The Rare Genius of Akira Kurosawa

The legendary director produced a body of work which transformed cinema, and continues to influence today's film makers.

Chances are, even if you've never seen the films, you are familiar with the work of Akira Kurosawa. The legendary director of Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Throne of Blood produced a body of work that transformed cinema at the time, and is still influencing filmmakers today. Directors like George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese all acknowledge the transformative effect of Kurosawa on their filmmaking. And not only has The Seven Samurai been directly remade multiple times in the 60 years since its release, it has also been the source and inspiration for legendary films like The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, and Ocean's 11.

 

Getting started with the films of Kurosawa:

Rashomon (1950).
Rashomon is based on a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa called "In The Grove", although the title itself is borrowed from another of his stories. It was the first major film to use a technique that is now called "The Rashomon Effect": the same story is related by several different narrators, with different perspectives and recollections of the events, casting doubt as to what really happened.

Rashomon was Kurosawa's landmark entrance onto the world stage. The film was not well-received in Japan, but, despite the objections of the Japanese government, it screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, where it won the Italian Critics Award and the Golden Lion award. This recognition led to the film being more available to Western audiences, and finally a wide release in the United States near the end of that year. It won an Honorary Academy Award in 1952 (the Best Foreign Language Film category wasn't introduced until 1956), and is still ranked among the top greatest films of all time by many sources.

Pay special attention to lighting in Rashomon. This was the first film to point the camera directly at the sun, and use mirrors to bounce natural light into the character's faces. The use of moving, dappled light can make scenes seem unclear and ambiguous, emphasise the setting in the natural world as contrasted with flat lighting in the civilized world, or highlight certain actions and story moments.

 

The Seven Samurai (1954).
The Seven Samurai was not only directed and edited, but also co-written, by Kurosawa. It was the first film to use a now-common storyline of assembling a team of strangers to take on a mission, seen today in films like The Usual Suspects and Baby Driver.

The Seven Samurai took a year to complete, four times longer than the original plan, and was twice shut down by the studio for being over budget. During production, Kurosawa pioneered multi-camera techniques and edited the film himself at night after shooting during the day. It is not only considered to be one of the best action movies of all time, but is consistently considered to be among the best films of all time, period.

Pay special attention to composition in The Seven Samurai. Kurosawa came to film with a background in painting, and this was one of the first films to use telephoto lenses. He composes each shot like a painter, with attention to the rule of thirds, and composing the foreground, midground, and background, using the focal length of the camera to direct the eye of the viewer.

Watching these two films alone gives a good foundation of the work of Akira Kurosawa, and provides a basis for understanding nearly every major film made since.

 

Filmmaking techniques pioneered by Kurosawa.

Composition.
As already mentioned, Kurosawa's background as a painter influenced his choices as a director. He uses the camera as a painter would, carefully composing and lighting each shot. In later films, he would use color in a painterly manner as well.

Editing.
He was one of the first directors to use multiple cameras and edit his own films. He established several editing conventions that are common today, including the use of wipe transitions as echoed in Star Wars, and the rules of matching and cutting on action.

Sound.
Kurosawa was influenced by silent films, and uses sound deliberately and intentionally.. and often minimally. He was the first filmmaker to use music that specifically contradicts the mood of a scene, rather than complementing it, and we can see that same technique masterfully adopted by Quentin Tarantino today.

 

Themes in the films of Kurosawa.

Kurosawa returned to a number of themes throughout his career, and it is worth watching his films in order to see how his perspective changes over time.

Individuality vs. Conformity or The Individual Good vs. The Greater Good.
Kurosawa grew up during a time when Japanese society was very rigid and hierarchical. He was the son of an Army officer and a member of the samurai class, and was often looked at as being too individualistic and too "Western" to be a good citizen. Many of his films feature characters that struggle with the morality of living up to social values and expectations, as opposed to doing what they think is right or good. Films like Throne of Blood and Yojimbo explore morality and individuality, and many of Kurosawa's films involve characters making personal sacrifices in the name of a greater good, often without achieving the desired result.

Nature as a character.
Nature always plays an important role in the work of Kurosawa, as depicted in forests, clouds, weather, and landscapes, and it is deliberately contrasted against or aligned with the emotions and passions of the characters. The natural world acts as a character in his films, and interacts with the story as a character would. Films from Rashomon to Dreams cast nature in various roles and use nature to dramatise or embellish the plot.

Even if Akira Kurosawa's films aren't according to your particular taste or preferences in film, it's important to have a basic understanding of his work and his methods, in order to understand the choices made by decades of subsequent directors. His work has a singularly defining role in film history, and he set standards that modern filmmakers still aspire to meet or exceed.

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