Few societies are as well mapped-out on film as Japan. Japanese filmmakers are at least as widely known outside Japan as its authors: just as Tanizaki, Kawabata and Oe have been celebrated abroad for their writing (with each of them winning the Nobel prize), so Ozu, Oshima and Kitano have given Japan’s faces, its landscapes and its history to the rest of the world. And no other Japanese filmmaker did this as well or for as long as Akira Kurosawa. For 40 years, between the awestruck surprise that greeted Rashomon (1950) in the West (1) to the almost accustomed pleasure with which Dreams (1990) was embraced, Kurosawa seemed to move from strength to strength. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Thanks to the ever-suspicious bias of Japanese producers (who, after all, deprived us of Ozu’s genius for decades because they believed he was “too Japanese”), Kurosawa’s success in the West was regarded suspiciously as some sort of fluke. Despite his unarguable success, Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film (many of those risks, I might add, didn’t pay off). Every one of his world-renowned films was either preceded or followed by a film more experimental in form or more difficult. You can even argue that some of his greatest successes (Rashomon, Ikiru , Seven Samurai ) were enormous risks for Kurosawa’s career – the ones that did pay off. This may sound strange, given that Kurosawa is now often remembered as something of a reactionary, rear-guard director (especially in Japan). But aside from the uncanny sense of what audiences wanted, there is a persistent experimental thread running throughout Kurosawa’s work.
If one discounts his first films, with which he sought to establish his career, Kurosawa’s first recognizable masterwork, Drunken Angel (1948), was also a daring (for the postwar “Red Scare” era) social document, foreshadowing Ikiru in its portrayal of the often futile efforts of a crusading (dipsomaniac) doctor – played by Takashi Shimura, who also played Watanabe in Ikiru – to get a mosquito-spawning stagnant pool drained in a benighted corner of a Tokyo slum. That was followed by a melodrama, The Quiet Duel (1949). Then Kurosawa made Stray Dog (1949), an edgy, brilliant portrait of a cop’s search for his stolen pistol one hot Tokyo summer. That was followed by a rather mawkish expose of Japanese tabloids, Scandal (1950). But his next film, Rashomon, cemented his reputation, with audiences and critics, if not with producers. And Kurosawa never had to look back.
Fifteen years and eleven films later, Kurosawa was both a critical and commercial god, thanks to one or two “greatest films of all time” in the interim (one of which is the quite humbling macho film of all time – and who am I to argue? –, Seven Samurai.) Once ensconced, however, he entered the darkest and most difficult period of his career. Not caring to be categorized as the superannuated director of samurai satires, such as Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), all of his films from 1965 to 1985 (of which, amazingly, there are only five) were potential career-ending gambles, and the Japanese film industry, which was undergoing the first of several transitional periods, was particularly unforgiving toward them..
Red Beard (1965) was a drastic investment of time and money for Kurosawa (the production was such a strain to his customary hero – for 16 films – Toshiro Mifune, that he had a falling out with Kurosawa and would never again appear in one of his films ). (2) Despite the film’s critical acclaim, Kurosawa spent the next five years trying to get a project – any project – off the ground. Dodes’ ka-den (1970) – Kurosawa’s first color film and a daring stylistic reach for the artist – had the unfortunate fate of being jeered at by most Japanese critics. Kurosawa was so shaken by the film’s reception that he attempted suicide. (3)
Due to the freshly remembered excesses of Red Beard (like deliberately taking two years to produce so that his actors and sets had the necessary lived-in effect that he wanted) and the off-beat unpleasantness of Dodes’ ka-den (whose eccentric characters inhabit a garbage dump) Kurosawa was considered so “un-bankable” by Japanese producers that he had to go to Soviet Russia to make his next film, Dersu Uzala (1974). Despite more awards and accolades, which were coming so thick and fast to Kurosawa that it must have exasperated producers who saw him only as a spendthrift maverick, Dersu was followed by another six years of drought. Finally, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, longtime Kurosawa fans, (4) approached him with an offer to finance a film. Kurosawa characteristically suggested a long-cherished project – Kagemusha (1980) – and got backing for it. Oddly enough, when the film was finished, Coppola and Lucas asked for cuts from their oft-admired master, thinking the esoteric story, set in pre-Tokugawa Japan, would swamp an American film audience. To appease these quizzical admirers, Kurosawa snipped 20 minutes from the film and it was released in the West to more fanfare than had accompanied any Kurosawa film since the early ‘60s.
