Akira Kurosawa is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. The cinematic equivalent of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Gustav Mahler, he was an undisputed master of the artform and did more than any other filmmaker to further the dramatic capabilities of cinema. His work influenced some of the most notable directors of the 20th century like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. He’s best known for his samurai period pieces, but he was equally adept at crafting contemporary dramas or historical biopics. While post-war Japan shaped his thematic interests, his films have a universal appeal that transcends nationality. This is because he understood film’s potential to capture the diverse experiences and subjectivities of human beings. Despite his dour view of the world, Kurosawa was ultimately a realistic who understood the fundamental dignity of humanity, even if humanity so often falls short of its inherent potential. No filmmaker conveys such empathy in his diverse array of subjects or narratives, and no director demands such attention from filmmakers who want to learn the subtleties of their craft.
Akira Kurosawa was born in the Omori ward of Tokyo in 1910. His father, Isamu, was a descendant of samurai from Akita prefecture, while his mother, Shima, was of merchant stock from Osaka. Kurosawa developed an admiration for film at a young age as his father encouraged him to view films and his older brother, Heigo, worked as a silent film narrator for foreign films. Many biographical commentators credit Heigo with giving Kurosawa his realistic worldview, when during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Heigo took him down to witness the devastation and forbid him from ignoring the corpses and destruction that surrounded them. Kurosawa’s worldview would darken even further after he finished grade school and moved in with Heigo to pursue painting. In 1933, Heigo committed suicide, and that same year Kurosawa’s surviving brother also died of illness. In the years that followed, Kurosawa abandoned visual art and applied to become an assistant director at Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL), which eventually became Toho Studios. He worked as an assistant director of Kajiro Yamamoto for several years, and ended up directing a substantial portion of Yamamoto’s 1941 film, Uma.
Kurosawa made his credited directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943), a Judo saga about a young man who moves to the city to pursue Jiu Jitsu, but who ends up becoming a master Judo fighter. The film proved a success for Toho Studios after a rocky period of censorship approval and he followed it up with The Most Beautiful (1944), a work of war propaganda about women working in the munitions factories during World War Two. Kurosawa met his wife, Yoko Yaguchi, while working on the picture as she starred in the film. In 1945, Kurosawa made a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2, as well as an adaptation of the Noh drama, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. He also directed Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), although he eventually chose to omit the film from his preferred filmography.
Kurosawa’s 1946 melodrama, No Regrets For Our Youth, is the first film to demonstrate his knack for complexity amidst genre convention. The film follows a young woman (Setsuko Hara) who falls in love with a political radical in pre-war Japan. It’s a melodrama that isn’t as interesting as the domestic dramas Yasujiro Ozu was directing in the same period (and which also starred Setsuko Hara). However, its unconventional protagonist is a definitive characteristic of Kurosawa and makes the film an early touchstone when examining his work. His follow-up, One Wonderful Sunday (1947), is a sentimental romance that improves on No Regrets For Our Youth. It follows an impoverished man (Isao Yumasaki) and woman (Chieko Nakakita) over the course of one day in post-war Tokyo. The film’s standout moment comes as the couple visits an abandoned bandstand and the couple pretend to hear music emanating from the empty orchestra pit. For the most part, the film is a dour look at the economic realities of post-war, occupied Japan, but this moment affords a small amount of joy amidst the hardship. It’s a sentimental instance of movie magic from a filmmaker who’s often regarded as pessimistic.
While No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday are admirable films, they’re minor. Drunken Angel (1938) is the earliest essential Kurosawa film. In an article in Film Quarterly by Donald Richie in 1960, Kurosawa recalls the film fondly: “In this picture I finally discovered myself. It was my picture: I was doing it and no one else.” Chief among the film’s many virtues is Toshiro Mifune’s starring performance. Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s first collaboration with Mifune; they’d go on to work together for another 15 films. Here, Mifune plays a violent gangster suffering from tuberculosis who attracts the attention of an alcoholic doctor (Takashi Shimura) who hopes to treat and redeem him. While Mifune had appeared in films before Drunken Angel, no director could unleash his true artistry until Kurosawa worked with him. Bullish, hyperactive, and constantly emoting, Mifune acted like no other Japanese star. In Richie’s Film Quarterly article, Kurosawa notes that Mifune’s “reactions are extraordinarily swift. If I say one thing, he understands ten. Most Japanese actors are the opposite of this and so I wanted Mifune to cultivate this gift.” Drunken Angel is an excellent example of a post-war yakuza thriller. It’s remarkable because of Mifune’s performance and Kurosawa’s ability to direct Mifune towards the most immediate, empathetic emotions in any given scene.
