Akira Kurosawa


Akira Kurosawa's Achievement
By David Walsh
9 September 1998


The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa died at his home in Tokyo September 6 at the age
of 88. Kurosawa, who made 28 films between 1943 and 1993, belonged to that generation
of European and Asian directors whose works dominated the international art film world in
the 1950s and 1960s. One thinks of such figures as Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman,
Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyijat Ray, Luis Buñuel, Luchino Visconti, Robert Bresson and
Roberto Rossellini, all now either dead or inactive.

At his best Kurosawa demonstrated an extraordinary visual and intellectual vivacity.
Whatever his limitations--and there are moments when his conceptions seem overmatched by
his emotions--one feels that Kurosawa never shied away from any problem or dilemma. His
is a cinema of towering, almost superhuman confrontations, whether in medieval forests or
modern city streets. He created, as one critic puts it, "dense fictional worlds," in which his
fascination with human nature and social problems was given free range.

Kurosawa was born in 1910 in Tokyo, the youngest of eight children, to a family that held
Samurai rank. His father was a military school administrator. The future director refused to
undergo military training, developed an early interest in painting, and while still a teenager
attended a private art school. According to his biographers, Russian literature fascinated him.
He was later to adapt works by Dostoyevsky (The Idiot) and Gorky (Lower Depths) for
the screen, and a Tolstoy story (The Death of Ivan Ilych) apparently influenced another of
his films (Ikiru). Of Dostoyevsky he once said: "I know of no one so compassionate....
Ordinary people turn their eyes away from tragedy; he looks straight into it." Shakespeare's
plays also influenced or formed the basis of a number of his works.

Unable to make a living at painting, Kurosawa in 1936 obtained a position as an assistant
director at a leading Japanese film production company. After seven years as an assistant, he
directed his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943, the story of a youthful judo champion and
his search for spiritual enlightenment.

Drunken Angel (1948), another work influenced by Dostoyevsky, is generally considered
to be the first of Kurosawa's major films. One might say that this film, and Stray Dog
(1949), belong to the director's "neo-realist" phrase. In the latter film, a novice policeman
(played by the youthful Toshiro Mifune) is pickpocketed on a crowded bus and his Colt
revolver stolen. When the gun is used in several crimes, including murders, he feels
responsible and tracks down the guilty man through the back streets of a Japanese city. The
criminal is a young man of his own age, "the stray dog" become a "mad dog," as a result of
his experiences in the war, referred to in the title. In a memorable final sequence the two fight
it out in a muddy field. When the cop finally manages to get his handcuffs on the young
man, the latter howls like an animal in pain. It is a wrenching moment.
Rashomon (1950) was the film that brought Kurosawa international recognition, winning
the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign
Film in 1952. It remains, along with Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa's most widely
known film. Rashomon tells the same story--the confrontation in the woods between a
bandit and a samurai and his bride, watched by a woodcutter--in four different versions. The
notion that the insistence on a "true version" is misguided is surely a theme that turns up in a
great many postwar films, for fairly obvious reasons.

Ikiru (To Live), made in 1952, is one of Kurosawa's more remarkable films. It tells the
story of a government bureaucrat who discovers that he is dying of stomach cancer and has
only months to live. In fact, as a narrator informs us: "It would be difficult to say that he is
really alive." His job is mind numbing and meaningless, his son insensitive and unfeeling.
At first he turns to alcohol and prostitutes in an effort to come alive or at least provide some
meaning to his last days. That only makes him feel worse. He then tries to relive his youth
by spending time with a young woman. Not much comes of that either. In the end, he
decides to spend the remainder of his life in service to others, campaigning to turn a swampy
lot into a park for children.

Ikiru was the first of what one commentator calls "the half-dozen masterpieces made
between 1952 and 1963." There is little question but that this was Kurosawa's richest
period. In those years, in addition to Seven Samurai, in which a group of warriors defend
a village against bandits, he made Record of a Living Being (1955), the story of a man
driven mad by his fear of nuclear war; his riveting version of Macbeth, The Throne of
(1957), set in medieval Japan and reportedly T.S. Eliot's favorite film; his version of
Gorky's Lower Depths (1957); another vivid piece laid in feudal Japan, The Hidden
(1958); his examination of corruption in the corporate world, The Bad Sleep
(1960), apparently a version of Hamlet ; Yojimbo (1961), based loosely on
Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, about a samurai warrior up for hire in a town with
warring factions, and its sequel, Sanjuro (1961). In 1963, Kurosawa directed High and
, a film, also based on an American crime novel, about a kidnapping gone wrong.
Kurosawa seems most at home in the period of postwar reconstruction where his belief in
human possibility stubbornly pursued in the face of overwhelming odds--and in the value of
classical literature as a means of cognizing reality--appealed to significant layers of the
general population in Japan, and elsewhere, and even inspired them. Would it be possible to
say that Japan's recovery, its increasing stature in the world presented problems that were
beyond Kurosawa's scope? Or perhaps it was that a considerable section of his audience no
longer found that his emotionalism and his humanism spoke to them. In any event,
Kurosawa came to be seen as old-fashioned, as a new generation of Japanese filmmakers
emerged in the 1960s. He seemed to reach an impasse with Dodeskaden (1970), a
grotesque work that failed with audiences. In December 1971 Kurosawa attempted suicide.
He enjoyed a revival of his fortunes with Dersu Uzala (1975), made in the USSR, and his
two epics, Kagemusha and Ran, a version of King Lear, made in 1980 and 1985,
respectively. He continued making films into his 80s, directing Rhapsody in August
(1991), a meditation on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

