Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's 100th Birthday

It was on this day, 23 March, 1910, that director Akira Kurosawa was born in Shinagawa, Tokyo. He was a director, screenwriter, editor, and producer. In a career that spanned 57 years, he directed thirty movies. He was an assistant director or second unit director on twenty five more. Kurosawa is often counted as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time. There are those, not few in number, who would count him as the greatest director of all time.

Akira Kurosawa was  born to Isamu and Shima Kurosawa, the youngest of eight children. His father was a veteran officer in the army who became an athletic advisor, descended from a long line of samurai. His mother was a member of an Osaka merchant family. His father was drawn to the culture of the west, incorporating it into his athletic programmes he ran at school. He also took his family to see movies from the west on a regular basis. Such family outings had a profound effect on the young Akira. As a teenager Akira Kurosawa learned calligraphy and studied painting. In the end, however, he would not find success as a painter. Kurosawa failed the entrance exam into art school and afterwards drifted from such jobs as contributing to a radical newspaper and working as a commercial artist. It was in 1936 that he learned of an apprenticeship programme for directors operated by the studio PCL (Photo Chemical Laboratory), one of the two companies that would become Toho. He became an assistant director and screenwriter to one of Japan's greatest directors of the time, Kajiro Yamamoto.

Under Yamamoto's tutelage Akira Kurosawa worked on twenty four movies as an assistant director or second unit director. His first stint in the director's chair would be for some scenes in Uma (1941). Deemed physically unfit, Kurosawa did not serve in the army during World War II. His first few movies were made under the supervision of the Japanese government and sometimes contained outright propaganda. He made his directorial debut with Sugata Sanshira in 1943. After the defeat of Japan, Akira Kurosawa broke with traditional Japanese cinema and made films much in the mould of the west. His first film after the war, Waga seishun ni kuinashi (1946) was openly critical of the former Japanese government. Yoidore tenshi (1948 Drunken Angel) would be his first of many collaborations with the great actor Toshiro Mifune. It is also the first film that is recognisably a movie by Akira Kurosawa, with most of the hallmarks of hies directorial style in place. Rashomon (1951) would not only be Kurosawa's first chanbara movie ("sword fight movie" or, in western parlance, "samurai movie), but the movie which introduced him to audiences in the west. In 1954 what may be the most famous chanbara movie of all time and a film many consider to be Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece (and in my humble opinion the single greatest movie of all time) Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai) was released. If Rashomon had not already done so, Shichinin no samurai established Akira Kurosawa has one of the greatest directors in the world. Since then it was not unusual for Kurosawa's films to be released in the west and to be very successful in the west as well.

Unlike many directors given the label, Akira Kurosawa was a true auteur. He not only directed his films, but wrote, edited, and produced them as well. Because of his autocratic command on the set he was nicknamed "Tenno (literally "Emperor"). He was well known for his perfectionism. Believing brand new costumes did not look realistic, he would make his actors wear their costumes on a daily basis weeks ahead of shooting. In Kumonosu-jô (1957 Throne of Blood) Kurosawa used real arrows fired by expert archers, some of which came within inches of lead actor Toshiro Mifune. While known for his dictatorial directing style, at the same time Akira Kurosawa was very loyal to his friends and collaborators. He often worked with the same group of actors, particularly Toshiro Mifune. Fumio Hayasaka composed the scores for most his early films. After Hayasaka's death, Masaru Satō scored most of his films. A sign of Kurosawa's loyalty can be seen in his friendship with Ishirō Honda (best known as the director of the Gojira/Godzilla movies). Working as an assistant director to Kurosawa early in his career, he returned to this position with Kagemusha (1980). Indeed, one of the sequences in Dreams (1990) is rumoured to have been directed by Honda.

During his long career, Akira Kurosawa developed a distinctive directorial style, one in which he most often looked at movie frames with a painter's eyes. He often used multiple camera to shoot action scenes from different angles. He also made extensive use of the telephoto lens for basically two reasons. The first is that he though the telephoto lens made for better looking frames. The second it that he though that by placing the cameras at some distance from the actors, this would produce better performances from them. He was well known for using the elements to heighten the mood of scenes, from the rain in the climactic battle of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) to the snow in Ikiru (1951).

