Akira Kurosawa: From Samurais to Shakespeare

Photo of Lindsay Parnell
5 November 2016

With a career spanning nearly 60 years and 30 films under his direction, acclaimed Japanese screenwriter and director Akira Kurosawa has proven to be one of the most influential creative minds of modern cinema. Lindsay Parnell looks back at his major successes, from Sanshiro Sugata to Ran, describing how they made the filmmaker into an international icon and sparked a keen Western interest in Eastern cinema.

Kurosawa | Nesnad/Wikicommons

Born in Tokyo in 1910, Kurosawa was exposed to Hollywood cinema from a young age, as his father strongly believed that watching Western films would benefit his son’s education. This sparked Kurosawa’s love of film and, following a short painting career, he entered the world of Japanese cinema as an assistant director. His directorial debut in 1943, Sanshiro Sugata, chronicles the judo induction and training of the young Sugata. Kurosawa depicts Sugata’s story as one of bravery and self-discovery, and the film proved to be a critical and mainstream success upon its release.

The inaugural decade of the young director’s career was his most productive period: it saw the release of 18 films that he either wrote or directed. But it would be 1950’s Rashomon, Kurosawa’s dramatic and thrilling crime saga, which would introduce the Japanese director to Western audiences. Winner of the Venice Film Festival, Rashomon’s success boosted the director’s awe-inspiring career and opened a new market for Japanese cinema in the West. Kurosawa’s most celebrated film during this period was Seven Samurai, an epic depiction of Samurai warfare in the Warring States Period of Japanese history. Whilst the film is famous for its action sequences, it also offers a more considered take on the schisms within Japanese society, and the ultimately tragic lives that these duty-bound warriors lead.

The 1960s and 70s saw a spectacular 12 films released by this writer-director. Kurosawa’s body of work owes its success to the highly stylistic editing techniques which made his name synonymous with innovative storytelling, as well as his equally wonderful writing and directing. Kurosawa’s duo of final films proved to be a truly stunning conclusion to his accomplished career. Kagemusha (1980) was a critical darling, showered with nominations and awards at international film festivals such as the BAFTAs, the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival. Kagemusha is an epic narrative about a petty felon who masquerades as an ailing warlord in an attempt to deter a rival warlord from launching a violent assault. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction-Set Direction in the 1981 Academy Awards, Kagemusha once again demonstrated Kurosawa’s directorial skill.

Ran, released in 1985, is an Eastern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kurosawa’s version is a violently lustful domestic drama centered on a battle for power between a father and his sons. Presented through a sinister lens of betrayal, murder and deceit, the film is a brilliantly revisited story; ferociously chaotic but never sacrificing its narrative lucidity. Ran received high international reception from critics and audiences alike, including an Oscar for Best Costume Design and additional nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Art Design-Set Direction. In 1990 Kurosawa was the recipient of the honorary Academy Award, which recognized his major contributions to film and celebrated his truly rich additions to the international film community. A revolutionary eye and spirit, Kurosawa left a lasting legacy by establishing the Japanese film industry as a hub of creativity and a center of innovation.

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