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If there was a Mount Rushmore of cinema, the face of Akira Kurosawa would almost certainly be on it. 

To Federico Fellini, Kurosawa was “the greatest living example of what an author of the cinema should be.” Actor-director Clint Eastwood calls Kurosawa “the guy I really idolized when I was young. I had always hoped to work with him.” To Martin Scorsese, Kurosawa’s “influence on filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable.” Steven Spielberg called him “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time,” and acknowledged that “I have learned more from (Kurosawa) than from almost any filmmaker on the face of the earth.”

Even those who may not have seen Kurosawa’s films probably know him second-hand through such American remakes as The Magnificent Seven, and even more so by way of Star Wars, the George Lucas space epic that lifted its plot from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and its cantina scene from Yojimbo. Lucas, who was also influenced by Kurosawa’s visual style, was introduced to Kurosawa’s work in film school where a student film society screening of The Seven Samurai opened his eyes to the Japanese director’s brilliance. “I went and saw it, and it basically changed my life.”

Kurosawa’s life was also changed by the movies. As he later said, if you subtracted movies from his life, “the result is zero. . . I am my films - nothing more, nothing less.”

He was born in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 1910, the son of an ex-army officer from a samurai background whom he later described as “quite severe.” At school, a teacher encouraged him to paint, and the skills he acquired served him well when he turned from creating pictures on canvas to capturing images on film. “I tried to add my sensitivity as a painter to what I hoped was my increasing know-how as a filmmaker.”

Movies entered his life through his brother Heigo who took him along to his job as a narrator of silent films. “We would go to the movies, particularly silent movies,” he recalled in his memoirs, “and then discuss them all day.” It was Abel Gance’s film, La Roue, that he remembered as the first movie “that really influenced me and made me think of wanting to become a filmmaker.”

In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo and Yokohama, and killed 123,000 people. Years later, Kurosawa remembered how his brother “forced me to spend a day wandering through Tokyo.” When Kurosawa closed his eyes rather than look upon the dead around him, his brother scolded him. “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” It’s a lesson that would stick with him as a filmmaker. “Being an artist,” he said, “means not having to avert one’s eyes.”

After studying art at the Doshusha School of Western Painting, Kurosawa found he was unable to support himself as a serious artist, and turned to commercial work that left him unsatisfied and financially strapped. He saw an ad in a newspaper seeking assistant film directors at the film studio of Photo Chemical Laboratories, later renamed the Toho Film Production Company. The application process required the writing of an essay about “The Basic Defects of the Japanese Film Industry.” Kurosawa’s essay impressed the right people, and, at age 23, he began work under the tutelage of Kajiro Yamamoto, Japan’s most successful film director.

Kurosawa was Yamamoto’s star pupil, and the apprentice was eager to show what he could do as the commander on a film set. In 1942, he got the opportunity with Sanshiro Sugata. The film, about the rivalry between judo and jujitsu, demonstrated how quickly Kurosawa found his style. Like many of the films to come, it was notable for the bold camera moves, forceful editing, wipes to move from one scene to the next, and the use of harsh weather to symbolize conflict, most evident here in the climactic battle staged against the backdrop of a raging windstorm. 

His next film was pure war propaganda. 1944's The Most Beautiful attempted to boost morale with its depiction of a girl working in a lens factory who is drafted into helping the war effort.

For many film buffs, actor Toshiro Mifune is to Kurosawa what John Wayne was to Kurosawa’s idol, John Ford. Mifune’s first film with Kurosawa was as a gangster challenging a yakuza boss in 1948's Drunken Angel. Watching Mifune film a screen test, Kurosawa saw the actor “reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed.” What really impressed the director was “the speed with which (Mifune) expressed himself. . . The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needed only three feet.” Kurosawa next cast Mifune as a guilt-ridden detective in 1949's Stray Dog.

It was 1951's Rashomon that first brought Kurosawa international attention. Winning both the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film, it was a dark tale of rape and murder in 18th century Japan. Kurosawa wasn’t always aware of what he was trying to say in a film (“If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be having to make the film. If I could just say it, there wouldn’t be any need to show it.”), and in Rashomon we get four contradictory views of events from a bandit, a nobleman, a ghost, and a woodcutter. The fact that there is no resolution, no final word on what happened, mystified some viewers, and even many members of the film’s crew, including the assistant directors. Kurosawa advised them to read the script again. When they remained baffled, Kurosawa explained to them that “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. . . The film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand.

It was never Kurosawa’s goal to be obscure. As he once said, “A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand. There’s nothing complicated about it.”

