Study Guide

Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa Essay - Critical Essays

Kurosawa, Akira (Vol. 119)

Introduction

Akira Kurosawa 1910–1998

Japanese director and screenwriter.

For further information on Kurosawa's life and career, see CLC, Volume 16.

In a career that spanned fifty years and produced thirty films, Kurosawa established himself as a major force in international cinema. Kurosawa made nine films before his talent gained widespread recognition outside Japan. His tenth film Rashomon (1950) was entered in the Venice Film Festival and look lop honors. Set in medieval Japan, Rashomon relates the story of a rape and murder in four conflicting versions, each telling as much about the narrator as the events. Kurosawa's examination of larger questions such as the subjectivity of truth and perception helped to give his films their universal appeal. He borrowed freely from Western film and literature, writing and directing Japanese versions of Shakespeare's Macbeth (as Throne of Blood; 1956), and King Lear (as Ran; 1985), Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, Fedor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, and Ed McBain's King's Ransom. This cross-cultural stimulation proved to be a two-way street. John Sturgess' The Magnificent Seven, Martin Ritt's The Outrage, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, Walter Hill's Last Man Standing, and George Lucas' Star Wars are all based on Kurosawa films. Kurosawa's early work is noted for the technical virtuosity of his action sequences, including high-speed tracking shots and elaborate battle scenes. He frequently employed the use of multiple cameras, getting the scene with all its cuts in one take. But these one-take filmings came after many hours, and sometimes days, of rehearsal, giving Kurosawa the reputation of a difficult perfectionist. His early training in painting gave him a strong sense of visual composition which he used in filming. Kurosawa frequently filmed through a telephoto lens, the optics of which compress depth, giving scenes the two-dimensional flatness of classic Japanese scroll paintings. He also incorporated aspects of Noh theater (which uses standardized masks to convey the character and emotions of the actors) by having his actors' makeup applied in replication of these masks. His work is criticized by some as too Eastern and others as too Western, but many reviewers see it as a successful melding of the different arts and cultures. In response, Kurosawa would refer to his personal art collection. "I collect old Japanese lacquerware as well as antique French and Dutch glassware. In short, the Western and the Japanese live side by side in my mind naturally, without the least bit of conflict."

Principal Works

Sanshiro Sugata (film) 1943
The Most Beautiful (film) 1944
Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (film) 1945
No Regrets for Our Youth (film) 1946
One Wonderful Sunday (film) 1947
Drunken Angel (film) 1948
The Quiet Duel (film) 1949
Stray Dog (film) 1949
Rashomon (film) 1950
Scandal (film) 1950
The Idiot (film) 1951
Ikiru (film) 1952
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (film) 1952
Seven Samurai (film) 1954
Record of a Living Being (film) 1955
The Lower Depths (film) 1957
Throne of Blood (film) 1957
The Hidden Fortress (film)...

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Obituaries

Rick Lyman (obituary date 7 September 1998)

SOURCE: "Akira Kurasawa, Director of Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Dies at 88," in New York Times, September 7, 1998, p. A1.

[In the following obituary, Lyman summarizes Kurosawa's life and career.]

Akira Kurosawa, who personified Japanese movies to most of the world and who grew into one of the handful of truly important directors that the cinema has produced, died yesterday at his home in Tokyo. He was 88.

The cause was a stroke, his family said.

Mr. Kurosawa, the son of a military institute's athletic instructor, stumbled into filmmaking after failing as a painter...

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Interviews

Akira Kurosawa with Kyoko Hirano (interview date 1986)

SOURCE: "Making Films for All the People," in Cineaste, Vol. XIV, No. 4, 1986, pp. 23-25.

[In the following interview, Kurosawa discusses Ran, his role as a filmmaker, and critics.]

His nomination this year for an Academy Award as Best Director seemed an official, if belated, recognition of the fact that Akira Kurosawa, Japan's greatest living film director, is also one of the world's greatest directors. Ran, Kurosawa's long-dreamed-of adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, is his 27th film and the culmination of a remarkable career. During Kurosawa's visit to New York last...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)

Criticism

Jay Leyda (review date October-December 1954)

SOURCE: "The Films of Kurosawa," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 24, No. 2, October-December, 1954, pp. 74-78, 112.

