Rescued from obscurity after George Lucas acknowledged it as an influence on Star Wars, Hidden Fortress shows the director using widescreen, or TohoScope in Japan, for the first time. It's an action picture but it also share elements of the road movie and the American western. John Ford was a major influence on Kurosawa and it can definitely be felt here.
9. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
A tale of revenge that combines elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet with film noir. It's a film that gets its hooks in you with the first 10 minutes. Kurosawa examines the dangers of corporate ladder climbing. Imagine Billy Wilder's The Apartment turned into a murder mystery. It has some of the most interesting shots to boot. But I'll let Tony Zhou explain that further:
8. Throne of Blood (1957)
An adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, Throne of Blood represents one of the most brutal films in the director's filmography. It's relentless pace. The absolutely balls to the wall performance of Toshiro Mifune. The haunting scene with the And of course those final ten minutes. How the hell that was pulled off or how anyone wasn't hurt is one of life's great mysteries.
7. Red Beard (1965)
Kurosawa's last collaboration with Mifune proved to be one of the best. Red Beard is an overlooked film in Kurosawa's canon. A three hour medical drama set in feudal times about a physician, Noboru Yasumoto, who is sent to an infirmary to visit. He soon learns he has to stay and this sets his character off. Here we see the director take on humane themes through gentle, sweeping drama. A key section of the film deals with the story of a poor boy and Otoyo, a young female patient whom Noboru helps recover from her unhealthy domestic situation.
6. Yojimbo (1961)
The influence of Kurosawa takes on a cyclical nature when examined. The director greatly admired John Ford and the western. So he took that influence to the set of Yojimbo. This film in turn inspired Sergio Leone to create A Fistful of Dollars. What many consider to be one of the first spaghetti westerns.
The character of Sanjuro (played by Toshiro Mifune) is fed up with the corruption of his town and engineers a rivalry between two of the towns clans. Movie cool was not born with Pulp Fiction. Kurosawa was doing that decades before. Yojimbo is proof.
5. Ran (1985)
The director's visual peak as far as scope goes. Kurosawa began using color in 1970 with Dodo-saken. It was a failure at the box office and led the director to attempt to take his own life. He then moved to Russia to work on Dersu Urzula. A project that rejuvenated him. He wasn't as prolific as his "golden period" in the 50's. The work he churned out though showed him using color in new and interesting ways. Kurosawa doesn't allow any easy solution on this production as far as color. King Lear, from which the story was adapted, is an incredibly dark work. Yet the color is over saturated. Making for unforgettable images. There's never been anything like these images in film before or since. On this scale and sheer composition.
Ran could never have been made by Akira at the age he was at Samurai. There is a sense of old age wisdom with his use of long lenses and camerawork. There's no close ups or reaction shots. No dolly shots. Yet what he captures has the vitality of one of his pictures from the 50's. He was fearless. More importantly as this film proves, his work is timeless.
4. High and Low (1963)
A thriller that starts out as a game of cat and mouse and morphs into a police procedural. Akira's influence from Western cinema is apparent here as he adapts an American novel from Ed McBain. But he doesn't stop when the book does. He deliberately goes beyond the page and creates more story from the perspective of the kidnapper. It's an underappreciated work that is as every bit as fascinating as the next film I will be talking about...
3. Seven Samurai (1954)
Kurosawa's use of history in Seven Samurai has contemporary relevance. Honor, responsibility, the hierarchy of social classes. By going into the past he uncovers these truths. Beyond just historical narrative, the film is also a how to manual for the cinematic craft.
The use of silence. The flawless editing, particularly during the samurai battles. The staging and compositions. Seven Samurai is a film school where countless lessons can be received from the master. Want to learn how to make a good action movie? Want to learn how to make good movies in general? Watch Seven Samurai.
2. Ikiru (1952)
Kurosawa can be described as a humanist. No more is it apparent than Ikiru.
The story of an aging bureaucrat with stomach cancer, Ikiru examines the exploration of life through the eyes of this dying man. It's a universal theme that I find myself coming back to again and again and one I wish to explore in my own work.
As much as I love Toshiro Mifune's multiple roles in Kurosawa's films, I have to go with Takashi Shimura as the protagonist Kanji Watanabe as my favorite performance in Kurosawa's work. It's a film that poses a delicate question: If you had 6 months to live, what would you do?
1. Rashomon (1950)
When Rashomon opened at the Venice Film Festival it stunned audiences. Here was a film so radical in design, no one had seen anything like it. Set in 11th century Japan in order to explore the extremities of human behavior. The nonlinear narrative that employs flashbacks to show the crimes of those involved. The use of perspective through each of the four characters being examined. The effect, later dubbed the Rashomon effect has been used in countless stories. In Rashomon though, Kurosawa never lets us know which perspective is true. There are no answers. Only more questions.
In his autobiography, Something Like An Autobiography, he lets us know that the film is in fact not about subjectivity of truth but about the quicksand of ego. It's a milestone of filmmaking.
He was also a master of movement.
Akira Kurosawa left behind a remarkable body of work that continues to inspire and teach filmmakers to this day. From his humanist fables Rashomon, Ikiru and Red Beard to his samurai epics Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Hidden Fortress to his thrillers such as High and Low. Like the sun whose rays beamed through the forest in Rashomon, Akira was a man who brought hope in a dark place.
Happy 105th birthday, Master.