As the son of a Japanese immigrant, Akira Kurosawa was embedded into my life at a very young age. Kurosawa has inspired some of the world’s most successful directors; he was highly regarded by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, where the latter even referred to him as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time.”
Kurosawa was born in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 1910 and was the youngest of four sisters and four brothers. His family could trace their lineage back to 11th century Samurai. As he grew older, he became close with his elder brother, Heigo. Kurosawa later said that he and his brother “would go to the movies, particularly silent movies, and then discuss them all day” (McDonald, William. The New York Times Book of the Dead: Obituaries of Extraordinary People. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016). Eventually, he started working as an assistant director right before World War II.
Directing and International Fame
He started directing films in 1941, but it was not until 1950 that he shocked the world with his film, Rashomon, about the psychological struggle over the nature of truth itself. Rashomon went on to win an Honorary Academy Award for ‘Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film’ and Akira Kurosawa’s name became forever embedded into history. Rashomon marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage. This also came at a time where the United States had defeated Japan in World War II just six years prior.
After Rashomon, Kurosawa went on to direct The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and many more films. Over his 57-year career, Kurosawa directed 30 films and won over 50 awards worldwide for his cinematic work. Some of his accolades include a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Academy Award in 1976 for Dersu Uzala, a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Academy Award in 1990, and a Directors Guild of America’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 1992.
Some may say that Kurosawa’s films can feel a bit slow because there are long periods between the main plot points. However, if one is only watching a Kurosawa film for the action scenes, they are already missing the point of the film—Kurosawa uses repetition in his films’ stories to show how life is cyclical. He also uses pauses internationally so the audience will analyze what has come before the pause and then understand the following results. Kurosawa’s most important theme is drawn from his personal belief that humans are fundamentally good. A film’s ability to affect the audience through its themes and messages are qualities of a good film. Kurosawa took that one step further and embedded that idea into his film-making process.
Kurosawa is the man who opened Asian cinema to Western audiences. While some film junkies may not have ever seen his films, they for sure have seen the films he inspired, or other adaptionations that are based on his films. Rashomon has inspired numerous films such as The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, Vantage Point, Hoodwinked, and several Quentin Tarentino films. George Lucas’s Star Wars was based on Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 2016’s The Magnificent Seven starring Chris Pratt is a very loose remake of the original 1969 The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; this film was also the inspiration behind Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life. Kurosawa has also influenced the film world in other ways, from editing to how a scene is blocked. Both current and future movie fans across the globe can learn a lot from Japanese cinema and other Asian films.
Early on in his career, Kurosawa had to overcome post-WWII sentiments and prejudice, specifically in the United States—anti-Japanese and anti-Asian propaganda was abundant. Much has changed since then; there have been two Academy Awards for Best Picture given to Asian directors (Ang Lee in 2013 for Life of Pi and Bong Joon Ho in 2019 for Parasite). Four Asian directors (including Kurosawa) have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (Ang Lee, Bong Joon Ho and Hiroshi Teshigahara). Both Ang Lee and Bong Joon Ho won the Oscar for Best Director for their aforementioned films. It’s safe to say that these modern directors would not have accomplished what they have without the foundations laid by Kurosawa. Progress has been made in recognizing quality filmmaking at the international level, but we still have a long way to go.
Kurosawa’s embedded themes still resonate with viewers today. If you have not seen any of his films, Throne of Blood, Ran, Kagemusha, plus the others mentioned in this article are a good place to start. If you’d like to check out Kurosawa’s entire directing work, click HERE to see the rest of his filmography.
How many Akira Kurosawa’s films have you seen? Let me know in the comments section or hit me up on social media.