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By Roy Stafford on

Kurosawa: Master of World Cinema

Roy Stafford explores the life and work of Japanese director Kurosawa Akira, one of the most important filmmakers in the history of cinema.

Introduction

Kurosawa Akira was born in Tokyo on 23 March, 1910. His childhood was spent in the Taisho period (1912–26), sometimes referred to as a time of relatively liberal democracy before the coming militarism. His father had attended a military college and taken a job at a gymnastics school. Akira was the youngest child (he had three older sisters and two older brothers) and he at first enthusiastically took up kendo fencing classes and calligraphy—two of his father’s passions. But he was not at all athletic, hopeless at any kind of military activity, and found the calligraphy teaching sterile. Nevertheless, one of his father’s passions did have a major impact in that he was taken to the cinema regularly as a child—and also to more traditional forms of story-telling in the music halls of Tokyo.

Kurosawa was not a good scholar, except in his interest in literature and painting. His background was a strange mixture of the strict samurai schooling imposed by his father and the more liberal education that he carved out for himself from his formal schooling and childhood pursuits. This tension between a samurai family background and an urge towards artistic creativity remained throughout Kurosawa’s career. He failed entrance to art college but managed to survive as a painter in the late 1920s/early 1930s. He joined the Proletarian Art League and dabbled in leftist politics, but Marxism was too complicated for him. After several years as a ‘jobbing painter/graphic artist’, when he would create images for a wide variety of purposes to earn enough to live on, Kurosawa realised that he did not have a “personal, distinctive way of looking at things” (Something Like an Autobiography, 1983: 88). In 1935 he saw an advertisement for assistant film directors for the newly formed PCL Studio. Drawing on his vast knowledge of the films he had seen with his father and older brother, he passed the interview and his film career began.

It is tempting in studying successful filmmakers to look for biographical details which in some way ‘explain’ later themes in a writer-director’s work. It’s hard to avoid this with Kurosawa. In 1923 he experienced the terrible Kanto earthquake and fire which destroyed much of Tokyo and provoked social unrest. He also experienced the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo-Yokohama. As a small boy he had been taken to look at the carnage of 1923 by his older brother who was in many ways his mentor. His brother preceded him into the Proletarian movement, but then left to become a benshi—a narrator in the ‘silent’ cinema halls. When sound arrived and the benshi role disappeared, his brother became severely depressed and committed suicide. Akira was deeply affected. The relationship with his brother may be one of the factors in the development of the master/apprentice, older/younger male relationships which figure so strongly in many of his films.

The career

Slightly younger than the other acknowledged masters of Japanese Cinema in the 1950s such as Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujiro, Kurosawa was able to work both within the Japanese studio system and in the new era of ‘independent production’, although he found the latter very difficult. He was also able to enjoy the high profile he achieved as a global filmmaker after 1951 when his film Rashomon became the first Japanese film to be widely seen overseas. Kurosawa completed around thirty features (there are arguments about the precise number).This relatively small number compared with the work of his contemporaries can be attributed to Kurosawa’s long preparation and production schedules and also to his difficulties in finding funding after 1965. On the other hand, as Francis Ford Coppola has pointed out (in the Channel 4 documentary by Alex Cox), whereas most great filmmakers make one or two ‘masterpieces’, Kurosawa’s work was consistently of a very high standard and seven or eight of his films deserve that description. Kurosawa received an honorary Oscar in 1990 and died in 1998, finishing his last film at the age of 83.

A complex, creative filmmaker

A great deal has been written about Kurosawa, and he has been interviewed many times, but there is still a sense that aspects of his work are misunderstood. He did write an entertaining and informative short autobiography, published in 1983 as Something Like an Autobiography, but he stopped at 1950 with the production of Rashomon. So much has been written—and contested—that it is useful to be alerted to some of the possible contradictions in how his work has been discussed. The claim that Kurosawa is the ‘most Western’ of Japanese directors implies that he was not interested in or committed to Japanese culture. Although he did achieve a high profile in the international art film market, he was also very interested in his own culture. His interest in Western art and literature was shared by most people of his generation. The ‘most Japanese’ directors such as Ozu also watched Hollywood movies and listened to Western popular music.

