensively in Europe and America to promote Kagemusha. He also collected awards and praises and displayed as art the drawings that he had created as storyboards.
After Kagemusha was a huge success, Kurosawa decided to move on to Ran. This epic is in a similar vein. Partly inspired by William Shakespeare’s King Lear the script depicts a brutal, bloodthirsty warlord (played by Tatsuya Nagadai) who, after foolishly banishing one of his loyal sons, surrenders his kingdom and betrays him. This plunges the kingdom into war. International help was needed again as Japanese studios were still wary of producing another film that would be among the most costly ever made in Japan. Serge Silberman, a French producer who had previously produced Luis Bunuel’s last movies, provided international assistance. Filming began in December 1983, but lasted for more than a full year.
Production of Ran was halted in January 1985 when Kurosawa’s 64 year-old wife Yoko died. Kurosawa returned to complete his film. Ran premiered in Tokyo Film Festival on May 31st. It was also released widely the following day. Kurosawa traveled to Europe and America in order to attend the premieres of the film in September and October. The film was a modest success in Japan.
Ran was awarded several Japanese awards, but not as much as some of the best films by the director in the 1950s and 60s. However, the film world was shocked when Japan rejected Ran’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film category. This film was later disqualified from competition at the 58th Academy Awards. Kurosawa and the producer both attributed the failure of Ran to be submitted for competition to a misinterpretation. Because of the Academy’s complex rules, no one knew whether Ran was a Japanese movie, a French movie (due to its funding), or both. So it was not submitted at any point. Sidney Lumet, director of the film, led a successful campaign for Kurosawa to receive an Oscar nomination as Best Director. Sydney Pollack won the award for directing out of Africa. Emi Wada (the movie’s costume designer) won the Oscar for.
Kagemusha (especially the latter) are often considered among Kurosawa’s greatest works. After Ran was released, Kurosawa referred to it as his greatest film. This marked a significant shift in Kurosawa’s attitude. He had previously replied “my next one” when asked about his greatest works.
Final works and the last years (1987-1998)
Kurosawa chose to film his next movie on a topic that was completely different from anything he had ever done before. While his previous movies (Drunken Angel, Kagemusha), had featured brief dream sequences in them, Dreams was based entirely on the director’s dreams. For this intimate project, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay for the first-ever time in more than forty years. Even though the film’s estimated budget was less than those of the preceding films, Japanese studios refused to support it. Kurosawa then turned to Steven Spielberg, another American celebrity, to convince Warner Bros. to purchase the international rights. Hisao Kurosawa, Kurosawa’s co-producer, was able to negotiate a loan from Japan to cover production costs. The filming process took eight months. Dreams was premiered in Cannes in May 1990 to a respectful but quiet reception. This was similar to what the picture would receive elsewhere in the world. He was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. He famously stated in his acceptance speech that he was “a little worried” because he didn’t understand cinema.
Kurosawa then turned to a more traditional story with Rhapsody In August, the director’s first fully produced film in Japan since Dodeskaden twenty years earlier. This film explored the scars left by the nuclear bombing that decimated Nagasaki at just the end of World War II. Although it was adapted from Kiyoko Murata’s novel, the film’s references about the Nagasaki bombing were made by the director and not the book. His only American movie role was that of Richard Gere, the small part he plays as the nephew to the old heroine. The film was shot in early 1991. It opened on May 25, 1991 to a negative reaction in America. Kurosawa denied that the director had proliferated anti-American sentiments.
Kurosawa was quick to move on to his next project, Madadayo or Still. The film is based on Hyakken Uchida’s autobiographical essays. It follows the story of a Japanese German professor through the Second World War. The story centers around the protagonist’s annual birthday celebrations with former students. During these celebrations, he declares that he is not willing to die yet, a theme that became increasingly important for the film’s creator at 81 years old. Filming began in February 1992, and was completed by September. The film’s release on April 17, 1993 was met with a disappointed response that was even worse than his previous works.
Kurosawa continued to work. In 1993, he wrote The Sea is Watching and After The Rain. Kurosawa fell while completing the work on the second screenplay in 1995. He broke his spine. After the accident, Kurosawa would be confined to a wheelchair the rest of his lives, ending any hope of him ever directing another movie. He never got to fulfill his long-held dream of dying on set while filming a movie.
Kurosawa’s health started to decline after his accident. His mind was sharp and active, but his body began to decline. For the next half-year, Kurosawa was mostly confined to his bed, listening to music, and watching TV at home. Kurosawa, 88, died in Setagaya (Tokyo) from a stroke on September 6, 1998. Kurosawa was 88 years old at the time of his death. He had two children, Hisao Kurosawa, who married Hiroko Hayashi, and Kazuko Kurosawa, who married Harayuki Kato. Takayuki Kato, a grandson of Kazuko, was an actor and support actor in two posthumously produced films based on Kurosawa’s screenplays. These films were Takashi Koizumi’s After The Rain (1999), and Kei Kumai’s The Sea is Watching (2002).
Kurosawa is best known for his work as a film-maker. However, he also worked in theatre and television and also wrote books. A complete list of Kurosawa’s creative works, including his entire filmography, is available in the Akira Kurosawa list.
