Akira Kurosawa
Photo by Lucas Santos on Unsplash

A Giant Shadow: The Continuing Influence of Akira Kurosawa on World Cinema

It’s impossible to imagine a world without Akira Kurosawa’s films. He’s one of the greatest directors in movie history, having made many first-tier masterpieces.

Early Life and Career

Akira Kurosawa was born on 23 March 1910 to a father descended from a long line of samurai and a mother from a merchant background. Despite his father’s militaristic background, he was a surprising individual in many ways, not least in that he took his family to the movies when it was a widely despised popular art form among the more refined classes. He was also a sports enthusiast who did much to promote baseball and swimming in Japan. When a young Akira expressed an interest in kendo, a school of Japanese swordsmanship, his father encouraged him to pursue it but urged him also to study calligraphy.

Equally important to Akira’s upbringing and development was his older brother, Heigo. The day after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which destroyed large sections of Tokyo and killed over a hundred thousand people, Heigo took Akira with him into some of the more devastated areas, forcing him to look at the many corpses and to confront his fear of doing so. Afterward, he discovered that he had no nightmares of the many corpses he saw. His brother explained to him, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” Kurosawa realized, “It had been an expedition to conquer fear.”

Great things were expected of Heigo, but after he failed in his qualifying exams, he began to drift. However, he eventually found fame of a sort as a benshi in silent film theaters, something for which there was no equivalent in American and European theaters. The benshi served in part as a narrator to each film, but their role involved far more than merely reading the title cards. They performed possible dialog, explained what was taking place, and were thought to add significantly to the film being viewed. Heigo took it upon himself to educate Akira carefully as a film aficionado, and there is little question that he exerted enormous influence on his younger brother’s understanding of film. Akira was devastated when Heigo and his girlfriend committed joint suicide. The reasons for this tragedy remain unclear–it may have been out of despair at the advent of sound films, which made the benshi irrelevant, or there may have been other reasons. Still, Akira claimed that his brother always insisted that he would die before he was 30. He was 28 when he died.

Always uncertain of what he wanted to do for a living, for a while, Akira entertained the idea of becoming an artist. However, he failed to gain admittance to art school and was unable to buy oils and canvasses due to a shortage of funds. He nonetheless worked diligently in watercolors and had one of his paintings displayed at a major Tokyo art exhibition. He later did some illustrative work for a Communist publication during his brief, though not particularly ardent, period of political activity in the mid-thirties.

Lacking a job or any real prospects, Kurosawa happened to read an ad by P.C.L. Laboratories — which would later become Japan’s famous Toho studios — calling for applicants at the studio for assistant directors. Thinking it might be interesting work, Kurosawa applied on a whim. Though not necessarily a positive one, he made an impact on his interviewers when, after being asked ways to overcome the fundamental deficiencies of the Japanese films, he confessed in a half-making reply that if the deficiencies were fundamental, there was no way to correct them. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, this odd answer, Kurosawa was hired and, from this inauspicious beginning, embarked on one of the most remarkable directorial careers in history.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail

The Japanese film system at the time involved very long periods of apprenticeship during which assistant directors learned the business and craft of filmmaking. Although he at first worked with a director he intensely disliked, Kurosawa soon started regularly working with Kajiro Yamamoto. Kurosawa would remain permanently grateful, always referring to him as Yama-san, even in his 80s and a world-famous director. Although a fairly minor director whose main claim to fame was a string of light comedies with the famous comedian known as Enoken (he would appear in Kurosawa’s early film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail as the Porter) as well as some WWII war epics, Kurosawa found in Yamamoto, the perfect teacher. Yamamato taught Kurosawa every aspect of filmmaking and allowed his pupil to edit films, even when it meant that the end result was a film that suffered due to Kurosawa’s learning on the job. Yamamoto encouraged Kurosawa to write screenplays as a way of better understanding filmmaking, and he won a number of writing awards, as well as selling a number of them to other studios.

By this time, Japan was transforming fully into a war economy. Kurosawa enjoyed an advantage over many of the other assistant directors by being declared the Japanese military’s equivalent of 4F. At the examining board, he encountered an acquaintance of his father, who apparently saw no honor in him going off to death. Many of the other Toho AD’s did serve in the war, including Kurosawa’s friend colleague Ishiro Honda, who would after the war work with Kurosawa on films like Stray Dog, before going on to a highly successful career as a director in his own right. Though Honda would work as second unit director with Kurosawa on many of the latter’s final films, including Kagemusha and Ran, he is remembered today as the pioneer of the great Japanese monster movie, for his direction of Gojira, released in the U.S. as the iconic Godzilla.

By 1942, Kurosawa had little more to learn as an assistant director and was ready to direct his first project. He found it difficult to find a suitable project for his first film, primarily because the military board that oversaw film production severely limited the range of films that it was possible to make during the war years, the first skirmish in conflics between himself and the people responsible for producing his films that would mark, and arguably mar, Kurosawa’s career.

Kurosawa’s hatred for the military censors was undying. He would express how repulsive he found them 40 years later in Something Like an Autobiography, where he recounted an incident of a line in a screenplay being deemed obscene, the line mentioning how a factory gate “waited for the student workers, thrown open in longing”. Kurosawa writes, “For these people suffering from sexual manias, anything and everything made them feel carnal desire. Because they were obscene themselves, everything seen through their obscene eyes naturally became obscene. Nothing more or less than a case of sexual pathology. So much for time healing all wounds.

Eventually, however, Kurosawa was able to gain approval to make a film based on a newly published novel, which resulted in Sanshiro Sugata. The film is a work of startling brilliance, nothing like what one normally thinks of as the work of a first-time director. Many of the marks of his mature work are already there at the beginning and a number of scenes are quite striking. Like Athena born full-grown out of her father Zeus’ head, Kurosawa was an artist of considerable talent and skill from the very start of his career.

One scene, in particular, shows the kind of brilliance the cinematic world would become familiar with in decades to come. The title character has seen a judo master easily defeat the entire jujitsu school at which he had hoped to become a student. Appealing to the judo master to become his disciple, he takes over as rickshaw driver to take him to his destination, tossing aside his wooden shoes to do so. The camera pans down from the teacher’s face to the wheel of the rickshaw, which passes one of the shoes, which the camera remains focused on. We then note the passage of time by watching a series of incidents involving the shoe. We see a number of pedestrians walking past it, ignoring it. We see the shoe lying in the mud during a downpour, the first of an almost endless number of heavy rains to be seen in Kurosawa’s films. We see a puppy chewing on it and using it as a toy, then the shoe hanging from the spike of a wrought iron fence, and finally lying in a small stream and then flowing into a larger one, which flows past a brightly lit street in which Sugata is fighting and defeating members of a large crowd, the passage of time for the character being measured in the events of his cast-offs.

Although now a highly praised director, Kurosawa would not be in complete control of his own films for the next five years. Japanese military censors, American occupations boards, and union boards at Toho would all limit the degree to which he could make films precisely as he would like. During this time, Kurosawa made a string of films — The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata II, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, No Regrets for Our Youth, and One Wonderful Sunday — under severe restrictions. Only with his seventh film, Drunken Angel, that Kurosawa would gain a degree of independence and make the kind of film that he truly wanted to make. With that film began his period of greatest creativity, beginning in 1948 and continuing until 1965, during which he would make many of the greatest films in the history of cinema.

Drunken Angel

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This article was originally published on 10 October 2010.