The last emperor: Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa blended Japanese and western influences to produce timeless cinema. He believed that to be an artist meant never averting one’s eyes — he was, in every sense, a visionary.

The last emperor: Akira Kurosawa

In his memoir, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet, the director of Serpico, tells a lovely story about a conversation with the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Why had he chosen to frame a shot in his film Ran in a particular way? Kurosawa replied that if he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory was visible, and if he’d panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport — neither of which belonged in a period movie. Lumet also called Kurosawa “the Beethoven of movie directors” — maximalist, effervescent and exacting. A visionary bridge-builder between western and Japanese cultures, Kurosawa’s films have been revered by directors as varied and eminent as Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Scorsese, George Lucas and Wes Anderson. His New York Times obituary hailed “an autocratic perfectionist with a painter’s eye for composition, a dancer’s sense of movement, and a humanist’s quiet sensibility”. 

Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha.

Kurosawa was born in 1910 in the Omori district of Tokyo, the eighth and youngest child of a family with historic links to a legendary 11th-century samurai. His father, Isamu, was a disciplinarian athletic instructor at a military institute. As a student, Akira developed an interest in painting and Kendo swordsmanship. He was also deeply affected by the Kanto earthquake of 1923, the aftermath of which his older brother Heigo took him to see, then by the deaths of his two brothers within three months of each other, Heigo by suicide. 

In 1935, after struggling to earn a living as a painter, Kurosawa joined a new film studio called Photo Chemical Laboratories. His application essay, ‘The Basic Defects of the Japanese Film Industry’, caught the eye of the director Kajirō Yamamoto, who became an early mentor for Kurosawa and promoted him from third assistant director to first assistant director within a year. As a profitable sideline, Kurosawa started writing screenplays for other directors. 

His directorial debut was Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a stylish martial-arts film about judo that Japan’s censorship office deemed too British-American, but fellow director Yasujirō Ozu intervened on Kurosawa’s behalf to allow it to be released. On his second film, The Most Beautiful (1944), a propaganda film about female factory workers, he repeatedly clashed with the actress Yōko Yaguchi, but in a twist worthy of a film, he ended up marrying her. They had two children and stayed together until her death in 1985.

Alt texzxtAlt texzxt
Kurosawa with Toshiro Mifune in Venice in 1960.
Clockwise: Kurosawa directing on set; posters for Tora No O Wo Fumu Otokotachi (1945), Ikiru (1952), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Hidden Fortress (1958); directing Dreams; interview for Academy Awards; presenting his film Dersu Uzala in Milan, 1976.

In Japan, Kurosawa’s films were often considered too western, especially when his post-war style became more individualistic and democratic. As Kurosawa once said: “During the war, I hungered for the beautiful... I therefore drowned myself in the world of Japanese traditional beauty. I perhaps wanted to flee from reality, but through these experiences I learned and absorbed more than I could ever express.” 

His international breakthrough was Rashomon (1950), a shattering kaleidoscope of truth, memory and ambiguity that offers four different perspectives of the same violent event. A modest success in Japan, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and quickly ignited global interest not just in Kurosawa but in Japanese cinema. It remains a formal and narrative puzzle-box of immense significance that entered mainstream pop culture and was even referenced on The Simpsons (Marge: “Come on, Homer, Japan will be fun. You loved Rashomon”; Homer: “That’s not how I remember it”).

Ikiru (1952) was a quiet contemporary tragedy about a dying Tokyo bureaucrat. Loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, it’s one of his finest, most poignant films and was remade last year in English, with a script by the Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, as Living, for which Bill Nighy was Oscar-nominated.

Kurosawa (a Star Wars fan) and George Lucas pose with a model of the ‘Walker’ on a set used for the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back.
With Martin Scorsese at the Tribute to Kurosawa event at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
With Steven Spielberg and Lucas at the Academy Awards in 1990.

His next film couldn’t have been more different, and was even more successful. The most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time, Seven Samurai (1954) is a miraculous blend of virtuosic action, visual grandeur and rich characterisation. Regarded by many as the greatest Japanese film, it was remade for Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven (1960), starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

The golden run continued and accentuated his work’s porousness with the western world. Throne of Blood (1957) was a thunderous remake of Macbeth, drenched in fog and arrows. The Hidden Fortress (1958) was a more lighthearted action-adventure that George Lucas cited as a key influence on Star Wars. Yojimbo (1961), which translates as ‘the bodyguard’, was a baroquely violent, darkly comic samurai film with stylised stand-offs redolent of a western; Sergio Leone’s subsequent A Fistful of Dollars was so similar that Kurosawa filed a successful lawsuit against it. One of his most underrated films, High and Low (1963), is a riveting contemporary crime thriller about a kidnapping, and it displays a fierce social conscience. 

A Japanese poster for the 1954 historical drama Shichinin no Samurai, or Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa.
Directing on the set of Ran.

Then followed a period of creative frustration, during which two major English-language projects unravelled. Runaway Train (which would have been Kurosawa’s first film in colour) was thwarted by weather and language issues. He signed on for Tora! Tora! Tora!, a hugely ambitious film about Pearl Harbour from parallel western and Japanese perspectives, but when David Lean dropped out, so did Kurosawa. Indeed, Kurosawa became so dispirited by his health and inability to secure funding for projects that he tried to kill himself in 1971.

This was far from the end, however...

On the set of his 30th film, Madadayo (1993).

Read the full story on Issue 90, available now.