Akira Kurosawa Round Up

In which we bow politely and then twirl our samurai sword in the direction of a selection of Akira Kuroswa's films

"Hey you! Put down that sword!"
"Akira who?" I hear you cry. Well that's him on the left. You may not have seen any of Akira Kurosawa’s films, but you’ve almost certainly watched films that were directly inspired by his work. George Lucas admitted he lifted the plot of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress for Star Wars, whilst Seven Samurai and Yojimbo served as inspiration for The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars respectively. Indeed, a whole generation of filmmakers were influenced by his work and he is regularly named alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.

Kurosawa was the first Japanese director to gain widespread popular acceptance amongst Western audiences. His films held a universal appeal, partly because he was open to influences from other cultures, such as the writings of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, American crime fiction and the classic Westerns of John Ford. This meant he was willing to risk introducing multi-cultural elements into traditional Japanese film-making. Although this resulted in him being criticised within Japan for making films that were too ‘Westernised’, he was still deeply loyal to Japanese cultural influences, particularly the traditional theatre art forms and the ancient samurai folklore of his country. Thus, for Western viewers, his films offer an accessible way to experience the history, the people and the very soul of Japanese society.

First-time Kurosawa viewers will experience a stylish, intelligent and technically superb director at work. But more importantly for the casual viewer, his films tell great stories, creating characters that we care deeply about in engrossing situations. Here's ten of his back catalogue to get you started.

Rashomon (1950) was the film that introduced both Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audiences, wowing them with its sophisticated photography, editing and symbolism. In a daring departure from standard narrative, Rashomon tells the story of a murder from the viewpoint of 4 different witnesses. Each version of the story throws new light on the event and contradicts the other accounts, leaving the audience to decipher what really happened. The influence of Rashomon's tricksy flashback structure can still be seen in modern films and TV shows, whilst in psychology the ‘Rashomon Effect' is a recognised phenomenon to describe how different observers can perceive the same event differently (which explains those times you thought you were the funniest person in the bar, whilst everyone thought you were acting like a drunken arse). It also resulted in a great Simpsons joke; Marge: "C'mon Homer, Japan will be fun! You liked 'Rashomon'" Homer: "That's not how I remember it"

Yojimbo (1961) borrows from the plots of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and The Glass Key and tells of a wandering masterless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) who arrives in a village which is gripped by a vicious gang war. He promptly hires himself out to both sides and plays them off against one another in a blackly comic and violent affair, with Western influences clear to see. The sequel Sanjuro (1962) is a lighter follow up, balancing the violence with some more obviously comic moments. Mifune is again excellent, but this is one of the less memorable Kurosawa films. Whereas the epic Seven Samurai (1954) is pretty much unforgettable, as some poor farmers hire a gang of samurai (guess how many there are?) to protect their village against the raids of a group of bandits. In the early scenes, we get the slow build-up as the team is selected and assembled, getting to know the characters through some nice little vignettes, before it lets rip into a full blown action movie, full of stunts, fights, swords and more fights. And all this for honour, rather than riches. Pretty much essential viewing for any self-respecting movie fan.

But Kurosawa isn't all about the old days and is also interested in contemporary stories as well. High And Low (1963) is based on one of the 87th Precinct books by American crime writer Ed McBain and offers us two films for the price of one. First, a gripping kidnap drama, then a police procedural investigation which leads to an exciting and brilliantly staged climax, as the net tightens on the kidnapper. The first part is slightly stagy, the second part slightly overlong, but Kurosawa's ability to elevate standard thriller material into something more allegorical sets this a cut above the rest. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is a fine tale of corporate ruthlessness, which Kurosawa intended as a direct criticism of corrupt Japanese business and political communities. The elaborate plot is rather improbable and the central romance doesn't really convince, but Kurosawa's storytelling, staging and framing is as impressive as ever, even if it doesn't belong with his best work.

If Shakespeare doesn't normally float your boat, one of Kurosawa's stirring adaptations might change your mind. Throne Of Blood (1957) is a splendidly blood-soaked rendering of Macbeth, with Toshiro Mifune taking on the central role as a samurai lord rising to power, aided by his scheming wife. The themes of the play are wonderfully captured with an eerie soundscape and atmospheric sets (shot on the misty slopes of Mt Fuji), with the appearance of the ghost at the banquet a particular standout. Double, double, toil and trouble indeed. Even better is Ran (1985), a brilliant version of King Lear, in which a powerful samurai warlord divides his land between his 3 sons, only for jealousy, hatred and betrayal to tear the family apart. Featuring gorgeous costumes, beautiful scenery and epic battle scenes, Ran (meaning ‘chaos’) has been described as a painting brought to life and is worth seeing for the use of colour alone. Astonishingly, the 75-year-old Kurosawa was almost blind when he made it, relying on his painted storyboards from years earlier to explain the shots he needed. However, Ran is also notable for its nihilistic themes, depicting human activities as essentially meaningless in a cruel, godless world. Bleak, but beautiful cinema.The similarly epic Kagemusha (1980) feels like a dress rehearsal for Ran and suffers by comparison. Visually it's also a treat, particularly in the battle scenes and dream sequences, but the central premise, in which a lowly samurai must impersonate a dying warlord, stretches credibility and the storytelling is not as tight or compelling as it needs to be, meaning it's terribly drawn out and feels even longer than it is. You'd be better off watching Ran twice.

"Er, I'm not sure these camouflage costumes work all that well..."
And finally, we have Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (1952), a low-key drama about a man who knows he is going to die. Featuring an immensely moving performance from regular Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura, this is a profoundly affecting and life-affirming movie, which I've eulogised about in more detail here.

So what is the secret of Kurosawa's success? Why have his films been popular with audiences as well as critics, whereas other revered Japanese directors, such as Naruse, Ozu and Mizoguchi struggle to extend their appeal beyond the arthouse? Perhaps the answer lies in his understanding of humanity. "Human beings share the same common problems," he said, "a film can only be understood if it depicts these properly." If only all film makers shared that view.

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