'Kay, I don't make films
But if I did, they'd have a samurai."
Akira Kurosawa (黒澤 明, March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a famous Japanese director, mainly known in the West for his samurai films, such as Seven Samurai, Ran, and Yojimbo. Other notable films include: Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Dersu Uzala, and Sanjuro.
Born on March 23, 1910, Kurosawa is widely considered one of the best and most important directors of the 20th century. His 1950 film Rashomon was a world-wide smash, getting far more attention overseas than any prior Japanese filmnote . It became the first non-American and non-European film to achieve international success, and it is considered a watershed moment in the birth of what is considered world-cinema. Japan had a film industry that was already quite fecund and productive by The '50s boasting many great films and film-makers from the silent to the sound era, but within the wider culture, Kurosawa is still the Japanese film-maker.
He made films that were very influential on many American and European film directors. They include George Lucas (the Star Wars series was heavily influenced by The Hidden Fortress), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven is a direct remake of Seven Samurai) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars is a direct remake of Yojimbo). His "Big Four" films (Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, and Ran) are routinely included in lists of the best films of all time.
Excepting Ikiru, all of Kurosawa's films from 1948's Drunken Angel to 1965's Red Beard featured the actor Toshiro Mifune. In 1965, the two had a falling out during the production of Red Beard and did not speak or see each other until a brief, tearful reunion in 1993. There were rumors that they would have collaborated on Kurosawa's next film after his upcoming project After the Rain, but they both died within a year of each other, with Kurosawa dying before After the Rain began filming. There was another chance in 1975, as the Soviet producers originally wanted Mifune in the title role of Dersu Uzala, but it was prevented largely by Mifune's schedule. After 1965, there were only a few times where one spoke ill of the other, but otherwise they thought of each other — and their films together — with high regard.
The other actor most identified with Kurosawa is Takashi Shimura. Shimura appeared in Kurosawa's first film, 1943's Sanshiro Sugata and appeared almost every other one of Kurosawa's films through 1965's Red Beard. Unlike Mifune, however, Kurosawa and Shimura never had a falling out and remained friends until Shimura's death in 1982. Kurosawa wrote a small role for his friend in 1980's Kagemusha, which was cut from the Western release of the film (but has since been added back on The Criterion Collection's DVD).
Kurosawa's films are notable for being stunning visually, with beautiful backgrounds, sometimes verging on Scenery Porn. Try watching Ran and not falling in love with some of the shots, or considering it the most beautiful movie ever made.
He was a notorious Prima Donna Director, to the point where he earned the nickname "Tenno" or "The Emperor". Kurosawa's personality and demeanor made him unpopular in the Japanese film industry,note and his films were often divisive within Japan. Japanese critics often slammed Kurosawa for being "too Western" and they had a point. Kurosawa adapted Western stories from Shakespeare, Gorky, and Dostoevsky, Yojimbo was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett novel The Glass Key, and High and Low was an adaptation of a novel by Ed McBain. As noted above this went in the other direction as well, as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ikiru easily translated into Foreign Remakes.
Kurosawa also differed from earlier Japanese film-makers (like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu) for being quite macho and having very few prominent female roles compared to his predecessors and the general women-centric nature of Japanese cinema. Kurosawa also tended to write his own dialogues as he became more successful and rely less on screenwriters; Japanese critics often noted sardonically that his films improved in subtitles noting that to a Japanese audience, his movies often came off as sentimental, hokey, and as per Yukio Mishima, having the maturity of a ten-year old.
Nonetheless Kurosawa's visual invention and creativity found public favour, and a number of his films had populist themes and subjects. The jidaigeki genre of Historical Fiction had been seen as high art before Kurosawa, with strict attention to detail and setting, but Kurosawa was keen on introducing anachronistic elements, and contemporary sentiments into period movies, making them allegorical and fantastic. For instance Rashomon musical score adapts Maurice Ravel's Bolero, his Samurai films drew inspiration from American Western, and he introduced the concept of adapting Shakespeare to feudal Japan which greatly inspired Shakespeare scholars and producers. Kurosawa's films often pivoted on the conflict between the young and the old, while taking the side of the rebels, misfits and nonconformists, who voice criticism of the past. As Kurosawa grew older however, his vision darkened, culminating in Ran, which is considered his bleakest and darkest film.
