Akira Kurosawa

the dividing of lands scene in Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece: Ran (1985)

the dividing of lands scene in Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece: Ran (1985)

  • Born:  1910
  • Died:  1998
  • Rank:  1
  • Score:  941.80
  • Awards:  BAFTA / 2 NBR
  • Nominations:  Oscar / DGA / BAFTA
  • Feature Films:  30
  • Best:  Rashomon
  • Worst:  Sanshiro Sugata Part II

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Rashomon – 1950
  2. Ran – 1985
  3. The Seven Samurai – 1954
  4. Ikiru – 1952
  5. Throne of Blood – 1957
  6. Stray Dog – 1949
  7. High and Low – 1963
  8. The Hidden Fortress – 1958
  9. Kagemusha – 1980
  10. The Bad Sleep Well – 1960

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1952 – 1st – Rashomon
  • 1956 – 1st – The Seven Samurai
  • 1959 – 9th – Drunken Angel
  • 1960 – 5th – Ikiru
  • 1960 – 7th – The Hidden Fortress
  • 1961 – 2nd – Throne of Blood
  • 1961 – 3rd – Yojimbo
  • 1962 – 6th – The Bad Sleep Well
  • 1963 – 1st – Stray Dog
  • 1963 – 3rd – High and Low
  • 1966 – 6th – Red Beard
  • 1977 – 6th – Dersu Uzala
  • 1980 – 3rd – Kagemusha
  • 1985 – 1st – Ran
  • 1990 – 7th – Dreams

When people look at his career, they think of the great Samurai films.  They remember films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo and they think of the influence they had on other filmmakers.  They think of the American versions (The Magnificent Seven) or the Italian versions (A Fistful of Dollars) and it’s nice to look at the improvements to American Westerns, once the influence of Kurosawa began to travel over the ocean.  They look at Toshiro Mifune as that charismatic forceful presence, they think of him as this all invulnerable Samurai.  And they forget about all the magnificent things that encompass the career of Akira Kurosawa.  Don’t forget.  Look at the entire career.  Next year, Criterion will be releasing a new box set called AK 100.  In it, you get 25 of Kurosawa’s feature films (the missing ones are A Quiet Duel, Dersu Uzala, Ran, Dreams and Rhapsody in August).  It gives you the entire breadth of Kurosawa’s career, one that wasn’t simply defined by Samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune.  While their careers massively overlapped and while they are the best actor / director collaboration of all-time, it is unfair to either to think of their careers as simply those Samurai films.  They made many other great films together, there are other great Kurosawa films (and other actors) and Mifune starred in many other Samurai films (including many available in the Criterion Collection).

For a long time it was hard to see the earlier Kurosawa films, unless you were lucky and lived in a city like Portland with a video store like Movie Madness.  But Criterion has been making it easier to see these films for a while now and the rest will finally be seeing the light of day.  Kurosawa began his career with a the kind of film which would define his career: a Samurai film, Sanshiro Sugata, based on a well known Japanese novel.  But his next film was a contemporary Drama focusing mostly on woman, The Most Beautiful.  After that he went back to Feudal Japan for The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail before being contractually obligated to direct a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata, easily his weakest film (by his own admission) and until the release of the box set, extremely hard to find (it was the last Kurosawa film that I was finally able to track down).  Next up came a series of contemporary films dealing with the problems and relationships in post-war Japan, long ignored, but given new life with the release of the Eclipse box set Post-War Kurosawa by Criterion.  There was No Regrets for Our Youth, a very good romantic drama, followed by One Wonderful Sunday, a charming comedy about a nice young couple trying to make ends meet.  But then came the first of his **** films and the film that strongly established Takashi Shimura as one of his leading actors and the film that first teamed Kurosawa up with Toshiro Mifune: Drunken Angel.  Then came the still hard to find A Quiet Duel before Shimura, Mifune and Kurosawa teamed up for their brilliant police procedural, Stray Dog.

Then there was the fifties.  It began with Scandal, one of Kurosawa’s weakest films, but with a great supporting performance from Shimura.  Then came Rashomon, the film that made him an international star among directors, the film that won the Oscar and the Golden Lion at Venice, one of the greatest films ever made.  Then there was his interesting version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, again with Mifune.  There was Ikiru, with Shimura giving one of the great performances in film history, a film whose international acclaim continues to grow.  Then came The Seven Samurai, hailed by many people in the film industry as the greatest film ever made, the film that influenced more Westerns than any American film, the film that made an international superstar out of Toshiro Mifune.  Next was Mifune’s brilliant performance as the man afraid of nuclear annihilation in I Live in Fear.  Then came adaptations of Shakespeare (Macbeth made as Throne of Blood) and Gorky.  Then Hidden Fortress, the movie that George Lucas does not hesitate to name as the single greatest influence on Star Wars.  It was all one decade, all of them except Ikiru starring Mifune, most of them also starring Shimura.  An incredible decade, one that found Kurosawa less hailed in Japan than he was in other countries.

With the sixties came more Shakespeare, a loose adaptation of the Hamlet plot in The Bad Sleep Well, with Mifune avenging his father.  Then there were the two Samurai comedies, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, the films that Sergio Leone would pretty much copy verbatim making Clint Eastwood into an international star piggybacking on Mifune.  There was High and Low, a great police procedural that first teamed Kurosawa up with Tatsuya Nakadai.  But funding was harder to find and after sinking a lot into Red Beard, there was little left.  And even though both Kurosawa and Mifune would both live over 30 more years and continue to work in film, the two men would never work together again.

