Monday, April 23, 2007

Akira Kurosawa

An Emperor and a Master

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Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded as one of the greatest directors in cinema history. It is a testimony to his genius that he was able to break the language barrier and was able to entertain and communicate with millions of cinema lovers all over the world including yours truly. Born in 1910 he made around 30 movies in a career spanning five decades from Sugata Sanshiro (1943) to Madadayo (1993) before he passed away in 1998.

Kurosawa’s father was the director of a junior high school operated by the Japanese military. He was a man who had a western outlook and inculcated in his children the same outlook. He used to take Kurosawa out to see western movies and may have influenced his outlook to movies from an early age itself.

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In 1936 Kurosawa began his career in movies as an apprentice of Kajiro Yamamoto. He made his first movie at the age of 33. His earlier movies were mainly nationalistic and propaganda movies made under the watchful eyes of the government during the world war days. It was not until he directed the ‘Drunken Angel’ in 1948 that he came into his own. Kurosawa himself has said that he discovered himself with this movie. Incidentally this was also the movie which saw the master working with Toshiro Mifune for the first time; in my opinion one of the greatest actor-director collaborations of all time.

From then on through the 50s and 60s Akira Kurosawa achieved the zenith of his craftsmanship. Masterpieces came one after another and with such amazing regularity that he became the undisputed master of Asian cinema. Three of his most acclaimed movies; Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) all came during this period. This was followed by adaptations like Thorne of blood (from Macbeth), Lower Depth (from Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name) and The Bad Sleep Well (from Hamlet). He also made such great entertainers like Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). This was followed by movies which were more or lees a social commentary like High and Low (1963) and Red Beard (1965).

After Red Beard Kurosawa acquired a reputation of being dictatorial in his approach and was called an Emperor by some. He subsequently found it difficult to get work and funding for his pictures. This is reflected by the sad fact that he made just 7 movies in the next 2 decades after Red Beard. Of these his Dodesukaden (1970) was such a failure that he even tried to commit suicide. He had to make the Russian Dersu Uzala (1975) in the meanwhile, his only non-japanese movie, in a bid to do some work. It was only through the help of his famous admirers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that he was able find the necessary funding for Kagemusha (1980). But even there he was asked to make cuts of about 20 minutes to the movie. In 1985 Kurosawa made Ran (adapted from King Lear) which is widely considered by some as his last masterpiece. He made three more movies before his death; Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), Madadayo(1993) though they are all considered to be the master’s lesser works.

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Kurosawa was a master of the narrative. When you see some of his movies the he made at his peak you can see the various styles of narratives that he has used. In Ikiru he tells the story from different timelines. He shifts between the past, the present and the future with such effortless ease that it never confuses the audience. In High and Low the movie is clearly divided into two acts with nothing but a train sequence connecting both parts of the story. But the best of them all is Rashomon. He tells the story from the perspective of four different people giving the audience the desired effect of guessing which the accurate narration of events is.

Kurosawa also showcased many themes and genres that are used in movies even today. He used the classic team building and practice routines in Seven Samurai. His Yojimbo must be one of the greatest Westerns ever although it is set in 16th century Japan. It was later remade as A Fistful of Dollars in Hollywood. The Hidden Fortress is a classic action/adventure movie which was the inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars.

He also tried to raise questions about the moral and emotional complexities of man. Rashomon showed that man’s perspective is clouded by his own ego. Red Beard showed the sufferings of the poor and their struggle for survival. High and Low was a dark reminder of the dangers of the inequalities in society. Ran showcased the destructive nature of man’s ambitions. Kagemusha showed the effects of image and the blind belief in it. And Ikiru showcased the shortness of life and the importance of living it fully and meaningfully.

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Kurosawa is a master of the technique of film making too. In Throne of Blood, in the final scene in which Mifune is shot by arrows, Kurosawa used real arrows shot by expert archers from a short range, landing within centimetres of Mifune's body. He was the first to use the telephoto lens to give a flat view of the shot. His sometimes used elaborate and grand shots to give the audience breathtaking visuals in the background. Several of his shots in Ran were almost painterly. He used various natural elements to telling effects like the rain in Rashamon and Seven Samurai, the snow in Ikiru, the wind in Yojimbo and the oppressive heat in High and Low.

He was a perfectionist who spent enormous amounts of time and effort to achieve the desired visual effects. Some of his techniques were innovative and expensive, sometimes even time consuming. He dyed the raid water black with ink to get the desired effect of heavy rain in Rashomon. He built an entire castle set in Mt. Fuji which was later destroyed in the climax. He demanded that the entire cast live in the sets of Red Beard to give it the proper lived in feel. He would give his actors their costumes 2 weeks in advance so that they would look properly worn out. He would wait for weeks to get the right cloud formation. Production for Red Beard took 2 years to complete which ultimately fractured his relationship with Toshiro Mifune.

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Despite all this there is no denying his genius. And like most other geniuses people forgets their eccentricities because their work more than makes up for it. His work will be remembered for generations to come. His works have influenced many. Direct influences can be found in The Magnificent Seven, A fistful of Dollars, Star Wars, Outrage, even in India’s biggest hit of all time Sholay and many more. Kurosawa was a master of his craft and will be remembered as one of the true Emperors of cinema.

Reviews of Akira Kurosawa's Major works

Rashomon (1950)

Ikiru (1952)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Hidden Fortress (1958)

Yojimbo (1961)

High And Low (1963)

Red Beard (1965)

Kagemusha (1980)

Ran (1985)

Rhapsody In August (1991)


Hilda Elena said...

Thanks for your commennts!!!
I like your blog too!!

The Flip Flop Girl said...

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in_darkness® said...

Thanks to comments and visit :)

"Akira Kurosawa" is only one

Great job

Professor Howdy said...

I wonder if I ever saw any of these - they look interesting...

loungetime said...

Thanks to comments and visit.

Anonymous said...

I'm intersted in those movies, but they are not available for me to watch,

Ron said...

Very nice. Ran is my personal fave. I do like his B&W work a lot, but Ran is so colorful, and is a great adaptation of Hamlet.

domenico said...

akira is one of the best oriental director of all times
i also love kitano

Anonymous said...

thanks for the comment. your blog is cool too.

Incognito said...

Kurosawa rocks!! Great article.

Radulfr said...

Hey! Thanks for the comment.
I love Seven Samurai and Kagemusha, they both are really amazing and mitical storys...

Mariposa Nocturna said...

Exellent Blog!!!

Great. I love kurosawa. His photography is so beautyful. Each moment, each slow moment is so perfect.

I love the blog.