[In the following review, Leyda traces the development of Kurosawa's art, from his earliest films to the ones made after the successful Western debut of Rashomon.]

The surprise of the entire film world at the appearance of Rashomon at the 1951 Venice Festival will surely be a dramatic paragraph in all future international film histories. That film made such a powerful impression outside commercial film channels that we have all been compelled to make room, though a small one, for Rashomon, for its director, Kurosawa, and for Japanese pictures in...

(The entire section is 4140 words.)

Charles Higham (essay date Autumn 1965)

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Humanism," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXVII. No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 737-42.

[In this essay, Higham examines the central thesis of basic human dignity in Kurosawa's films.]

It is fourteen years now since Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon burst on the world, evoking reactions ranging from waspish—"slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes" (Manny Farber in The Nation)—to ecstatic—"It is a rare cinema treat" (Philip T. Hartung). Today, Kurosawa's reputation, refueled by annual chefs-d'oeuvre, shows no signs of flagging, and no one would raise an eyebrow at the statement that he is a towering figure of the film. What...

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Benito Ortolani (essay date 2 October 1965)

SOURCE: "The Films and Faces of Akira Kurosawa," in America, Vol. 113, No. 14, October 2, 1965, pp. 368-71.

[Father Benito Ortolani, an Italian Jesuit at the Sophia University in Tokyo, has made extensive study of Noh Theater and Japanese films. In the following essay, he examines the recurring spiritual themes in Kurosawa's films.]

By the novelty of its circumstances, it was the first of my meetings with Akira Kurosawa that imprinted on my mind the most vivid impression of the man and his work.

Kurosawa's motion picture crews were on location one beautifully cold December day on one of the vast back lots of the Toho Company in the outskirts of Tokyo....

(The entire section is 3615 words.)

Keiko I. McDonald (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Light and Darkness in Rashomon," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, 1982, pp. 120-29.

[In the following essay, McDonald examines the symbolic representations of man's nature in Rashomon.]

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the winner of both the 1951 Venice Festival Grand Prize and the 1952 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, has been examined from many perspectives. One Japanese critic points to the non-Japanese qualities of Rashomon and Kurosawa's other major films, and another comments on its fine filmic style. On the other hand, a number of Western critics explore the moral, psychological and social implications of the murder and...

(The entire section is 4263 words.)

David Desser (essay date Fall 1983)

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Eastern 'Western': Sanjuro and the Influence of Shane," in Film Criticism, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 54-65.

[Dresser is a noted writer on the subject of Japanese cinema. In the following essay, he details the structural similarities and thematic differences between Sanjuro and Shane.]

If we understand Donald Richie and Noël Burch to occupy a kind 'of co-chairmanship of Japanese film criticism in America and Europe, they share their chair uneasily. Richie stands 'for a kind of international humanism in which he seeks to understand the Japanese film from an archetypical, psycho-cultural point of view. Burch represents the...

(The entire section is 5448 words.)

Jack J. Jorgens (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Throne of Blood: Washizu and Miki Meet the Forest Spirit," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 3, 1983, pp. 167-73.

[In the following essay, Jorgens explains the psychological differences between Macbeth and Throne of Blood with a detailed analysis of the opening sequences of the film.]

Macbeth's first line in Shakespeare's play, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen," announces the theme of moral ambiguity and confusion in time of war, and initiates a scene from which the play's whole action flows. On the way home from battle, Macbeth and Banquo (who, we have learned, have both fought bravely for King Duncan against...

(The entire section is 3628 words.)

Bert Cardullo (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Circumstance of the East, The Fate of the West: Notes, Mostly on The Seven Samurai," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1985, pp. 112-17.

[In the following essay, Cardullo uses The Seven Samurai to illustrate the difference between Fate and Circumstance.]

    I must categorize the films of the
    world into three distinct types.
    European films are based upon human
    psychology, American films upon
    action and the struggles of human beings,
    and Japanese films upon
    circumstance. Japanese films...

(The entire section is 2462 words.)

David Boyd (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Rashomon: From Akutagawa to Kurosawa," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1987, pp. 155-58.

[Below, Boyd explores the development of Rashomon from two stories by Akutagawa.]

