I LOVE…Akira Kurosawa! If someone were to ask me to name my five favorite films, four of them would change depending on the day… Dr. Strangelove? The Usual Suspects? Reservoir Dogs? Life of Brian? But one film would make the list each time, and it would consistently be in the number 1 spot. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. And if asked to write a list of my top 50 films, at least 15 of those would be Kurosawa’s…easily.
Seven Samurai was my introduction to Kurosawa and it launched a love affair which, at times, border-lines obsession. I have to get my Kurosawa fix. The fact that he directed, wrote, edited and produced blows me away. His editing is completely brilliant. He considered it the most creative part of the entire film making process. He edited daily during production, as opposed to the typical Hollywood process of editing post-production. His use of axial cuts, cutting on motion, and wipes have become idiosyncratic aspects of his style. (12 wipes in Drunken Angel (1948) Wow!)
With Seven Samurai (1954), Kurosawa’s cinematic technique changed from standard lens and deep focus photography to the use of long lens and multiple cameras. His actors never knew which camera’s footage would actually end up being used. With The Hidden Fortress (1958), he also began to incorporate use the anamorphic, or widescreen, process. His later work utilizes all 3 techniques, and quite effectively, in my opinion.
I’ll admit that sometimes when watching a film I find it difficult to forget that there is a process involved…that there’s a crew putting together this production, that there are actors, cameras, and a director calling the shots. I look for camera technique, for editing. I sometimes forget that I’m suppose to be caught up in the story being told and not focusing on ‘how’ it’s being told. With Kurosawa I do scrutinize, but I also can’t help but to get completely lost in the story, in the message, in his heroes, and in his passion.
One particular aspect of Kurosawa’s work I find compelling is his powerful use of climate and nature as plot elements. It doesn’t just rain in a Kurosawa film, it RAINS! The pounding, relentless, rain in the opening scene of Rashomon (1950), the intense heat in a bombed post-war Tokyo in Stray Dog (1949), the massive dust clouds which completely surrounds the combatants in the final battle scene of Yojimbo (1961), the use of fog in Throne of Blood (1957, Kurosawa actually had the set for this film constructed on the slopes of Mount Fuji to make use of the natural fog), the finale battle scene of Seven Samurai which becomes an immense swirl of rain and mud, and oh, wow…did he really aim that camera directly at the sun in Rashomon …not once but several times!?
I could go on to list my favorite Kurosawa films here but there would be so many. It’s easy to say that list would include all of the 16 films he made with Toshirō Mifune, most of which are considered cinema classics. Mifune, in my opinion, was one of the most compelling, powerful, and enigmatic actors to ever appear on film, and he was incredibly sexy as well. The Kurosawa/Mifune combination just seemed to work so beautifully. He was absolutely brilliant in Throne of Blood, and High and Low (1963), both films were adaptations of Macbeth and could be considered companion pieces….and watching both would be a damn fine way to spend a lazy, rainy, day in bed. Actually, ANY combination of Kurosawa films would be a great way to spend a rainy day in bed.
Please note, I’m aware this post does not even begin to scratch the surface of Kurosawa’s masterful 57 year legacy. Major pieces of work were neglected in my writing, but seriously…it could take me weeks to compile his accomplishments. Instead I’ll leave you with some words by a few of those in his field.
Steven Spielberg – ‘I have learned more from him than from almost any other filmmaker on the face of the earth.’
Ingmar Bergman – (in reference to his own film, The Virgin Spring) ‘touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa’
Francis Ford Coppola – ‘One thing that distinguishes him is that he didn’t make one masterpiece or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces.’
Federico Fellini – ‘The greatest living example of all that an author of the cinema should be.’
Martin Scorsese – ‘Let me say it simply, Akira Kurosawa was my master, and the master of so many other filmmakers over the years.’