In fact, work was hard to come by for Kurosawa.  His participation in Tora! Tora! Tora! fell apart and he attempted suicide.  His personal project, Dodes ka-Den, though very good, was thoroughly misunderstood and was a commercial failure.  He was forced to seek outside funding and his next film, Dersu Uzala, finally earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination (Rashomon had earned an Honorary Award.  After that the only Kurosawa film that was even submitted to the Oscars was Dodes Ka-Den) but as the submission from the USSR.  Kurosawa had found funding in Russia and filmed most of the film there, so in spite of the Japanese director, it actually won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film as the Soviet submission.

Kurosawa again had trouble getting financing, but this time he finally had friends on his side.  Coppola and Lucas had learned to love Kurosawa film and were appalled that their hero was having such difficulty getting a film made.  They managed to secure a financing deal through 20th Century Fox (who was eager to make Lucas happy given the success of Star Wars) so that Kagemusha could get made.  It was a return to the Samurai epic that had been Kurosawa’s main calling card, except on a grand scale, with a solid budget, long length, and finally, in color.  It looked amazing on screen and with Mifune no longer part of the team, Kurosawa turned to Tatsuya Nakadai to play the double roles.  Then came Ran and it took five years, but that was because Kurosawa wanted to make certain to get it right, making use of King Lear this time, it became Kurosawa’s swan song masterpiece, a brilliant take on Feudal Japan.  When Japan refused to submit it, the official submission was denied a nomination and Kurosawa himself actually finally got an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Three more films would follow.  Dreams was a piecemeal film made up of several differents short segments, but they all seemed to fit together, and he again got help from a hero worshipping great American director (Martin Scorsese starred in one segment) and the finished work is magnificent.  Then came Rhapsody in August, a film that actually dealt with Hiroshima, the aftermath, and how people in the area still felt after 45 years.  His final film was Madadayo, a film about an aging teacher and the students who have been a part of his life, a fitting final film for the director.

Next year we get the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and thus the box set.  It won’t quite be complete, but there are so many films in it that should be cherished, films that have never seen the light of day on DVD and have rarely seen the light of day on video.  People won’t have to hope their town has an amazing video store.  They finally get a chance to simply own them.

Ran – #1 film of 1985

I read King Lear in high school and I didn’t take to it.  I didn’t object to it like I did to Romeo and Juliet (I still think Romeo is one of the dumbest characters in all of literature), and I certainly recognized the beauty of the language, which is the real power in any Shakespeare play (most of the plots were taken from other places anyway), but for some reason, I just couldn’t take to King Lear.  Then in college I saw Ran.  Here was King Lear, minus the two characters I had really loved in the play (Edmund and Edgar), with a character that seems a bit less Regan or Goneril, and a bit more of Lady Macbeth, and I loved it.  I knew from the second I saw it that it was brilliant, probably the best Shakespeare ever put on film.

So what is it?  It’s not the story.  After all, I never really took to the original play, but I think this film is brilliant (and Grigori Kozintsev’s film version is as well, which does use the language, albiet, in subtitles translated back from Russian), but A Thousand Acres is the same story and both the novel and film were utter crap.  There is something about this film that moves beyond.  It isn’t the Samurai genre as a whole, because I love all of Kurosawa’s Samurai films, but outside of that, even though I have seen quite a bit, there are only a few Samurai films that I think are really great (Harakiri, Samurai I, Gate of Hell).

Is it the quality of the film?  It was nominated for 4 Oscars, winning Best Costume Design (it lost the other three to Out of Africa).  It was following on two other brilliant Foreign films that Best Director nominations to go with several technical noms, but failed to get a Best Picture nomination (Das Boot and Fanny and Alexander).  And certainly Ran richly deserved all of its nominations (actually, it deserved to win all of those Oscars and Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Makeup as well).  Kurosawa put everything he had into the film and it showed.  He would wait months for certain cloud formations so he could get them on film.  He had all the costumes hand woven.  He built elaborate sets and managed to get them in storms and against sunsets and then filmed them burning to the ground.

But there are also the performances.  Tatsuya Nakadai had been a star in Japan for many years and had done many great films (including Harakiri and Kagemusha), but this was easily the best performance of his entire career, first as the slighted old king, then as the madman out in the wilderness, betrayed by his own pride.  There was Peter, who seemed to embody the very concept of Lear’s Fool.  But perhaps the most amazing was Meiko Harada as a character who combined the horrible evil of Goneril and Regan and seemed to add the naked ambition of Lady Macbeth.  It was Kurosawa’s male stars that were always talked about, but from Ikiru to Throne of Blood to Hidden Fortress to Ran, he always managed to get amazing performances out of the smaller female roles and he knew how to film ambition on screen.

Which brings us to the final aspect of the film: Akira Kurosawa.  Unlike Bergman or Fellini or Truffaut, while Kurosawa has been widely hailed as one of cinema’s great directors, he isn’t nearly as talked about for his writing.  Yet, Kurosawa wrote or co-wrote all of his films.  He could create an epic story like Hidden Fortress or Seven Samurai, but he also turned to classic literature as much any director outside of John Huston.  He filmed Shakespeare straight up twice, very loosely once, and also adapted Dostoevsky and Gorky (as well as more contemporary authors like Ed McBain).  He knew how to take the script and make it into a film.  He took Shakespeare and found a way to make a film that felt like it could have come straight from Japanese history.  He was a creator.  In Ran he created characters, he created scenes, he created shots, and in the end, like he had done so many times before, he created a masterpiece.

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