Akira Kurosawa: A Great Storyteller on Celluloid

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The world reveres Akira Kurosawa of Japan as one of the greatest film directors of the twentieth century who received numerous awards spanning five decades. Born to a samurai father and a mother from a merchant family, Kurosawa was the youngest of eight children. But he grew up with one brother and three sisters since two of his older siblings had already grown up, and another had passed away. His exposure to films began early since his father encouraged his children to watch movies and theatre, believing these mediums to have educational value.

Heigo Kurosawa, Akira’s brother older to him by four years, exerted considerable influence on the film director’s childhood. Heigo moved to Tokyo in the late 1920s and became a famous benshi, the Japanese term for a narrator of silent films. Akira moved in with him and got exposed to a wide range of films from outside Japan, theatrical performances, and circus shows. Heigo committed suicide in July 1933, and its impact on the young Akira is evident in the chapter named “A Story I Don’t Want to Tell” in Something Like an Autobiography (Kurosawa 84). 

Akira Kurosawa’s elementary school teacher Mr. Tachikawa also impacted the filmmaker’s growing up years. The teacher kindled an interest in drawing in the young boy. Kurosawa initially wanted to be a painter, and during his Tokyo years with Heigo, Akira worked for the Proletarian Artists’ League as a painter. However, he could not earn a living from his art. He also became disenchanted with the left-wing artists and lost interest in painting altogether.

Akira Kurosawa’s entry into the world of cinema was more an event of serendipity than a planned act. Kurosawa applied when the newly established Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL) studio advertised for Assistant Directors in 1935 though he had not considered filmmaking as a career. As the first step, he had to write an essay on the shortcomings of Japanese films and the means of overcoming them. Though Kurosawa wrote a sarcastic piece arguing that the flaws were so fundamental that they could never overcome, he had to attend the follow-up examination. The renowned Japanese film director Kajirō Yamamoto, one of the examiners, liked Kurosawa and persuaded PCL to appoint him as an assistant director.

Kurosawa joined in February 1936 and continued in this post till 1941. He worked under many directors, but most of them were under Yamamoto, who became his filmmaking mentor. Impressed by his talent, Yamamoto promoted the young Kurosawa from the position of the third assistant director to the chief assistant director within a year. Kurosawa’s responsibilities increased considerably. He started taking care of most of the tasks involved in the production of a film. His first, though unofficial, stint as a director happened for the film Uma (Horse), released in 1941, which he finished as Yamamoto became busy with the shooting of another film (Kurosawa 12-13).

In the meantime, in 1937, PCL studio merged with Toho Eiga Distribution and J O studio and became Toho Eiga, which was renamed merely as Toho in 1943. After Uma, Kurosawa wanted to debut as a director himself and started looking for a suitable script. In 1942, he became interested in the advertisement of the novel Sanshiro Sugata by Tsuneo Tomita. He bought the book, finished reading it at one go, and persuaded Toho to buy the novel’s film rights. Shooting started in Yokohama in December 1942 and was completed without any mishaps.

However, the film faced major resistance from the Censor office. The Second World War was still raging, and Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor just about a year ago. The Japanese Censor Board read Kurosawa’s position in the film pro-British-American and refused to pass it. It got finally released in March 1943 by the efforts of Yasujirō Ozu, another noted Japanese film director. The film earned moderate critical and commercial success. However, it became a fairly revered film later, especially after its release in the USA in 1974. 

The Japanese Censor Board cut out 18 minutes from the film, which is considered a significant loss by filmmakers and film scholars worldwide. That is hardly a surprise as many of Kurosawa’s signature styles as a director are visible in his first film, the use of wipes, weather scenes to designate the mood of the characters, and sudden changes in camera speed.

From his first film as a director, Kurosawa had a plot-link with the Second World War and this link continued in his next film, The Most Beautiful. Made in a documentary style and released in 1944, this film focuses on women working in factories while Japan was at war. Kurosawa got his actresses to live in factory settings and call each other by their character names so that he could get realistic performances from them. It was also a method that he used throughout his life. 

The other important thing that happened during the shooting of this film was the director’s meeting with actress Yoko Yaguchi, who played the leader of the women factory workers. They married in May 1945 and remained together till her death in 1985.[i] Yaguchi was already two months pregnant, and they had a son, Hisao, in December 1945. Yaguchi never went back to acting and delivered a daughter, Kazuko, in April 1954. Both his children survived Kurosawa.

