Akira Kurosawa, a man who would have turned one hundred years old in September 1998, will always be considered as one of the influential moviemakers in cinema history. In his entire filmmaking career that spanned fifty seven years, he made and directed thirty one movies earning him the Lifetime Achievement Oscar Award for his efforts in 1989. Among his many other awards is a 1975 Best Foreign Film Oscar for the movie Dersu Uzala and a Moscow gold medal for the same movie. His muscular storytelling and moral curiosity were quite influential in the film making industry. Some of his memorable trademarks include the wipe effect in the fading transition between scenes which was later used in making the Star Wars trilogy. He was also famous for his use of weather, for instance rain or heavy wind, to amplify mood.
In his entire career, beginning with his first movie in 1943, Akira Kurosawa left many of his audiences in the West entertained and informed about the Japanese culture. He has been hailed as a timeless inspiration to many of the modern day Hollywood film directors. Phenomenal Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas have named Akira Kurosawa as having greatly influenced them in their careers. This paper discusses the relevance of Akira Kurosawa’s life and filmmaking career as well as some of his works to the Japanese culture and civilization.
His Early Life
Akira Kurosawa was born in Oimachi near Tokyo on March 23 1910. His father was known as Isamu Kurosawa who belonged to the Samurai family of the Aikita Prefecture (Galbraith 14). His mother was from a merchant family in Osaka. Akira was the eighth child in the moderately well to do family. He grew up with three sisters and one brother after his elder siblings left home. His father was a director at the Physical Education Institute of the Army (Galbraith 15).
The senior Kurosawa was a man who understood the value of theatre and motion pictures as an educational medium and viewed Western traditions with an open mind. He raised his children with the same principles which significantly influenced young Akira in his love for education, drawing, and movies. At the age of six, Akira Kurosawa was studying calligraphy and swordsmanship in the kendo discipline (Galbraith 16).
Besides his father, Akira’s older brother Heigo was also a major influence in the young man’s early life. Akira was only thirteen when Heigo took him to view the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake which is an experience that opened Akira’s eyes to the realities of devastation and dark side of nature. This experience influenced his later artistic work and his career as a movie director (Kurosawa 52). Heigo later went on to become a famous narrator for silent films. At this time Akira had become a painter while living with his brother. He, however, was not able to eke a decent living from his paintings due to his philosophical ideals that were not very popular with art collectors. His loss of enthusiasm with art coupled with his brother’s suicide left devastated and he moved back to his parents. In his autobiography, he talks about this phase in his life in a chapter aptly titled “A Story I Don’t Want to Tell” (Kurosawa 84).
He made his entry into the film industry as an inexperienced 25 year old assistant director at Photo Chemical Laboratories studio on February 1936. Photo Chemical Laboratories was later to change its name to Toho. In his five years as an assistant director at Toho, Kurosawa built his knowledge and experience under famous directors like Kajiro Yamamoto whom he worked under in 17 of his 24 movies as assistant director. Most of these movies were comedies in which the leading character was the famous actor Kenichi Enomoto (Galbraith 30). His major tasks included stage construction, film development and other activities like location scouting, lighting and editing among many others. His last film as an assistant director was Horse in 1941 (Cowie 68). Afterwards, Kurosawa took over the production of subsequent movies as a director.
One of the lessons Akira Kurosawa claimed to have learnt from Yamamoto was the importance and value of mastering screenwriting (Kurosawa 103). Writing scripts was more lucrative and paid higher than an assistant director’s salary. This prompted Kurosawa to either write or co-write all the movies he later produced. He even wrote screenplays for many other directors earning him a lucrative income on the side even after he had become famous in the 1960s (Martinez 47).
After releasing Horse in 1941, Akira Kurosawa spent the next two years seeking for a story to launch his career as a director with. This was a time of turmoil as Japan entered the Second World War against the United States. It was also a time when author Tsuneo Tomita published his book Sanshiro Sugata. The book had such a great impact on Kurosawa that he was able to convince Toho to secure its film rights.
In 1942, Kurosawa launched his career as a director with the movie version of Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa 123). His contribution to the movie industry and the effect it had on the promotion of Japanese culture and civilization can be best understood through a detailed analysis of the films he directed. His three significant films are Sanshiro Sugata, Seven Samurai, and Ran.
Sanshiro Sugata, translated as ‘Judo Saga,’ was Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut movie that Toho Studios released on March 25, 1943. It was eventually shown for the first time in the United States in April 1974. The movie was adapted from a book of the same title by Tsuneo Tomita. It depicts the life of Sugata, a young man whose search for mastery of jujitsu lands him in a self-defence discipline called Judo under the tutelage of a master judoka Shiro Saigo. The movie details the emergence of judo in the 19th century Japan. Sugata’s quest to learn is prompted by an incidence where he witnesses a man being bullied by a gang that is adept in the jujitsu fighting style. He eventually learns that before he can master any fighting style, he has to learn to wage a battle against his inner self (IMDB).
The theme of the movie revolves around the education, initiation, and self discovery of Sugata which he does in the process of learning judo. The theme is well depicted in a scene where Sugata leaps into cold water to prove to his master Yano his dedication after being involved in a street fight.
The movie also depicts two overtly religious concepts. The first one is the location of the judo facilities inside a Buddhist temple and the second one being Sayo, the love of Sugata’s heart, offering prayers at a Shinto shrine. It shows the Buddhist monk who lives in the temple as Sugata’s voice of wisdom who translates the leading character’s experiences into words. It is the monk who directs Sugata in his journey towards self-discovery. The monk’s words provide a connection between Sugata and Sayo and consequently between the two religions namely Buddhism and Shintoism (Chris).