Up until the relative failure of Red Beard in 1965, all Kurosawa’s films were popular in Japan and he was a leading figure in the Japanese film industry. After 1965 he mainly worked with some form of overseas support, but that was a function of the decline of the domestic film industry more than a personal preference.

Most of the Kurosawa films that have been widely seen outside Japan are jidaigeki—films set in Japan before the Meiji restoration of 1868. But these films represent only a third of the 30 features which made Kurosawa’s name in Japan. Only six films are ‘samurai’ films as such. Kurosawa’s work is more varied and more complex than some fans in the West assume it to be. It includes great gendaigeki or contemporary films such as Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low which both entertain and provide an insight into the rapid changes undergone in post-war Japanese societies.

Over a career spanning nearly sixty years, Kurosawa has made films which have seen him labelled as propagandist, humanist, modernist, conservative and a range of other positions. His personal approach has attracted titles such as Sensei (‘master’), as well as ‘Emperor’, with its connotation of aloofness and arrogance. Yet such a ‘personal’ filmmaker has only been successful because of his long-term relationships with key figures such as writers, camera operators, designers etc., who must take much of the credit for the high quality of Kurosawa’s output. Kurosawa had his own industry mentor from the 1930s, Yamamoto Kajiro, and he kept friends from childhood and his early career throughout his life—but as Donald Richie (1996) has said, all he really wanted to talk about was the latest film project. He was also served by a small group of key actors, especially Mifune Toshiro and Shimura Takashi.

Seven Samurai (1954)

There are several reasons why this particular Kurosawa film is so highly praised and often cited:

  • it changed the way in which ‘action’ pictures were shot and edited;
  • it transformed the chanbara or ‘swordfight film’ in Japanese cinema by focusing on the realism of the settings and characterisations;
  • it demonstrated how it was possible to create an exciting action narrative in the context of the international humanist art cinema of the 1950s.

Here are some extracts from the York Film Notes I wrote in 2000:

Narrative

The idea behind Seven Samurai is deceptively simple—a group of farmers, threatened by the attack of a large group of merciless bandits who steal their harvest every year, decide to hire samurai to defend their village. This could almost be the basis for a modern high-concept Hollywood movie in which the narrative idea can be expressed in twenty-five words or less. Arguably, The Magnificent Seven, the Hollywood remake of Seven Samurai, is indeed a relatively straightforward playing out of this simple idea. Yet in the hands of Kurosawa Akira, Seven Samurai becomes a much more complex narrative, more than justifying its long running time.

Seven Samurai is not an adventure fifilm from my point of view. It’s about the relationship of the samurai and the farmers and I wanted to describe the character of each samurai.

—Kurosawa, 1986

So, although it includes some of the finest action scenes ever filmed, Seven Samurai also finds time for complex emotional drama and psychological exploration of character. The ‘familiarity’ of the action sequences and the behaviour of the samurai, deriving to some extent from Western audiences’ knowledge of Hollywood action genres, masks the more complex play of forces in a Japanese context, where questions of class or caste are crucially important. In an American context, the film would appear to be about the ‘success’ of the samurai in defeating the bandits. But the final moment of Seven Samurai has Kanbei, the samurai leader, observing the villagers’ energy and high spirits in planting a new crop and remarking “We’ve lost, yet again.” “With their land, it’s the farmers who are the victors… not us.”

Context: the samurai

The samurai retained by the ‘lords’ were a highly privileged group, brought up to follow not only a warrior’s life, learning all the skills of war, but also the cultivation of art and poetry and music. Samurai were ‘rounded’ cultured individuals, expected to appreciate fine pottery as well as being able to lop off an opponent’s head with precision. Such warriors would expect to marry within their own class and would be feared by the other classes.

A samurai warrior who lost his patron, perhaps when his lord was defeated in battle or disgraced, would become a ‘masterless samurai’, a ronin. At various times and especially in the civil war periods, there were many ronin on the highways of Japan, looking for ‘honourable’ employment. Such are the ‘hungry samurai’ of Seven Samurai. The narrative of Seven Samurai at first sight seems contrived, but the story was developed after considerable research by Kurosawa into how samurai lived in the sixteenth century—what they ate, how they dressed and the details of their daily routine.