After Drunken Angel, Kurosawa collaborated with Mifune for most of his films for the next two decades. In 1949, they made two films together: the medical drama, The Quiet Duel, and the police procedural, Stray Dog. Both films co-starred Takashi Shimura and are clear examples of Kurosawa’s maturing style. Stray Dog is especially remarkable. The film follows Mifune’s rookie detective who loses his pistol on transit and sets about searching the gritty underbelly of Tokyo to recover it. The film blends the pulpy interests of the noir genre with the concerns of post-war realism. Its depictions of an impoverished Tokyo during a heat wave are some of the most tactile depictions of poverty in late forties cinema. Kurosawa employs medium-wide angles of stewing hovels, lighting schemes consisting of intense key lights, and close-ups of Mifune’s sweaty face to make the viewer feel the heat. The result is a film that has thematic heft in addition to its many genre pleasures.
Kurosawa followed up Stray Dog with the modest courtroom drama, Scandal (1950), which also starred Mifune and Shimura. That year, he also released Rashomon, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and instantly made Kurosawa the premiere director in East Asian cinema. Rashomon is one of the great masterpieces of classic cinema. The film’s narrative is disjointed, recounting conflicting versions of an altercation in the forest where a bandit murders a samurai and rapes his wife. The film shows the encounter from the point of view of the bandit (Toshiro Mifune), the wife (Machiko Kyo), and the deceased samurai (Masayuki Mori), as well as the frame narrative of a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) discussing the case with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichiijro Ueda).
It’s impossible to overstate the film’s narrative influence. Much like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the film engages directly with the unknowability of truth and dishonesty of memory. Both films are purposefully non-linear, and as such, they’re radical works of cinematic art. However, unlike Welles does with the revelation of the meaning of the word “Rosebud,” Kurosawa never resolves the conflicting narratives within his film. He refuses the authorial instinct to provide a definitive version of the crime, instead allowing the story’s contradictions to coexist with each other. We never experience an omniscient version of the film’s crime, and thus, all accounts of the crime contain both truth and lies. In Rashomon (and for Kurosawa) objective reality is not only unknowable, but also essentially meaningless. Life forces you to live within the subjectivity.
While Rashomon’s staggering narrative is its primary appeal, its technical filmmaking is equally impressive. Kurosawa uses medium-close-ups and parallel shot lengths to maintain directorial neutrality when depicting the stories. For example, he doesn’t favour stylistic flourishes in one recounting of the narrative over another, nor does he use filmmaking techniques to underline obvious lies in each of the character’s stories. He also inverts two common visual motifs to emphasize ambiguity. Firstly, he uses sunlight—his crew used giant mirrors to reflect the sunlight onto the actor’s faces while filming—not as a symbol of purity, but instead a symbol of sin and debauchery. Whenever the characters are bathed in the light through the high branches of the forest, they are not cleansed of their sins, but are instead at the height of their evil. It’s as if their sins are laid bare.
Secondly, he uses rainwater—he blackened the water with ink so as to make it stand out on film—to visually muddy the film’s atmosphere. Instead of washing away the thematic and literal murk of the film (metaphorically wiping away ambiguity) the rain heightens the grim nature of the story. Rashomon is a great film, but its dark philosophy and complex filmmaking mean it’s best viewed by mature individuals. Unlike some of his later films, Rashomon is not the ideal introduction to Kurosawa’s filmmaking.
After Rashomon, Kurosawa suffered a minor artistic failure when he adapted Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951). However, he recovered with his follow-up, Ikiru (1952), which is one of his best films—perhaps better than Rashomon. Ikiru follows a small-time bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who receives a cancer diagnosis and decides to pursue the construction of a playground in his neighbourhood as a small measure of redemption for a wasted life. If Rashomon dealt with crime and high drama to explore the nature of subjectivity in human experience, Ikiru uses the mundane life of an unspectacular man to reflect on life’s meaning and the necessity of being purposeful with you use your time. It’s a lovely film, both melancholy and yet deeply sympathetic with its protagonist. It’s one of cinema’s great existentialist statements, highlighting the necessity of action and how a moral life cannot be a passive one. For many viewers, cinema offers no film as profoundly empathetic as Ikiru.
Akira Kurosawa followed Ikiru with his greatest film, Seven Samurai (1954). Seven Samurai is one of the most influential films ever made. It’s a perfect balance of adventure and drama. Its story is superbly constructed, following a small farming village that hires seven ronin (masterless samurai) to protect them against a band of roving marauders. The leader of the ronin is Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a world-weary samurai with a strict code of honour. Hired first, Kambei goes about assembling six other warriors to aid him in the defense of the village. Five of these warriors are samurai, both young and old, who are drawn to the quest in deference of Kambei or because their code of honour commands it. The seventh is the aggressive Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who claims to be a samurai but is actually a peasant who stole a samurai’s sword and faked his identity to escape his former life.
