I started introducing myself to the films of Akira Kurosawa in middle school, when I happened upon a chance to see his much-acclaimed 1950 motion picture Rashomon: a film which is credited alongside Teinosuke Kinugasa’s excellent Gate of Hell (1953) for creating western interest in Japanese cinema. In the years before this prefatory screening, I’d read a good deal about the film’s director, namely his reputation as one of the major film artists of the 20th century; so personal expectations for my first Kurosawa film were extremely high. And, as you can imagine—or maybe even relate—I was absolutely delighted when those soaring expectations of mine were quickly met and surpassed by eighty-eight minutes of crisp, poetic storytelling. I promptly labeled the film a masterpiece (a statement I stand by to this day) and kept my eyes open for other pictures by this remarkably gifted director.
Between that first screening of Rashomon and a little over a month ago, I jumped at every opportunity to see a Kurosawa film, and now I can happily proclaim that I have seen—and own—all thirty of his feature-length productions. To address the rhetorical question, I most certainly agree with the prevailing opinion that this Japanese filmmaker was one of the towering geniuses of his profession; so many of his films, such as Seven Samurai (1954) and High and Low (1963), not only capture and maintain my interest but leave me flooded with that wonderful and uplifting sensation that only the experience of seeing a truly great film can provide. Now, was every Kurosawa film on the level of a groundbreaking masterpiece? No. Did the man direct any duds in his time? A few, yes. But I would argue the vast majority of Kurosawa’s films ranged between very good and excellent, with heavy emphasis on the latter. The man was a genuine visionary, and I have no shame in calling him one of my favorite directors.
And since his entire career is so fresh in my mind at the moment, I feel now would be as good enough a time as any to do an analytical retrospective. In the course of this article, I’ll be articulating the style and subject matter of Kurosawa’s films and hopefully provide some insight as to why they have meant so much to me over the years.
The Visual Virtuoso
In starting off this essay, I would like to draw some attention to an interesting—even revealing—bit of trivia about the director under discussion: before he entered the film making industry, Kurosawa trained to be a painter. Why do I make mention of this, and what relevance does it have to the man’s eventual long-term career?
First: due to the nature of the mediums, it is practically impossible to discuss either a filmmaker or a painter without drawing at least some level of attention to their visual style. Films may make use of other mediums such as music and of course a good screenplay is a must-have, but predominately, a director is defined by what he does with his camera.
Second: Kurosawa’s method of composing shots vividly reflects his background as a painter; his shots are very much like paintings given mobile life. (And, in a sense, they are: when story boarding, Kurosawa preferred to create full-fledged paintings as opposed to sketches.) When studying a Kurosawa shot, one can see a deep interest in maintaining visual interest within multiple dimensions: the foreground, the background, the physical features of the set, and so on.
Hundreds of shots could be offered as examples, but let’s just consider a handful of images photographed at different points in the man’s career.
This still shot, taken from the opening of Kagemusha (1980), could pass for a painting. There is very little in terms of physical action: three seemingly identical men are seated; two of them are scrutinizing the other; the third man, swelling with aggravation, refuses to meet their gaze; the man in the center is situated on a podium and beneath an emblem, indicating his status. Also note the symbolism. The man in the middle is a warlord and has three shadows, so to speak: his own, projected on the wall, and the two lookalikes around him. Even with the absence of dialogue, there is enough visual information in this shot to give the audience an idea of what is happening, the subtext is rich, and the vibrant use of color makes it simply enamoring to look at.
In this shot, from the underrated The Quiet Duel, produced by Daiei in 1949, we see the director utilizing movement in both the foreground and the background for heightened tension. The surgeon and his assistants are busily moving in the background as they attempt to save the life of a wounded soldier; and in the foreground, there is a ceaseless downpour of rain which not only keeps the frame lively but also adds to the somber nature of the scene. The environment (remember what I said earlier about Kurosawa employing interest in various dimensions of a single composition?) adds to the emotions the characters are going through.