Persuaded by Toho, Kurosawa made a sequel to his first film, Sanshiro Sugata Part II, released in May 1945 and is one of the legendary director’s weakest films even by the director himself. It is one of the most openly propagandist films the director has ever made.

But his connection with the Second World War was not over yet. His next film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, was completed in September 1945. Kurosawa had made this film on a comparatively lower budget, expecting it to be box office-friendly as well. The Japanese Censor Board was already critical of the democratic values portrayed in the film, but by the time it was to be released. Japan had surrendered, and the War had ended. Paradoxically, the American censors found the movie to be propagating feudal values and banned it altogether. It got finally released in 1952 (Galbraith 35). 

The occupation years got Akira Kurosawa attracted to the democratic principles, especially the respect for the individual. His next film, No Regrets for Our Youth, released in 1946, was openly critical of Japan’s oppressive political regime before the War and had a woman as the protagonist. Kurosawa mentions that critics’ opinion was variant on this film, but the audience loved it, and the title of the film was used with minor variations as a catchword in the post-War west (Kurosawa 137-139). 

In his 1947 release, One Wonderful Sunday, Akira Kurosawa continued with his wartime thoughts as it depicts a poor couple trying to enjoy their weekly day-off in war-ravaged Tokyo. But his recognition as a major director would happen the next year when The Drunken Angel was released in April 1948. It became the Best Film of the Year by the influential Kinema Junpo critics’ poll. He would later receive this award twice more for his films Ikiru in 1952 and Red Beard in 1966. Kurosawa states that he felt The Drunken Angel be the first film to exercise full directorial freedom (Galbraith 660-661). 

Another strong association that started during the shooting of The Drunken Angel was with the young actor Toshiro Mifune, who played the gangster. In the next sixteen films of Kurosawa, except in Ikiru, Mifune was cast either as the main character or one of the other major ones. 

Kurosawa then formed a new production unit known as Eiga Geijutsu Kyōkai (Film Art Association in English) with three fellow directors – Kajiro Yamamoto, Mikio Naruse, and Senkichi Taniguchi, who were his friends. Kurosawa directed The Quiet Duel (1949) and The Stray Dog (also 1949) under this new banner. Though a detective movie, the second film also captures Akira Kurosawa’s deep engagement with the realities of post-War Japan, for he uses actual scenes of war-torn Tokyo captured by his friend Ishiro Honda, who would later direct Godzilla (released in 1954).  

In 1950, Akira Kurosawa directed two films, Scandal, and Roshomon. His international recognition came with this second film. Toho had submitted this film at the Venice Film Festival without Kurosawa’s knowledge, and Roshomon won the Golden Lion, the Festival’s highest award. It was later released in the US by a Los Angeles-based film distribution company and became a huge box office success. Roshomon is a remarkable film because of the international acclaim that it brought to its director and because it exposed the western world to Japanese cinema in general (Kurosawa 161).

Akira Kurosawa made films till the age of 81 before he started using a wheelchair in 1995 because of a spine injury from a fall. Of those, Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), The Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1977), and Ran (1983) deserve special mention. These films brought him many awards from different countries and cemented his reputation as a great film director of all time. However, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1999 only.

Apart from directing films, Kurosawa also wrote film script. He continued to do it even after he could no longer direct films. Many of his screenplays became famous after his death. It was on his mentor Yamamoto’s advice that Kurosawa had mastered scriptwriting. He also wrote or worked in collaboration with other writers the scripts of all the films he made.

He received production credits for several of his films and some by other directors since he had established his production unit when Toho found his films too expensive to finance. However, Kurosawa had to face an acute financial crisis. He depended on his western devotees to secure financial support for his later films. His relationship with Hollywood, however, was far from uncomplicated. His first abortive collaborative effort with 20th Century Fox in 1968 drove him to an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Many had feared that he would never direct a film again.

However, that did not diminish his influence on the world of cinema in the west or his own country, as evident from several remakes of many of his films, apart from open admission by many noted Hollywood directors. The Guardian reported Kurosawa’s influence succinctly, mentioning that his films revolutionized filmmaking in Hollywood.

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