Article abstract: Throughout his long career as one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema, Kurosawa explored a humane and profound vision of existence with a brilliantly inventive use of the art of film.
Akira Kurosawa was the youngest of seven children born to a family that recognized its rural roots but prided itself on being Edokko, or third-generation dwellers in Tokyo. In Kurosawa’s youth, Japanese country life was slow and peaceful and the culture of the city was just beginning to absorb ideas from the outside world. Kurosawa’s father was a graduate of a school for training army officers and was a severe disciplinarian who valued the varieties of experience that a man might encounter; his devotion to the ancient code of the samurai, Bushido, was an important influence on his son, both as a model and as a rigid pattern against which to react. Kurosawa was also deeply impressed with his mother’s quiet strength and iron will and by his darkly sardonic and brilliantly perceptive elder brother Heigo, whose suicide in 1933 led him to become “impatient with my own aimlessness.”
As a student in primary and secondary school, Kurosawa concentrated on the art and literature courses that he liked and ignored his required studies in math and science. He treasured teachers who taught with imagination and creativity, despised those who operated by rote, substituted reckless behavior for a lack of physical dexterity, and failed every aspect of military training he was required to take. Although his father was a noted figure in army society, he was not a military fanatic; he taught Kurosawa both calligraphy and poetry as a child and did not complain when Kurosawa decided to become a painter after graduation from middle school in 1927.
When Kurosawa was rejected by the army in 1930 as physically unfit, he joined several leftist political organizations, as much for the fascination of new experience as for his genuine sympathy for the people in Tokyo slums, and while working as a courier for underground political organizations, he spent his leisure time among friends of his brother, who had become a noted narrator of silent films. Kurosawa was gradually becoming involved in the avant-garde world of theatrical and artistic creativity, but his own career had not progressed at all. After his brother’s suicide, he worked as a commercial artist (“illustrations of the correct way to cut giant radishes”) to earn money to buy canvases and paints, but he was becoming anxious about his inability to find a real calling. In 1935, he noticed an advertisement announcing openings for assistant directors at the newly established studio Photo Chemical Laboratory (PCL). Kurosawa had been an avid filmgoer since elementary school; his test essay on the fundamental deficiencies of Japanese films was accepted, and he joined the studio. Although he found his first assignment routine and trivial, his father persuaded him to stay on, saying that anything Kurosawa tried “would be worth the experience.” His next assignment was with the director Kajirō Yamamoto, “the best teacher of my entire life,” and his life’s work had begun.
Kurosawa joined PCL immediately after the “2-26 Incident” of February, 1936, in which young army-officer extremists assassinated cabinet ministers whose policies they found too moderate. Kurosawa recalled that the studio was a true “dream factory” in those days, making films “as carefree as a song about strolling through fragrant blossoms.” Kurosawa was assigned to the group headed by his mentor, “Yama-san,” advancing from third assistant director to chief assistant director, concentrating on editing and dubbing from 1937 to 1941, as PCL grew into the huge Tōhō company, the single largest film studio in Japan. While the studio tried to avoid political issues, the severity of the censors led to increasing tension between the creative artists and the wartime government. When Kurosawa turned to screenwriting after spending a year with the second unit on Uma (1941; Horses), his second effort, “Shizuka nari” (all is quiet), won the Nihon Eiga contest for best scenario but was not filmed, nor were his next two scripts, which were “buried forever by the Interior Ministry censorship bureau,” a group Kurosawa viewed as “mentally deranged.” Two of Kurosawa’s lesser scripts, about the aircraft industry and boy aviators, were filmed by others in 1942, but, when he read the story of a rowdy young judo expert, he had an intuition that “This is it.” After convincing the studio to buy rights, he wrote the script for Sugata Sanshirō (1943; Sanshiro Sugata) in one sitting. The censors regarded his initial effort as a director as too “British-American,” but Yasujiro Ozu argued for its release, and although some critics believed that it was too complicated, the film was a success.
Realizing that he would not be permitted to make any films that did not contribute to the war effort but reluctant to support a government that he despised and alert enough so that, by 1943, it was clear to him that Japan was going to be defeated, Kurosawa wrote a script about a group of women working in a precision optics factory. Ichiban utsukushiku (1944; The Most Beautiful) was intended to illuminate the beautiful spirit (kokoro) of the young women struggling under trying conditions. This film introduced Takashi Shimura, an outstanding actor who went on to work with Kurosawa in many subsequent films.
Between 1945 and 1950 Kurosawa made nine films. Some of these were clearly apprentice works, but several—including Yoidore tenshi (1948; Drunken Angel) and Nora-inu (1949; Stray Dog)—show his increasing mastery and retain their interest. Drunken Angel is also notable as the first of many Kurosawa films to feature the great actor Toshiro Mifune. Later in the same year that saw the release of the relatively weak film Shubun (1950; Scandal), which marks the end of this period, Kurosawa completed the film that first brought him international recognition.
Working with a cast and crew he knew and trusted, Kurosawa adapted a story about an incident in a forest in eleventh century Japan, told from four points of view. The theme, according to Kurosawa’s explanation to a somewhat befuddled cast, was that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.” In a rare fusion of superb cinematography, exceptional music, inspired acting, and a perfect location coalescing through a director’s guidance, Rashomon (1950) delighted its participants and won the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival, a most prestigious award at the time, as well as the American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Kurosawa’s next project was Hakuchi (1951; The Idiot), based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevski. The film was more than four hours long in its original version and was a commercial failure in all of its released forms. Kurosawa clashed...
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