Here’s another instance—this one from that great masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954)—where Kurosawa invigorates a shot in which not much physical activity seems to be occurring. Notice the dirt visibly stirred up by the wind. But like the warlord’s shadow in the Kagemusha shot from earlier, the plumes of dirt are not merely something interesting to look at; it fits thematically with what is happening in the story. The characters are mourning for the death of one of the eponymous samurai, who lost his life not to a sword, not to an arrow, not to a spear—not to any kind of weapon samurai are accustomed to dealing with—but to a musket. A firearm. A new breed of weapon gradually replacing the old. Like the plumes of dirt blowing across the hill, the samurai and his ways have been swept away by the proverbial winds of time.
Kurosawa possessed an instinct for creating great images, but if I were to salute another, perhaps more domineering reason why I adore his style, it would be this: he invites me into the creative process of visual storytelling. In making this point, I would like to go back to the beginning. The literal beginning: the very first shot in his debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943). As the film opens, the camera is pointed into the heavens, a few rooftops just barely visible toward the bottom of the composition; the camera starts tracking forward, tilting down as it goes, those buildings rising higher into view, and suddenly we’re in the midst of a small 19th century community. A short while later, the camera turns left into an alleyway. Up ahead is a cluster of chattering women. Then, at the sound of an off-screen voice, the women turn toward us. (The shot ends with the camera still in motion.) But the fourth wall has not been broken; for at that moment, Kurosawa cuts to a reverse angle, revealing that the long opening shot was, in fact, the point of view of our wandering protagonist. (To cement this impression, Kurosawa begins the second shot with the character taking a few final steps forward.) It’s the very beginning of the film, and already the director has invited the viewer into sharing his creative process.
Kurosawa edited his own films, and sometimes a sequence can be identified as his by its editing style. His habit of shooting with multiple cameras allowed him to capture every essential detail and action—no matter the size or placement within the set—in numerous shots and strip them together in a stimulating manner. In keeping the sense of relation from one composition to the next, Kurosawa would oftentimes cut on a physical action. So if a character starts running in one shot, the cut occurs mid-stride and we see the movement finish at the beginning of the next shot. (Cutting on motion may be the only major visual technique Kurosawa shared with Yasujiro Ozu.)
Kurosawa is frequently credited with popularizing the “wipe” transition, which he utilized constantly in his black-and-white career and, for reasons unknown to me, seemed to abandon by the time he started shooting in color. Much could be theorized (and undoubtedly has been) about why Kurosawa used the wipe so much, but one thing is for certain: the effect does kept the pace going while simultaneously moving from scene to scene in a unique manner. Though he often used it to shift between scenes and settings, Kurosawa would sometimes use the wipe to divide up individual sequences and the result could be even humorous. (A scene in Ikiru (1952), where a group of women unsuccessfully try to appeal to a slew of bureaucrats—the wipe serving as transition from one unenthusiastic or mawkish face to the next—springs to mind.)
When it comes to dramatic moments, a good many directors like to have their camera zoom or track in upon a subject; and indeed, Kurosawa was no stranger to this himself—he made especially good use of forward motion in the musical climax of his second postwar film One Wonderful Sunday (1947) where the camera dashed in upon actress Chieko Nakakita in correlation to Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
However, even though he made use of this more familiar method, Kurosawa generally preferred to heighten a dramatic moment not with physical camera movement—but rather, movement enacted by editing. This was accomplished with axial cuts: stationary shots divided by jump cuts with each edit placing the camera closer to the subject. In Sanshiro Sugata (1943), our hero kills an opponent in a match, and Kurosawa uses the axial cut to emphasize the reaction of a woman in the audience (the defeated man’s daughter). The shock of seeing her father slain and the thirst for revenge swelling in her eyes remains the same for her but feels more and more impactful for the audience each time the camera cuts a few meters forward. While a tracking shot would’ve been efficient, Kurosawa’s axial cuts convey all feelings needed and present the scene in a distinctive way. This sequence can be seen to the right.
Another technique in editing is deciding when to let a scene or a significant part of a scene run on in a single shot. Sometimes Kurosawa’s one-shots moved around: forming different kinds of compositions, finding new angles to explore without making any actual cuts in the film. But in other instances, the camera would remain completely stationary for long, long stretches of time.
