Akira Kurosowa: Titan of the Silver Screen

May 28, 2020
In the cinematic world, the name Akira Kurosawa is one of influence and legend.

Though the average western moviegoer may not know who he is, storied western filmmakers such as George Lucas and Roman Polanski often cite him as an inspiration for their work. To add irony, Akira Kurosawa was perceived to be more popular outside of his home country, Japan.

Akira Kurosawa was a screenwriter and filmmaker whose career spanned 60 odd years. He directed over 30 films, some of which won international accolades including Rashomon, winner of the Grand Prix at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Rashomon, the first Japanese film to win high international acclaim opened the world to Japanese filmmakers.

During his younger days, Akira’s father would encourage him to enjoy western traditions such as theatre and film, allowing him to view his first film at 6 years of age. With a desire for the arts emerging, an elementary school teacher further guided him towards drawing, art and calligraphy.

Akira left secondary school and attended art school, studying western art. At the time, a member of the Left-wing Proletarian Artists League, his art was closely linked to his politics. Becoming frustrated with the party and their course of action, he gave up this ambition and became an assistant director at PCL film studio, soon to become major film studio Toho.

Another factor behind his desire to move away from a career in painting was his older brother, Heigo Kurosawa, whose failed attempt at securing a position in a top Tokyo school led to a career as a Benshi (silent film narrator). Heigo’s influence on his younger brother was lasting. Unfortunately, with the birth of talking pictures, Heigo’s career diminished and not long after, he committed suicide. Tragically, only a short time later Akira’s other brother also died, leaving Akira as the only Kurosawa brother left alive.

A young Akira Kurosawa

Around this time, Akira directed his first feature Sanshiro Sugata and in 1948 he directed Drunken Angel, which cemented his place as a filmmaker and began a 15 film collaboration with then-unknown actor Toshiro Mifune.

Drunken Angel, often cited as Akira’s first major work, had to endure major re-writes due to American censorship in the days of occupation. During the post-war era, Akira was influenced by democratic ideals, feeling Drunken Angel was the first time he was able to express himself freely.

Akira often wrote films from a place of post-war recovery, morality and personal acceptance. His career went on to see a prolific period in the 1950s and early 1960s, directing classics such as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo.

During this period, Akira started his own production company, Kurosawa Productions and for a time, things went well until the rise of TV began to impose itself upon the Japanese film industry. Reminiscent of later shifts in Hollywood, Japanese Studios were no longer willing to take large financial risks and Akira Kurosawa had a reputation for costly productions.

In the 1970s, at the end of his contract with Toho Studios, Akira sought work outside of Japan. With no lack of offers, he began what would be viewed as a series of failures in his career. Action-thriller Runaway Train was cancelled after a 2-year delay. Soon after, a production with Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox for a film titled Tora! Tora! Tora! was underway with Kurosawa Productions. The film was a dual view of Pearl Harbour, from both the American and Japanese perspective. The film was marred by issues and resulted in ill health and dismissal for Akira. This period, unfortunately, saw artistic challenge and financial loss, culminating in a failed suicide attempt.

After a short hiatus, the director bounced back onto the world stage with the much-lauded, though often debated Dersu Uzala, winning his second Academy Award for best foreign-language film. From this point, his career seemed to gain stability once more, seeing him gain further support from members of the New Hollywood Wave and resulting in arguably some of his strongest work in years. One movie that stood out was 1985’s Ran, cited for its scale, ambition and detailed composition.

Akira Kurosawa was influenced by Western cinema, which was evident in his bold and dramatic compositions. He often spent much attention on cinematography, more than other directors and served as editor for many of his films. Kurosawa employed techniques such as the axial cut, a variation of the jump cut, which maintains continuity. He is also known for the wipe, a transitional technique that arguably became his signature and was later used by George Lucas to great effect in Star Wars. Kurosawa also employed recurring themes, most notably the master-disciple relationship, which often involved self-mastery and the writing of perceived wrongs. He was interested in the examination of human nature in conjunction with earthly nature and cycles of violence in history. He also regularly addressed the themes of heroism and class differences.

Kurosawa stated countless times the importance of the screenplay in a successful film, working closely with writers and creating elaborate notes and illustrations to present his vision.

Even after his passing in 1999, filmmakers posthumously brought the vision of Akira Kurosawa to light by adapting his screenplays to the big screen.

Having influenced many of the world’s greatest directors, from Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg to Andrei Tarkovsky and Bernardo Bertolucci, Akira Kurosawa is arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. His films and techniques, studied by critics and academics alike, have been topic for discussion and analysis for decades.

His impact is monumental and his legacy undeniable, Akira Kurosawa will forever be known as a titan of the silver screen.

AKIRA KUROSAWA ESSENTIALS

Rashomon

Seven Samurai

Yojimbo

Ran

Dersu Uzala

Throne of Blood

High and Low

Ikiru

No Regrets of Our Youth

The Hidden Fortress

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