West By East By West: The Influence of Kurosawa on the West and Vice Versa

Dave Charpentier
Ran, Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Through his influences and achievements, Kurosawa became one of the first true international filmmakers, inspiring several generations of filmmakers who would explore notions of genre and identity in film.

Throughout its history, Japan has always championed its culture above outside influence. It grudgingly accepted missionaries in the 16th century only because they could provide ships, goods, gold and guns. In the 1860s, the nation reluctantly opened its ports to international trade when the United States’ Commodore Perry showcased his fleet’s military force. Cinematically, early Japanese filmmakers, due to government involvement, crafted a style of their own based on Noh theater, patient minimalism, and quiet introspection that was clearly distinct from Western film of the same period.

Akira Kurosawa, however, was not content to continue this isolated protocol. In post-WWII Japan, at a time when his homeland was being occupied by the United States, Kurosawa chose to look toward and embrace certain Western ideologies of filmmaking. He used Shakespeare and American pulp novels as source material, and embraced Hollywood narrative styles and filmmaking techniques. Combining these elements with his own training in the Japanese studio system, Kurosawa was one of the early purveyors of a truly international style, a refined alchemy of filmmaking that was embraced by both West and East. Whereas contemporary Japanese filmmakers such as Ozu and Mizoguchi tended to focus on strictly Japanese elements with a nuanced, patient style that did not find Western audiences for many years, Kurosawa’s body of work was easily relatable across many cultures. Beginning with Rashomon, Kurosawa’s work introduced audiences worldwide to Japanese filmmakers and contemporary Japanese culture.

A lifelong student of dramatic work from around the world, Kurosawa was heavily influenced by authors from Dostoyevsky to Shakespeare. In films such as Throne of Blood and Ran he reinterpreted Macbeth and King Lear as tales of war and political intrigue in feudal Japan. The nature of many of Shakespeare’s tragic characters fit well into the no-nonsense code of the samurai, many of who were likely to encounter downfalls because of their own violent ambitions and the scheming of their colleagues. Shakespeare used a modernized version of history in order to better relate these stories to his audiences and the political and social realms that they inhabited; Kurosawa did the same for contemporary Japan, blending in elements of Japanese Noh theater to reinterpret the English plays for his audience. Much of the makeup and hairstyles used in these renditions recalls the emotive masks used in Noh, often indicating the true nature of a character attempting to hide behind false words.

Many of Kurosawa’s other works, while not directly based off the Bard’s plays, still contain Shakespearean elements. The inclusion of comedic characters, like the fool, in serious dramas is prevalent in both men’s work. These characters would often serve to relate story and setting elements to the audience, as well as provide moments of levity to offset the often time dire nature of the dramas. Comedic elements were present in some dramatic Hollywood works of the time, but few directors could find a proper balance between lightheartedness and menace, their works often running the risk of becoming hokey or cheesy. In adventures such as The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, comedic characters form an integral (if sometimes annoying) part of the ensemble. In later years, this balance of comedy and drama would become essential to the Hollywood blockbuster machine. From war films such as The Dirty Dozen to mob movies such as Goodfellas to literature adaptation such as Lord of the Rings -- not to mention the works of Altman, Spielberg and Tarantino -- Hollywood directors have played with the motley ensemble, honing the Shakespearean formula to balance levity and gravity. The concept of balancing comedy with tragedy has been around for centuries in Western literature and theater -- but Kurosawa was among the first to execute it so deftly on film, a feat that would be adopted by generations of directors after him and so drive the course of Western filmmaking.

The Hidden Fortress in particular exemplifies Shakespeare’s influence on Kurosawa, as well as serving as one of Kurosawa’s most influential films. It may not be a straightforward Shakespearean adaptation, but it contains several elements Kurosawa derived from Shakespeare that became staples of his oeuvre, such as the use of common citizens to relate an aristocratic morality tale in an entertaining fashion. In turn, this type of film became prototypical of the modern day Hollywood adventure film.

The Hidden Fortress presents itself as a historical tale, relating the story of deposed Princess Yuki, her loyal General Makabe, and their quest to get the princess and her stockpile of gold to safety. Its moral and historical nature is familiar to Shakespeare’s own -- fictionalized characters encounter actual historical events, allowing the author to critique social mores such as greed (material and political), loyalty (to one’s beliefs and friends), class and the role of women. Kurosawa even revisits some Shakespearean imagery in the forest in which the protagonists become entangled, demonstrating the frequently confusing nature of man’s purpose.

It is the use of the fools, however, that draws the greatest line of influence. The film opens with two peasants, Tahei and Matakishi, arguing in the dessert. Their dialogue sets up the setting of the story, and throughout the film their greed and bickering serve as elements of comic relief to offset the deathly serious nature of Toshiro Mifune’s Makabe. Many of these opening shots, particularly when the couple’s backbiting leads to a brief parting, is reminiscent of R2D2 and C3PO’s initial moments on the planet Tatooine in George Lucas’ space opera Star Wars. The story is initially interpreted through the lowliest characters and then expanded upon as the ensemble grows. Lucas has acknowledged the influence of Kurosawa’s film on his own: the imperiled Princesses Yuki and Leia; Makabe as Obi Wan (or Han Solo), protecting the princess on her journey; General Tadokoro is Darth Vader. The similarities in the garb, lifestyles and philosophy between samurai and Jedi are notable, as are filmmaking techniques and props like the frame wipes, which are similar in both films, and the use of swords -- whether lightsaber or katana -- as primary weapon.

Shakespeare, Kurosawa and even Lucas used their melodramas as historical critiques. Julius Caesar, focusing on the death of a ruler and the questions of leadership and civil war that arose after, reflected the questions hanging over the head of British citizens during the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, while both Hidden Fortress and Star Wars involve the questioning of leadership in times of crisis. In Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa also critiques the loyal-to-the-death nature of the samurai code, with Makabe protecting the princess while his family is forced to die. Like the some of the more prominent Shakespearean fools, the lower class characters prove to be more than they initially appear; their greediness merely a result of desperation caused by the not-so-noble ruling class that constitute the work’s protagonists. The Jedi follow a similar code of conduct to the samurai, but the formers’ ragtag appearance in the earlier films helps them seem nobler against the SS-like Imperial fleet.

This tradition of combining moral and social critiques with crowd-pleasing entertainment is familiar to today’s Hollywood audience, and traces its roots back as far as Greek morality plays and Biblical parables. To us, Hidden Fortress, beyond its Star Wars similarities, is a prototypical Hollywood adventure: a no-nonsense hero; a spunky heroine; their greedy comedic sidekicks; a journey composed of a series of increasingly difficult undertakings. Along the way they meet some friends and enemies, and though things may get tough, our heroes pull through. The cinematography shows a series of beautiful vistas and the soundtrack’s strings and woodwinds serves to underscore the action and intensify the dramatic -- if not operatic -- effect. In the end and they have gained some invaluable treasure and the audience goes home happy. Seem familiar? Ask Indiana Jones.

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