Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

Born: March 23, 1910 Tokyo, Japan

Genres: Samurai, Period Films, Crime Drama, Drama

Academy Awards: One Nomination. Best Director, Ran (1985)

Must-See: High and Low (1963), The Seven Samurai (1954), Rashomon (1950), Ran (1985), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Stray Dog (1949)

Recommended: The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Throne of Blood (1957), Kagemusha (1980)

Kurosawa was born on March 23, 1910 in a Tokyo Suburb. As a young man, he witnessed the devastation of World War Two and subsequently the occupation of Japan by Allied forces. Post-war Japan was profiled in many of the director’s films most notably The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and Stray Dog (1949). In these films, Kurosawa profiles a country struggling to re-emerge from the destruction of their final Imperial period.

His tumultuous youth made Kurosawa a deeply conscious filmmaker. His films often revolved around exposing and combating corruption. Yet, he was never as concerned with discovering motives as he was with punishing those responsible.

Many of Kurosawa’s films involved the theme of social struggle. In High and Low (1963), the main character Kingo Gondo, played by Toshiro Mifune, must decide whether to pay the ransom after his limousine driver’s child is mistaken for his own and kidnapped. Gondo becomes a sympathetic character but it is the motive of the kidnapper that sets up a heart wrenching conclusion where the criminal and the victim meet.

Kurosawa films were quite subtle and always relied on strong acting and moral themes to drive his films. The Seven Samurai (1954) is about an old Samurai master who recruits a group of Samurai to protect a small village from raids during a civil war in Medieval Japan. The main message of the Seven Samurai is that everyone has social responsibility. Like many of his films, The Seven Samurai frequently has an undertone of humour to balance moments of high tension.

Kurosawa was also highly influenced by Western culture. The Bad Sleep Well is loosely based on Hamlet. Throne of Blood is based on MacBeth and most notably Ran (1985) is based on the King Lear. Ran is perhaps his most personal film. Kurosawa was 75 when he made Ran and remains one of his greatest triumphs. The emotionality in the conclusion of Ran between the old Warlord (Representing King Lear) and his banished son (Standing in for Cordelia) is one of his most heartfelt creations.

Akira Kurosawa is best known as the master of the Samurai film. His films were heavily influenced by Hollywood Westerns. Yojimbo (1961), for example adopts the feel and ambience of films like High Noon.  In turn, his own moves were remade in Hollywood. The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a remake of the Seven Samurai (1954). But most notably, Yojimbo and Sanjuro (1962) heavily influenced Sergio Leone in his Man With No Name Trilogy.

His influence in cinema goes beyond Westerns. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point (2008) borrow its scenario from Rashomon (1950). Rashomon tells the story of a heinous crime against a couple told through four different perspectives. Lastly, in Star Wars, the characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO are based on characters from The Hidden Fortress (1958).


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