Master Filmmaker
Akira Kurosawa
A CultureMap®
by Sid Rosenzweig
Published on 3/24/14

In movieland everyone simultaneously influences and is influenced by everyone else. Consider Akira Kurosawa. He loved Western literature and movie Westerns, adapting everything from Shakespeare’s high tragedy to Ed McBain’s pulp thrillers and John Ford’s frontier mythmaking. His own mastery of melodrama, action and wickedly black comedy profoundly affected directors around the globe. Now consider this list: Toshiro Mifune, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Dashiell Hammett and Paul Newman. What connects them is Kurosawa.

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Akira Kurosawa  (1910–1998 | Japanese filmmaker)
to  Rashomon  (Akira Kurosawa (dir.) | film | 1950)

In 1951, Japan was a defeated, disgraced nation that Americans associated more with wartime atrocities than artistic achievement. Akira Kurosawa helped change that when his first undisputed masterpiece, Rashomon, won the Golden Lion (grand prize) that year at the Venice Film Festival. The film had opened in Japan the year before to a mixed, puzzled reaction. Submitted to the festival without Kurosawa’s knowledge, Rashomon introduced the West to postwar Japanese cinema, and its success stunned the director.

Its appeal for that time is obvious. The tale of a (possibly) noble samurai, his beautiful wife and a vicious bandit, set in a 12th-century Japanese wood, was exotic enough to entice audiences eager for the unusual. And its four different versions of the same event (the bandit’s rape of the wife and murder of the husband—but depending on who’s telling the story, the rape isn’t a rape and the murder isn’t a murder) marked it as a modernist work concerned with attractive themes: ambiguity and the subjective nature of truth. At the same time, its sex-and-violence-soaked story and breathless action made it strangely familiar. It is, after all, a Japanese Western. It’s also a damn good movie.

Toshiro Mifune  (1920–1997 | Japanese actor)
to  Rashomon  (Akira Kurosawa (dir.) | film | 1950)

Director-actor partnerships are nearly as old as cinema itself. Soon after joining Biograph in 1908, film pioneer D.W. Griffith began assembling his stock company; he would repeatedly rely on Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others. Think of Ford and Wayne, Fellini and Mastroianni, Scorsese and De Niro.

In Japan it was Kurosawa and Mifune. Though Akira Kurosawa used the actor Kamatari Fujiwara more often, Toshiro Mifune became the international superstar. Rashomon is what did it. Their first project together, Drunken Angel (1948), features Takashi Shimura (another Kurosawa fave) in the title role of an alcoholic doctor, but Mifune’s ferocious portrayal of a young gangster left audiences gasping. He brings identical ferocity to Rashomon as the bandit accused of raping a woman and killing her samurai husband. But he also shows versatility; his personality varies markedly in each of the film’s four versions of these violent events.

Kurosawa and Mifune made 16 movies together, a small percentage of the 180-plus in ultraprolific Mifune’s filmography. Yet despite their still somewhat mysterious split after 1965’s Red Beard, and Mifune’s subsequent Hollywood success (especially in the miniseries Shogun), Mifune said of Kurosawa, “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him.”

Akira Kurosawa  (1910–1998 | Japanese filmmaker)
to  Westerns

Little demonstrates cinema’s circle of influence more than Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics. Though they substitute swords for six-guns and feudal Japan for the American frontier, their archetypal characters, myth-inflected plots and furious action sequences come straight from Westerns by John Ford and others. The other half of the circle: Some Kurosawa films were remade as actual Westerns.

In Seven Samurai (1954), wandering warriors teach fearful villagers to fight a gang of nasty thugs. John Sturges’s 1960 megahit The Magnificent Seven transfers the tale to Mexico, spotlights young actors who later became action stars (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson) and introduces an enduringly popular theme song.

Four years later Sergio Leone popularized the spaghetti Western when he turned Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) into A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Mifune’s nameless, masterless samurai, who cleans up a town by pitting its two rival gangs against each other, becomes Clint Eastwood’s poncho-clad, cigarillo-chomping Man With No Name, who does the same in, again, Mexico.

Even Rashomon was remade—as The Outrage (1964) by Martin Ritt, with Paul Newman (as Mifune’s bandit), Claire Bloom and Laurence Harvey, and it was set, yes, in Mexico. Despite such credentials, Ritt’s film has a mediocre reputation.

Film Noir
to  Akira Kurosawa  (1910–1998 | Japanese filmmaker)

Some say film noir is not a genre but a mood (of unease and uncertainty), a set of themes (murder, manipulation, betrayal, general nastiness) and characters (femmes fatales and alienated heroes doomed by fate, chance and psychic weakness), and a striking visual style (smoke-filled interiors, shadowy exteriors and high-contrast lighting: dark darks, bright brights, few grays). That’s why there can be noir Westerns, noir sci-fi, even noir musicals.

And that’s why Rashomon, with its narcissistic liars tormenting one another in the light-dappled forest, can be counted among Akira Kurosawa’s noirs, a genre he liked as much as the samurai epic. His “official” noirs include Drunken Angel (an alcoholic doctor treats a tubercular gangster), Stray Dog (a rookie cop loses his gun to a violent thief), The Bad Sleep Well (corporate criminals consider murder a viable option) and High and Low (Ed McBain’s American thriller, transposed to Japan, about a kidnapper who grabs the wrong kid).