Compare these two frames from the 1944 film The Most Beautiful and Ikiru (1952). In terms of composition and subject matter, they are very much alike: the camera is completely stationary and situated extremely close to a single character, and both shots focus upon a sad and lonely person struggling to hold back their tears in the wake of a devastating realization. The two shots are also similar in that they continue for a long time and allow the emotional power to resonate from the performance. (An irony: in both films, the character who receives this long unbroken close-up is named Watanabe.)
Connecting Images to Themes and Emotions
When analyzing those previously cited shots from Kagemusha (1980) and Seven Samurai (1954), I found myself inevitably describing examples of Kurosawa’s visual symbolism: compositions that are fun to look at and fun to think about in terms of what they mean. Here are a few more examples. After the final battle in Seven Samurai, that sword-decorated burial mound from earlier is joined by three others; and, just like before, wind lashes at the terrain, stirring dirt into the air as a symbol for the changing times. The screenplay provides some to-the-point dialogue (one of the surviving ronin proclaims that the villagers are the true victors and the samurai, even those left alive, have suffered defeat) and lets the emotion and the theme resonate from the images.
In a scene from No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), a young salary man moonlighting as a political activist enunciates a long speech about the dangers of leading a double life; as he goes into his monologue, he gradually steps out of the shot and positions himself so that his shadow (a symbol for his double life) is blatantly cast on the wall.
Two films later in Kurosawa’s career. One of the most frequently visited images in Drunken Angel (1948) is that of a pollutant-infested sump in a postwar suburb. The sump has real-life relevance, but artistically, Kurosawa is using it to represent the physical and moral decline of the individual (or many individuals). At one point, a tubercular yakuza (Toshiro Mifune—his first role in a Kurosawa film) stands next to the swamp-like water, fully aware that if he continues to embellish in his current lifestyle (drinking, smoking, visiting the brothels—side-effects of his involvement in organized crime), he will only push himself into an early grave. As he contemplates his own mortality, he holds a flower: a symbol for a chance at a new life. A little later, in one of the most saddening scenes in the film, the yakuza tosses the flower—and what it represents—into the sump. Kurosawa had once before used a flower for symbolizing rebirth, except in the case of Sanshiro Sugata (1943), the character made a wiser choice. A reckless judo student, chastised for using his strength and training as a means of bullying people, throws himself into a pond and remains there until nightfall. The moment of him discovering his humility occurs when he watches a lotus flower bloom in the glow of the full moon. The student, calling for his instructor, scrambles out of the water—a new man.
And while we’re on visual metaphors, we might as well address Kurosawa’s frequent use of weather and elements of the set for heightening an emotion. Here are just a few.And how about this scene from Ikiru (1952)? Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat dying of gastric cancer, and Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), a lower-class woman employed in a toy factory, are seated on a balcony opposite some upper-class twenty-somethings; the latter are preparing a birthday party for a friend who has not yet arrived. Note the differences in attire—part of what distinguishes class—between Toyo and the people on the other side. (Their being situated on opposite balconies further emphasizes their different places in society.) This is fascinating and relevant material, but it’s not the primary drama of the scene. The mortally ill Watanabe is desperate to live—to accomplish something meaningful and enduring before his early demise. He’s been captivated by Toyo’s vigorous love for life and wants to learn to be like her—to live like her—if only once. Toyo shows him a toy rabbit she made at her job; Watanabe becomes filled with inspiration; he takes the small toy in his hands and hustles off. Then comes the scene’s highlight and some of the most emotional material I’ve ever seen, from any director. Watanabe starts rushing down the stairs just as the upper-class kids rush to the balcony edge and start singing, “Happy birthday to you!” Kurosawa holds his camera in place long enough for Watanabe, gleaming with ambition, to step out of frame and the song’s true dedicatee (the just-arriving friend) to enter view and run up the stairs. Of course, the plot’s excuse is that the kids are singing for their friend, but we the audience know that, metaphorically, the song represents Watanabe’s rebirth—his chance at a new life. After nearly an hour and a half of watching our protagonist moping over his oncoming death and lack of past accomplishment, seeing the same man suddenly inspired is truly uplifting. But Kurosawa hasn’t forgotten about Toyo. He returns to a shot with the young lower-class woman in the foreground and the celebrating kids in the background: reminding us of their separate social statuses one more time before the fade to black. Brilliantly emotional material, rich with symbolism, handled with flawless execution.