Whereas the conventional jidaigeki offered an idealised view of the Edo period (1602–1867), Kurosawa set out to make a ‘realistic’ film about samurai life in the civil war period of the sixteenth century. This doesn’t mean that he set out to make an historically accurate representation of events. The story of Seven Samurai was an original fiction, but unlike in the conventional jidaigeki, Kurosawa dressed his actors and sets according to old paintings and historical descriptions. All the film’s main characters were given full motivations and sub-plots to enable their actions to be placed in context. So, for instance, the film shows the farmers training in how to defend their village. They wield whatever weapons are to hand. Rather than depict choreographed swordfights with conventional moves, Kurosawa storyboarded more realistic fights in which characters defended or attacked in any way they could given their circumstances.

Seven Samurai was exceptional in the flood of jidaigeki that appeared in 1954. Primarily because of its careful preparation and location shooting, the film took nearly a year to complete from the start of shooting and its budget at 210 million yen was seven times that of the average jidaigeki. Kurosawa was fortunate that Toho (the studio to which he had returned after several years working on individual productions at other studios) was not a big jidaigeki producer and were prepared to try something different. Toei did not follow Kurosawa’s example—but in the early 1960s, Kurosawa’s two famous jidaigeki, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, did outstrip Toei’s conventional offerings.

Humanism

Most scholars of Seven Samurai focus on one aspect of its ideology above all others: the ‘humanism’ that is evident in the film—as it is in most of Kurosawa’s work. Humanism in relation to film theory or critical writing is very much a phenomenon of the period from the end of the Second World War through the 1950s and up to the French New Wave and the triumph of modernism. What does it mean? Chambers 20th Century Dictionary refers to ‘literary culture [as distinct from religious texts], any system which puts human interests and the mind of man paramount, rejecting the supernatural”. Writing at the end of a period when one long struggle against fascism had come to an end, but a cold war between capitalism and communism had just begun, critics were particularly responsive towards films that turned away from the great power struggles and instead concentrated on social issues and stories about ‘the triumph of the human spirit’.

Critics in the US, UK and other parts of Europe tended to respond to the same films, many of which circulated via the major festivals at Venice and Cannes. The critical orthodoxy in the late 1940s and early 1950s was in favour of Italian neo-realism and other ‘realist’ cinemas that used location filming and explored social issues. It is certainly the case that some of Kurosawa’s gendaigeki dealt directly with the social issues in contemporary Japan, and in all of his films there is an interest in minor characters and the variety of human experience. But Kurosawa’s humanism in Seven Samurai is not the same as the ‘liberal humanism’ of European critics. It is more a recognition of the harshness of life in the sixteenth century and the acceptance that people will act like human beings, motivated by basic desires and demonstrating human weaknesses.

In Seven Samurai, the samurai themselves and the Bushido code are faced with human emotions that are not compatible with honourable behaviour. Take the case of the old woman who wants to die because she has no family left after the bandits killed her son. Heihachi tries to cheer her up, but Kikuchiyo says he cannot bear her misery (an honest response at least). Later, when Kuzeo and Katsushiro capture a bandit for interrogation, Kanbei stops the villagers from killing the prisoner on the grounds that he has given information—he is a prisoner of war. But Kanbei is powerless to stop the old woman, who staggers into view wielding a harrow with the intention of avenging her son. “Help her!” cries the old man Gisaku, and Kanbei turns away: he cannot go against her desire for vengeance.

Bert Cardullo, as quoted in Perry (1997), gives this account of human action in the film:

Seven Samurai is a film about circumstance, or about man and his relationship, at his best, to circumstance; it is not a film about fate. In tragedy, man acts, often stupidly if inevitably, and then reflects on his actions, wisely. In the work of circumstance, man acts wisely in the face of the stupidity and unpredictability of circumstance… [it is] real or tangible; man is most often defeated by it. At his best, he meets it (the adverse kind, that is) on equal ground, and if he does not triumph, he does not lose, either. He distinguishes himself in the fight. That is all, and that is enough.

—Bert Cardullo, “The Circumstance of the East, the Fate of the West,” Literature/Film Quarterly 13, no. 2 (1985), p. 112-17.

