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Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)


Japanese film director, considered with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu among the greatest of Japanese modern film makers. Kurosawa also collaborated on the scripts of most of his films and edited or closely supervised the editing. Several of Kurosawa's works were adaptations of Western literary works, including Dostoevsky's The Idiot, Gorky's The Lower Depths, Shakespeare's Macbeth (adapted into Throne of Blood) and King Lear (reworked as Ran). The director Steven Spielberg called once Kurosawa "the pictorial Shakespeare of our time."

"I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport - neither of which belonged in a period movie. Only the person who's made the movie knows what goes into the decisions that result in any piece of work." (Sidney Lumet in Making Movies, 1995)

Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo, the son of Isamu Kurosawa, a veteran army officer who turned athletic instructor, and Shima, who came from an Osaka merchant family. Shima was forty years old when Kurosawa was born. Isamu took often his whole family to the movies, and later Kurosawa said, that his father's attitude toward film encouraged him to become a director. Kurosawa's brother Heigo committed suicide in 1933. Little later his oldest brother, Masayasu, died. Kurosawa's youngest sister, Momoyo, had died in 1920.

In 1923 Kurosawa entered Keika Junior High School. He began taking Japanese calligraphy lessons and became captain of the school's kendo club. For his father's disappointment, he was not interested in formal training in arts and he also failed to pass the entrance examination of an art school he applied. After joining the Proletarian Artists' League in 1929, he contributed to a radical newspaper, and worked as a commercial artist. Kurosawa's close association with Communists lasted a few years. Not much is known of Kurosawa's dark years in 1933-35.

In 1936 Kurosawa began as an assistant and scriptwriter to one of the most successful director's of the country, Kajiro Yamamoto, at Photo Chemical Laboratories. P.C.L., better known as Toho Studios, had been founded in 1929. Kurosawa's talents were soon noted. His scripts were awarded in contests and by 1941 he was directing whole sequences for Yamamoto's films. In Something Like an Autobiography (1982) Kurosawa wrote: "Yama-san said: 'If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.' I felt he was right, so I applied myself wholeheartedly to scripwriting."

During World War II Kurosawa did not serve in the army – he had been deemed physically unfit in his conscription examination in 1930. As a director Kurosawa made his debut in 1943 with Judo Saga, set in the 1880s. It was based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, a judo master and writer. Tomita's novel depicted a skilled tough, Sanshiro, who learns the art of judo and self-realization under a guidance of a wise master. The film was well received in the war time Japan and shared the National Incentive Film Price. In the sequel of the story, Judo Saga II (1945), Sanshiro fights with an American boxer.

In the following works Kurosawa dealt with the effects of the war upon his country and changes in the post-war society. The Most Beautiful (1944) was about young women working in a lens factory, drafted to aid in the war effort. While making the film Kurosawa met Yoko Yaguchi, an actress, whom he married in 1945. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) was banned by the American Occupation Forces due to ist alleged "pro-Feudalism."

Kurosawa's collaboration with the actor Toshiro Mifune started from Drunken Angel (1948). "A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy," was Kurosawa's first impression when he saw Mifune's audition in 1946. "It was frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed." Drunken Angel was about a gangster (Mifune), who suffers from tuberculosis and rises against a yakuza boss. An alcoholic doctor, who fight against disease in the vicinity of an oily sump, tries in vain to change his self-destructive way of life. "In this picture I finally found myself," Kurosawa said.

In Stray Dog (1949) Mifune played a police detective who is plagued by feeling of guilt when his pistol is stolen and used in a robbery and a murder. Stray Dog was remade in 1973 by director Azuma Morisaki, starring Tetsuya Watari and Shinshuke Ashida.

Kurosawa gained international fame with his great series of films in the 1950s and 1960s, which mixed Eastern and Western styles and established him as one of the world's leading film makers. Rashomon received the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 1951, the Best Foreign Film Oscar in the U.S., and opened up Japanese cinema to acclaim in the West. The production company had been first rather reluctant to submit the film, fearing incomprehension. Moreover, Kurosawa abandoned the idea of an objective narrator in a way which had much similarities with he French nouveau roman of the 1950s. John McCarten's review in the New Yorker (December 29, 1951) consolidated early fears: "Perhaps I am purblind to the merits of Rashomon, but no matter how enlightened I may become on the art forms of Nippon, I am going to go on thinking that a Japanese potpourri of Erskine Caldwell, Stanislavski, and Harpo Marx isn't likely to provide much sound diversion." The dark tale of a rape of a woman and murder of her husband has been interpreted as a philosophical examination of the nature of objective truth. The Finnish film critic Peter von Bagh wrote in Elämää suuremmat elokuvat (1989) that Rashomon is about narcissism, about ways by which people deceive themselves. Kurosawa himself has said that he wanted to return with this work to the beauty and heritage of the silent film.