Style and the main themes
Kurosawa’s bold and dynamic style was strongly influenced by Western cinema but distinct from it. He was involved in all aspects of film production. Kurosawa was a talented screenwriter who worked closely with his cowriters throughout the film’s production to ensure a quality script. He considered this the foundation for a good movie. He was often the editor of his own films. His team, also known as the “Kurosawa–gumi” (Kurosawa Group), included Asakazu Nakai, Teruyo Novami, Takashi Shimura, and Asakazu Nakai, the cinematographer. They were noted for their loyalty and dependability.
Kurosawa’s style features a variety of techniques and devices. He used the “axial cut” in his 1940s and 1950s films. This is when the camera moves towards or away from the subject using a series of matched jumpcuts rather than tracking shots or dissolves. Cut on motion, which shows the motion in multiple shots rather than one continuous shot, is another stylistic characteristic. Kurosawa’s cinematic punctuation is the wipe. This effect can be created using an optical printer. A line or bar appears that moves across the screen, wiping out the scene’s end and showing the first image of next. It is used to replace the straight cut and dissolve. In Kurosawa’s mature work, the wipe became Kurosawa’s signature.
Kurosawa preferred the sound-image counterpoint in Kurosawa’s film soundtrack. In this case, the music or sound effects seemed to be commenting on the image instead of emphasizing it. Teruyo’s memoir contains many such examples, including Drunken Angel or Stray dog. Kurosawa also collaborated with many of Japan’s most outstanding contemporary composers including Fumio Hayasaka, Toru Takemitsu.
Kurosawa used a variety of themes throughout his films. These included the master-disciple relationship, usually between an older mentor and one to three novices. The heroic champion, the extraordinary individual who rises from the crowd to do something or correct some wrong. Kurosawa also depicted extreme weather as dramatic devices and symbols of human passion. Stephen Prince says that the last theme, which is what he calls “the countertradition of Kurosawa’s committed, heroic cinematic mode,” started with Throne of Blood in 1957 and continued to be a part of Kurosawa’s films through the 1980s.
Legacy of general criticism
Kenji Mizoguchi was eleven years older than Kurosawa and the acclaimed director Ugetsu in 1953. Some critics of the French New Wave started to prefer Mizoguchi over Kurosawa after the mid-1950s. Jacques Rivette, a New Wave film critic and filmmaker, believed that Mizoguchi was the only Japanese director whose work could be both entirely Japanese and universal. Kurosawa was, however, more influenced and influenced by Western culture and cinema. This view has since been disputed.
Some Japanese film-makers and critics considered Kurosawa elitist. They believed he was a hero who focused his efforts and attention on heroic or exceptional characters. Her D.V.D. Joan Mellen argued in her D.V.D. on Seven Samurai that certain shots of the samurai characters Kambei (and Kyuzo) show Kurosawa to have given them higher status or validity. These Japanese critics claimed Kurosawa wasn’t sufficiently progressive since the peasants couldn’t find leaders within their ranks. Kurosawa said, in an interview with Mellen:
I felt that the peasants were stronger than all the rest, holding on to the earth. The samurai were the weakest because they were being blown away by the winds.
Kurosawa was charged with catering to Western tastes from the 1950s because of his popularity in America and Europe. Nagisa Oshima was a left-wing director who was known for his criticism of Kurosawa’s work in the 1970s. He accused Kurosawa, who was accused of pandering and supporting Western ideologies and beliefs. Audie Block, the author, stated that Kurosawa had never been open to non-Japanese viewers and denounced those who did.
Reputation among film-makers
Kurosawa’s works have influenced many film-makers. Ingmar Bergman described his film The Virgin Spring as a “touristic… lousy imitation” of Kurosawa and said, “At that point my admiration for Japanese cinema was at it’s peak.” “I was almost a samurai!” Federico Fellini regarded Kurosawa as “the greatest living example” of what a cinematographer should be. Satyajit Ray was posthumously honored with the Akira Kurosawa award for lifetime achievement in directing at San Francisco International Film Festival 1992. He had previously spoken of Rashomon.
“The film had a profound effect on me from the moment I saw it in Calcutta, 1952. It was the third time I had seen it on consecutive days. Each time, I wondered if there was another film that could provide such dazzling evidence of a director’s mastery over all aspects of filmmaking.
Roman Polanski regarded Kurosawa as one of the three film-makers he favored the most. He also praised Seven Samurai Throne Of Blood, Hidden Fortress and Fellini. Bernardo Bertolucci viewed Kurosawa’s influence as pivotal. “Kurosawa’s movies and La Dolce Vita Fellini were the things that pushed, sucked us into being film directors. Andrei Tarkovsky named Kurosawa one of his favorite movies and listed Seven Samurai among his ten favourite films. Sidney Lumet called Kurosawa “the Beethoven of movie director directors”. Werner Herzog spoke out about film-makers with whom they feel kinship, and the films that inspire him:
Griffith – particularly his Birth of a Nation & Broken Blossoms – Murnau and Bunuel, Kurosawa, and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible – all of these come to my mind. … Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, and Dovzhenko’s Earth are all my favorites…. Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, SatyajitRay’s The Music Room are also good choices. It was always a mystery to me how Kurosawa could make Rashomon so good. The flow and equilibrium are perfect and the use of space is perfectly balanced. It is one the greatest films ever made.