One of his Production Posse was Daisuke Kato. Kurosawa's daughter had married Kato's son.
One of Kurosawa's disappointments was that he never was able to make a Godzilla film, as Toho turned down his requests to do it, fearing that Kurosawa's epic style would completely demolish the usual budget of the franchise. (It should be noted that he and Godzilla creator Ishirō Honda were lifelong friends, the latter starting out as assistant director for Kurosawa before making it big on his own. They would once again collaborate for Kurosawa's final five films.)
Despite his long and revered career, Kurosawa only won one competitive Oscar, when Dersu Uzala was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1975. He also received an honorary Oscar in 1952 for Rashomon before a formal foreign language Oscar had been established. In 1986, Kurosawa earned his only nomination for the Academy Award for Best Directing for Ran. He wound up on the ballot after Japan controversially snubbed Ran as their submission for the foreign language category despite it being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and other film directors petitioned the Academy to consider Kurosawa over their own work. Kurosawa lost that Oscar to Sydney Pollack, although he was invited to present Best Picture with Billy Wilder and John Huston. In 1990, Kurosawa received an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement at the 1990 ceremony. Said award was presented to him by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and he accepted it in person. Kurosawa was the first Japanese, and first Asian, film-maker to receive the award.
He passed away on September 6, 1998 at the age of 88, working on movies all the way to the end.
- Sanshiro Sugata (1943) - Kurosawa's official debut as a director.
- The Most Beautiful (1944)
- Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945)
- The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945, not released until 1952) - This and the preceding two were propaganda movies that Kurosawa and Shimura were forced to write, direct and star in (respectively) during World War II despite the fact that both were pacifists. They didn't get wide release in America until The Criterion Collection box set AK100 in 2009, mostly because after the war, Kurosawa saw them as an Old Shame (although they all remained in his filmography unlike Those Who Make Tomorrow).
- No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
- Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946) - A co-direction with his mentor Kajiro Yamamoto, Kurosawa was essentially forced to co-direct the film and was so disgusted with it that he left it out of his filmography, which most Western film scholars and Wikipedia also do.
- One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
- Drunken Angel (1948)
- The Quiet Duel (1949)
- Stray Dog (1949)
- Rashomon (1950)
- The Idiot (1951)
- Ikiru (1952)
- Seven Samurai (1954)
- I Live In Fear (1955)
- Throne of Blood (1957)
- The Lower Depths (1957) - An adaptation of Maxim Gorky's social satire, transported to Edo-era Japan.
- The Hidden Fortress (1958)
- The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
- Yojimbo (1961)
- Sanjuro (1962)
- High and Low (1963)
- Red Beard (1965)
- Dodes'ka-den (1970)
- Dersu Uzala (1975) - Adapted from a Russian novel, this is Kurosawa's only non-Japanese language film.
- Kagemusha (1980)
- Ran (1985)
- Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
- Rhapsody in August (1991)
- Madadayo (1993)
- Uma (1941) - Assistant director, editor, co-screenwriter. Kurosawa is sometimes listed as an uncredited co-director because he took over the later stages of production from director Kajiro Yamamoto. Once thought to be lost, still hard to find.
- Snow Trail (1947) - Directed by Senkichi Taniguchi. Starred Toshiro Mifune (in his screen debut) and Takashi Shimura, both of whom became long-time Kurosawa collaborators.
- Vendetta for a Samurai (1952) - Directed by Kazuo Mori, this is an account of the true events of the duel at Kagiya Corner.
- Runaway Train (1985) - Originally planned as Kurosawa's English-language debut, finally filmed without his participation after nearly 20 years of Development Hell.
- After the Rain (1999) - Directed by his friend Takashi Koizumi after Kurosawa's death.
- The Sea Is Watching (2002) - Directed by Kei Kumai after Kurosawa's death.