Sanshiro Sugata (1943): The final duel takes place in a windstorm. It’s visually striking, but the director’s underlying intent is to represent the confusion and turmoil our characters are going through via the environment.
Seven Samurai (1954): The final battle sequence takes place in a torrential downpour. In scenes previous, several characters have already perished; others have lost friends and family members; the relationship between a father and his daughter has been shattered; and everyone realizes they too just might meet their end in the oncoming fight. The climax of this revolutionary epic is not a giddy, feel-good action extravaganza; it’s rather sad, and Kurosawa’s use of the rain makes it all the more sorrowful.
Rashomon (1950): Much of this moody story, in which characters recall the death of a man and the possible rape of his wife, takes place in a rainstorm. But when the optimistic ending arrives, the clouds (literally) clear, and the sun shines once more.
Awareness of Society and the Human Condition
I could go on and on about visual symbolism, but now I’d like to examine yet another one of Kurosawa’s admirable qualities as an artist: his humanism.
Let’s begin with his cynical outlook on violence. Kurosawa directed a good many violent films in his career, but only on occasion would he present bloodshed in a way that was glorious or giddy. The duel presented at end of Rashomon (1950) features its contestants frantically waving their swords around—mostly in an effort to keep their opponent at bay—fearing death and injury at every second. (This finale is a total opposite of the more honorable depiction of the fight—in which both parties fought bravely and vigorously to the end—presented earlier, from the point of view of its boastful survivor.) The Hidden Fortress (1958), one of the most delightfully entertaining adventure movies I’ve ever seen, functions mostly as a fun—and funny—saga but it also manages to tackle consequences of war such as poverty, not to mention it presents the bondage between respectable leaders and their subjects. And in pictures such as Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), crime leaves a lingering impact on individual characters and later filters out to affect entire societies.
Of course, there were instances where Kurosawa presented bloodshed in a manner that was light and even comical, best exemplified by Yojimbo (1961), in which Toshiro Mifune‘s laconic ronin spends most of the movie slicing up villains without remorse, sometimes murmuring an ironic joke in the wake of a kill. None of the ronin’s opponents are made out to be sympathetic, and the film does little in the way of exposing the consequences of violence. It’s riveting and entertaining, but it doesn’t send the audience out mulling over real life. This lightweight outlook didn’t last too terribly long, though; not even for Mifune’s character. In the sequel, Sanjuro(1962), the ronin comes to lament his ways and becomes overwhelmed with anger whenever he is forced to draw his sword on another man.
The director’s pessimistic outlook on violence points to a question he asked throughout his career: Why must human beings continually kill each other and bring about their own demise year after year, generation after generation? And the older Kurosawa became—the more he asked this question—the more layers he brought to it in his art. Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) feature third-act battle sequences in which charging men armed with swords and spears are cut down in hordes by musket fire. No hand-to-hand combat. New breeds of technology have become the preferred tool of war. Of course, both Kagemusha and Ran are period pieces, but the use of firearms in the context of their stories can be read as a reflection of man’s ongoing persistence in finding even more efficient means of killing each other—something everyone in the world was keenly aware of in the last months of World War II. (How fitting that a Japanese director chose to comment on this.)