An assistant claims that Stanley Kubrick thought Kurosawa was “one of the greatest film directors” and talked about him “consistently, admiringly”. Kubrick also said Kurosawa “meant more than any Oscar”, which caused him to spend months composing a response. Robert Altman was so impressed with the sequence of sunrays that he started shooting the same sequences in his own work the next day after seeing Rashomon. Kurosawa ranked 3rd in directors’ poll, and 5th in critics’ poll in Sight & Sound’s 2002 list for the greatest directors of all-time.
Many posthumous works were produced following Kurosawa’s passing. They were based on unfilmed screenplays. After The Rain was released by Takashi Koizumi in 1999. The Sea is Watching premiered by Kei Kumai in 2002. The script was written by the Yonki no Kai (“Club of the Four Knights”) (Kurosawa and Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi), at the time Dodeskaden was made. It was finally filmed and released in 2000 as Dora–heita by Kon Ichikawa, the last founding member of the club. Huayi Brothers Media in China and CKF Pictures China announced plans in 2017 to produce a film of Kurosawa’s posthumous screenplay of The Masque of the Red Death written by Edgar Allan Poe. The film will be called The Mask of the Black Death. Patrick Frater, writing in Variety magazine May 2017, stated that Kurosawa had two more unfinished films. Silvering Spear would begin filming in 2018.
Kurosawa Production Company
It was reported in September 2011 that the remake rights to Kurosawa’s films and unproduced screenplays had been assigned by the Akira Kurosawa100 Project to Splendent, an L.A.-based company. Sakiko Yamada (chief of Splendent) stated that he wanted to help “contemporary film-makers introduce an entirely new generation to these memorable stories”.
Kurosawa Production Co. was established in 1959 and continues to manage many aspects of Kurosawa’s legacy. Hisao Kurosawa is currently the head of the company. He is the son of the director. Kurosawa Enterprises is the American subsidiary. Its headquarters are located in Los Angeles. Kurosawa Production, the film studios where Kurosawa worked, and most importantly Toho, held rights to Kurosawa’s work. These rights were first assigned to the Akira Kurosawa 100 Project, before being reassigned to Splendent in L.A. in 2011. Kurosawa Production collaborates closely with the Akira Kurosawa Foundation. It was established in December 2003, and is also managed by Hisao Kurosawa. It organizes an annual short film contest and leads Kurosawa-related projects. Recently, it was able to finish a project to build a museum in memory of the director.
Film studios and film awards
Kurosawa Film Studio opened in Yokohama in 1981. Two additional locations were launched in Japan. A vast collection of archive material including screenplays and photos, as well as news articles, have been made accessible through the Akira Kurosawa Digital Archive. This Japanese website is maintained by Ryukoku University Digital Archive Research Center in collaboration to Kurosawa Production. Kurosawa Production supported the launch of Anaheim University’s Akira Kurosawa Film School in spring 2009. It offers online courses in digital filmmaking, with a Tokyo learning center and headquarters in Anaheim.
Kurosawa also received two film awards. The Akira Kurosawa Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Film Direction are presented during the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Akira Kurosawa Awards is presented during the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Kurosawa is frequently referred to as one of the greatest film-makers ever. He was named “Asian of the Century” by AsianWeek magazine and CNN in 1999. This category focuses on “Arts, Literature, and Culture”. Kurosawa is credited with being “one of the five people who have contributed the most to the improvement of Asia over the past 100 years”. 2008 saw the launch of AK100, a project to commemorate Kurosawa’s 100th birthday. “The AK100 Project aims at “exposing young people, who are the representatives for the next generation, as well as all people throughout the world to the light and spirit Akira Kurosawa created”
Anaheim University, in collaboration with the Kurosawa family, established the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film. This school offers online and blended learning programs about Akira Kurosawa film-making. Kurosawa’s filming techniques were partly inspired by the animated Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs. A retrospective of Akira Kurosawa was held at the 64th Sydney Film Festival. Films of Kurosawa were shown to recall the immense legacy that he left behind.
Kurosawa’s life and films were the subject of a large number of documentaries, both short and full-length. AK is a French documentary directed by Chris Marker. It was shot in 1985. Although it was shot while Kurosawa was busy with Ran the film is more about Kurosawa’s polite, remote personality than the actual film making. Sometimes the documentary can be seen as reflecting Marker’s fascination for Japanese culture. He also used it to make Sans Soleil, one of his most well-known films. It was shown in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. The following documentaries are related to Kurosawa’s life, works and death:
- Kurosawa, The Last Emperor (Alex Cox 1999)
- A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies (Hisao Kurosawa, 2000)
- Kurosawa (Adam Low, 2001)
- Akira Kurosawa: It’s Amazing to Create (Toho Masterworks 2002)
- Akira Kurosawa – The Epic and Intimate (2010)
- Kurosawa’s Way (Catherine Cadou 2011,)
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