Nevertheless, the cost of the production was so withering to Japanese producers (5) that Kurosawa had to resort to further foreign investment – this time from France’s Serge Silberman – for what is certainly his ultimate statement as an artist, the dauntingly grave transposition of Shakespeare’s King Lear to medieval Japan, Ran (1985). This film stands in Kurosawa’s work as Otello stands in Verdi’s – a final, magnificent statement of his philosophy and one of the most stirringly grand films in recent memory.
Once Kurosawa earned his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1989 (another back-handed award from the “Academy” – they had never awarded a Kurosawa film one of their golden bowling trophies), the Japanese realized that he was, indeed, a National Living Treasure (an honor bestowed by the Japanese government on certain [elderly] artists whose work is thereafter subsidized but whose earnings are also the sole property of the government). He managed to make three more films before old age and ill health forced him into grudging retirement. Dreams, Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadayo (1993) – the last having never been released theatrically in the U.S. – were personal, meditative films, artistically free but controlled, somehow chastened.
One Kurosawa film, The Lower Depths (1957) is by far the most consistently underrated. (Some of the more obtuse film reference guides have even labelled Kurosawa’s film a “remake” of Jean Renoir’s Les Bas-fonds .) (6) After his first Shakespeare adaptation, Throne of Blood (1957), Kurosawa felt emboldened to attempt an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play, and it is a major achievement.
Of all Kurosawa’s “transpositions” (which include The Idiot , Throne of Blood, High and Low  and Ran), The Lower Depths is the most effective. The reason for this is simple: it is not nearly as ambitious in scope.. The Idiot is misguidedly over-literal; High and Low ultimately (but brilliantly) fails to turn a potboiler into an apocalyptic modern parable; the Shakespeare adaptations (Throne of Blood and Ran) – though strikingly grand – sometimes teeter from the daunting effort of replacing the missing poetry with suitably vivid imagery. (7)
With The Lower Depths, Kurosawa found a way to accomplish what had defeated many distinguished filmmakers – namely, how to transpose a stage play to film without betraying either medium. Set entirely within the narrow precincts of a hovel at the bottom of a ravine, with only fleeting glimpses of the world of light above (from the opening shots, he seems determined to illustrate the title literally), Kurosawa fearlessly confounds the charge of “staginess” by constantly shifting perspectives, by exploiting his customary use of multiple cameras with a seamless encirclement of the action, subtly intercutting alternating views of a clearly continuous dramatic tableau. Shooting in just three days after 40 days of rehearsals, Kurosawa challenged his splendid ensemble of actors not only with prolonged takes but with an engagement of the action, an unpredictable shuttling between camera angles, which kept them all off balance as to exactly where to focus their performance.
Gorky’s play presents a Dostoevskian milieu of downtrodden humanity in a deceptive Chekhovian style. The characters spend all their time either longing for escape – for an undefined, far away “better life” – or else deriding such longing as futile and illusory. Alcohol, which the Actor admits has “poisoned” him, is the only escape for them, and the last scene, in which the remaining tenants (denizens) drink sake and perform an exhuberant musical number without instruments – only their voices –, ends abruptly with the news of the Actor’s suicide. “Idiot!” the gambler grumbles. “He did it to spoil the fun!”
Not surprisingly, the film’s general reception was nearly unanimously one of incomprehension. And although its reputation has improved through the decades, thanks largely to Donald Richie, (8) it remains underappreciated. Critics who are anxious to pigeonhole a filmmaker’s work have a hard time finding the right slot for The Lower Depths. Like its maker, it defies categorization.
