Auteur. Influential. Historian. Each of these words embodies a part of the essence of what Akira Kurosawa means to world cinema. His highly individualistic and strictly controlled style of filmmaking resulted in a legacy of movies have demonstrated a nearly unparalleled capacity to reach across cultures and years, resulting in films that have influenced filmmakers and dazzled audiences around the world for decades. The director’s ability of Kurosawa to construct intimate narratives within the grand structure of history is on display in many of his most famous works. He would use this ability to craft powerful tales amidst the backdrop of history, deftly balancing cultural relevance with creative storytelling.
Equally regarded in Kurosawa’s work—perhaps owing to the fact that many of his of his films are anchored in distinct historical periods—is his ability to meticulously and convincingly bring historical settings to life on the screen. Many have viewed his films as explorations of the sentimental, political, and cultural landscapes that existed within Japanese history, especially during his own lifetime. His films often act as deliberate examinations of the period in which they took place, exploring not only the difficult realities that existed, but also the personal ordeals of the individuals that had to confront within them. At his best, Kurosawa turned his insightful eye to the various tumultuous periods of Japanese history, blending his own perspectives with historical fact.
Given the expansive nature of his work, it is appropriate for our purposes to select a few films that stand out as shining examples of this capacity for blending historical and popular narrative. Although many other films by Kurosawa exist within the contextual realm of exploring history, these works are focused entirely on the societal dilemmas that plagued Japan at the time they took place. From peasant revolts to wartime duty to nuclear fears, each film delved into problems faced by individuals and their personal engagements with the problems of their day. Always keen to present the past as a meaningful look into our understanding of the present, Kurosawa sometimes deliberately refused to craft a film solely for the sake of entertainment, preferring to present his audience with movies that are as educational as they are compelling.
The Most Beautiful
In perhaps his first major period piece, The Most Beautiful, Kurosawa sought a final product akin to documentary. Filmed during the wartime, Kurosawa (like Frank Capra on the other side of the lines) had to follow strict national policy that promoted the war effort. Episodic in its presentation, The Most Beautiful follows a group of girls working in an optical instrument factory. Produced under the watchful eye of national policy, the film provides an incisive look into the Japanese ideology at the time, which was to serve and dedicate your life towards the betterment of Japan. Perseverance is key within the film, with many of the stories showcasing adversity within the lives of its characters and the persistence that carries them through their many hardships. The Most Beautiful interweaves a story of individuals with their dedication to a greater good. Even manipulated by stringent governmental policy, the film remains a fascinating portrait of the philosophy of an era, providing viewers with a sometimes uncomfortably deep examination of the roles that one would undertake to better service the whole, rather than the one. In this way, Kurosawa was able to offer to the audience a look into the personal as well, which would later become one of his most lauded abilities as a filmmaker.
Make no mistake—The Most Beautiful is a propaganda film. Although the final cinematic result is quite manipulative—both on screen and during its production—Kurosawa still delivers a vivid portrait into the civilian philosophy of the day. During this period of immense artistic suppression, the ability to present a story of perseverance of not only people, but a personal drama about women, is remarkable indeed. The theme is one that Kurosawa would further explore in No Regrets for Our Youth.
Released just a year after the end of World War II, No Regrets for Our Youth is a direct and rather confrontational look into Japan’s wartime ideals and the transformative process one woman made through them. The film is loosely based upon the Takigawa Incident of 1933, in which Kyoto University Professor Takigawa Yukitori was suspended for his supposed Marxist philosophies. Presented as an overarching view of both the pre-war and post-war period within Japan, No Regrets for Our Youth is an entrancing view of the psychological effects of such turbulent times.
