Remembering Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa pictured alongside Steven Spielberg and George Lucas while receiving his lifetime achievement Academy Award.

Between the years of 1936 and 1993, Akira Kurosawa directed 30 films and each one of them can be considered a masterwork in some regard. A man who never considered himself a great filmmaker, Kurosawa was responsible for films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru, Rashomon, Dreams, RAN, and many others that have stood the test of time and created more sources of influence than perhaps any other filmmaker in history. Looking at the greats like Kubrick, Welles, and Bergman it would seem none of them even hold a candle to the incredible genius that is Akira Kurosawa. The esteemed director was responsible for launching the career of one of the world’s finest actors, his muse Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many of the aforementioned films. Kurosawa also inspired directors like George Lucas, Hayao Miyazaki, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese who even starred in Akira Kurosawa’s late career project, Dreams, in the role of Vincent Van Gogh.

Born in Tokyo, Japan in 1910, Kurosawa started his auteur filmmaking career in 1936 as an assistant director on small projects in the Tokyo film industry. In the breakout of World War II, he was labeled unfit for service in the Imperial Japanese Military and continued working on projects throughout a highly tumultuous time in Japanese history. Throughout these years, Kurosawa was taken under the wing of famed Japanese film director Kajirō Yamamoto who, at the time, was Japan’s premier filmmaker. As Yamamoto’s pupil, Kurosawa honed his craft expertly and worked on assistant directing, screenwriting, camera work, and even using his incredible painting skills to help bring life to storyboarding. Showing a knack for period drama, he debuted his first feature length film in 1943, Sanshiro Sugata and followed that release in 1944 by releasing the film The Most Beautiful which just so happened to star his future wife.

Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel

In the 1948, Kurosawa hit his true stride with his first of many collaborations with Toshiro Mifune. It could be said that the first couple of Mifune releases solidified Akira Kurosawa into a film legend. Films such as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog showcased a more raw and visceral understanding of film noir, years before the genre truly took off. These two films, both early Mifune/Kurosawa collaborations, should be considered some of the earliest of film noir classics. Stray Dog could even be considered on par with juggernauts like Touch of Evil or The Third Man. The otherworldly relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune came to climax, in my opinion, with four legendary projects. Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, and Throne of Blood. Seven Samurai, the obvious epic in Kurosawa’s catalogue, has had so much impact on modern cinema that could probably only be rivaled by Hitchcock or Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”. Alongside obvious entries like Seven Samurai or even Rashomon (winner of Japan’s first Academy Award for Best Foreign Feature), films like Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo also had long lasting and unforeseen impacts on the worldwide film industry.

Yojimbo, unsurprisingly one of the 16 Kurosawa films starring Toshiro Mifune, was an untypical Samurai film in the sense that it was the director’s first dark comedy. It was about a Ronin (a wandering and masterless Samurai) who entered a town with two feuding gangs. Mifune’s character, Sanjuro, a grizzled yet skilled Samurai, has the two gangs compete for his service. The film is full of beautiful wide panning shots, action, and period piece excellence. Yojimbo went on to influence director Sergio Leone to make A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, an almost shot for shot spaghetti western interpretation of Kurosawa’s masterpiece. This wasn’t the last time Akira Kurosawa’s films would be inspirational to legendary directors. Director George Lucas has even said many times that Hidden Fortress was an immense inspiration for Star Wars: A New Hope and revisiting the film even today, the connections are quite clear. Akira Kurosawa’s influence is nearly unlimited, spanning decades, world wars, cultural lines, and even language barriers. His masterful camerawork, screenwriting, and control of tone and pacing has made him one of the 20th century’s greatest godfathers of cinema.

Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo

Starting his career drawing influence from Russian literary masters like Dostoevsky and American western directors like John Ford, Kurosawa has all but transcended these men into an almost godly state of historical importance. Over the course of 6 decades, 30 films, numerous genres, countless remakes, and respect from contemporaries like Bergman and Welles, Kurosawa is a master of his craft and his influence on the industry we love so much should never be forgotten or taken for granted. His library might seem intensive and overwhelming to a beginner or an onlooker but it’s the most spiritually rewarding catalogue one could ever experience. Watching the film Ikiru (To Live), literally changed my life for the better. A simple film about an unspectacular bureaucrat who has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, Ikiru is a heartening display of the human experience. Watching a man who has wasted his life for so many years forced to come to terms with learning what living truly means so late in life, in such dire circumstances, makes for one hell of a viewing experience.

Kurosawa has so many meaningful films in his library of masterworks and even recommending where to start would be a herculean effort but simply starting somewhere will be one of the most rewarding experiences you could ever have. Akira Kurosawa has earned his rightful place among the pantheon of filmmaker gods, he is the Thor to Hitchcock’s Odin and the world of film and film fans would be all the better recognizing his excellence even so many years after his death.

“People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature”
-Akira Kurosawa