- Oni (????) - A film that would have focused on a blonde-haired Western Samurai simply known as Oni. The screenplay would later serve as the basis for Team Ninja's Nioh though not without extensive changes.
- Creator Backlash:
- He was so disgusted with Those Who Make Tomorrow that he left it out of his filmography, which most Western film scholars and Wikipedia also do as he was forced to co-direct the film with mentor Kajiro Yamamoto.
- He considered the Sanshiro Sugata duology and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail as this due to being propaganda movies that he forced to write and direct during World War II since he was a pacifist. This is the main reason why these had No Export for You in the US.
- Creator Breakdown:
- Fell into this in 1971 after the failure of Dodesukaden to the point that he actually attempted suicide.
- And again during the production of Ran when his wife Yoko Yaguchi passed away and the death of sound engineer Fumio Yanoguchi during postproduction.
- Executive Meddling:
- Was subjected to this while making The Quiet Duel: the original ending was that Dr. Fujisaki would go mad from syphilis, but American Occupation Forces ordered changes to the script out of concern that people with syphilis would be too horrified to seek treatment.
- In his autobiography, he notes that he had to fight with the Japanese censors over his early films due to them considering them "too Western". Eventually, he tried to make something more Japanese... at which point WWII ended and the film was promptly banned by the new American censors for being too traditionally Japanese.
- Fanboy: He was a huge fan of John Ford who was his biggest influence and who he styled himself after, even following Ford's habit of reusing actors and crew members. He was only too happy when the two got a chance to meet and he found out that Ford had seen and enjoyed his films.
- High-Pressure Blood: Trope Codifier, in the end of Sanjuro. It was an accident — the blood pump had been out of order, and sprayed the blood overall. Kurosawa decided to keep the scene.
- Jidaigeki: Many of his most well-known movies are set in this period, usually the Sengoku era.
- Large and in Charge: He stood over 6 feet tall, and towered over his actors.
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Kurosawa stated after its release, he considered Ran to be his masterpiece. While that film is well-regarded and many fans would agree with Kurosawa, the consensus among fans and critics is that Seven Samurai and Rashomon are his greatest works.
- Prima Donna Director: He was a notorious perfectionist when making his films and would fly into a rage whenever someone got something wrong.
- Production Posse: His usual actors were Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Daisuke Kato, Minoru Chiaki, Tatsuya Nakadai and Kamatari Fujiwara. Occasionally he had Bokuzen Hidari, Izusu Yamada, Seiji Miyaguchi and Isao Kimura, too.
- What Could Have Been: Notable examples, such as:
- Runaway Train, which he was going to direct in the late Sixties and would've been his first English film. However it didn't materialise until The Cannon Group picked it up with Andrei Konchalovsky directing it instead, though his screenplay was still used for the film.
- He wanted to direct a Godzilla film (he was close friends with Ishirō Honda), but Toho turned him down as they were terrified by the thought of the budget that might be required to realize Kurosawa's vision.
- He was going to co-direct Tora! Tora! Tora! with David Lean. Lean pulled out early in production. Kurosawa continued on for a while, until he was told that the Japanese section had been shortened to 90 minutes (the script Kurosawa had written was four hours long). Despite this, Kurosawa did begin production, but was replaced by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda after three weeks. Some sources say he tried to get himself fired and succeeded. His experiences with Tora! Tora! Tora! and the failure of his next film Dodeskaden led to his Creator Breakdown in 1971.
- After the Rain and The Sea is Watching were planned to be his next projects after shooting Madadayo. He managed to complete the screenplays for the films but after finishing the latter screenplay in 1995, he slipped and broke the base of his spine, which caused him to be paralysed and resulted in his health to deteriorate. His death three years later resulted in his close friend Takashi Koizumi directing the former and Kei Kumai directing the latter, three years after the release of the former.
- There were rumours that he and Toshiro Mifune were going to reunite on a future project after they reconciled in 1993 at Ishiro Honda's funeral but their deaths within a year of each other ended this.
- His longtime wish was to die on the set while shooting a movie. Sadly, he fell short of this as he died just before filming After the Rain began.