Like many of his other films, Kurosawa combines both the history with that of the personal relationship. Yukie, the protagonist and daughter of a cipher for Takigawa, is courted by two of her father’s pupils, with one of whom stand in for real-life Yukitori student Hotsumi Ozaki. Kurosawa’s main concern is the transformation of Yukie from privileged socialite to social advocate, while actively presenting true-life events throughout. Kurosawa presents the reactionary responses of the individual living through such events, rather than just offering a stale look into the confinement of historical fact. Produced during the aftermath of World War II, the newfound freedom of expression was key for Kurosawa and his cinematic endeavors. Questioning the suppression of thought during the wartime period, No Regrets for Our Youth reflects upon these practices within the realm of the personal experience, rather than the collective. The film’s attachment to the journey towards self-realization amidst a time of burgeoning social change offers an enlightening view into both the era and Kurosawa’s own newfound freedom of expression. Here, Kurosawa is finally able to freely explore history without needing to modify it—he’s gone through his own change, mirroring the transformative process undertaken by Yukie in the film. Tackling such controversial subjects within cinema would have been unheard of during wartime, making No Regrets for Our YouthKurosawa’s first true foray into actively questioning history, in turn offering an authentic look into a period of Japanese history that called for such revolutionary outlooks.
With the production of Seven Samurai, Kurosawa wanted to create a true jidai-geki, a uniquely Japanese brand of period drama. In this respect, he wanted to distinguish himself from falling into the rather formulaic and standardized form of the genre that dominated the era; jidai-geki films were among the most prominent form of Japanese cinema during this period. Kurosawa wanted to do something much more—to effectively present history within the context of the present. This is where the Seven Samurai really distinguishes itself as a film that’s as entertaining as the standards of the jidai-geki genre, but goes much deeper in its exploration of the historical backdrop.
The film takes place in Sengoku Era Japan, a time of warring states and frequent lawlessness, and Seven Samurai demonstrates Kurosawa’s focus on presenting this combative, difficult period in miniature, showcasing the lives of three distinct groups within the film—the samurai, the bandits, and the peasant farmers. Classism during this period was the rule of the land, and features prominently in the film. As the powerful bandits battle for control and conquest, simultaneously struggling with the samurai, the farmers are caught amid the chaos as they attempt to live normal lives. The willingness to showcase this struggle for dominance is fascinating as Kurosawa explores the response of the helpless during a time of constant, violent conflict. This reaction is certainly surprising, mostly because of the realistic approach it adopts towards viewing historical problems.
During the Sengoku era, Japanese peasant farmers lived largely at the mercy of their local daimyo, feudal lords who were often exceedingly cruel to their subjects. Often ignoring the basic needs of life or crippling families with crushing taxes, many daimyo cared little for farmers living on their land, interested only in the profit that the land could bring them. This relationship meant that rural or lower class residents were largely left to fend for themselves—often with disastrous results. This eventually led to the hiring of the samurai, which, considering the attitude towards samurai during this era, was largely a deal with the devil. As much as the farmers disliked the roaming bandits, the once honored samurai class garnered even more disdain. This stigma was due to the overabundance of samurai at the time who regularly engaged in plunder and murder on behalf of their warlords. As Kurosawa demonstrates, wandering samurai were often only marginally more civilized and law abiding than the bandits they were hired to defend against.
Kurosawa utilizes this simplification and segmentation of the film’s characters to better construct a narrative that can be viewed both as a historical lesson in Japanese classism as well as an ideological lesson on the value of perseverance in the face of harrowing odds. While destructive entities battled for supremacy, Kurosawa ponders the fates of those rare individuals who upheld honor and duty. These are all values that existed within the common culture at the time, but are only briefly mentioned within historical texts, something Kurosawa strove to change by crafting a historical text as popular art.
With Seven Samurai, Kurosawa not only explores a constant period of insecurity, but also effectively removes the dichotomy often put forth by traditional historians. Members of every class are seen as noble, as crass, as strong, as vulnerable—in short, as human. Individuals, regardless of class, exemplify important ideals or what side of the conflict they stand on. While we see Kurosawa expressing his interest in history through cinema once more, he also expands upon it to tell an engaging story far from approaching any formulaic style of filmmaking, making Seven Samurai an exemplar of Kurosawa’s thoughtful and unique take on Japanese history.