Rashomon, set in the eighth century Japan, was based on two stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke (d. 1927). As with several of Kurosawa's films, it was remade in the United States. In director Martin Ritt's version, entitled Outrage (1964), Paul Newman played a Mexican bandit accused of rape – Claire Bloom was the victim and Laurence Harvey the husband.

The acting in Rashomon is overstated in Kabuki fashion for dramatic effect but at the same time totally believable. Caught in a storm, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) tell to their companion a story which begins with the woodcutter's discovery of a corpse. An inquest is held. A captured bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), tells that he had followed a woman, Masago (Machiko Kyo), and her husband, Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), a samurai. He confesses that he had raped the woman and later killed the man but in a fair fight - the wife wanted it because she felt that one of the men must die to preserve her honor. Masago asserts that she was raped and wanted to die but she believes that she killed her husband when he disowned her. The priest confirms that the wife begged her husband to kill her and fainted. Through a medium, the husband claims to have committed suicide in response to the dishonour. For his shame, he had never seen his wife as happy as with the bandit. The woodcutter wows that Takehiro had been forced to fight - he felt that the rape had rendered her worthless – and that Tajomaru acted in self-defense. However even his objective testimony may not be reliable. A child appears on the gate of Rashomon and the woodcutter decides to adopt the child.

"I think that to learn what became of me after 'Rashomon' the most reasonable procedure would be to try to look for me in the characters in the films I made," Kurosawa wrote in Something Like an Autobiography. In Ikuru (1952) one of the characters, a gangster, demands: "Say something! Do you value your life?"

Ikuru was awarded the Silver Bear at the fourth Berlin International Film Festival. It is generally considered one of the finest films Kurosawa made. The story focuses on a minor bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), who tries to find meaning for his existence during the last months in his life. "The effect Ikuru can have on audiences is almost religious. Is it possible to watch Ikuru and not have it change you? Or is its effect much the same as Watanabe's impact on his co-workers? What does it mean to truly be alive?" (The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith IV, 2001)

Throne of Blood was a dreamlike adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which fog embraced the beautifully composed cold images. When the film was released in the Unites States in 1961, Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times. "The action is grotesquely brutish and barbaric... with Toshiro Mifune as the warrior grunting and bellowing monstrously and making elaborately wild gestures to convey his passion and greed..." The Hidden Fortress (1958) was a great commercial success. Later the American director George Lucas told that two of its characters inspired his bumbling robots in Star Wars. The film won the International Film Critics Prize and the Silver Bear at the ninth Berlin International Film Festival. Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film of 1975.

Kagemusha (1980) shared the Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival. With these and earlier achievements – and for his famous perfectionism – Kurosawa was addressed by his colleagues at Toho Studios as "Tenno"  (Emperor). Kurosawa's regular working group included among others the actor Katamari Fujiwara, whom he used more frequently than he did any other actor, including Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the composers Fumio Hayasaka and Masaru Sato, the cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, and the art director Yoshiro Muraki. With Ryuzo Kikushima he wrote a dozen scripts together. His own production company Kurosawa had officially established in 1959.

Seven Samurai (Shichinin No Samurai) started Kurosawa's samurai series, and is the most popular of all Kurosawa's films in the West. In Japan the film was attacked by critics even before it was released, and as late as 1972 critics again expressed their general dislike of the work. Kurosawa has acknowledged the influence of the classic westerns of John Ford on this work, but perhaps more important was Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925). The story is set in the 16th-century Japan, in the Sengoku period, a time of civil wars. Farmers in a village find their livelihood under the threat from marauding bandits. They decide to hire samurai to save their village. "Hire hungry samurai," advices one peasant. A samurai warrior, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), recruits other ronin and one would-be-warrior, to defend the village. In the final battle, accompanied by hard rain, the bandits are defeated. The rain obliterates class separation, peasants and samurai are all melted into the same class. Only three samurai survive. "The winners are those farmers. Not us," Kambei concludes. Seven Samurai contrasts peasants and samurai, war and peace, pity and cruelty, selfishness and altruism, individualism and collectivism, earth and sky. Usually Kurosawa's films are slow but in this work he also showed his skill in creating fast action sequences. Seven Samurai was imitated in the Hollywood production The Magnificent Seven, but its camera movements were more conservative and it did not try to imitate Kurosawa's images of the rain-swept nature.

