By: Travis Riley
Akira Kurosawa has often been described as the most Western of Japanese directors. A true auteur, he storyboarded all of his films in full-scale paintings, was a masterful technician, and wrote or collaborated on all of his scripts. His deeply humanistic approach to cinema awoke the West to Japanese film, and he is known to have a pervasive influence across the cinema of all cultures and genres. Martin Scorsese summarized this best saying simply "Akira Kurosawa was my master, and ... the master of so many other filmmakers over the years."
Kurosawa was born in Tokyo on the 23rd of March 1910, the youngest of seven children. In his youth he proved to be a talented painter and enrolled in an art school that put emphasis on Western styles and at the age of twenty he was offered the position of assistant director to Kajiro Yamamoto, who was impressed that Kurosawa knew ‘a lot about things other than movies’. In under five years he was scripting and directing whole sequences of Yamamoto’s films, and in 1943 he made his directorial debut with the acclaimed Judo Saga.
It was not until after the Second World War, once Japan’s propaganda policy had been lifted, that Kurosawa was allowed the creative freedom that would enable his success, and for his films to make an impact outside of Japan. In 1951 his film Rashomon won top prize at the Venice film festival and received an honorary Oscar for best foreign film, for the first time commercially and critically opening the West to the products of the Japanese film industry. Kurosawa went on to make a spate of successful films over the next decade including The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress, all box office hits in the West, as well as Japan. Throughout his career Kurosawa won numerous awards, including a BAFTA for Ran, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Kagemusha, and no less than four lifetime achievement awards.
The list of filmmaking greats who recognize their indebtedness to the films of Kurosawa (although too vast to mention in full), includes: Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and, George Lucas. Kurosawa is largely responsible for the formation of the ‘Spaghetti Western’ genre in the mid-60s. John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, is a direct Western rewrite of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and Sergio Leone’s classic, A Fistful of Dollars, is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. George Lucas’s concession that Star Wars takes a great deal of influence from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress is another string in Kurosawa’s bow.
His influence on Asian cinema is equally noticeable. The acclaimed fight sequences amidst the tall swaying grass in The Seven Samurai, have become a staple of martial arts films to this day, providing spectacle in Ang Lee’s renowned visual masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Although by the Western world, Kurosawa’s values are often interpreted as very westernized, his films actually deal with a distinctly Japanese system of ethics, including the Samurai code of Bushido and the master pupil relationship. Many of his films fit with the traditional Japanese cinematic style of jidaigeki, a form of period drama set around the time of the Samurai, and pertaining to farming culture. His choice of location was exclusively Japanese, and even his humanistic outlook frequently makes reference to the fatalism closely associated with Zen Buddhism.
Indeed, it must be questioned how Kurosawa’s films, which seem to sit so closely within his Japanese cultural heritage, could be called Westernized at all.
It seems that despite the culturally specific ethical concerns it is Kurosawa’s overriding sense of humanism, something that pervades all of his films, that allows them to be so clearly understood by and accepted regardless of culture. Although we cannot identify directly with the honour system of the Samurai or the specific Japanese references within the genre of the films, Kurosawa’s compassion for all of his characters is clear and provides a distinct cinematic demonstration of the universality of humanism.
In 1989 Kurosawa accepted an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, and after his death in 1998 he was named "Asian of the Century" in the "Arts, Literature, and Culture" category by AsianWeek magazine. CNN cited him as "one of the [five] people who contributed most to the betterment of Asia in the past 100 years". Kurosawa did not need to disregard his own culture in order to appeal to all others, seemingly leveling the cinematic playing field and changing the face of film forever.
In an interview Fellini declared Kurosawa "the greatest… example of all that an author of the cinema should be." In this sense he truly was a cinematic leader regardless of cultural influence, and it is as a consequence of this that he has also become a celebrated cultural leader.