European and American influences--from Eisenstein to John Ford--can be seen at work in
Kurosawa's films. He has both been praised and criticized for being the most "Western" of
the great Japanese directors. In return, Kurosawa has inspired a great many European and
American film directors and trends, including, for better or worse, the so-called "Spaghetti
Western." Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), for example, one of his Clint
Eastwood vehicles, is based directly on Yojimbo. One critic, contrasting American
Westerns with their Japanese and Italian equivalents, noted that Italy and Japan were both
defeated nations in World War II and that their film heroes consequently "lack faith in history
as an orderly process in human affairs. What Kurosawa and Leone share is a sentimental
nihilism that ranks survival above honor and revenge above morality."

It is no insult to observe that Kurosawa worked within the general framework of melodrama.
On the contrary, as another commentator put it very well, the director had "a miraculous gift
for ennobling the melodramatic mood, for pulling off situations in which anyone else would
have foundered on the shoals of ridicule." Kurosawa was a serious artist, a major artist. A
familiarity with his most significant works ought to form part of the education of anyone
who considers him- or herself a student of the human condition.

Kurosawa filmography available at:


Copyright 1998-2001
World Socialist Web Site
All rights reserved

See three other useful tributes by such people as Carmen Ficarra, by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, by Carletto di San Giovanni, and by Kabir Chowdhury.


See other useful Kurosawa sites:







http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~zc2t-ogw/MKHome/AKHome/AKHome.htm (in Japanese)


Review of Drunken Angel by Keith Phipps:

For a director of such worldwide importance, Akira Kurosawa hasn't always been well served by
the international market. Not only does Madadayo, his final film, remain unseen in this country
seven years after its completion, but a number of his earlier works have never received proper
video release, an oversight this reissue of three Kurosawa social-issue dramas goes a long way
toward correcting. Kurosawa considered 1948's Drunken Angel the film in which he came into his
own as a director. It's probably no coincidence that it's also his first collaboration with Toshiro
Mifune, the actor who would spend much of the next two decades playing John Wayne to
Kurosawa's John Ford. Set in a dilapidated Tokyo neighborhood nowhere near recovered from
WWII, Angel stars Mifune as a bullying gangster who, wounded in a scuffle, seeks the care of
a kindhearted, hard-drinking physician (Ikiru star Takashi Shimura). Once Shimura diagnoses
him with tuberculosis, their lives, and the life of the neighborhood, begin to undergo a great

A none-too-subtle allegory of post-war Japan--it's not above recruiting a smiling teen as a symbol of optimism--Angel finds both Kurosawa and Mifune still harnessing their talents.

Even so, it's effective in its own right and a fascinating preview of films to come,
featuring themes and elements (a dedicated physician, a neighborhood with a disease-ridden
swamp) that Kurosawa would later revisit. Tuberculosis, in fact, pops up again almost
immediately, playing a crucial role in 1950's Scandal, made just prior to the director's
breakthrough masterpiece Rashomon. In Scandal, Mifune plays an artist whose friendly
gesture toward a pop singer makes him the focus of an exploitative tabloid story. Deciding to
take action, he hires a good-natured attorney (Shimura) whose financial problems and
TB-afflicted daughter make him an easily corrupted target of the opposing side. In his memoir,
Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa writes of Drunken Angel, "I wanted to take a scalpel
and dissect the yakuza." It's easy to get the sense with Scandal that he felt a similar hatred
toward the tabloids. But what's remarkable about both films, and perhaps most prescient of
future efforts, is the tremendous sympathy he directs toward his morally conflicted characters.
Mifune's yakuza lieutenant in Angel and Shimura's corrupt lawyer in Scandal eventually turn
the films into battles for their souls. By the time Kurosawa made 1955's I Live In Fear, he'd
earned fame and critical accolades, neither of which won the film much of an audience outside
Japan. One of Kurosawa's oddest works, it arrived on the heels of The Seven Samurai, one of
his most immediately accessible. Mifune, almost unrecognizable under layers of make-up,
stars as a graying patriarch whose fear of nuclear annihilation leads him to make plans to
move his large family to a farm in Brazil. Thinking his fears irrational, and expressing grave
concern over the dispensation of his estate, they take him to court and, like a good judge,
Kurosawa lets both sides exhaust themselves without drawing a premature judgement. Perhaps
a bit too loose and leisurely to be entirely effective, Fear still offers a hugely compelling
glimpse at the post-war Japanese mindset, and at the Cold War mindset in general. It's also a
fine showcase for Kurosawa's nearly unparalleled visual style, and, like its companions in this
set, a must-see for the director's admirers even if it's not quite among the very best entries in
his formidable filmography. http://avclub.theonion.com/reviews/cinema/cinema_d/drunkenangel01.html




http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060301454.html - Review of Ran

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-ran-1985 -- Roger Ebert's 2000 revieww of Ran