In the early chapters of his career, Kurosawa would oftentimes end a sad and tragic story with a glimmer of hope. In Drunken Angel (1948), the tubercular yakuza’s pride ultimately brings about his own undoing; but at the end of the movie, the dead man’s doctor is treating a younger tuberculosis patient (who is showing great signs of recovery) to ice cream in postwar Tokyo. In 1950’s Rashomon, an abandoned baby is discovered inside a temple, and an impoverished woodcutter (who is guilty of not reporting his having witnessed a killing to the authorities as well as taking the dead man’s dagger for profit) offers to adopt the abandoned child. Lesser-known postwar Kurosawa films presented similar attitudes. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946): the middle-class heroine has lost her husband but continues to stand for his cause and helps out her in-laws on their farm. One Wonderful Sunday (1947): a young married couple end up broke but still hold out hope for future success. The Quiet Duel (1949): a doctor sick with syphilis has forced himself to give up his fiancée but refuses to stop serving those in need. In all of these films, the director is willing to hold out hope that, in spite of all that has transpired, good things might be waiting for humankind in the future. (Bear in mind: this era in Kurosawa’s career took place when Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II, when disparity was amok and optimism would’ve been much-needed. Even though Kurosawa originally intended a darker ending for The Quiet Duel, the film’s bittersweet but still fairly positive resolution is another example of the director ending his story with a wish for the best out of humanity.)
Kurosawa didn’t remain so optimistic, though. His three Shakespearian films—Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of Macbeth; The Bad Sleep Well (1960), inspired by Hamlet; and Ran (1985), based in part on King Lear—all end on a downbeat and depressing note. No one comes out of these stories satisfied, except sometimes the villains, and the films’ protagonists, such as they are, meet undignified ends. Ran is perhaps the defining example. The majority of the characters in this 2 hour 42 minute samurai epic have dark shades to them, but there are two youthful characters (a blinded heir to a kingdom and his devotedly religious sister) clearly representing glimmers of humanity in a dark and sinister world. And, unexpectedly, at the end, the sister is beheaded and her sibling left to stand on a precipice. Had this film been made in the late 40s or early 50s, I feel Kurosawa might have permitted these two characters at least a hopeful ending. I don’t claim to know why he chose to sacrifice them as well, but if I were to venture a guess, it would be that Kurosawa, whose life was filled with plenty of hardships (including a suicide attempt), came to the belief that to truly resonate a message of man’s dark side was to tell a story in which no one, not even the innocent, comes out with a happy ending. The only character to achieve any real success is Lade Kaede (Mieko Harada). At the end of the film, this cold and calculating femme fatale dies comforted in the knowledge that the castle of the man who murdered her family will be soon burned to the ground.
Kurosawa wasn’t ignorant to the problems of society as a whole, either. Consider the ending of Ikiru (1952). Watanabe has succumbed to his cancer after spurring a movement to convert a cesspool into a playground for children (and thus achieving something important in his life). But credit for Watanabe’s accomplishment has been taken by a deputy mayor, and despite a (drunken) vow to follow their dead section chief’s example, his subordinates return to the same monotonous, anti-accomplishment work they’d been performing beforehand; even the most passionate of the group is too overwhelmed to do anything about it. Ikiru is an uplifting story, but at the same time, it’s not a total fairy tale with eyes closed to the imperfections of society. Another example: the 1963 masterpiece High and Low. In that film, a wealthy businessman is forced to give up his fortune to save the life of another man’s child; for his personal sacrifice, he is subsequently supported with open arms by the general public; but just when things seem to get better—when the kidnapper is taken into custody—we are reminded that if it wasn’t for social separation—and poverty—the kidnapper might’ve never become who he is, and none of these tragedies would’ve occurred. In that extraordinary film, which is one of the best film-noirs I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa showed us both sides of the coin.
Despite being a Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa only explicitly dealt with the atom bomb on a handful of occasions: namely I Live in Fear (1955), Dreams (1990), and Rhapsody in August (1991). The first dealt with the paranoia of the nuclear arms race; the second created a horrific fantasy of what might happen if man continues to mess around with nuclear technology; the third examined how different generations reflected on the bombing of Hiroshima decades later. All three are appreciative in the sense that they don’t take mindless jabs at Japan’s wartime opponents.
