The 100 Essential Directors Part 5

Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh

by PopMatters Staff

14 August 2011


Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa
(1910 - 1998)

Three Key Films: Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)

Underrated:Red Beard(1965).Heavily criticized upon its release, this is one of Kurosawa’s most humane, beautiful films. The story of a crusty, older physician (Toshiro Mifune) taking as his protégé a young, ambitious doctor (Yuzo Kayama) who disdains working in a clinic serving the poor, the young man begins to change when he cares for the physical and emotional well-being of a young girl saved from a brothel. Some of the most moving scenes involve the young girl Otoyo caring for the young doctor when he in turn falls ill. A film filled with many heart-rending moments and featuring perhaps Kurosawa’s most extraordinary set, it was sadly also the director’s last with actor Toshiro Mifune, bringing to a close arguably the greatest director-actor collaboration in the history of film.

Unforgettable: The epic final battle in the pouring rain in Seven Samurai, as the villagers, led by the five remaining samurai, fight for their survival against a gang of bandits. Using between three and five cameras, Kurosawa pioneered in the sequence a host of cinematic techniques–shooting falling bodies in slow-motion, using telephoto lenses to create the illusion that the camera was right beside bucking horses, splicing cuts from two or three cameras to create a narrative image through editing. Despite no CGI and or special effects of any kind, it remains one of the great action sequences in cinema and the most impressive scene in one of the greatest films ever made.


Seven Samurai (1954)

The Legend: The importance of Rashomon’s winning the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival cannot be overstressed. It simultaneously resurrected the career of Kurosawa—whose previous film was deemed a major setback to his career—and signaled to the West that there were directors in the rest of the world who were the equal of any in Hollywood or Europe. His success in Venice led to a contract at Toho where he immediately made two films that are not merely among Japan’s greatest, but masterpieces of world cinema: Ikiru, about a petty bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) dying of cancer who overcomes a host of obstacles to oversee the building of a children’s playground, and Seven Samurai, his hugely influential and widely-imitated film about a group of samurai who save an impoverished village from bandits.

After Seven Samurai, Kurosawa would make a string of masterpieces such as Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo(1960), and High and Low (1963). But with television cutting ticket sales for movies, after Red Beard Toho ceased funding Kurosawa. Also, for reasons still not fully understood, Kurosawa decided to no longer use Toshiro Mifune in his films. This loss dramatically weakened the acting in Kurosawa’s later films; many have wondered how much better Kagemusha (1980) or Ran (1985) might have been had Mifune been used in the lead for each.

In the remaining 33 years of Kurosawa’s life after 1965 he was to make only seven films due both to a constant struggle to find funding for his films. In contrast, he had made 23 films in the first 22 years of his career. Several younger Hollywood filmmakers who considered themselves his disciples, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, helped Kurosawa obtain more reliable funding and he was able to make some memorable films, in particular the epic Ran.

But it was his earlier period that has proven so hugely significant for filmmakers around the world. The technique he developed using multiple cameras to capture the action from different angles has proven especially influential. Kurosawa’s would use two to three cameras equipped with telephoto lenses to capture a scene. The cameras would be so far away that the actors would be unaware of them, so that they would act not towards the camera but towards one another. The gains are enormous using three cameras: a more natural acting style, more continuity in editing, and a decrease in the time needed for shooting scenes, since fewer set ups were required. His use of slow motion has also been used by countless filmmakers, especially action directors.

By any standard Kurosawa is both one of the most important and most entertaining directors in the history of cinema. His films are not loved only by cinephiles, but by everyday filmgoers. As an example, as I type this Seven Samurai is ranked #13 by viewers on No film above it on the list is as old and no subtitled or foreign film is ranked higher, a testimony not just to the enormous power of the film, but of Kurosawa’s films in general. Robert Moore



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