The distinct personalities and goals of the seven samurai make them an unlikely team and the men must come to terms with their differences in order to work together and defend the village. This team movie framework may sound familiar, but it wasn’t at the time of film’s release. Kurosawa was inspired by westerns like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) in how to balance the screentime of each of the characters and blend their dramatic concerns, but the particulars of the film’s structure were a first. Seven Samurai is not so much a microcosm of the society it depicts (as Stagecoach or Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat  are) as a depiction of an ideal society: one built off of moral action and teamwork at the expense of ego and lineage. Everything from John Sturges’ remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (1960), to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) is indebted to Kurosawa for establishing the beats and conventions of the team film.
While the film’s story construction is its most enduring touchstone, its action filmmaking is equally revolutionary. For instance, in opposition to common practice at the time, Kurosawa filmed the climactic action scenes with multiple cameras. He would create complicated diagrams to choreograph their movement within the chaotic action of the battle between the samurai and the marauders. Again, this decision has become an industry standard, but Kurosawa had no playbook on how to shoot action with multiple cameras back in 1954. He was pioneering a shooting style. In addition, there is nothing sloppy about Kurosawa’s action coverage. Unlike many Hollywood films whose editors have salvaged their action scenes from sloppy choreography and aimless coverage, Kurosawa’s action scenes are superbly constructed. They constantly build momentum and convey the chaos of war without losing clarity. The cause and effect of each movement and action beat is clear, but that clarity doesn’t detract from their visceral impact. The success of the film’s action scenes does a lot to make one forget the film’s mammoth length (it runs 207 minutes). Seven Samurai continues to be one of the most praised films ever made—it ranks highly on the decennial Sight & Sound lists of the best films ever made. It’s an essential watch for anyone who considers himself or herself a filmmaker.
Kurosawa followed up the spectacle of Seven Samurai with the paranoid drama, I Live in Fear (1955), starring Toshiro Mifune as an elderly patriarch of a Japanese family who believes a nuclear apocalypse is inevitable. In 1957, he adapted Macbeth to medieval Japan with Throne of Blood, one of cinema’s greatest Shakespeare adaptations. That same year he also adapted Maxim Gorky’s socialist play, The Lower Depths, which had previously been adapted by Jean Renoir in 1936. In 1958, Kurosawa released The Hidden Fortress, which was one of the largest points of reference for George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In fact, the plot of A New Hope (1977) and The Phantom Menace (1999) are both largely based off The Hidden Fortress, which follows two bumbling peasants who get swept up in a general’s quest to protect a princess from an evil rival clan. Unlike Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress is primarily high adventure. It’s Kurosawa’s broadest film and most child-friendly in subject matter, which explains its appeal as inspiration for Lucas’s space operas.
In 1960, Kurosawa made The Bad Sleep Well, a contemporary drama loosely-inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The film is a cynical, depressing assault on corporate corruption and Japan’s moral complacency. Arguably, it’s also the grand culmination of Kurosawa’s pessimistic worldview. The film is remarkable for the depth of its righteous anger and for Mifune’s uncharacteristically reserved performance as the main character who pursues revenge against the corrupt company that forced his father to commit suicide. Its opening scene is one of cinema’s greatest, where a lavish wedding is interrupted by police officers who arrest the Master of Ceremonies for corporate bribery. Underseen and often ignored in favour of his samurai films, The Bad Sleep Well is one of Kurosawa’s most accomplished films and deserves a broader audience.
However, it’s understandable that some of Kurosawa’s lesser known greats like The Bad Sleep Well are overlooked in favour of films like Yojimbo (1961), which exert a loud influence over cinematic culture as a whole. Yojimbo follows Toshiro Mifune’s nameless ronin who arrives in a dirty rural town and decides to eliminate the town’s gangs by pitting them against each other. The plot might sound familiar as (like Seven Samurai) Yojimbo has been endlessly remade and parodied in the past 50-plus years of cinema. The film essentially invented the archetype of the rogue warrior with mysterious motivations and an unwavering sense of morality, a character type that has proliferated in westerns and action films since the sixties. The film even gave birth to the spaghetti western when Sergio Leone unofficially remade it as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. However, even had it never birthed an entire cinematic legacy, Yojimbo would remain one of Kurosawa’s best. It’s his most purely enjoyable film, one filled with shocking violence but also cutting humour.
Kurosawa’s followed Yojimbo with its sequel, Sanjuro (1962), which finds Mifune’s ronin saddled with nine bumbling young samurai as he seeks to take down a corrupt town administrator. It’s a lesser film than its predecessor, but still deeply entertaining and more humorous than the film that spawned it. In 1963, Kurosawa returned to contemporary drama with High and Low, an ingenious crime procedural based on a pulp novel by Ed McBain. Like The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low is often overlooked in favour of Kurosawa’s samurai films. This is unfortunate as High and Low would prove the crowning achievement of most any filmmaker other than Kurosawa himself.