In fact, ignoring the atrocious Sanshiro Sugata: Part II (1945), which contained a ‘highlight’ (meaning it merely stood out) of a judo student defeating a brutish American boxer in a match, Kurosawa generally refused to take swipes at the western world. Sometimes he would be critical of western advances (such as the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union—the patriarch in I Live in Fear is driven to anxiety-induced madness over the possibility of nuclear war erupting and the devastation eventually reaching Japan) but rarely would he paint foreigners with broad strokes. And obviously he bore the western world few grudges: he spent over a year making Dersu Uzala (1975) in and for Russia; he directed Richard Gere in Rhapsody in August (1991); and he cast Martin Scorsese in the role of Vincent Van Gogh for Dreams (1990).
Also, consider the political restraint of his second film, The Most Beautiful (1944). This picture, a propaganda piece he was coerced to make by the studio after funding for a fighter pilot story fell through, tells the tale of workers in a war factory. Wartime propaganda, by its nature, presents an opportunity for mocking or dehumanizing another nation. But, save for a single scene of the characters giving a morning pledge (in which they vow to do their part in helping destroy America and Great Britain), the propaganda focuses on boosting morale, not pointing fingers at the enemy. In a key scene, the heroine played by Yoko Yaguchi (whom Kurosawa married in real life) returns to work after-hours in search of a faulty rifle lens. But as the character clarifies, her concern—the reason why she insists on slaving away through all hours of the night—is not over the possibility that Japan’s kill count might go down a few notches; she’s distressed that, due to her mistake, one of her own countrymen might lose his life in combat. There’s a nice touch of humanism here. (And to answer an oncoming question: yes, I’m one of precious few individuals on this planet who defends The Most Beautiful as a decent little movie.)
And in No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Kurosawa spends 110 minutes articulating and criticizing Japan’s political mentality leading into World War II. In particular, he’s looking down on the Japanese government’s former habit of silencing anyone who spoke out against the wartime effort. The characters aren’t afraid of the western world; they’re opposing the condemnation of academic freedom. In the course of this film, not once is Hiroshima and Nagasaki mentioned or shown. For the director is not discussing what other countries did to Japan during the war; he’s pointing out something Japan did to itself. And, unique for Kurosawa, it is a female protagonist who reflects on this poignant, overlooked subject.
Women in Kurosawa Films
While we’re on the subject of women in Kurosawa films, I would like to address a topic in which I must strongly—and vigorously—disagree with a popular critical consensus. The consensus being that Kurosawa was indifferent and borderline-misogynistic when it came to women in his films. Granted: the stories he told were predominately male-driven sagas. (Masters and apprentices was a favorite topic of his.) And there were some truly unsympathetic female characters in his films such as the wife in Rashomon (1950) and, for that matter, all three of Isuzu Yamada’s collaborations with Kurosawa. But I would still argue that, in total, Kurosawa gave women more attention and empathy than some critics like to admit. The earlier mentioned No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) stars Setsuko Hara, one of the greatest actresses in the history of Japanese cinema, as a young middle-class woman caught between two suitors and their opposing political viewpoints: the one who stands for freedom of speech and the one who conforms to the system in favor of personal security. By using a love triangle—with a strong female character at the center—Kurosawa could represent Japan’s divided pre-war attitude and ultimately, via the heroine’s decision, stand for the ideology he personally supported. A woman embodies the theme of the story, and the film is, in my sincere opinion, the first truly special motion picture Kurosawa made.
For the second and unfortunately final time Hara acted under Kurosawa’s direction, the renowned actress was cast completely against type. In The Idiot(1951), Hara, who is well-known to this day for playing charming characters and who was absolutely adorable in No Regrets for Our Youth, took on the role of a misanthropic and hateful mistress. A person who, in the course of her life, had been handed from man to man, traded like a piece of furniture, who never had a real friend, who grew up believing the world to be a dark and unforgiving place devoid of human kindness. Dressed entirely in black and rarely showing off that heart-warming smile of hers, Hara is almost unrecognizable in this film and looks rather sinister. But the character is not evil incarnate. Rather, she’s a product of her environment. (Like Lady Kaede inRan, she didn’t ask to be turned into what she is.) We hear tremendous detail of her disdain and distrust for the world and the people in it. And yet, Hara’s character is not incapable of showing her human side. Look at the film’s ‘birthday party’ scene. Having finally met someone who doesn’t hold her past against her, who regards her as a lovely individual tarnished by a cruel world, the character breaks down in tears, crying out her thankfulness for finally being accepted. Hara’s character may be bizarre, but she’s still sympathetic from a certain point of view.