Kurosawa's Rashomon (or "The Great Rashomon Murder Mystery," as Donald Richie once dubbed it with the director's apparent approval) involves, like more conventional murder mysteries, two distinct narrative lines: the story, or stories, of a crime (the various contradictory accounts of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife) and the story of an investigation (the attempt of the characters at the Rashomon gate to sort through these contradictions and...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Frances M. Malpezzi and William M. Clements (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Double and the Theme of Selflessness in Kagemusha," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1989, pp. 202-06.

[In the following essay, Malpezzi and Clements examine the different value placed on selflessness in the East, as explored in Kurosawa's film Kagemusha.]

In Something Like an Autobiography, which covers his childhood, youth, and early professional career, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa writes:

I like unformed characters. This may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself, in any case, it is in watching someone unformed enter the path to perfection that my...

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Stephen Prince (essay date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: "Memory and Nostalgia in Kurosawa's Dream World," in Post Script, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 28-39.

[Below, Prince gives a detailed summary of the progression of themes in Kurosawa's film career. He shows how the sequences in the film Dreams revisits the subjects of earlier works and reflects changes in Kurosawa's philosophy.]

Dreams is Kurosawa's twenty-eighth film and is, in every respect, a work of the director's late period. It represents a last and perhaps final permutation of his visual style, offers an exploration of the moral, psychological, and social significance of the dream-work, and marks a turning point in the five-year...

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Tadao Sato [translated by Linda Ehrlich] (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Spirit of Compassion: Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1992, pp. 48-49.

[Tadao Sato is one of the most noted film critics in Japan. In the following essay, he provides a plot summary of the film Dreams, and responds to the charges of some other critics that the film is anti-American.]

All of Akira Kurosawa's recent films are deeply tinged by motifs of death and destruction. Both Kagemusha and Ran are tales of the destruction of the shogun's clan during the Sengoku period, but in their repeated images of warriors endlessly facing death in meaningless battles, there is a deep-rooted despair which...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)

Kathy Howlett (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Are You Trying to Make Me Commit Suicide? Gender, Identity, and Spatial Arrangement in Kurosawa's Ran," in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1996, pp. 360-66.

[In the following essay, Howlett examines the actions of Lady Kaede from the film Ran within the framework of Japanese gender politics.]

In Ran Kurosawa explores the space of tenuous masculine constructions of identity within the cinematic frame and the powerfully subversive oppositional imaging of female identity. Apparently representative of the Jidai Geki genre, and glorifying the bravery of the ancient samurai and his masculine code, Ran exhibits what Stephen...

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Brian Parker (essay date Summer 1997)

SOURCE: "Nature and Society in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 508-25.

[In the following essay, Parker contends that criticisms of Kurosawa that describe his films as "Western" and his works as cold and distant are not seeing them in the right context. In a detailed analysis of Ran and Throne of Blood, Parker shows their relationships to Noh Theater, and Japanese art and religion.]

I have never read a review of a film of mine which did not read false meanings into it. (Kurosawa)

I CONTEXTS

It is important for Western audiences...

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Julie Kane (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "From the Baroque to Wabi: Translating Animal Imagery from Shakespeare's King Lear to Kurosawa's Ran," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1997, pp. 146-51.

[In the following essay, Kane follows the translation of animal imagery from King Lear to Ran, as it is affected by the Japanese concept of minimalism.]

One comes away from viewing Akira Kurosawa's Ran, a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear set in sixteenth-century Japan, with the distinct impression that Shakespeare's poetry has been jettisoned in favor of visual imagery. Screenwriters Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Ide Masato have...

(The entire section is 3555 words.)

Michael Wilmington (review date 20 March 1998)

SOURCE: "Kurosawa's Madadayo a Fully Alive Story," in Chicago Tribune, March 20, 1988, p. A.

[In the following review, Wilmington lauds Kurosawa's film Madadayo.]

The cinema has given us very few artists of the stature of Japan's Akira Kurosawa, director of the haunting mystery Rashomon, the raging battle epic Seven Samurai and the melancholy tragedy Ran. Poet of action, dark comedian and great storyteller of the human condition, Kurosawa has stood at the summit of his profession for over half a century, in the company of John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir and very few others. He is the acknowledged all-time master of cinematic action,...

(The entire section is 956 words.)