Akira Kurosawa

(1910-1998)

Kagemusha | Scandal | The Idiot | Seven Samurai

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One of the undisputed giants of cinema, this magnificent artist boasts a career of a halfcentury's duration, encompassing almost every genre, from flat-out, shameless action films to historical epics to humanistic dramas to sheer flights of fancy. Highly trained in Western literature, art, and tradition, Kurosawa was unable to earn a living as a painter, so he applied for a job as an assistant director at a film studio in 1936 and served his apprenticeship with Kajiro Yamamoto. He worked on screenplays during this time and eventually made his directing debut with Sugata Sanshiro/Judo Saga (1943), a film in the jidai-geki tradition. During the war, his films like The Most Beautiful (1944, a study of factory workers), the sequel Judo Saga II and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (both 1945) were carefully monitored by the Japanese government; the latter film was banned by the U.S. Army's General Headquarters. Afterward, he turned to more "acceptable" fare such as No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), based on a true-life incident involving a professor with Communist sympathies.


Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa has called Drunken Angel (1948) his first real film, made without interference. The story of a doctor and a young gangster, it marked Kurosawa's first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, the actor who would go on to appear in many of his greatest films. He made Stray Dog (1949, with Mifune as a policeman searching for a thief who stole his gun) and Scandal (1950, an attack on the press) but gained international fame for Rashomon (1950), a classic study of the relativity of truth, with four different views of a rape and a murder in 9thcentury Kyoto. The film not only established Kurosawa as a world-class filmmaker, but became the first Japanese film to be widely shown in the West, opening the door for other directors ranging from Ozu to Mizoguchi. The Idiot (1951) was an uneven but fascinating adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel, but Ikiru (1952), the story of a dying civil servant who tries to find significance in his life, is perhaps Kurosawa's most personal and beautiful work; it has often been compared to the classic humanist films of the Italian neo-realists.

Kurosawa's appreciation of Western values and philosophy-as well as filmmaking-contributed to his own cinematic development, which depended a great deal on heroic protagonists who follow a rigid ethical code while battling against hostile forces. His heroes are Japanese equivalents of our own private eyes, cowboys, and tough cops. Stray Dog drew on Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s for atmosphere and visual touches. In another cultural crossover, Kurosawa transferred Dashiell Hammett's double-cross classic "Red Harvest" to feudal Japan in Yojimbo (1961), a violent, satiric twist on Western conventions, with Mifune as a samurai who hires himself out to a town's rival factions. (Kurosawa continued the exploits of Mifune's samurai in the 1962 sequel Sanjuro) The Hidden Fortress (1958) similarly fused classic Western and Japanese elements. Throne of Blood (1957) was a startlingly kinetic reinterpretation of "Macbeth" set in medieval Japan; The Bad Sleep Well (1960) a modern variation on "Hamlet," which dealt with corruption and big business. High and Low (1963), a kidnapping thriller, was based on an Ed McBain novel.

At the same time, Kurosawa's approach to storytelling-within recognizable genres-had a profound influence on filmmakers in Europe and America. His best known film, The Seven Samurai (1954), one of the most exhilarating action films ever made, provided the blueprint for the American Western The Magnificent Seven (1960). Yojimbo was used as source material for Sergio Leone's first "spaghetti Western," A Fistful of Dollars (1964). And The Hidden Fortress was a definite (and acknowledged) influence on George Lucas when he was concocting Star Wars (1977).

After the medical drama Red Beard (1965), Kurosawa signed to direct part of 20th Century-Fox's Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) but problems over communication and artistic control led to his resignation; rumors that he was mentally unfit seriously hurt his career. He could not get backing for his own projects until Japanese directors Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa joined as coproducers on 1970's Dodes'ka-den an interesting look at life in a Tokyo slum which was Kurosawa's first color film. It was also his first financial failure, and this, combined with health problems, led Kurosawa to attempt suicide. He recovered and lived to enjoy a kind of artistic renaissance (although he never entirely regained his financial footing in Japan). He directed the Russianproduced Dersu Uzala (1975), which took two years to film in Siberia and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Acolytes Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas bankrolled his 1980 epic Kagemusha a spectacular return to the samurai film. French cofinancing enabled him to make Ran (1985), an awesome retelling of "King Lear" that showed Kurosawa had lost none of his wizardry at staging battle sequences, nor his ability to portray the humanity of his characters even in the midst of chaos. The film earned Kurosawa his only Academy Award nomination as Best Director. Steven Spielberg presented Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), the director's visually sumptuous, but dramatically uneven rendering of his nighttime fantasies, which included among its cast members Martin Scorsese, as van Gogh. Rhapsody in August (1991) featured American star Richard Gere in a controversial look back at the American bombing of Nagasaki, from the point of view of a contemporary Japanese family. Still active in his 80s, Kurosawa's latest film in Madadayo (Not Yet An artist who was not always appreciated in his native country, where his outlook was considered too Western for local tastes, Kurosawa nevertheless attained worldwide acclaim and admiration. In 1989 he was presented with an honorary Academy Award "for accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched, and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world." He published his memoir, "Something Like an Autobiography," in 1982.

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