Sanshiro Sugata/Judo Saga (Sugata Sanshiro) (1943)
The Most Beautiful (Ichiban Utsukushiku) (1944)
Sanshiro Sugata Part II/Judo Saga Part II (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro) (1945)
Those Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi) (1945)
Those Who Make Tomorrow (Asu o tsukuru hitobito) (1946)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun nu kuinashi) (1946)
One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi) (1947)
Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi) (1948)
The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru ketto) (1949)
Stray Dog (Nora inu) (1949)
Scandal (Shubun) (1950)
The Idiot (Hakuchi) (1951)
Ikiru (Living/To Live) (1952)
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) (1954)
I Live in Fear/To Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku) (1955)
Throne of Blood (Kumo no su-jo) (1957)
The Lower Depths (Donzoko) (1957)
The Hidden Fortress (Kakukshi toride no san akunin) (1958)
The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru) (1960)
Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjuro) (1962)
High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) (1963)
Red Beard (Akahige) (1965)
Dodes’ka-den (Dodesukaden) (1970)
Dersu Uzala (1974)
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) (1980)
Dreams (Yume) (1990)
Rhapsody in August (Hachigatsu no kyoshikyoku) (1991)
Galbraith IV, Stuart, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (Faber & Faber, 2002)
Goodwin, James, Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa (GK Hall, 1994)
Kurosawa, Akira, Something Like an Autobiography (Translated by Audie Bock) (Random House, 1983)
Prince, Stephen, The Warrior’s Camera (Princeton University Press, 1999)
Richie, Donald & Mellen, Joan, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (3rd updated & expanded edition) (University of California Press, 1999)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Translating Kurosawa by Patrick Crogan
Seven Samurai by Patrick Crogan
Ikiru by Shan Jayaweera
They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail by Boris Trbic
Donzonko (The Lower Depths) by Freda Freiberg
High and Low by Patrick Garson
Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema by Peter Cowie review by Chris Gosling
Toshirō Mifune: Between Extravagance and Subtlety by Andrea Grunert
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Akira Kurosawa Database
Oustanding Kurosawa resource with essays, bulletin board, graphic gallery, books, DVDs, videos, biography, links and scenario list.
Akira Kurosawa Homepage
Good starting point for further reading.
Akira Kurosawa: A Tribute
Kabir Chowdhury analyses some of Kurosawa’s better known films.
Before the Rain
Philip Kemp analyses three Kurosawa urban dramas.
With 800 articles, 1500 photos and much more, what more could you ask for?
Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon
An excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography, presented here as part of Criterion’s DVD release of this film.
The Emperor of Film – No, not yet!
Fred Marshall interviews Kurosawa about Madadayo.
Akira Kurosawa: Obituary
From The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie.
Akira Kurosawa: Tradition in a Time of Transition
Excellent essay by Tadao Sato for Cinemaya.
The Late, and the Very Late Films of Akira Kurosawa
Article by Steve Vineberg.
- Such was the sensation caused by Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 (where it won the Golden Lion) that, although individual films by Mizoguchi, Ozu and Naruse had been seen and acclaimed in selected cities in the West before WWII, apparently few filmgoers had remembered them or indeed could conceive of a Japanese film industry surviving the conquest of Imperial Japan.
- A detailed – and fascinating – examination of the relationship between Kurosawa and Mifune can be found in Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf.
- Stephen Prince uses the suicide attempt as a jumping-off point for his study of Kurosawa, The Warrior’s Camera.
- Lucas even admitted that his first Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
- For instance, the film demanded the importation of herds of horses from Korea, since such a large number were no longer available in Japan.
- Donald Richie, in his essay A Definition of the Japanese Film (collected in his book of essays A Lateral View), compares the two films: “Though Kurosawa is not considered by the Japanese to be particularly representative of Japanese culture, compare his The Lower Depths (Donzoko) with that of Jean Renoir (Les Basfonds). Kurosawa’s film is made of so much less – a house, the people living in it, the yard outside, the sky above. Renoir is most interested in character, in closeups of Louis Jouvet, of Jean Gabin. Kurosawa uses few closeups in his film. Rather we see his characters in groups of two or three, and always framed by the house, which is in every scene. Renoir takes us outside, Kurosawa keeps us inside. In all, Kurosawa shows us less, but his film implies more and demands more.” (p.162)
- Some of Kurosawa’s adaptations have seemed disingenuous to some. When Throne of Blood was released in the West, more than one critic questioned the wisdom of dispensing with Shakespeare’s high-flown blank verse, leaving little more than an obscure power struggle among medieval kilted Scottish tribesmen. Of course, Kurosawa’s “transposition” – to an obscure power struggle among medieval samurai lords – was sufficiently fascinating to grip audiences ever since.
- Richie, who was also a student of Japanese theater, admires the film (in his ground-breaking study The Films of Akira Kurosawa), for its ingenious use of a constricted space. He also saw how the ending may have alienated some viewers: “The ending is very shocking. It certainly shocked the Japanese, the majority of whom disliked the film; the critics were particularly strong on what they innocently called Kurosawa’s ‘negative’ attitude.” (p.90)