Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded as one of the most important filmmakers of all time. Through a career spanning over 50 years, Kurosawa directed over 30 films in a range of genres that demonstrated his mastery of cinematic techniques and ability to blend Eastern and Western cultural influences.

Early Life and Influences

akira-kurosawa

Childhood and Family

Kurosawa was born in 1910 in Tokyo. His father worked as an athletics instructor in the Japanese military, which exposed young Akira to martial arts and bushido traditions. However, his mother was a devout follower of Western culture and the arts. This blend of Eastern discipline and Western creativity shaped Kurosawa’s worldview.

As a child, Kurosawa loved going to the cinema. He was especially fond of American films and would see over a dozen movies a month. The energy and visual storytelling of these films left a mark on Kurosawa and ignited his interest in filmmaking from a young age.

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Early Career: 1930s-40s

akira-kurosawa

After trying and failing to become a painter, Kurosawa started working as an assistant director at Photo Chemical Laboratories in 1936. His first credited role as director was on the film Sanshiro Sugata in 1943, the success of which established his reputation.

Wartime and Propaganda Films

Many of Kurosawa’s early films were made during World War II and had overt patriotic themes, like his 1944 film The Most Beautiful. While providing him experience, Kurosawa later regretted making what he felt were propaganda films.

International Breakthrough: 1950s

Rashomon

Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon marked his breakthrough onto the world stage. The innovative storytelling, acting, and cinematography won top honors at the Venice Film Festival. The acclaim opened Western audiences to Japanese cinema.

Subsequent Successes

In the decade that followed, Kurosawa cemented his reputation with masterpieces like Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Yojimbo (1961). He demonstrated his versatility across action, drama, and Shakespearean adaptation.

Artistic Peak: 1960s-70s

Given more resources from the Japanese studios, Kurosawa entered the most prolific stage of his career. Films like Yojimbo1961), Sanjuro (1962), Red Beard (1965), Kagemusha (1980) had higher production values and ambitious scale.

Hollywood Adaptations

Kurosawa’s stories influenced major Hollywood directors. The Magnificent Seven (1960) adapted Seven Samurai, while A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was an unauthorized remake of Yojimbo. George Lucas also borrowed heavily from Hidden Fortress for Star Wars (1977).

Later Years: 1980s-90s

In his later years, Kurosawa had more difficulty getting funding for films as Japanese studios struggled and audiences shifted towards television and away from art-house cinema. He attempted suicide in 1971 during a period of depression.

Final Projects

However, Kurosawa resilience allowed him to make a comeback in thes and early 90s with the films Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985) and Dreams (1990). While more muted in tone, they demonstrated he retained his master’s touch up till his last film at 82 years old.

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Legacy

Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998, leaving behind a tremendous cinematic legacy. His films influenced generations of filmmakers in both the East and West in their visual aesthetic, storytelling and acting. Seven of his films would be ranked among the top 100 films of all time on the BBC Culture poll. Through a prolific career full of masterpieces, Kurosawa demonstrated the power of blending cultures and transcending conventions – cementing his legacy as a master of cinema unmatched in his greatness.

Akira Kurosawa’s Filmography

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

Genre: Martial arts drama

Length: 78 minutes

Plot: A young judo practitioner, Sanshiro Sugata, travels to Tokyo to challenge the master of the Tenshin Dojo. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles, including a rival dojo, a corrupt businessman, and a beautiful woman.

Reception: Sanshiro Sugata was a critical and commercial success, and it is considered one of Kurosawa’s best early films.

The Most Beautiful (1944)

Genre: Romantic drama

Length: 91 minutes

Plot: A young woman, Yukiko, is forced to marry a wealthy man she does not love. She eventually falls in love with a poor artist, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Reception: The Most Beautiful was a commercial success, but it received mixed reviews from critics.

Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945)

Genre: Martial arts drama

Length: 81 minutes

Plot: Sanshiro Sugata returns to his hometown to find that his old dojo has been taken over by a corrupt businessman. He challenges the businessman to a fight and eventually defeats him, restoring the dojo to its rightful owner.

Reception: Sanshiro Sugata Part II was a commercial success, but it received mixed reviews from critics.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)

Genre: Action drama

Length: 103 minutes

Plot: A group of young men, who are dissatisfied with the current state of Japan, decide to take matters into their own hands. They rob a bank and use the money to buy weapons. They then go on a rampage, killing anyone who gets in their way.

Reception: The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail was a commercial success, but it was banned by the Japanese government.

Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946)

Genre: Social drama

Length: 104 minutes

Plot: A group of young people, who are struggling to rebuild their lives after the war, come together to form a cooperative. They face many challenges, including poverty, prejudice, and political opposition.