There is nothing sentimental about Seven Samurai. When Kanbei says he will punish anyone who deserts his post, we know he means it. It’s worth noting too that Seven Samurai was awarded the relatively new ‘X’ certificate on its 1955 release in the UK—British censors thought it was too strong for audiences under 16. But despite the coldness in direction detected by ‘GL’ (probably Gavin Lambert), the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer in 1955, there is a rational, ‘human’ core to the film. Philip Kemp, in his commentary on the film on the BFI DVD, points to the pragmatism of Kanbei and the samurai he recruits. When he meets his old friend Schichiroji, he asks him how he escaped from a battle: ”I hid in a ditch”, comes the answer. When asked how he responds when there are too many of the enemy to kill, Heihachi says that he runs away. These are rational responses, and Kemp makes the point that they are not like the warriors who would fight to the death simply because the code demands it—as it had for too many soldiers in the Second World War.

Style

The continuing popularity of Seven Samurai depends as much on Kurosawa’s skill in utilising a wide range of cinematic techniques as it does on his undoubted ability to tell a story. As many critics have noted, Seven Samurai is above all an entertaining film that never fl ags over its long running time. Interest is maintained because Kurosawa knows how to energise each frame through movement, even if sometimes it is only a quivering lip or nostril in a close-up (Richie 1996). The pent-up energy in the frame begs to be released and adds to the intensity of the action sequences.

Kurosawa was an innovator and a perfectionist. He understood and was able to employ all the techniques that the relatively impoverished Japanese studios of the early 1950s could offer.

Kurosawa’s interest in the work of John Ford and the way it merges with traditional Japanese aesthetics is evident in compositions utilising dramatic skies. ‘Large’ skies with boiling, rolling clouds are evident in Kurosawa’s first film Sugata Sanshiro, and they recur in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s skies are often full of wind and rain while Ford’s are more likely to be clear. The other noticeable difference is in the composition, with Ford arranging the skyline two thirds of the way down the frame for Western vistas. The opening of Seven Samurai moves from this Fordian image to show the skyline two thirds up the frame, as the bandits make their appearance. The skyline is often high in Seven Samurai since the defenders of the village are constantly looking up to the mountains from where the attacks will come.

Shooting in depth

The use of objects in the foreground and a sense of depth in an image was a relatively late feature of Japanese painting. Similar compositions in photography required the development of lenses and fast filmstock so that a tiny aperture could produce a ‘deep’ field of focus—objects in the foreground, middle ground and background all in sharp focus. Such compositions became possible in Hollywood in the late 1930s, not least in the films of John Ford (e.g. Stagecoach in 1939), and in the 1940s they became associated with a new approach to realism in the work of Orson Welles and William Wyler. André Bazin suggested that by allowing action in different parts of the ‘stage’—i.e. the depth of the image—and shooting in long takes, filmmakers could allow the audience to decide which action to follow and how to link the action together, just as they would do in ‘real’ observation. Conventional editing ‘chops up’ the space and underlines the relationship between characters in a scene through the juxtaposition of shots.

In Seven Samurai, Kurosawa uses both the ‘compositions in depth’ associated with Welles and Wyler and the montage techniques of Eisenstein. This is noticeable in the scenes staged in the relatively confined spaces of the huts in the town and in the village. The scenes in the town use depth to great advantage. The crucial scene in which Kanbei accepts the job of defending the village starts with a long shot into the boarding house. In the foreground are the labourers, still taunting the farmers. In the middle ground are the four farmers and, standing behind them, Kanbei and Kikuchiyo. Behind them, clearly visible and in focus, we can see the life of the town going on as people pass in the street. Katsushiro reacts to the taunting and picks up his sword. Most of the sequence is covered in long shot, panning swiftly as Katsushiro chases the labourers and Kanbei tries to stop him. But dramatic close-ups of Katsushiro, his sword, and Kanbei are cut into the action as the labourers run round the room. Then one of the labourers hands a bowl of rice to Kanbei, pointing out that the farmers are eating millet in order to save the rice for the samurai. As Kanbei accepts the bowl and says to the farmers that he will accept their sacrifice, the bowl of rice is large in the foreground while the farmers cower against the far wall in the background. The whole scene makes perfect narrative sense through composition, framing, camera movement, editing and the positioning of the actors. This short scene is perfect cinema—and it is only one of many such throughout the film.

