Japan has graced the world with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time: Hayao Miyazaki, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Sadao Yamanaka, Masaki Kobayashi and on and on. Many of my favorite movies ever came from the land of the rising sun, and many of those films were directed by Akira Kurosawa. He is the most well-known of the “golden era” Japanese directors, and many of the “Hollywood brats” from the 70s claim him as a mentor and inspiration. Among those filmmakers are names like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. A Kurosawa film, Rashomon (1950), is largely responsible for jettisoning Japanese cinema into the international spotlight.
But influence runs in many directions: Kurosawa was very influenced by the foreign films he saw as a child. In his book Something like an Autobiography he recounts many of those films, which included the works of Charlie Chaplin and John Ford. The year that Rashomon appeared at the Venice Film Festival, Kurosawa and Ford met. Supposedly Ford sent Kurosawa flowers and a bottle of sake in congratulations for Rashomon winning the prestigious “Golden Lion” award, later on they became friends and would pay each other visits on set.
In the annals of important films Kurosawa stands like a monument to the power that comes from the filmmakers of Japan. He is both a good entryway into Japanese cinema and one of its crowning achievements; even when one has become very familiar with Japanese cinema beyond Kurosawa, one will rarely stop appreciating the power that Kurosawa’s cinema contains. His films contain a raw and explosive quality. Sudden bursts of motion and emotion are frequent in his films. His actors would play their parts so entirely full of energy it would be simple to label them as over-acting, and yet this is all a part of the Kurosawa unnatural aesthetic.
Yasujiro Ozu once described his own filmmaking like so:
“I just want to make a tray of good tofu. If people want something else, they should go to the restaurants and shops.”
If Ozu is a nice piece of plain tofu, then Kurosawa is a six course meal in a restaurant. Whereas Ozu simplified his cinema down to the simplest of ingredients (ala tofu), Kurosawa used salt, pepper, fresh veggies, meat, and anything else he could to deliver an abundant and rich palette of taste. A Kurosawa film is a visceral experience; almost a punch in the gut. He loved to take human emotions and ramp them up to ten or eleven, to such a point of chaos that they take on a universal quality which can be easily recognized. At no point ever in a Kurosawa film will you find yourself thinking, “I wonder what that character is feeling right now.” Just watch them, their body language, eyes, and movement will tell you.
Yet, Kurosawa’s cinema was distinctly Japanese. Despite his prying into western literature (Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, Fyodor Dostoyevsky) for material, he kept his cinema deeply rooted in Japanese aesthetics and style. The shadow of the Noh theater lingers over his movies as probably his single greatest influence. He would frequently tell his actors to fix a singular expression on their faces for a particular scene, this was done to mimic the quality and appearance of the masks worn by Noh actors. This heightened sense of theatrics which is central to Kurosawa’s cinema also extends into his blocking and staging, which is never “natural” in regards to how people actually move or stand but works wonders in front of the camera.
Kurosawa came from a background of painting, which gives his films an incredible visual presence rare in motion pictures. The way his camera, actors, weather, and everything else imaginable which can be photographed move all serve the visual ideas going on in his head. Rain, show, fog, dust, and hoards of people are all visual stimuli in Kurosawa movies: they exist to keep the frame interesting, vibrant, and fluid. But there is hardly ever motion for motion’s sake. Kurosawa liked to pull background elements into the frame in extremely organic ways that help serve the tone and mood of the film overall. Stillness and minimalism play into his aesthetic as well, but only ever as a contrast to the explosive motion and movement in other areas. Kurosawa achieved and maintained this visual balance, this yin and yang of motion and stillness, in a way few other directors ever have. Just as a side note, Kenji Mizoguchi was likely the filmmaker Kurosawa learned this beautiful trait from.
This reliance on pure visual expression runs throughout the entirety of his work. Rashomon has been compared to a silent film both by critics and by Kurosawa himself. Its use of sound is superb and is completely opposite the “talking head syndrome” about which I’ve previously shared my thoughts. Kurosawa had this to say regarding silent film and its influence on Rashomon:
“I like silent pictures and I always have. They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they had to be. At any rate I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember in this way: one of techniques of modern art is simplification, and that I must therefore simplify this film.”
Yet visuals are intended to support drama and character, of which there is no shortage in Kurosawa films. I have a love of films without “plot,” I doubt that’s a secret at this point, and yet a Kurosawa film is always deeply rooted in the drama which arrises between people or groups of people. In Seven Samurai (1957) the drama is between a group of bandits and a group of farmers; in Yojimbo (1960) it is between two rival gangs; in High and Low (1963) the drama arises between the working class and the executive class. Characters move as groups, not individuals, and this makes their emotions all the more powerful, and when there is an individual who rises up to fight a group his striving seems all the more powerful because of the forces he is up against. Ikiru (1952) is a grand example of a single man attempting to take on a broken system. It is also a wonderful film which looks at the purpose of a man’s life and how he should have tried harder and sooner. Complacency is a cancer.
The DNA of Kurosawa can be found nearly everywhere. Remaking his films are common practice, especially as westerns: The Outrage (1964), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but even Star Wars (1977) owes some DNA to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958). Kurosawa’s career was in constant flux, however, and a failed attempt of breaking into Hollywood during the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) left his career in shambles for years. He tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful and later returned to making films. During this latter period Kurosawa’s films became very distilled and visually simpler, although still magnificent and beautiful, and also incredibly bleak. Films like Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) are incredibly pessimistic in regards to mankind’s ability to deal with one another in any way other than bloodshed.
Akira Kurosawa left behind a body of work consisting of 30 films. The vast number of masterpieces he left for us is staggering. In my opinion there has never been a greater filmmaker. His vision of humanity but his hopefulness for it are inspirational, and it is sad to see his latter films when he turned so bleak and viewed mankind with such disdain. Yet those films might be all the more honest because of it.