Who is the greatest director of all time? Coppola? Spielberg? Scorcese? Chaplin? Fellini? Ford? The question may be as subjective as “what is the greatest movie of all time?”, but I submit for your approval… Akira Kurosawa. Why Kurosawa and not Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock? Because Kurosawa was able to do more with less!
If you look at every greatest director list out there, you’ll find a list of white males from America or Europe, most of whom came from a priviledged upbringing. Somewhere within that long list, you’ll find a Japanese man who revolutionalized the Western film industry.
Akira Kurosawa was the Tokyo-raised son of a Japanese military officer. His father was enamored with silent films, all of which were made in the West, and he passed that love down to his sons. Akira’s older brother was his mentor, and after the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed Tokyo and killed 100,000 people, his older brother took him on a walking tour of the devastation. When Akira tried to turn his head away from the piles of corpses, his brother told him not to. According to Akira, this experience would later instruct him that to look at a frightening thing head-on is to defeat its ability to cause fear. That older brother, Heigo, would later become a narrator of silent films, and when the “talkies” came to Tokyo, putting Heigo out of business, Akira’s brother committed suicide. These two traumatic events shaped Akira’s life and eventually the films he would make. Young Kurosawa joined the burgeoning film industry in Japan and worked his way up the ladder to become a director. But not just any director. Akira Kurosawa was the man who introduced Japanese Film, and therefore much of Japanese culture, to the world.
Before Kurosawa’s Rashomon could earn international acclaim (1951 winner of The Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, and Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards), all people in the Western world saw of the Japanese on film was their portrayal in World War II movies. Needless to say, it was not a flattering portrayal, and showed little to nothing of their culture.
When The Seven Samurai was released in 1954, the world took note of a new action epic that would give birth to innumerable imitators, many of which are still being greenlighted in Hollywood today. Because of Kurosawa, Japanese film could no longer be ignored on the world stage. He put Japan on the film maker’s/watcher’s map, and kept it there. Can you name another director that has done such a thing for their country, for their culture?
While it is true that Kurosawa was heavily influenced by the West, with director John Ford and William Shakespeare being his greatest influences, he has himself become an even greater influence on the West. I can assure you that your favorite living director has been influenced by Kurosawa, and most likely your favorite movies have something in them from Kurosawa!
George Lucas’ Star Wars is based upon Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress with the R2D2 and C3PO characters being almost mirror images of the characters in Kurosawa’s film. Even the wipe transition that is used in the Star Wars series comes from Kurosawa.
The Seven Samurai was remade into The Magnificent Seven, launching Steve McQueen’s career.
Kurosawa’s Yojimbo has been remade several times, most notably by Sergio Leone who made it into A Fistful Of Dollars. That movie showcased the greatest Western genre character, Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no name.” based upon Toshiro Mifune’s character “Thirty Something.” After Kurosawa watched A Fistful Of Dollars he sued Leone and wrote to Leone that he had made “a fine movie, but it was MY movie.” Leone ignored the lawsuit that he would later lose, settling out of court, and instead focused on the fact that Kurosawa liked his movie. He showed the letter to anyone and everyone that he could.
So I ask you, can you think of another director that has taken Western literature and the Western gene, recreated it into a film reflecting non-Western culture, only to have it influence the greatest movies in modern Western culture? Akira Kurosawa is very likely your favorite director’s favorite director!
To learn more about Akira Kurosawa, visit your local library,
Check your local listings this week:
Yojimbo Sat 8a IFC
Ran Sat 10p & Wed 12a Sundance
A great documentary on Kurosawa is called The Last Emperor. Below is a clip from the movie.
Cinema This Week appears every Friday at Noonish
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