Although best known for his chanbara movies such as Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) and Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa worked in a variety of genres. Nora inu (1949 Stray Dog) was an outright film noir, in which a detective (Toshiro Mifune) searches for his stolen Colt pistol. Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) was a gangster movie. Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (Rhapsody in August) was a drama. Akira Kurosawa not only worked in a variety of genres, but he also adapted works that would be most unexpected for a Japanese director. Hakuchi (1951 The Idiot) was an adaptation of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Donzoko (1957 The Lower Depths) was based on the play by Maxim Gorky). Akira Kurosawa sometimes turned to the Bard. Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood)was based on Shakespeare's Macbeth, while Ran was based on Shakespeare's King Lear.

Despite working in a wide variety of genres, certain themes appear in Kurosawa's films over and over again. The struggle between good and evil  lies at the heart of many of his films. Indeed, it is at the centre of his most famous work, Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai), in which samurai must defend a village against bandits. Many of his films also focused on man's efforts to realise self actualisation. This also lies at the heart of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai), in which the samurai (particularly Toshiro Mifune's character Kikuchiyo)  must look deep inside themselves to become the heroes they were meant to be. The idea that reality can often mask the truth also occurs in his films. It is most obvious in Rashomon, in which four witness give vastly different accounts of a crime.  It also occurs in Yojimbo, in which Kuwabatake Sanjuro plays one crime lord against the other.

 Although Kurosawa dealt with often weighty themes and his films are quite rightfully called "epics," he never lost sight of realism in regards to his characters. Kurosawa's characters are often all too human, with flaws and weaknesses all their own. Indeed, one of the ways in which Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) was revolutionary was its treatment of samurai. In previous chanbara films, the samurai were treated as idealised characters with no imperfections, much as cowboys once were in American Westerns. In Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) the samurai are all too human. They even joke about hiding or running way in battle, things which were extremely dishonourable under the samurai code of bushido. Of course, in the end they fight and some of them die as heroes defending the village against the bandits.

Akira Kurosawa revolutionised chanbara movies in his treatment of the samurai in Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai), but he was an innovator in other ways as well. With Rashomon he introduced a new sort of plot to both eastern and western audiences, one in which audiences give vastly different accounts of a single event. Rashomon would be remade as The Outrage in 1964. The plot of Rashomon has since become one of the basic plots of movies and television, utilised in movies ranging from Vantage Point to One Night at McCool's, and TV shows ranging from All in the Family to Fraiser. The plot of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) would become one of the archetypal plots of films in both the east and the west. It was the first movie in which a group of heroes are gathered together for a single goal. It was remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and has influenced films ranging from The Dirty Dozen to The Professionals to A Bug's Life.

Not surprisingly given his influence, some of Akira Kurosawa's films have seen multiple remakes. Yojimbo would be unofficially remade as Fistful of Dollars, givinig rise to the spaghetti western in the process, and still later it would be remade as The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), Inferno (1999),  and Last Man Standing (1996). Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958 The Hidden Fortress) would be a profound influence on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and would be remade as Kakushi Toride no San-Akunin: The Last Princess (2008). Dodesukaden (1970) was loosley remade as Street Trash (1987).  As mentioned above, both Rashomon and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) have been officially remade a few times and unofficially remade (or plagiarised) many more times.

Akira Kurosawa would have an enormous influence of filmmakers. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have acknowledged their debt to him. Martin Scorsese once said of Kurosawa, "His influence on filmmakers throughout the entire world is so profound as to be almost incomparable." Hong Kong director John Woo acknowledged Kurosawa as "...one of my idols and one of the great masters." Perhaps only Hitchcock and Truffault can match Kurosawa in terms of his influence on modern cinema, and perhaps not even them.

Akira Kurosawa died on  6 September, 1998. He left behind an enormous legacy in the form of his films, which continue to be influential to this day. The Akira Kurosawa Foundation was founded in December 2003 to contirbute to the art of film. In commemoration of his 100th birthday, the AK100 Project was launched, with the goal of exposing young people to the great work of Akira Kurosawa. Last year Anaheim University opened the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film. Today Google's logo was even redisgned in honour of Kurosawa's 100th birthday. Akira Kurosawa was most certainly one of the most influential directors of all time. And for some of us, he was simply the greatest director of all time.

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