Akira Kurosawa is one of my favourite directors of all time, however he is often seen as a director for ‘cinema buffs’ with many people having never heard of him. Kurosawa is a Japanese film director who was in the business for decades and directed some of the most revered films of the 20th Century. He was famous for being inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and essentially putting samurai swords in them … his work was then taken by the likes of Sergio Leone (and others) and used as inspiration – or straight up plagiarism – for the likes of A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven during the Western craze in the 60s. Kurosawa was also famous for his Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare plays … which I will get onto momentarily.
His film Hidden Fortress was also one of the biggest inspirations for Star Wars … I bet that piqued your interest …
This sweet little film is the odd one out on this list as it’s the only film that doesn’t feature Samurais of some description or other. Ikiru is the story of an old man who is reaching the end of his life and realises that he has nothing to show for it. He is a local government office slave and sets about turning a slummy, rubbish-tip of a courtyard into a playground for the cities poor and underprivileged kids. Along the way he befriends a young woman who breathes new life into his old bones. The story is very touching and also very brave as our protagonist doesn’t make it to the half way point of the film. Kurosawa offs him halfway through and we get to watch his colleagues and family react to his life and death in a very poignant and disheartening way.
Whilst unpopular with Japanese film critics at the time of its release, Rashomon cemented Kurosawa as a force to be reckoned with in the West. Western critics adored the film and it paved the way for Kurosawa’s future career as one of the most dynamic and exciting directors around. Rashomon tells the story of a violent crime, but told by various people who were involved and witnessed the event happen. It was an adaptation of a famous Japanese story and has fascinated philosophers and criminologists ever since; for everyone’s story is different and we don’t know who to trust or what is real.
Sergio Leone loved this film so much that he decided to adapt it into A Fistful of Dollars … however, he didn’t tell anyone that’s what he did and was faced with a massive lawsuit, as he technically just stole the entire film and changed Toshiro Mifune to Clint Eastwood and all the samurai swords to revolvers. If you’ve seen the Western version, you’ll know the story: A bounty hunter (of sorts) enters a town that is being run by two warring gangs. The bounty hunter then plays both sides off the other until the town is freed and the gang members are bloody carcasses. There is incredible music (like the Leone version), and some truly beautiful and gory shots.
- Throne of Blood
Here we get onto the first of our Kurosawa Shakespeare adaptations. Throne of Blood was Kurosawa’s attempt to film a samurai Macbeth … and boy did it work. It works so well that the original story could quite easily have been an adaptation of this one. The film is set in feudal Japan where warring lords fight for land and power. One soldier is returning from battle when he meets a forest spirit (in one of the creepiest film scenes of all time) who gives him the fateful prophecy that drove Macbeth to lose his head … figuratively and literally. The plot of the film is almost identical to that of the play, however instead of being beheaded, Toshiro Mifune (yes, him again) is turned upon by his own soldiers and is pelted with a barrage of arrows until slain. What is incredible in this famous scene, is that no trick filming was used and it was carefully choregraphed so that Mifune would miss the hundreds of arrows fired his way … the tension is breath-taking.
- Seven Samurai
Ooooh, here goes Bill with another controversial list … yes Seven Samurai is not in the number one spot, but I’ll explain why in the next entry. Seven Samurai is considered Kurosawa’s utter masterpiece and is often heralded as one of the greatest films ever made. It is sheer cinematic perfection. The film’s drama holds up and will have you weeping, whilst also squirming at the brutality of the exquisitely choreographed battle sequences. Another Kurosawa film that was adapted into a western; this time The Magnificent Seven. Anyone who has seen the remake will tell you that the film features a town besieged by bandits who gather together a bunch of Ronin (master-less samurai) to help defend the village and defeat the raping and burning bandits in one of the greatest cinematic showdowns of all time.
Ran is the second of our Shakespeare adaptations; this time my favourite Shakespeare play off all: King Lear. Ran tells the story of a powerful, yet elderly warlord who decides to divide up his kingdom among his three sons, however when his most loyal son points out the folly in his plan – as he predicts that the brothers will descend into war to take the position of warlord – he is exiled. The film then follows the plot of King Lear and the old Japanese story of Mori Motonari who found himself in a similar situation to Lear. What proceeds is nearly three hours of deceit, betrayal, beheadings, and battle sequences that may be the most incredible ever filmed. Along with The Revenant, I think this is the most beautifully shot film of all time and each still could be an award-winning photograph (but that is true about a lot of Kurosawa’s work, to be honest). The reason this is in the number one spot and not number two, is because it is much more accessible than Seven Samurai and never once gets even a little boring over its 162 minute run time (Seven Samurai is 207 minutes…)
Annoyed I missed off Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, or Kagemusha? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @MugwumpBlog