I Live in Fear/Record of a Living Being (1955)

One of the less well-known of Kurosawa’s films, I Live in Fear combines several uniquely Japanese concerns in an unusual social drama. The fear of death from nuclear fallout was central to many of the story ideas produced in Japanese cinema during the 1960s, even if not directly presented—as, perhaps most famously, in monster films such as the Godzilla series, in which the monster is awakened/created as a result of nuclear explosions. Emigration and immigration are unusual in a Japanese context: Japanese society remained relatively insular in the 1950s, during a period when many European countries experienced migratory flows, both in and out. In I Live in Fear, however, the head of a family company determines to emigrate to Brazil with all his extended family to escape the threat of a nuclear calamity. His family don’t think this is rational and question his sanity. A counsellor is appointed to attempt to solve the family problem.

A significant number of Japanese did in fact migrate to Brazil during the 1950s and 1960s. Migration to Brazil began around 1907, primarily by Japanese farmers looking for work on Brazilian coffee plantations. Today there are estimated to be 1.4 million Brazilian-Japanese, and with subsequent migrations back to Japan (and then sometimes back again to Brazil) there is also a significant population of Japanese-Brazilians as the third largest immigrant group in Japan behind Chinese and Koreans.

In Kurosawa’s film, the usual relationship between Shimura Takashi and Mifune Toshiro is reversed, with Mifune playing the older company/family head and Shimura playing the middle-aged counsellor. After two starring roles in Ikiru and Seven Samurai, Shimura seems to have been moved back into the character actor role in this and subsequent Kurosawa films.

Throne of Blood (1957)

By contrast, Throne of Blood is one of the best known of Kurosawa’s films, with a memorable closing sequence—the death of Mifune as Washizu, or Kurosawa’s Macbeth.

The film’s power comes from the performances and the use of setting, camerawork and formal strategies. Mifune is on top form, and is matched by Yamada Isuzu as the Lady Macbeth character. In several of the well-known scenes from Shakespeare’s play, Kurosawa adopted ideas from traditional noh theatre productions and in others he emphasised the ‘elemental’. The forest, the mists, the birds—all seem actors in the drama expertly staged by Kurosawa. The film again did well on the international stage, only losing the top prize at Venice to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito in 1958.

Much of the scholarly work on Throne of Blood focuses on the Shakespeare connection and attempts to worry away at the ‘Japaneseness’ question. Yoshimoto (2000) is somewhat vexed by this and argues that the best approach is to simply agree that “Throne of Blood is a unique film made by an innovator of cinema”.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

This exploration of contemporary business practices in Japan during the period of rapid expansion in the late 1950s has been described as a modern version of Hamlet. Francis Ford Coppola is famously a fan. Here is a useful commentary on the film by the American critic Armond White:

In this extraordinary movie, Kurosawa critiques corporate culture with an epic that Coppola’s The Godfather, although inspired by Kurosawa’s film, cannot match. Its revival takes down The Godfather, showing how exact, powerful and original a Kurosawa concept can be. This revenge drama tackles a corporation and public utility, tracing its chain of command to a family’s hierarchy.

The Bad Sleep Well is an audacious formal experiment in theatricality and classicism (borrowing Noh staging and a Greek chorus) but with a sly, modernist use of irony (“Life is ironic,” Toshiro Mifune as corporate climber Nishi tells his wife Yoshiko). We understand the present through traditional, yet updated, moral codes. Western musical motifs in the opening wedding sequence create comical adjustments and commentary on the industrialism that changes Japanese culture, contaminating while modernizing it. Kurosawa uses the format of grand tragedy to account for the enormous deceit he observes.

In the shocking bridal procession, the crippled virgin’s appearance signifies her caste—female subordination and affliction. This is more adroit than Coppola’s co-opted females. By using the gangster genre, Coppola was one remove from his subject. He lost his focus and wound up romanticizing the corruption he intended to denounce. This was the result of misguided movie-brat modernism, where genre homage overwhelmed personal, artistic expression. The Corleone siblings (coming 12 years after The Bad Sleep Well) represented a popular adjustment to corruption; using the crime genre as a metaphor in a way acquiesced to the situation—thus altering the course of American cinema for the next 40 years. But Kurosawa uses Jacobean, Shakespearean processes (slightly revamping Hamlet) to better indict contemporary materialism and corruption. Kurosawa never gives in to the narrative sensations of an action form and cinema regains its moral compass.