Although choosing one Kurosawa film as his masterwork would lead to intense debate among his admirers, The Seven Samurai is probably cited more often than any other title as an example of Kurosawa at this prime. Released in Japan in 1954 and two years later in the U.S., the violent story follows a group of samurai who agree to protect some farmers from bandits intent on stealing their crops. The first of Kurosawa’s samurai films, it was named to Sight and Sound’s list of the 10 greatest films ever made in 1982, and ranked in first place on the U.K. Empire magazine list of “The 100 Best Films of World Cinema” in 2010. Its reputation was only enhanced by the 1960 American remake, The Magnificent Seven (the title by which Kurosawa’s film was originally known in the U.S.), notable for turning the samurai heroes into gunfighters played by such stars-to-be as Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. It is even believed to have inspired such films as The Guns of Navarone and Oceans Eleven in which a crack team of experts is recruited for a dangerous mission.

Unlike many action films now regarded as classics, The Seven Samurai was not unsung at the time of its release. While praising it as “a solid, naturalistic, he-man outdoor action film,” Bosley Crowther in The New York Times also noted that “Kurosawa has plastered a wealth of rich detail, which brilliantly illuminates his characters and the kind of action in which they are involved. He has loaded his film with unusual and exciting physical incidents and made the whole thing graphic in a hard, realistic western style.”

To John Milius, the screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and director of the first Conan the Barbarian  movie in 1982, said The Seven Samurai is “the best film ever made.” Sam Peckinpah cited the film and Kurosawa’s work in general as a major influence on his films, including his 1969 classic, The Wild Bunch. As Roger Ebert said, “It could be argued that this greatest of directors gave employment to action heroes for the next fifty years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.” George Lucas may have said it best: “I mean it’s a brilliant, brilliant film, and every time I see it I can’t believe the magic mixture of a great story and great acting and humor and action and suspense - wonderful cinema. The art of moving pictures is on every frame of this movie.”

With Throne of Blood, Kurosawa tackled Shakespeare’s Macbeth, setting the story in 16th century Japan with Toshiro Mifune in the lead. “No doubt about it now,” raved Time magazine, “Japan’s Akira Kurosawa must be numbered with Sergei Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith among the supreme creators of cinema.” It was, in the periodical’s view, “the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures.”

The Lower Depths was generally regarded as a comparatively minor work but with “a hissing demonic energy” (Time) and “a powerful unification of compositional and emotional indices” (The New York Times).

Although George Lucas openly expresses his indebtedness to Kurosawa, he maintains that 1958's The Hidden Fortress was not as much of an influence on Star Wars as many fans believe. “The truth is, the only thing I was inspired by was the fact that it’s told from the point of view of two peasants, who get mixed up with a samurai and princess and a lot of very high-level people,” he told the U.K. Telegraph. “I said that is a great device, and that’s how I ended up with R2-D2 and C-3P0.” Some critics at the time thought the film showed the influence of Hollywood on Japan’s master filmmaker, with The New York Times stating that Kurosawa “was not above pulling a little wool over his audiences’ eyes - a little stooping to Hollywoodisms - in order to make a lively film.”

Of Yojimbo, Time promised that “anybody who sees this picture will be shaken by it. Rage like a gale, action like an avalanche roar out of the screen, leveling all resistance.” Here Kurosawa gives us a lone avenger, a samurai who happens upon a town ruled by corrupt forces and concludes that it would be “better if all these men were dead.” Toshiro Mifune played the strong, silent hero, and created a prototype that would serve Clint Eastwood well when he played the same role, with a gun instead of a sword, in 1964's Fistful of Dollars, another westernized version of a Kurosawa film, though this time by way of Italy’s Sergio Leone. “Fistful of Dollars,” Kurosawa wrote in a letter to Leone, “is a very fine film, but it’s my film.” The lawsuit that followed kept the film out of U.S. theaters until 1967 when it transformed Eastwood from TV actor to international movie star. Although Leone’s film is a classic in its own right, its quality only reinforces the impact and brilliance of the original.  In Roger Ebert’s view, a Western remake of Kurosawa’s most popular film in Japan, was almost a given since the director was “deliberately combining the samurai story with the Western, so that the wind-swept main street could be in any frontier town, the samurai could be a gunslinger, and the local characters could have been lifted from John Ford’s gallery of supporting actors.” The influence of Yojimbo did not stop with a spaghetti Western. As critic James Berardinelli states, “ without Yojimbo, certain key aspects of Western cinema would not be the same today.”

Sanjuro, like Yojimbo, was rightly praised for its action sequences, but Kurosawa knew that action alone did not make for a memorable film. “No matter how well thought-out your fight scenes, that alone doesn’t make a film entertaining. Making Sanjuro an interesting character - that’s the most important thing.”

“Originally, this was a story by Shugoro Yamamoto. I changed it around and finished the script before doing Yojimbo. In my first version, the hero was not very good with the sword but was smart enough - he fought with his head. After Yojimbo was such a success, however, our company decided to make something like it, and so this not-so-strong samurai became the hero, Sanjuro. I rewrote the script and was going to give it to Hiromuchi Horikawa to direct but, again, the company decided that I’d better do it. So I wrote it over yet again. And each time, Sanjuro was getting more athletic, better with the sword. Eventually, we used only a third of the original script and included lots of action not in the original.”

