One day in the middle of September 1951, Akira Kurosawa went fishing.
He needed to. The film he had just finished, The Idiot had been released by the studio Shôchiku in a savagely cut version (from 265 minutes down to 166) and was far less popular and less critically acclaimed than earlier films such as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. It was an especially acute blow coming on the heels of his last film, had so confused the head of Daiei—the studio where it had been made—that he had walked out halfway through the screening. That earlier movie, a period film with the first nonlinear narrative ever found in a Japanese film, had enjoyed moderate box office success and—despite the confusion it induced in some—a moderate degree of critical acclaim. But with studios unhappy with two consecutive films and with no studio for his next project, Kurosawa had little to cheer him. Even fishing failed to help, since he broke his only line, which forced him to give up and head home.
If one believes in fairy godmothers, Akira Kurosawa’s may have been an Italian woman named Giulliana Stramigioli. The head of Italiafilm’s office in Japan, she had seen Kurosawa’s prior film, loved it, and suggested its inclusion in the Venice Film Festival for September of 1951, all without Kurosawa’s knowledge.
Upon returning home from his unsuccessful fishing trip Kurosawa’s wife greeted him at the door and informed him that he had just received a phone call: Rashomon, Kurosawa’s experiment in nonlinear narrative, had just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The importance of Rashomon’s winning the Golden Lion cannot be overstated. Its belated success is, in fact, the watershed moment in Japanese film history. The honoring of the film in Venice was lauded by an ecstatic Japanese press and was a source of enormous national pride, the first time Japan had been viewed in a positive light by the rest of the world since the end of WWII. Daiei, perhaps still baffled by the movie’s sudden success, immediately rereleased the film in Japan and produced subtitled versions for the United States and various European countries, which meant that Rashomon became the first Japanese film ever seen in much of the rest of the world. The international film community, which had never really even thought of Japan as possessing a film industry, despite the presence of directors like Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujirô Ozu, and Mikio Naruse, suddenly became aware of the nation’s rich film output. With Rashomon, Japanese cinema had entered the world’s consciousness.
In the wake of Rashomon’s success at the Venice Film Festival, Kurosawa, whose career had briefly been endangered, was signed to a contract by Toho, the studio where he had started his career. His next two films, Ikiru and Seven Samurai, became undeniable classics of the cinema world. But had Rashomon not unexpectedly (though certainly deservedly) won the Golden Lion, film history might have turned out very differently.
Today it is impossible to imagine a world without the films of Akira Kurosawa. He is easily regarded as one of the very greatest directors in the history of film, having made a host of first tier masterpieces. As Francis Ford Coppola said, when asked to name his favorite Kurosawa film, “So many of them are great, I mean, you could ask yourself which are the great ones, and which ones are merely very, very excellent.”
He is also among the most influential directors in the history of cinema and his worked spanned fully five decades. His first film, Sanshiro Sugata in 1943 was the work of an instantly mature director, and while most of his greatest films were made in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he was making interesting films into the 1980s. Indeed, an astonishing set piece in the 1985 film Ran, detailing the destruction of a huge castle constructed solely so that it could be destroyed, is a masterful scene of enormous virtuosity. The director was 75 years old.
To most outside of Japan, Kurosawa is synonymous with Japanese cinema. He was the first Japanese director whose films were remade in Hollywood and elsewhere, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars finding their roots in Seven Samurai and Yojimbo respectively. George Lucas has stated that the narrative structure of the first Star Wars film was borrowed from Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. It was an artistic debt Lucas later repaid his debt by—along with fellow self-proclaimed Kurosawa disciple Francis Ford Coppola—helping Kurosawa get funding for Kagemusha when no Japanese studio would provide financing).
But Kurosawa’s influence is much deeper than on this rather superficial level. Like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, Kurosawa originated film techniques that are still being used today. It is today commonplace for movies and, thanks to lighter, less expensive cameras, television series to be filmed with two or three cameras, a technique Kurosawa initiated in the battle scenes of Seven Samurai and continued in all films afterwards. Although not the first director to employ telephoto lenses for most principal photography, he was perhaps the most influential and certainly the most successful. He was the first director to use slow motion in action sequences, while Sam Peckinpah and other action directors credited scenes like the end of Throne of Blood, in which Toshiro Mifune’s character is assassinated by having hundreds of (live) arrows, many of which were embedded in his heavily padded armor, others landing only inches from him. Without Kurosawa, the end of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde is inconceivable.
Like Hitchcock, he has managed to impress critics and influence directors while simultaneously delighting moviegoers. One of the truisms about today’s movie viewers is that they resist watching movies in black & white and actively avoid movies that are subtitled. Yet as this piece is being written, Seven Samurai is the 13th highest rated film by viewers on IMDB.com, easily the highest-rated subtitled film on IMDB’s Top 250 and the second highest black & white film (topped only by Schindler’s List and two spots ahead of Casablanca).