Storyteller, pioneer, pedant. Three labels that sum up the complicated but lasting genius of Akira Kurosawa.
Two men are walking across the icy tundra. They’re mere specks in the sprawling landscape and a storm is imminent. Tension builds with the slow setting of the sun, the gradual crescendo in the storm, the moody music. The camera angles stress man’s ultimate helplessness against the fury of the elements.
They gather reeds to build a shelter, and this takes up about six or seven minutes of screentime. It sounds boring, but it isn’t, because we’re with those men, hurrying them along, seeing with our own eyes just how dire their situation is.
Dersu Uzala (1975) directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), is one of those movies that stays with you forever. It’s an epic tale of survival, respect, and the friendship between a Russian surveyor, Arseniev and a Siberian trapper, Dersu. Shot in eastern Russia, the stark unforgiving landscape is an integral part of the cinematic experience.
Kurosawa had an artist’s eye for imagery, using mist, wind, storms, leaves, reeds, birdsong, rainbows. He shows us the beauty of the viciously bitter Siberian wilderness.
It’s a wonderful film and Kurosawa’s first to feature a language other than Japanese. It won the 1976 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Akira Kurosawa’s first film as director was back in 1943 with Sanshiro Sugata, the tale of a judo champion. He went on to direct some 30 movies, among them some the greatest cinematic works of all time – Rashômon, Ran, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Kagemusha. All undisputed masterpieces. All had an indelible and lasting impact on moviemaking.
Seven Samurai (1954) is an epic film of the first order. Generally regarded as the first true action blockbuster, it tells the story of a group of samurai who defend a village from bandits. The frantic swordplay is both artistic and barbaric. There’s pelting rain, mud, music, significant glances, philosophy, even a bit of romance. The battle scenes are the stuff of legend. It’s not known as one of the most gripping epics of the cinema for nothing.
The thing about Kurosawa was his vision; the way he composed each frame, his innovative narrative style (Rashômon is told from multiple points of view – revolutionary in 1950), his inherent humanism, and his pernickety attention to detail.
In Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa insisted that real arrows be used to shoot actor Toshiro Mifune (with whom he worked on 16 films). Mifune was wearing protective clothing under his costume, but seriously, real arrows? I kid you not.
For a scene in Rashômon (1950), Kurosawa put black ink into a town’s water supply so the rainfall would look heavier. In Ran (1985), he had an actual castle built on the slopes of Mt Fuji just so he could burn it down. He insisted on realism and he got it.
He had a rigorous approach to composition and structure. Kurosawa used transitions and wipes from scene to scene, often employed a telephoto lens to flatten perspectives and used multiple cameras to achieve different angles. He made good use of axial cuts, and knew how to use the light. He was one of the first directors to embrace the use of Panavision and other new technologies such as Dolby multi-track sound. He was a meticulous editor, checking and cutting film himself at the end of each day’s shooting.
That’s about as technical as I can get, so Google his filmmaking techniques to find out the nitty gritty of his expertise.
His stories and how he tells them are what grab me. A lover of literature, Kurosawa adapted a Dostoevsky classic, The Idiot, in 1951; Shakespeare’s Macbeth was transformed into Throne of Blood; Ran is based on King Lear; High and Low (1963) is based on a book by Ed McBain.
Yet Kurosawa is distinctly Japanese – he often used conventions from Noh theatre to inform his adaptations. For instance, in Throne of Blood, a loose retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, the stylised performances and minimalist sets are rooted in the Noh tradition.
Kurosawa greatly respected Western filmmakers such as John Ford, Roberto Rossellini, Vittoria de Sica, Frank Capra. In turn, Kurosawa was admired and imitated by many directors across the world. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
It’s widely known that US director John Sturges remade Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964) is a remake of Rashômon, and Sergio Leone remade Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars (1964); but did you know that Kurosawa’s 1958 movie The Hidden Fortress was the inspiration for the Star Wars films?
All Kurosawa’s characters have depth – this is another of his many directorial strengths. His protagonists might be seeking meaningfulness or a sense of personal worth and they’re sometimes pitted against a harsh environment or an uncaring society.
Kurosawa ensures we see the humanity in his characters. In Ikiru (1952), the dying hero of the story realises he can still contribute to society by spending what time he has left helping others.
Drunken Angel (1948), his first film with Toshiro Mifune, about an alcoholic doctor and a tubercular criminal living in a ghetto, is a tale of redemption and hope. The theme of redemption also runs through Ran. Ran, by the way, deserves its own article. There’s so much in it.
My pal Dersu Uzala lives in a pretty inhospitable environment, but he’s in total harmony with his surrounds. He’s quick-witted and resourceful but his prevailing empathy is what we most love about him.
Akira Kurosawa was a master storyteller and humanist and one of the most significant filmmakers of the twentieth century. You can literally while away hours and hours Googling him. Better still, make some popcorn, plonk yourself in front of a screen and watch his films. Marvellous!