Reception: Those Who Make Tomorrow was a commercial success, and it is considered one of Kurosawa’s best post-war films.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Genre: Drama

Length: 107 minutes

Plot: A group of young students, who are disillusioned with the current state of Japan, decide to join the communist party. They are eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Reception: No Regrets for Our Youth was a commercial success, but it was banned by the Japanese government.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Genre: Romantic drama

Length: 91 minutes

Plot: A young couple, Yuzo and Masako, spend a day together in Tokyo. They visit the zoo, go to a movie, and have a picnic in the park.

Reception: One Wonderful Sunday was a commercial success, and it is considered one of Kurosawa’s best early films.

Drunken Angel (1948)

Genre: Crime drama

Length: 97 minutes

Plot: A young doctor, Sanada, befriends a yakuza gangster, Matsunaga. Sanada eventually helps Matsunaga to find redemption.

Reception: Drunken Angel was a commercial and critical success, and it is considered one of Kurosawa’s best films.

1949

The Quiet Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru kettō)

Genre: Drama, Suspense

Plot: A prosecutor (Toshirō Mifune) investigates a murder case and discovers a complex web of relationships and motivations behind the crime.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award. It is considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces.

Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora inu)

Genre: Crime, Drama

Plot: A police detective (Toshirō Mifune) loses his gun and must track it down before it falls into the wrong hands.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize.

1950

Scandal (醜聞, Sukyandaru (Shūbun))

Genre: Drama

Plot: A wealthy man (Masayuki Mori) is accused of murdering his mistress, and his family hires a lawyer (Toshirō Mifune) to defend him.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

Rashomon (羅生門, Rashōmon)

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Plot: A murder is investigated from the perspectives of four different witnesses, each of whom provides a different account of what happened.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces.

1951

The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi)

Genre: Drama

Plot: A young man (Setsuko Hara) falls in love with a beautiful woman (Masayuki Mori), but their relationship is complicated by the woman’s mental illness.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1952

Ikiru (生きる, Ikiru)

Genre: Drama

Plot: A terminally ill bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) tries to find meaning in his life before he dies.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize. It is considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces.

1954

Seven Samurai (七人の侍, Shichinin no samurai)

Genre: Action, Drama

Plot: A village hires seven samurai to protect them from bandits.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

1955

I Live in Fear (生きものの記録 Akima no kiroku)

Genre: Drama

Plot: A businessman (Toshirō Mifune) becomes obsessed with the fear of nuclear war.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1957

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城, Kumonosu-jō)

Genre: Drama, Tragedy

Plot: A warlord (Toshirō Mifune) is driven to madness by ambition and paranoia.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko)

Genre: Drama

Plot: A group of poor people living in a Tokyo slum struggle to survive.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1958

The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi toride no san akunin)

Genre: Action, Adventure

Plot: Two peasants help a princess escape from a warlord.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

1960

The Bad Sleep Well (悪い奴ほどよく眠る, Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru)

Genre: Crime, Drama

Plot: A young man (Toshirō Mifune) investigates the death of his father, a union leader.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1961

Yojimbo (用心棒, Yōjinbō)

Genre: Action, Comedy

Plot: A ronin (Toshirō Mifune) arrives in a small town and plays two rival gangs against each other.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize.

1962

Sanjurō (椿三十郎, Tsubaki Sanjūrō)

Genre: Action, Comedy

Plot: A ronin (Toshirō Mifune) helps a young samurai avenge his father’s death.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1963

High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to jigoku)

Genre: Crime, Drama

Plot: A wealthy businessman (Toshirō Mifune) is forced to pay a ransom to save his kidnapped son.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

1965

Red Beard (赤ひげ, Akahige)

Genre: Drama, Historical

Plot: A young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) learns about life and death from an experienced doctor (Toshirō Mifune).

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award.

1970

Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Dodesukaden)

Genre: Drama

Plot: The lives of several people living in a Tokyo slum.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1975

Dersu Uzala (デルス・ウザーラ, Derusu Uzāra)

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Plot: A Russian explorer (Yuri Solomin) and a Nanai hunter (Maksim Munzuk) travel through the Siberian wilderness.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

1980

Kagemusha (影武者, Kagemusha)

Genre: Action, Drama, Historical

Plot: A thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) is recruited to impersonate a warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai).

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

1985

Ran (乱, Ran)

Genre: Action, Drama, Historical

Plot: A warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai) divides his kingdom among his three sons, leading to a bloody civil war.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

1990

Dreams (夢, Yume)

Genre: Fantasy, Drama

Plot: A collection of eight dream sequences.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film.

1991

Rhapsody in August (八月の狂詩曲, Hachigatsu no rapusodī (Hachigatsu no kyōshikyoku))

Genre: Drama, Historical

Plot: A family in Nagasaki, Japan, in the days leading up to the atomic bombing.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film.

1993

Madadayo (まあだだよ Mādadayo)

Genre: Drama, Comedy

Plot: A university professor (Akira Terao) reflects on his life and career.

Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film.

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