The Italian "spaghetti" Western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, was pirated from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune. In a letter to Leone, which the Italian director wrongly considered a compliment, Kurosawa wrote: "Signor Leone – I have just had the change to see your film. It's a very fine film, but it is my film." Yojimbo was remade in 1996 by Walter Hill as a gangster story Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis. Hill's version, which was set in the 1930s, brought the story to the United States and in time close to Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest (1929), which perhaps had inspired Kurosawa. Sanjuro (1962), based on the story 'Hibi Heian' by Shugoro Yamamoto, was a lighweight sequel to Yojimbo, which made Stanley Kauffman ask in New York Herald-Tribune: "One wonders how the people who could make a film so superbly could be content to make one so shallow."

After making High and Low (1963), a crime story dealing with kidnapping, Kurosawa received telephone calls from people, who threatened to kidnap his daughter. Red Beard (1965), in which Mifune, an older doctor, teaches the value of kindness to an younger doctor, won in Japan the prestigious Asahi Cultural Prize. Kurosawa wrote with Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima the script for the thriller movie Runaway Train, a story about escaped convicts trapped in a train which is speeding toward catastrophe. It was eventually rewritten by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel, and Edward Bunker, and filmed in 1985 by the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay. Kurosawa's demanding working methods in the Japanese-American war film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) clashed with the American studio system, and he resigned from the project already in 1968. In an unsigned report he was said to have beaten the clapper man over the head with a piece of rolled paper. When the assistant director refused to beat subsequently the rest of the crew, Kurosawa fired him. Next day all rested and tried to cool down.

Despite international fame, Kurosawa suffered a deep personal setback in the late 1960s and early 70s. After Dodes Kaden (1970), a story about a slum, failed at the box office, Kurosawa attempted suicide – he slashed his throat six times and his wrists eight. When Kurosawa had recovered he spent nearly four years with Dersu Uzala, a Soviet-Japanese co-production, shot largely in Siberia. The gently, simply told film was based on Vladimir K. Arsenjev's (1872-1930) autobiographical book In the Jungles of Ussuri. Arsenjev tells of a hunter-trapper, named Dersu Uzala, a wise man who lives simple life in accordance with nature. Kurosawa's beautifully photographed 70mm film won the Academy Award as Best Foreign Film, but not as a Japanese but as a Soviet film.

With Kagemusha (1980) Kurosawa returned to the large-scale historical epic, which continued in Ran (1985), a version of Shakespeare's King Lear. Although Kurosawa was the most famous Japanese director in the West, he had troubles in getting finance from his own country. Ran was made possible by the support of Francis Coppola and George Lucas.

"In all my films, there's three or maybe four minutes of real cinema," Kurosawa once said. (Film Yearbook, 1987) Kurosawa made in the 1990s his last and most intimate films, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), a family drama returning to the horror of the atomic bomb, and Madadayo (1993), an anecdotal story about a teacher and his former students. Kurosawa died on September 1, 1998, in Tokyo. His last script, After the Rain, was finished by the director Takashi Koizumi, who had known Kurosawa since 1970. The film also marked the return of Kurosawa's composer Masaru Sato, aged seventy-one, and the art director Yoshiro Muraki, aged seventy-five. The city of Imari on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan's four main islands, was chosen as the site for Kurosawa memorial museum. Kurosawa made on Kyushu several of his masterpieces, including Ran and Kagemusha.

For further reading: The Films of Akira Kurosawa by D. Richie (1965, 3rd expanded and updated edition 1999); Akira Kurosawa by P. Erens (1979); The Warrior's Cinema by Stephen Prince (1991); Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa (1982); Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa, ed. by James Goodwin (1994); Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema by James Goodwin (1994); Shicninin No Samurai Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (2000); The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith IV (2001); Seven Samurai by Joan Mellen (2002) 