Aki Kaurismaki’s 1992 Hamlet Goes Business explicitly copied the same approach (Hamlet template and b&w) but as corporate satire. Kurosawa’s revenge scenes are staged to be unfunny–stunning visualizations of stark, outre violence. Throughout, Kurosawa’s taste for the epic gives this wide-screen film grandeur that neither romantic-pessimist Coppola nor a tabloid moralist like Sam Fuller could ever achieve. It is both extremely rigorous and dynamic. With Kurosawa’s CinemaScope proscenium compositions, intimate conversations seen through distance (like Nishi and Yoshiko in the ruins of a munitions factory), actually draw one in toward emotional closeness. Speeches, ritual gestures and genre codes are assembled operatically by Kurosawa for modernist comprehension—similar to the Shakespearean undertone of Welles’ Touch of Evil. But Kurosawa brings those undertones to his formally innovative surface. The tableau of Nishi and friends coming out of the munitions factory to reminisce about emerging from a bomb shelter, captures the post-war miasma template and b&w) but as corporate satire. Kurosawa’s revenge scenes are staged to be unfunny–stunning visualizations of stark, outre violence. Throughout, Kurosawa’s taste for the epic gives this wide-screen film grandeur that neither romantic-pessimist Coppola nor a tabloid moralist like Sam Fuller could ever achieve. It is both extremely rigorous and dynamic. The Bad Sleep Well looks forward to the profundity in Altman’s 1992 light satire The Player (where the bad sleep well idea—lost conscience—applies to Hollywood).

Kurosawa’s more complex moral and narrative structure makes the Hollywood “perfection” of the first Godfather film seem like kidstuff. Coppola only properly saluted Kurosawa in The Godfather III where he adapted the opera Cavalleria Rusticana to frame his characters in a richer cultural context that is yet to be fully appreciated. The Bad Sleep Well’s ground-breaking concept shows Kurosawa’s uncompromised ambition. It is so unusual—contemplating both rustic chivalry and troubled conscience—that it deserves that rare appellation “some kind of great film.”

—Armond White, ‘Kurosawa to the Rescue’, New York Press, 20 January 2010

Yojimbo (1961)

Probably Kurosawa’s most popular film in Japan and an undoubted ‘gamechanger’ for the ‘samurai film’, Yojimbo is no ‘art film’ with a distanced view of the action. It is a full-blooded entertainment film. Unlike Seven Samurai, the film is set in the late Tokugawa period—the usual setting for the chanbara film, and something like the equivalent setting of the western genre in Hollywood. The hero is Sanjuro (Mifune), in the now-classic role of the amoral outsider who takes payment from both sides of a local clan war as he ‘cleans up’ the town.

The film was innovative in many ways—not least in its non-traditional use of music (‘wrong’ and comic) and the realism of sound effects and the depiction of violence. It blew away the elegant and sanitised action sequences of the rival Toei studio and utilised the widescreen ‘TohoScope’ format much more fully than other Japanese films.

Morimoto (1994) suggests that the film, probably unintentionally, offers Sanjuro as a metaphor for Japan’s relationship with the two Cold War protagonists. Certainly the film confirmed the ‘modernist’ tendencies that Catherine Russell (2002) explores. Its central character is a long way from the samurai with a strict honour code and the kind of morality espoused by the Shimura character in Seven Samurai. Yojimbo is funny, grotesque and satirical.

Some critics have suggested that Kurosawa ‘borrowed’ ideas from Dashiell Hammett stories—both Red Harvest and The Glass Key have been mentioned. Kurosawa’s story/treatment was officially remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, reigniting Clint Eastwood’s career in 1964 (the ‘official agreement’ to use of the rights came later) and by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing in 1996. There have been countless other ‘unofficial’ uses of the ideas in spaghetti westerns and in various samurai series in Japan, including anime.