Other instances of appealing female characters in Kurosawa films: the wife in One Wonderful Sunday (1947) exhibits optimism while her husband prefers to sulk around; Lady Sué in Ran (1985) presents faith and purity in a dark and sinister world; the fiancée in The Quiet Duel (1949) is forced to give up the love of her life in favor of what her family—and society, again—demands of her; the female clinic workers come to accept and protect a prostitute-turned-nurse in Red Beard (1965)—the way said nurse bonds with and looks after a young doctor at the clinic; the village girl in Seven Samurai (1954) who falls in love with one of the hired protectors but cannot be with him due to class separation.
Again, I consent that Kurosawa’s movies were predominately male-driven and that he didn’t regularly sympathize with women to the same degree or in the same way as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu, or Kenji Mizoguchi. Still, I cannot help but regard the criticisms of him marginalizing and mistreating female characters in his films as exaggerated and truly undeserving. There’s more humanism here, I feel, than some people take note of.
Career as a Personal Saga
As he reached the later years of his life, Kurosawa started gravitating toward elderly characters, especially ones coming to terms with their own mortality. The eponymous trapper in Dersu Uzala (1975) temporarily flees the wilderness and lives with his civilized friend when his health starts deteriorating. Ran (1985) is, among other things, the portrait of an old man acknowledging the faults of his past; he’s not initially aware of it, but death is creeping toward him.
And in the finale of Kurosawa’s swan song, Madadayo (1993), a retired professor passes out from exhaustion while attending a social gathering dedicated to him. He is rushed home and put to bed, his wife and former students sitting nervously outdoor his bedroom door. (A doctor informs them he is not at death’s door just yet; but the professor is, without question, in the twilight years of his life.) Kurosawa’s camera finds itself inside the old man’s room as he sleeps and then we dissolve to a fantasy: the professor as a child, playing with other children in a hayfield. The child becomes aware of a deep crimson light fanning across the field, stands up, and turns to face it. Then, in one of the most heart-rending pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, Kurosawa’s camera proceeds to wander across the sky, which becomes a fantastic painting (illustrated by the director himself). All of this happens in the mind of the sleeping professor. The character, like the storyteller, may be nearing the end of his time, but he’s not prepared to quit. I personally do not consider Madadayo to be one of Kurosawa’s absolute best pictures, but I cannot think of a more perfect way for the director to end not only this story but his career in motion pictures as well. For his career is not merely a group of stories meant to pass the time; they are the saga of an artist exploring his own ideas and feelings, showing how they changed from youth to old age.
And so, Akira Kurosawa was a great many things: a superb craftsman, a poetic storyteller, and a humanist wishing for the best out of mankind. Plus, he was a man who knew how to channel all of these elements into a fine work of art. Having watched all thirty of his motion pictures in chronological order and then sitting down to write this essay, I am more keenly aware of this than ever before.
A fun note for the readership: my first draft for this essay was about a thousand words shorter than the one you are reading now; as I went over that shorter version, I found myself simply dissatisfied, eager to cover more points, to expand on ideas, to further communicate my love and appreciation for these many, many films.
Just writing about Kurosawa’s films makes me think—about the films, about what went into making the films, about society, about life, about Kurosawa himself. Much more than an elegant impresario, Akira Kurosawa was one of the true masters of the cinema; and he left an enduring legacy for us to experience, re-experience, scrutinize, and discuss. It took quite some time for me to track down and see all of his films, but in hindsight, it was well worth the effort.
In wrapping up this retrospective, I suppose a personal top ten is in order.
1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. Rashomon (1950)
3. High and Low (1963)
4. Yojimbo (1961)
5. Ran (1985)
6. Kagemusha (1980)
7. Stray Dog (1949)
8. The Quiet Duel (1949)
9. The Idiot (1951)
10. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)