  • Sugata Sanshiro / Judo Saga, 1943 (also script, based on Tsuneo Tomita's novel Sanshiro Sugata, starring Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita and Yukiko Todoroki)
  • Ichiban utsukushiku / The Most Beautiful, 1944 (also sc., starring Takashi Shimura, Sôji Kiyokawa and Ichirô Sugai)
  • Zoku Sugata Sanshiro / Judo Saga II, 1945 (also sc., starring Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita and Ryûnosuke Tsukigata)
  • Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi / The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, 1945 (also sc., released in 1952, starring Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita and Kenichi Enomoto)
  • Asu o tsukuru hitobito / Those Who Make Tomorrow, 1946 (co-dir. with Kajiro Yamamoto and Hideo Sekigawa)
  • Waga seishun nikuinashi / No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946 (co-sc. with Eijiro Hisaita, starring Setsuko Hara, Susumu Fujita and Denjirô Ôkôchi)
  • Suburashiki nichiyobi / One Wonderful Sunday, 1947 (co-sc., starring Isao Numasaki, Chieko Nakakita and Atsushi Watanabe)
  • Yoidore tenshi / Drunken Angel / Juopunut enkeli, 1948 (co-sc., starring Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune and Reisaburô Yamamoto)
  • Shizuka naru ketto / The Quiet Duel, 1949 (co-sc., adapted from a play by Kazuo Kikuta; starring Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Miki Sanjô)
  • Nora Inu / Stray Dog / Kulkukoira, 1949 (co-sc., starring Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Keiko Awaji)
  • Shubun / Sukyandaru / Scandal, 1950 (co-sc., starring Toshirô Mifune, Shirley Yamaguchi and Yôko Katsuragi)
  • Rashomon / Rashomon - Paholaisen portti, 1950 (co-sc., starring Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori; two American remakes: a television drama, directed by Sidney Lumet, based on Fay and Michael Kanin's stage adaptation; The Outrage, 1964, directed by Martin Ritt, starring Paul Newman, Claire Bloom and Edward G. Robinson)
  • Hakuchi / The Idiot, 1951 (co-sc., based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, starring Setsuko Hara, Masayuki Mori and Toshirô Mifune)
  • Ikuru / To Live / Ikuru -Tuomittu, 1952 (co-sc., starring Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko and Shin'ichi Himori)
  • Shichinin no Samurai / Seven Samurai / 7 samuraita, 1954 (co-sc., starring Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara; remade in the US: The Magnificent Seven, 1960, dir. by John Sturges, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Drad Dexter; followed by three sequels, starting with Return of the Seven, and a TV series)
  • Ikomono no Kiroku / I Live in Fear, 1955 (co-sc., starring Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Minoru Chiaki)
  • Kumonosu-jo / Castle of the Spider's Web / Throne of Blood / Seittien linna, 1957 (co-prod., co-sc., based on Shakespeare's play Macbeth; starring Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki and Isuzu Yamada)
  • Donzoko / The Lower Depths, 1957 (co-prod., co-sc., based on Maxim Gorky's play; starring Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada and Kyôko Kagawa)
  • Kakushi toride no san-akunin / Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress / The Hidden Fortress / Kätketty linnake, 1958 (; starring Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara and Minoru Chiaki)
  • Warui yatsu hodo yoko nemuru / The Bad Sleep Well / Pahat nukkuvat hyvin, 1960 (co-prod., co-sc.; starring Toshirô Mifune, Masayuki Mori and Kyôko Kagawa)
  • Yojimbo / The Bodyguard / Yojimbo - onnensoturi, 1961 (exec. prod., co-sc.; starring Toshirô Mifune, Eijirô Tôno and Tatsuya Nakadai; remade as A Fistful of Dollars, 1964, dir. by Sergio Leone, starring Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonté and Marianne Koch; The Last Man Standing, 1996, dir. by Walter Hill, starring Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern and William Sanderson)
  • Tsubaki Sanjuro / Sanjuro / Samuraimiekka, 1962 (exec. prod., co-sc.; starring Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Keiju Kobayashi)
  • Tengoku to Jigoku / High and Low / Taivas ja helvetti, 1963 (exec. prod., co-sc., based on Evan Hunter's novel King's Ransom; starring Toshirô Mifune, Yutaka Sada and Tatsuya Nakadai)
  • Akahige / Red Beard / Punaparta, 1965 (exec. prod., co-sc., based on the novel Akahige shinryotan by Shugoro Yamamoto; starring Toshirô Mifune, Yûzô Kayama and Tsutomu Yamazaki)
  • Dodes' Ka-den / Köyhän pikajuna, 1970 (co-prod., co-sc. , based on the novel Kisetsu no nai machi by Shugoro Yamamoto; starring Yoshitaka Zushi, Kin Sugai and Toshiyuki Tonomura)
  • Dersu Uzala, 1975 (co-sc., based on Vladimir K. Arsenjev's book Dersu, okhotnik / In the Jungles of Ussuri; starring Maksim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin and Svetlana Danilchenko) 
  • Kagemusha / Shadow Warrior / Kagemusha - varjokenraali, 1980 (co-prod., co-sc.; starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken'ichi Hagiwara)
  • Ran, 1985 (co-sc., starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao and Jinpachi Nezu)
  • Runaway Train / Pakojuna, 1985 (only screenplay, dir. by Andrei Konchalovsky, starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay)
  • Akira Kurosawa's Dreams / Kurosawan unet, 1990 (also screenplay)
  • Rhapsody in August / Elokuun rapsodia, 1991 (also screenplay, based on the novel Nabe no naka by Kiyoko Murata; starring Sachiko Murase, Richard Gere and Hisashi Igawa)
  • Madadayo, 1993
  • Ame aguru / After the Rain / Sateen jälkeen, 1999 (only screenplay, based on a short story by Shugoro Yamamoto, dir. by Takashi Koizumi)  
  • Kakushi toride no san akunin, 2008 (original screenplay, dir. by Shinji Higuchi)

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