The movie Sanshiro Sugata shows Kurosawa’s mastery of the process of making movies and depicts some of his trademark techniques like the use of wipes, camera speeds, and weather in reflecting character moods. The movie was such a great success that it has been remade five times. Its sequel Sanshiro Sugata Part II released in 1945 was also directed by Kurosawa.
In making the movie, Kurosawa was able to depict the importance of martial arts, which is a trademark of Japanese culture, as a discipline that went beyond mere fighting to mastery of the self and conquest of self-doubts and limitations. In the movie, Kurosawa was also able to show the interconnectedness between the two dominant religions in Japan namely Buddhism and Shintoism. The movie became a major box office release in the United States years later opening the world to the rich culture and religion of Japanese people.
The phenomenal movie Ran was produced and released by Akira Kurosawa in 1985. It is a Japanese period drama which portrays the fall of a ‘Sengoku-era’ warlord called Hidetora Ichimonji in a similar fashion to Shakespeare’s King Lear. The movie was Kurosawa’s last major epic production in which he portrayed the richness of Japanese culture albeit at turbulent times of the Empire’s history. It was a heavy budget movie which ran into an estimated $12 million. At the time of its release it was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made (Hagopian). It won praise the world over especially due to its powerful use of Japanese cultural images and color. Emi Wada, the movie’s costume designer, was awarded the “Academy Award for Costume Design” (Hagopian). Stephen Prince referred to Ran as “a relentless chronicle of base lust for power, betrayal of the father by his sons, and pervasive wars and murders that destroy all the main characters” (284).
The first part of its story line involving the warlord dividing his castles among his sons takes a slow pace characterized with soft spoken dialogues but as the action builds up, the movie takes a fast paced speed culminating in a fierce battle scene. It is a compelling movie that explores Japanese culture from a political view down to the material culture and wartime philosophy. The film undisputedly puts Akira Kurosawa on the forefront of movie directors who successfully elevated Japanese cinema to a global level.
The movie tells a story of greed, obsession with power, and finally revenge. It begins with the great warlord Hidetora retiring from the throne and dividing the empire between his three sons namely Taro, Jiro, and the youngest son Saburo. Hidetora’s wish at this advanced stage of his life is to live in peace in each of his son’s castles. Before the empire is divided, the younger son learns of his two elder brothers’ ulterior motives and goes ahead to pint this fact to his father. However, Hidetora perceives his youngest son’s warning as a divisive attempt and banishes him. In confirmation with the banished son’s claims, the oldest son conspires with the second one and together they take over the empire, stripping their father off everything including his title in the process.
Kurosawa’s inspiration for Ran came from a parable on Mori Montonari, a warlord during the Sengoku-era, and Shakespearean famous tragedy King Lear (Peary). The movie was also significant to the Japanese civilization as it highlighted lush and expansive Japanese sceneries in its locations which included Mount Aso plains and great castles in Kumamoto and Azusa as well as Himeji.
Set in the Warring States era in the 1580s Japan, the movie Seven Samurai is a story about a farming village that hires seven ‘ronin’ or samurais to protect it from bandits who steal and plunder their crops after every harvest. It is one of the most influential movies on Japanese samurai cultures ever made. Directed by Kurosawa, Seven Samurai became famous in the West for a long time and was even voted in Sight and Sounds ten greatest films in 1982 and 2002.
Released in 1954, the movie became an influence in the samurai class of movies that followed throughout the last century. Its success led to the remake known as the Magnificent Seven in Hollywood. Kurosawa’s main intention of making the movie was to have a movie that depicted the Japanese culture and at the same time show the existence of moral humanity in a place ruled by rigid traditions. For example, the hired samurai and the villagers belonged to two different castes that were never expected to mix by the existing traditions. The bandits on the other hand represented an even greater threat so much that the villagers were forced to seek the services of the samurai despite their traditional resentment of this fighting class of citizens.
Kurosawa used the movie to show the existence of moral standards in ancient Japan despite the warring and brutal depictions of this period favored by most historians. Some of the aspects of the movie like the love affair between one samurai, Katsushiro, and a farmer’s girl were meant to appeal to the modern audience as it would have appeared unrealistic in the 1600s (Ebert).
Like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa never attended any specific school of movie directors. He learned his ropes in the five years he spent as an assistant director at Toho under the tutelage of Kajiro Yamamoto, the famous Japanese director. However, his contribution in the movie world spearheaded the introduction of Japanese movies in the entire Western world.
His works were largely significant to the Japanese film industry because they portrayed the culture of Japan in the ancient period giving a visually informative view of the conditions as they existed as early as in the 1600s in the movie Seven Samurai and the political manipulations and battles after Hidetora’s reign in the movie Ran. In what historians and students of literature would refer to as preservation of oral and visual traditions, Akira Kurosawa used the art of film making to permanently preserve important aspects of Japanese culture through his movies.
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Internet Movie Database. Sanshiro Sugata. 28 April, 1974. Web. 17 April, 2011.<http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036400/>.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something like an Autobiography. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1983.Print.
Martinez, Delores P. Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in GlobalCinema.Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Peary, Gerald. Akira Kurosawa. Boston Herald. July, 1986. Web. 17 April, 2011.<http://www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/jkl/kurosawa.html>.
Prince, Stephen. The Warrior’s Camera. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.