The Mifune character re-appeared in a similar story in Sanjuro (1962), also from Kurosawa. But this film was less a sequel than a different kind of comedy, a jidaigeki closer in some ways to the conventional genre film and not as much connected to the Hollywood western or crime
picture.

Shimura has a small part in the film, as the brewer, and one of the villains is played by Nakadai Tatsuya (who starred in later films such as High and Low, Kagemusha and Ran).

Ran (1985)

The last of Kurosawa’s ‘epic’ films, Ran was many years in preparation but only became possible following the funding of Kagemusha in 1979. Kurosawa was able to reuse equipment and plan in much more detail for what would become the biggest budget film in Japanese cinema history in 1984 (Japanese budgets have always been much lower than Hollywood).

Ran is again inspired by Shakespeare—this time King Lear. Kurosawa began with an incident from the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century and then noticed the resemblance to Lear and re-worked the story. The warlord at the centre of the story has three sons rather than daughters and there are other significant differences in the plot and characterisations. Like Throne of Blood, Ran is a formal film, but this time the emphasis is on colour coding and the use of long shot and very long shot with few close-ups. The effect is to literally distance the audience and to emphasise the epic scale.

There is very careful use of colour coding, which in itself becomes almost ‘excessive’—each of five armies has a specific colour. There is again an aspect of noh in the make-up used for the warlord which is almost mask-like. The overall effect is very beautiful, though some may feel that it doesn’t have the expressive power of Throne of Blood. Nevertheless, its reputation has grown since its release, and in these days of CGI battles, it remains as a major achievement in production and direction of 1400 men and horses and demands to be seen on the big screen. The French co-production also enabled a full-length documentary of the production, entitled A.K., by the celebrated French filmmaker Chris Marker.


Filmmakers who have spoken about Kurosawa’s influence or who have remade his scripts and films:

  • John Sturges: remade Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven (US 1960)
  • Martin Ritt: remade Rashomon as The Outrage (US 1964)
  • Sergio Leone: remade Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars (Italy/Germany/Spain 1964)
  • Sam Peckinpah: the action sequences of Major Dundee (US 1965) and The Wild Bunch (US 1968)
  • John Sayles: scripted Battle Beyond the Stars (US 1980) as a version of Seven Samurai
  • Andrei Konchalovsky: directed Runaway Train (1985), adapted from a script by Kurosawa
  • Walter Hill: remade Yojimbo as Last Man Standing (US 1996)
  • John Woo: major battle sequences in Red Cliff (China/HK 2008)
  • Paul Verhoeven and Bernardo Bertolucci appear in a documentary by the British director Alex Cox explaining their own reactions to Kuroswawa’s 1950s films
  • Zhang Yimou, Chinese director of epic ‘martial chivalry’ films, has also quoted Kurosawa as an inspiration

References and further reading (a very select list; there is a great deal of material around)

  • Desser, David (2008) ‘Remaking Seven Samurai’ in World Cinema’ in Hunt and Leung op cit
  • Dissanayake, Wimal (ed) (1994) Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
  • Ehrlich, Linda C. and Desser, David (eds) (1994) Cinematic Landscapes, Austin: University of Texas Press
  • Hunt, Leon and Leung Wing-Fai (eds) (2008) East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, London: I. B. Tauris
  • Kurosawa Akira (1983) Something Like an Autobiography, New York: Vintage
  • McDonald, Keiko I (2006) Reading a Japanese Film, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press
  • Morimoto, Marie Thorsten (1994) ‘The “Peace Dividend” in Japanese Cinema: Metaphors of a Demilitarised Nation’ in Dissanayake (ed) op cit
  • Ritchie, Donald (1996) The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Los Angeles: University of California Press
  • Russell, Catherine (2002) ‘Men with Swords and Men with Suits: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa’ in Cineaste, Vol XXVIII No. 1, Winter
  • Stafford, Roy (2001) Seven Samurai—York Film Notes, Harlow: Pearson Education
  • Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham, NC: Duke University Press
  • Documentaries on Kurosawa have been screened on both BBC (two parts, directed by Adam Low, 2002) and by Alex Cox for Channel 4 (date unknown)

Over the next few months, with colleagues, I will be writing about Kurosawa’s films on the blog ‘The Case for Global Film’.

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