Film Focus: Akira Kurosawa.
We try to pick three of our favorite films from Japan’s most iconic director, Akira Kurosawa.
We’ve been tackling the history of Japanese film in roughly chronological order, and having arrived in the 1950’s, there’s one name that dominated – Akira Kurosawa. His films were not only important cultural touchstones in his home country, they became the larger world’s first experience of Japanese cinema. When Rashomon exploded on to the scene in Venice and The Academy Awards, it changed film history. His works went on to influence everything from spaghetti western classics like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, to space operas like George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Kurosawa went on to direct 30 films between 1943 to 1993, and worked creatively on dozens more as a writer, assistant director, and producer. Nearly every one of his films is regarded as a classic, so narrowing down the catalog to our three favorites is a daunting task. We decided to pick his three most prolific categories and choose one entry from each that set itself apart from the pack.
Film Focus: Akira Kurosawa.
The Period Drama Pick: Rashomon (1950).
There is perhaps no other movie in Kurosawa’s library that reached a higher cultural pinnacle than Rashomon. It was the first Japanese film to win an Oscar, and it is largely seen as the film that announced Japan’s level of cinematic excellence to the world. Had Kurosawa made no other film he would still likely be considered a genius director for Rashomon. The use of cinematic technique to create a narrative that leaps nimbly through time, location, and perspective was a revelation. The use of flashbacks layered upon each other to create cognitive dissonance was so bold that the assistant directors claimed they couldn’t understand it, and the film production company head was so dubious that they initially removed his name from the picture. It became such a phenomenon that the narrative technique was dubbed the “Rashomon effect” because there was no other precedent. Without Rashomon, we might not have such films as Hero, The Usual Suspects, or Inception.
The story concerns three witnesses to an assault and murder, each claiming to know who the killer is. A befuddled priest must judge the case based on their testimony, and even after hearing from the dead man himself, he cannot make sense of what he is hearing. Kurosawa expertly uses every trick in the book to make the mystery as confounding as possible, creating a film that is endlessly rewarding. Each time you watch Rashomon is like watching it for the first time, with the layers shifting to present a new perspective. If you’ve been leery of watching this because of the voluminous praise and its reputation for difficulty, don’t deny yourself the experience.
The Contemporary Drama Pick: Ikiru (1952).
A lifelong, minor bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) discovers he has terminal cancer and no more than a year to live. We watch as he drastically re-evaluates his life, which on the surface is the type of middle-class “success story” that society praised, but which he comes to see as a series of trivial tasks of no importance.
Much like Rashomon, a good portion of this film is told through flashback. Rather than obscuring the story, the flashbacks illuminate it. After crash-landing into our protagonists life and seeing his initial desperate attempts to come to some sort of terms with his situation, we eventually end up at his funeral. From there, the plot flows backwards as we learn what his final resolve ended up being. The characters around him misjudge him and second guess him, but we’ve already been given a harrowing and touching tour of the man’s interior life. What fuels his final days are a mystery to the characters, but not to us. This inversion of the trope he created to such great effect in Rashomon is fascinating to watch. On top of it all, we have a cinematic sensibility where the camera is almost disinterestedly intimate. In some ways it can be as voyeuristic as a Hitchcock film, in others it is almost as sentimental as This Wonderful Life. Kurosawa threads his way through these extremes, making Ikiru a powerful film.
The “Shakespeare…but with Samurai!” Pick: Throne of Blood (1958).
An adaptation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, we witness a feudal general (Toshiro Mifune) embark upon a scheme of betrayal and murder after having received a prophecy from a spirit in the woods.
The two most famous adaptations of Shakespeare’s works by Kurosawa derive much of their power by the juxtaposition of Japanese and English theater. The narratives hit the beats of the Shakespearean originals, but their cadence is altered to fit traditional Noh performances. In the visually magnificent adaptation of King Lear, 1985’s Ran, the blend feels heavily tilted in favor of Noh drama, with the dress and make-up becoming more and more heavily stylized. As striking as that adaptation is, I prefer Throne of Blood for two reasons.
First, Toshiro Mifune is such a dynamic and expressive actor, especially when collaborating with Kurosawa. Most portrayals of MacBeth tend to mimic Hamlet, with a heavily cerebral main character who spends most of his time inside his own head. Mifune plays a raging, bestial figure who recklessly charges into his fate. The play takes on more energy and turns MacBeth into a more forceful character.
Second, Kurosawa gives Throne of Blood a different sensibility. Drawing upon a long history of feudal war epics, his reading of MacBeth is just more engaging. If you didn’t care or weren’t aware that this was a riff on a Shakespearean drama, you’d likely just enjoy it as a taut samurai picture filled with blood and swordplay and political intrigue. Plus, you get to see him have real archers fire actual arrows at his long-suffering leading man in the big climax! What’s not to love about it?