Then there’s Yojimbo, a blackly comic samurai adventure remade as a Western (A Fistful of Dollars) that was remade as a 1930s gangster saga (Last Man Standing, 1996). And why not? Yojimbo seems awfully close to noir godfather Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest.

Akira Kurosawa  (1910–1998 | Japanese filmmaker)
to  William Shakespeare  (1564–1616 | English playwright, poet)

Silent movies of Shakespeare plays? Sounds like a definition of missing the point. But even in the late 19th century, Shakespeare-inspired stories were filling screens. When sound came and performers had to recite Shakespeare’s dialogue, the number of literal versions dropped, but disguised, reinvented adaptations continued to appear.

Akira Kurosawa’s contributions to the Shakespeare film canon include period pieces Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), both among his greatest works. The former is his violent, fog-enshrouded take on Macbeth, starring a demonically fierce Toshiro Mifune as murderous Lord Washizu; in one of Kurosawa’s most memorably disturbing images, Washizu dies from a chestful of arrows fired into him by his own army. The latter is Kurosawa’s kaleidoscopically colored, significantly altered rendering of King Lear. Featuring vast battle scenes, a brutally bleak mood and a much meaner Lear than Shakespeare imagined (savage warrior Lord Hidetora), Ran is generally considered Kurosawa’s final masterpiece.

But there’s also The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a contemporary drama about corporate corruption, with Mifune as a Hamlet-like revenge seeker who marries the boss’s daughter to expose the man as his father’s murderer. It doesn’t end well, but then what Shakespearean tragedies do?

William Shakespeare  (1564–1616 | English playwright, poet)
to  Film Noir

Was Shakespeare the first noir writer? Probably not, since he often stole—that is, adapted—his tragedies’ plots from earlier writers. But his are juicier, full of sex, violence, political intrigue and spiritual rot. Look at his magnificently malevolent bad guys: Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth, Iago, the Lear girls, Richard III. All are dominated by dark desires for power, wealth and revenge; driven to acts of betrayal, butchery, mayhem and more. No wonder his works make such dandy noirs. And most film adaptations of his bloodier plays have at least a touch of noir about them.

There’s Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus, Ian McKellen in Richard III—but let’s stick to Macbeth. Orson Welles’s expressionistic 1948 film version shows Macbeth as a drunken, guilt-ravaged wreck, stumbling to his fate in an almost prehistoric stone “castle” with cavelike rooms and spiked windowsills. Roman Polanski’s equally intense 1971 adaptation adds color and nudity, and its creepy perversity foreshadows Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown. Joe Macbeth (1955) and Men of Respect (1990) are among the disguised updates—Macbeth as murky, brooding gangster saga. Towering above them all stands Akira Kurosawa’s fierce, frightening, fog-bound Throne of Blood.

Akira Kurosawa  (1910–1998 | Japanese filmmaker)
to  George Lucas  (b. 1944 | American filmmaker)

A long time ago in a country far, far away…two hapless, greedy peasants and the heroic general of a defeated clan escorted the clan’s lovely disguised princess—and her gold—through enemy territory to the safety of a mountain retreat. At least that’s what happens in Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, a lighthearted 1958 action-adventure. The director’s Seven Samurai had been a huge hit at home (and internationally), but his three subsequent efforts, all darker in mood, didn’t fare as well. The Hidden Fortress was designed to attract audiences looking for rousing entertainment. It did.

But today it may be best known for helping inspire Star Wars (1977). Substitute droids for peasants, and Luke Skywalker for Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese general, and you get the idea. George Lucas has long proclaimed his debt to and love for Kurosawa’s work, especially Fortress. He admired how the story is shown through the eyes of two relatively minor characters, the thieving peasants. No wonder he made his droids so appealing.

After Star Wars’ worldwide triumph, Lucas “repaid” his debt by helping the distressed Kurosawa find financing for his comeback film, Kagemusha (1980). Lucas got screen credit as an executive producer of this much honored masterwork.

George Lucas  (b. 1944 | American filmmaker)
to  Westerns

Sure, space can be the final frontier: Swap Indians for aliens, stagecoaches for spaceships, six-guns for phasers (or lightsabers), but keep the narrative patterns, thematic concerns and archetypal characters and you’ve reinvented the horse opera as space opera—George Lucas’s own term for Star Wars.

From his favorite Westerns he borrowed everything from specific situations (the cantina scene echoes one in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and characters (Boba Fett is based on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name) to images (Luke’s finding the family farm ablaze after an attack references The Searchers by John Ford) and broad plot elements (Searchers again).

As he ignited the sci-fi craze, however, Lucas inadvertently helped destroy Westerns, and by the 1970s the genre had almost exhausted itself. Reflecting Vietnam-era unhappiness, despair-filled “end-of-the-West Westerns,” set in the early 20th century, showed us the frontier was gone and its traditional characters were irrelevant. Creating a “new hope” and pushing the frontier into space (as Akira Kurosawa had relocated it to Japan), Lucas found a new home for the old myths. But he wiped the old home from the screen—until the 1990s, when Westerns returned and even won Oscars.