Filmmakers You Should Know: Akira Kurosawa

by JD Westfall, VW’s Film Connoisseur 

dreamstime_m_53399748If you had to name the single most influential figure on Hollywood films, whom would you name? The people I’ve asked have by far most often mentioned Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. (Yeah, I have weird hobbies.) However, even these two founders of the New Hollywood movement, these inventors of blockbuster, cannot be called the most influential. That honor goes to a long dead Japanese director named Akira Kurosawa, this week’s entry for Filmmakers You Should Know.

Kurosawa’s Two Best Films, according to JD

Seven Samurai (1954)

Possibly the single most important film in the development of American cinema is, curiously enough, heavily rooted in Japanese tradition and culture. Tell me if certain elements of this plot sound familiar to you.

The story begins in 1586 in a small village of very poor farmers. The townspeople have been struggling to make a living due to many problems, the chief of those being a traveling pack of bandits coming through periodically to steal their food and cause terror in the small town. Fed up and having nothing left to do, some of these villagers travel to the nearest city, seeking ronin to protect them (ronin here meaning a samurai without a master, who is left wandering and seeking employment). Despite having no money and little food to offer these samurai, they eventually find seven who are willing to join them and help in their cause.

You may know this same story as The Magnificent Seven or Battle Beyond the Stars or A Bug’s Life or The A Team or Justice League or the remake of The Magnificent Seven or you get the picture.

Clearly this film influenced the plot creation of several other films, but it also influenced Hollywood in other, more important ways. For one, this is one of the earliest films to depict a realistic, non-glamorous type of action. The seven titular samurai aren’t clear-cut good guys. Each one has a set of flaws that make it hard for others to get on with him, and some make pointless mistakes that cost lives.

When the climactic hour-long battle sequence finally hits, we have no exhilarating shots of prolonged sword duels on mountaintops or such spectacles that had been prevalent in classic Hollywood. Rather, we get rain and mud. The heroes and villains alike slip and fall, cut themselves, miss shots and opportunities, and a good number of the main characters get killed in distinctly un-heroic ways. Few films since have managed to capture the unique blend of monotony and fear in battle as Seven Samurai.

On top of this, the film offers prototypes for nearly all Hollywood’s leading characters in one room. The old mentor? The brash young rebel? The chubby comic relief? The strong silent type? The brains of the operation? All present, and each one being introduced for the first time in world cinema. Thankfully, since these portrayals are fresh in this film, they lack the tired and worn-out feel of these same character types that we see in many present films.

But lets pull away from Kurosawa’s action spectacles and move to more subdued fare.

Ikiru (1952)

In an earlier entry of this series (centering on Spanish surrealist master Luis Buñuel) I had identified The Exterminating Angel as “one of the seven films in constant contention to be my favorite movie of all time.” This is another of those.

Have you ever read the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible? Even if you’ve never had time to sit and read the whole Bible from cover to cover, I encourage you to take a look at least at that book. In it, the author is looking through everything he’s done and acquired in life and realizing not a single thing of the whole lot has ever made him happy. By the end, he comes to a conclusion that he believes will finally give his life meaning.

While not being a direct adaptation of this book, Ikiru tackles exactly the same themes. In it we see a bureaucrat who’s lived out his whole life at the same job, never missing a day of work in 30 years, saving every penny, until finally just before retirement he learns he has stomach cancer and has only a few months left to live. Struck with this news, he reevaluates his life and realizes he hasn’t actually accomplished anything of worth throughout his entire existence. The money he’s saved is now meaningless and all those days of faithfully showing up to work have carried no benefit. Motivated by this, he determines to find at least one thing of value to do before he dies.

Featuring heavy themes of life, death and the purpose of living (I loves me some existentialism), this film isn’t exactly a laugh riot, but will absolutely keep you engaged during the viewing and will offer some serious food for thought when it’s over.

Be warned: It may motivate you to quit your job and begin a life of aimless globetrotting. I speak from experience.

Further Recommendations

Rashomon (1950)

Now we tackle the film that is often called Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, and which is credited with first bringing Japan into the world cinema scene. Like Seven Samurai, the story has been remade and ripped off to death, but none can hold a candle to the original. In Rashomon, a court case is being held. The facts are meager. Two men passed through the woods. One died. The other left. Seeking details, the court calls forth four witnesses: the survivor himself, the deceased man’s wife, a passerby who witnessed the event, and also the deceased man (through the aid of a highly unreliable medium). Each person’s tale varies wildly in the details, with each consecutive story giving further information.

Not only is the storytelling unique and highly influential, the cinematography is stunning. Water and light are used in symbolic ways. Despite the film being black and white, the rain stands out as they created it by mixing water with black dye to give it an eerie look with high contrast.

Ran (1985)

I love Shakespeare, and I love films, so I naturally love Shakespeare films. Usually I prefer them when they use the original dialogue, since Shakespeare’s way with words was his defining quality. In spite of all this though, my single favorite Shakespeare film of all is one that doesn’t use even a word of the original script.

Between the release of Rashomon in 1950 and the year 1985, lots had changed for Akira Kurosawa. He had become the most successful director in his home country and was beloved by cinephiles around the world. Due to this, he could command insanely high budgets and acquire the best filmmaking technology available. He put all these to excellent use in 1985’s Ran, which adapted the play King Lear, changing the setting to medieval Japan and changing the titular king’s daughters into men (a move which I don’t believe has offended any feminists whatsoever since, let’s face it, Regan and Goneril were scumbags).

In stark contrast to Rashomon, Ran is filmed in vibrant color and with the most epic scope ever seen in Japan up to that time. The picture quality, sound quality and set quality were all the highest available at that point. Combine this with one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, and you’ve got a classic for the ages.

High and Low (1963)

Moving away once more from Kurosawa’s samurai films (of which there are a lot), we now focus on his attempt at a modern day police procedural – with a twist.

In a kidnapping plot, what would you expect? Person gets kidnapped, police get called, parents tearfully promise to pay anything to get child back, police slowly investigate, perpetrator is caught. That’s how High and Low begins, until a surprising plot twist early on.

The kidnappers got the wrong child. Rather than getting the child of the multimillionaire they were gunning for, they accidentally nab the son of the multimillionaire’s chauffeur. This gives the film an unexpected and wholly original dynamic. Now that his son is safe, how much will the multimillionaire be willing to spend on the ransom of someone else’s child? Once this happens, the police procedural angle gets pushed to the background as the relationship between employer and employee becomes the focus.

If you’re sick to death of the unending stream of cop shows inundating our televisions, give High and Low a go and see the familiar concept handled by a filmmaker known for not just pushing boundaries, but demolishing them and replacing them with something better.

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