In 1965, Kurosawa worked with Mifune for the last time in Red Beard. The film is a historical drama about a young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) working in a slum in 19th century Tokyo (then known as Edo) and his surly mentor, the enigmatic Red Beard (Mifune). Red Beard is a culmination of Kurosawa’s interest in the poor and his strong belief in existential humanism despite humanity’s shortcomings. Running 185 minutes, Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s longest films, but the patient manner of its plot development and the depth of its character construction makes it a film of immense power. It’s also one of cinema’s most articulate examinations of social justice and the difficulties of enacting social change.
It took five years for Kurosawa to make his follow-up to Red Beard, which itself took two years of filming to finish. Dodes’ka-den (1970), a series of charming vignettes about impoverished citizens living in a garbage dump, was meant to be Kurosawa’s triumphant entry into colour filmmaking, but ended up being his biggest professional failure. The film was critically dismissed and lost money at the box office. Kurosawa took its failure personally and fell into a deep depression. In 1971, he attempted suicide and it took him another four years before he’d continue to pursue filmmaking.
The next two decades were not easy on Kurosawa. No longer a box office draw, Kurosawa struggled to finance his films. He went to Russia to make his 1975 naturalist masterpiece, Dersu Uzala, about the friendship between a Russian explorer and a Siberian native. The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1976. However, this critical success did not reignite Kurosawa’s cinematic fortunes. It was only because of the financial assistance of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that Kurosawa was able to fund his historical epic, Kagemusha (1980), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Kurosawa partially intended Kagemusha as a testing exercise for Ran (1985), his long-envisioned adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Although it took him over a decade to finally undertake, Ran proved worth the wait. The film transposes the story of King Lear onto medieval Japan and swaps the genders of the three children of the king who abdicates his throne and divides his kingdom between his offspring. The film is most remarkable for its use of colour. It looks like a painting come to life. This is not accidental. As Kurosawa was a painter before he became a filmmaker, he used much of his fallow period in the 1970s and 80s to paint a storyboard for every single frame of Ran. More than any of his other films, Ran captures the chaos of warfare and the potential nihilism of human existence. Its most stunning moment comes late in the film when a castle is burnt to the ground following a battle between clashing armies. Kurosawa actually constructed a castle on the slopes of Mount Fuji and burnt it to the ground to accomplish the shot. Such was the depth of his devotion to the film’s visual power. Ran was Kurosawa’s last epic and his last masterpiece.
In 1990, Kurosawa made another vignette film much like Dodes’ka-den. Yume (entitled Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams in North America) is an anthology of sequences based off Kurosawa’s actual recurring dreams. The film has no overarching narrative or theme, although the cumulative power of the various sequences is profound. Although each of the eight dream sequences are individually fascinating, “The Blizzard,” where four mountaineers struggle through metres of snow on a frigid mountainside, and “Village of the Watermills,” where a young traveller stops in a town where the villagers have forsaken modern technology, are the most powerful.
Like Yume, Kurosawa’s final two films, Rhapsody in August (1991) and Madadayo (1993), are works of an old man reflecting on the life he’s lived and the world he’s experienced. Rhapsody in August is a contemporary drama about a grandmother living in Nagasaki who is visited by her grandchildren who deplore her traditional ways and lifestyle. The film explores the generational rift between the (then) youngest generation of Japanese citizens who grew up in a post-Imperial, post-westernized Japan and Kurosawa’s own generation, which experienced the war and the modernization of their country first-hand. The film also denounces the American nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and explores the older generation’s inherent distrust of Americans because of that incident. Madadayo is a biopic about professor and author Hyakken Uchida and his lifelong relationship with his many students. Much as Hayao Miyazaki does with Jiro Horikoshi in The Wind Rises (2013), Kurosawa uses Uchida as a stand-in to explore his own legacy and impending mortality. It’s a gentle swan song for cinema’s greatest humanist.
After Madadayo, Kurosawa planned to continue working. He wrote two screenplays, but after suffering a spinal fracture, he was confined to a wheelchair and his hopes of dying on set while filming a movie were dashed. He died in 1998 from a stroke. However, Kurosawa’s work lives on. His 30 features constitute the most remarkable filmography of the 20th century. He defined action cinema with his samurai features, crafted some of the most touching works of humanism with his contemporary dramas, and utilized colour in the most startling ways in his late masterpieces. His influence is incalculable and every film made today is inherently influenced by Kurosawa’s work. Throughout the history of cinema, no name has been more synonymous with greatness than that of Akira Kurosawa. And it’s likely no name ever will be.