To critic Michael Sragow, Sanjoro is “the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many lighthearted younger siblings, it’s underrated.” At the time of its initial release, Stanley Kaufmann of The New York Herald-Tribune had to wonder “how the people who could make a film so superbly could be content to make one so shallow.”

Kurosawa moved away from period pieces for his next film, High and Low, based on an  novel, King’s Ransom, by an American author, Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) for whom it was a title in his popular 87th Precinct series. “I wanted to make the film because I’d read that book,” Kurosawa said. What intrigued him was the “idea that blackmail is possible regardless of who’s kidnaped. That was a brilliant concept, so I borrowed that concept alone.” In the story, a businessman’s son is the target of a kidnaping attempt, but the culprit’s mistakenly take the son of his chauffeur instead.

For the first time, Kurosawa used stereophonic sound for the soundtrack. “The way Kurosawa used widescreen always impressed me,” Martin Scorsese said. “No space is wasted. This is especially true in High and Low.”

In one sequence, Kurosawa filmed on a moving express train which required the use of nine cameras. “I figured that that is the minimum to get what I want.” The use of multiple cameras was another Kurosawa trademark. While most filmmakers shoot a master shot, then shoot the same scene, including close-ups, from different angles and piece it all together in the editing room, Kurosawa sought a more seamless method. “I put the A camera in the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerrilla unit.”

Known for being involved in every aspect of his productions, Kurosawa storyboarded his films from full-scale paintings he created himself, and remained involved right through to the editing which he acknowledged was a process that could make all the difference in a film’s quality. He noted, however, that “if the script is no good, then it doesn’t matter how well you shoot or edit. With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script, even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water.”

He also believed in rehearsal. “Rehearsals take time and everything, but in the end they take less time than any other method of working.”

“Stylistically,” critic Richard Schickel wrote, “Kurosawa is without peer. . . He holds scenes, without cutting, for minutes on end, forcing the eye to choose its own emphasis. His use of telephoto lenses to foreshorten perspective is so expert that it is often unnoticeable.”

A prophet, as they say, is without honor in his own land, and the Japanese have often been critical of Kurosawa, believing his films are too “westernized.” This view, along with the decline of the film industry there, may have made Kurosawa consider moving his base of operations, as well as to consider offers from other countries. Runaway Train, for the U.S. based Embassy Pictures, was to be both Kurosawa’s first film in English and in color, but language barriers and an uncompleted script hampered the project which was to go before the cameras in 1966, but was delayed several times before it was cancelled altogether two years later.

Another offer he accepted came from 20th Century Fox which was planning an ambitious epic about the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that commenced World War II. Tora, Tora, Tora would depict the fateful day from both the American and Japanese perspective with David Lean filming the former and Kurosawa taking on the Japanese segments. Disillusionment with the project set in early, as Lean, the prestigious Oscar winning director of Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, was never signed. Journeyman director Richard Fleischer (The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage) was hired instead.  Kurosawa struggled working with an American crew and was devastated to learn his segment, for which he had prepared a four hour script, would be reduced to 90 minutes of screen time. After three weeks, he was fired from the project, which proved to be a bloated bomb when released in the fall of 1970.

By this time, Kurosawa was in despair, and in 1971 he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists 30 times with a razor. By this time, he was having difficulty securing financing for his films, but in 1977 Star Wars was blasting its way into popular culture, on its way to amassing the biggest box-office gross in history. Heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, director George Lucas used his clout with 20th Century Fox, and the studio that had fired Kurosawa from  Tora, Tora, Tora a decade before, agreed to bankroll Kagemusha with Francis Ford Coppola as co-producer.

“One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa,” Coppola said, “is that he didn’t make a masterpiece or two masterpieces, he made, you know, eight masterpieces.” Upon its release in 1980, Kagemusha was hailed as another Kurosawa masterpiece, proving a massive hit in Japan, and a success with both critics and audiences worldwide. It received the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Kurosawa himself would regard 1985's Ran as his best film. Inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, its title means “chaos.”

“A reason I couldn’t shoot this film for so long,” Kurosawa told Gerald Peary, “was that producers complained that the ending was tragic. We are always closing our eyes.” Although Japan failed to even submit it for consideration as a Foreign Language Film nominee at the Academy Awards, Kurosawa received his only nomination as Best Director in a year in which Out of Africa and its director, Sydney Pollock, proved victorious. Kurosawa joined two other legends, Billy Wilder and John Huston, in presenting the Best Picture Oscar that year. Five years later, he was on hand to accept an honorary Oscar from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for “cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world.”

There were several more films to go – Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Madadayo – made with great difficulty since Kurosawa was losing his eyesight. If his physical eye was failing him, he still had the camera. As he once said, “A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” He died at age 88 on September 6, 1998.

For Kurosawa, the master was John Ford whose Westerns had a major impact on him. “Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned much from this grammar of the Western.” But as critic Richard Schickel noted in his obituary for Kurosawa, “Whatever Kurosawa borrowed from the West, he gave back tenfold.”


by Brian W. Fairbanks

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