A Life in Film
Writing about Akira Kurosawa is somewhat akin to swatting a fly. A swift hand against a thousand reflexes. Ponder that, won’t you? The man practically invented everything we know about visual storytelling. He has influenced our dreams, altered our visual grammar for the better. Perhaps the best a writer can do is to clarify just what it is that makes this or that idea special. So often we experience things that enliven our souls, though we have no way of telling why or how. So what is it about the craft of this director that makes us experience his films in special ways? That’s the important thing. Ideas and their implementation. When you approach a subject in bigger ways it becomes harder to isolate those elusive qualities. For instance if we talked about the films of Kurosawa, and we will, we would have to include all of those agents and collaborators that assisted his work, which are many. But to talk about the man himself means talking about his ideas and his methods.
Let’s get his accomplishments out of the way. He made 30 films in 50 years. That’s approximately one film every 20 moons. Kurosawa was able to endure labor disputes, studio meddling, changing tastes and incomprehensible critical moods for 20 of those years in his home country. It was only the big budget wreck of Tora! Tora! Tora! that undid his Lou Gehrig-like streak of quality films—ironic that an attempt to return to the subject of imperial Japan caused so much trouble for a man who earned his wings under that very regime. The cracks were already apparent with 1965’s Red Beard, a mess of contrivances in spite of its shades of brilliant composition and wide-screen photography. Kurosawa foolishly thought that he could work peaceably with a big American studio like Fox; he seemed genuinely surprised both when the studio rewrote his script and accused him of breaking his contract by not shooting every day of the week. He essentially got himself fired from the production, though Fox insisted that he resigned for reasons of health. Clearly the director was in the midst of a personal crisis.
The film he abandoned in order to work on the American-Japanese co-produced war epic was The Runaway Train, written by Kurosawa and scheduled to be shot in upstate New York; what perhaps could have been a return to form. The sad result was that Kurosawa returned with Dodesukaden, a film whose title is a rough onomatopoeic translation of the sound of an approaching train, but a train imagined and conducted by a retarded boy through a nameless slum. The characters of the film invariably live in a world of their own making and their delusions are buoyed by a director who refuses to take their plight seriously, opting for a decidedly colorful, light-hearted mood. It’s not surprising now to know that Kurosawa attempted suicide barely a year after its release. What happened next was an inexorable climb back to the mountaintop, a 20 year trek that culminated with perhaps the master’s most enduring masterpiece, Ran.
But the story of Kurosawa is more than the story of a man who did this or that, more than an accumulation of successes and praises. It all started with Sugata Sanshiro, a film that effectively spurned centuries of flat Japanese pictorial composition with its unchained camera. Kurosawa began by painting in three dimensions, but the innovations wouldn’t end there. Over the course of a dozen films, his increasingly confident style of telling a story with framing and movement, a narrative complexity rare in the cinema of any country at the time, would influence countless artists both consciously and subconsciously. A telltale sign of his ability to meld style and story to the benefit of both was the propitious effect he had on the acting of Toshiro Mifune, a hardworking actor whose work with the director elevated his instincts to Brando-like levels of admiration. Compare Mifune’s work in Seven Samurai to his work a year later as the eponymous samurai hero of Musashi Miyamoto and note the difference.
Above all Akira Kurosawa was a tough-minded individualist with a vision, a vision pursued with the most intense regard for detail. To this end he was a ruthless presence on set; he demanded perfection from his team. Since Japan historically is a collectivist culture and its film industry specifically is a modular enterprise designed to produce collaborative efforts, Kurosawa was therefore an oddity—a director with greater control of every aspect of filmmaking than perhaps any director anywhere—which the Japanese press could never understand. In their vexation they gave him the nickname “Tenno” (Emperor), an irreverent and incomprehensible branding for those who worked with him and admired his methods. “Among ourselves,” Hiroshi Nezu, long Kurosawa’s production chief, has said, “we think that he is Toho’s best director, that he is Japan’s best scenarist, and that he is the best editor in the world.”1
Indeed, Kurosawa, like precious few other filmmakers, edited every foot of filmstock personally, usually balancing this task concurrently with his directorial responsibilities2. This aspect of the Kurosawa film, perhaps more than any other, explains why his work is so personal, affecting and exemplary for it is through editing that a film truly comes together. The editor ultimately shapes the meaning of the images, and for Kurosawa the duration of those images, their syntagmatic significance to each other and precisely timed cutting were paramount.
A comprehensive biography could fill volumes and we have no pretensions to such a grand endeavor (those interested should scan the reading list at page bottom). We intend instead to provide a sketch of Akira Kurosawa through his art, a body of work so rich, diverse and diffuse that a brief look upon each of his 30 directorial features will hardly do it justice, but should nevertheless satisfactorily trace the evolution of his increasingly sophisticated style if read chronologically. Without further ado, we proudly present the life and work of Akira Kurosawa as we dedicate a full month of analysis to one of our finest storytellers. Happy 100th birthday, Kurosawa-sensei.
1 Taken from “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” by Donald Richie, p. 238.
2 The director would edit the day’s footage nearly every night after shooting. This was done partially to maintain the direction of the film in his own mind since Kurosawa would shoot all of his films chronologically from first scene to last—another unique method which few other directors have adopted—but it also allowed his team (actors included) to have footage which they could review to better understand Kurosawa’s intentions.
|Thoughts on Kurosawa|
|Hideyoshi's Reforms and Seven Samurai|
|Rhapsody in August||1991|
|High and Low||1963|
|The Bad Sleep Well||1960|
|The Hidden Fortress||1958|
|The Lower Depths||1957|
|Throne of Blood||1957|
|I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being||1955|
|The Quiet Duel||1949|
|One Wonderful Sunday||1947|
|No Regrets For Our Youth||1946|
|Sugata Sanshirô Zoku||1945|
|The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail||1945|
|The Most Beautiful||1944|