There was a time when giants walked the earth.
The greatest one happened to be from Japan.
Standing 6 feet tall, Akira Kurosawa was a literal giant and a cinematic one, influencing many of his peers as well as generations of directors to come. His films are continually studied today and was the catalyst that put Japan on the international map for cinema.
“Most directors have one masterpiece by which they are known,
or possibly two. Kurosawa has at least eight or nine.”
-Francis Ford Coppola
Finding an ad in the paper, he went in for an interview for PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory) Studios for an assistant director position in 1935 (PCL became Toho the following year). After passing the written test and (casually) passing the interview with Kajiro Yamamoto (apparently, all they talked about was good ramen shops in the area), he was given the position. There, Yamamoto taught him rigorously about every aspect of the filmmaking process, especially writing, and Kurosawa would begin to prove himself a great screenwriter. After each day’s work at the studio, Kurosawa would work on his script and sell them to the studio once he was finished. With that money, he would go drinking with his friends and when he ran out, he would write again.
“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For true cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.”
He finally got his directorial debut with Sugata Sanshiro in 1942, based on a popular judo novel of the time. It was a hit upon its release and jump started his career. However, it was not until 1950 that he would reach international stardom with the release of Rashomon.
Kurosawa, with the “Kurosawa family”, created masterpiece after masterpiece, securing his legacy in cinematic history. The most well known of his collaborations was with actor, Toshiro Mifune. This collaboration would be considered one of the greatest director-actor teams in the world.
Togther, Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films, with such notables including Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Hidden Fortress.
Coming back from the military, Mifune was looking for work as a photographer at PCL but ended up going in for an audition for the studio’s “New Faces” talent recruit campaign. In the audition, he was asked to portray anger and began going wild, tapping into his experiences from the battlefront. All the casting heads thought he was too wild and crazy except Kajiro Yamamoto, who loved him. Kurosawa getting word of this performance and later wanted to work with Mifune after seeing him in a small gangster flick. They finally did in 1948 for Drunken Angel. The rest is history.
However, it was not all rainbows and butterflies for Kurosawa. Due to the advent of television, audiences began to stray away from the theaters. Studios were no longer able to back Kurosawa’s large budget film projects. In 1966, his contract with Toho ended and he was left stranded. Looking for work outside of Japan, he decided to accept an offer to co-direct a US/Japanese production called Tora, Tora, Tora. However, after squabbling with the studio heads he was ultimately fired in a widely publicized media debacle. He then joined forces with three power house directors, Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa, to create the “Yon-ki-no-Kai” (“Four Knights”) production company. Kurosawa directed Dodeskaden with his new company but as misfortune called misfortune, it was a box office flop. The company split up soon after. Losing work, audiences, friends (at this point, he had estranged himself with Mifune, their last film being Red Beard, and long time collaborating screenwriter, Ryuzo Kikushima), and facing various other personal problems, he fell into a state of mental instability. Finally, he attempted suicide.
Although people thought he would never return to make films, Kurosawa rose from the ashes with the help from an unlikely studio. Despite Russo-Japanese tension, Mosfilm offered Kurosawa to direct an adaptation of Vladimir Arsenyev’s novel, Dersu Uzala. In 1973, Kurosawa and his crew traveled to the Russian mountains to begin working on the project. Teruyo Nogami, script supervisor for Kurosawa since Rashomon, has stated that it was by far the hardest shoot they had ever done. Fighting the harsh weather conditions, they finally wrapped a year and a half later in 1975. Dersu Uzala went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that year.
Later, with assisted funding from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Kurosawa then created Kagemusha, which he stated was a dress rehearsal for his next project and what he would later call his best work: Ran.
Putting every creative juice he had, he began working on his epic samurai adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Drawing from his painting background, he used color in the most stylistic way he’s ever done. Also, it seems as though he invested much of himself into the film for many speculated that Hidetora was a subtle metaphor for the aging director himself.
Due to the film’s multi-national funding and misunderstandings by the producers, Japan did not submit Ran for the 1987 Academy Awards which came as a huge surprise to the film world. However, Akira Kurosawa would later go on to win a Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. He went on to make Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Madadayo later on. Then on September 6th, 1998, the giant went to sleep and never woke up.
“I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns.”
Akira Kurosawa’s films have inspired, and will continue to inspire, many. Lucas’ Star Wars was inspired by Hidden Fortress, Leone’s Fistful of Dollars is based off of Yojimbo, The Magnificent Seven and A Bug’s Life are based off of Seven Samurai, among an endless list of others. He had influenced such greats as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman, and hundreds of other directors worldwide.
…I guess what I’m trying to say is… Happy 101st Birthday, big man. Like I’ve always said, “I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Kurosawa.”