Akira Kurosawa was one of the titans of cinema. Across his 30 feature films, he created some of the great populist entertainments, adapted foreign literature expertly into the Japanese idiom, and captured some of the best performances on film.
Without him, the world of cinema would be quite different. He effectively created the modern action movie with Seven Samurai. Yojimbo has been copied heavily (though it’s a bit of a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key on its own). The Hidden Fortress shares the same bones as Star Wars. Stray Dog was one of the earliest buddy cop movies and helped set the rules of the whole genre.
He was also an extraordinarily literary director, pulling from sources in Russia, America, England, and Japan. He always made these adaptations distinctly cinematic, fully embracing the tools of his medium to effectively tell these stories, breathing new life into old stories like King Lear in Ran or Macbeth in Throne of Blood, or even improving on source material like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
I loved going through this filmography. Fun, intimate, and deeply human, Kurosawa’s films were first and foremost entertaining.
I should also note that out of his thirty films, I gave four-star ratings to twelve of them. I think there’s only one bad film in the whole bunch, and there are only five films that I gave less than three-star ratings to. This Kurosawa guy was good at the whole movie making business.
And don’t forget to check out the rest of my Definitive Rankings to bask in their definitiveness.
“There’s no real drama. The characters are thin and interchangeable. This was a burgeoning artist working under a tight artistic regime that demanded a storytelling mode that wasn’t really amenable to compelling cinema.”
“It’s fine. It’s nothing special. There’s a muddle of an idea at play that never gets the attention it needs. The main character doesn’t have much of an emotional journey. It has some nice moments and some beautiful shots, showcasing Kurosawa’s technical talents but also the limits of creative output under a failing Imperial regime with a censorship board.”
28. Sanshiro Sugata
“In its original form, I imagine a fair number of my narrative critiques would be addressed, but until that version is found, we’re left with this. It’s an interesting and aesthetically beautiful effort.”
“Still, even without the Kurosawa connection, I’d be mixed on the film.”
“This is Kurosawa working professionally as a director but not bringing quite enough as a writer. I maintain that a complete revision of the story’s structure is what it needed to really mine the emotional possibilities of the film, but the man was 80 years old. I suppose I can’t really fault him for not taking the film in a more ambitious direction. As a small film set mostly on a single set of a country house, Rhapsody in August is mixed, but ultimately good.”
“It’s a nice little film that finds humanity and hope in harsh landscape, a way towards a brighter future no matter the challenges of the day. It’s sweet.”
“The Hidden Fortress is a fun adventure film that’s never dull but probably could have been improved with a couple of smallish narrative changes. It’s also great to look at and has Toshiro Mifune being the movie star he was, carrying the whole thing with humor and intensity.”
“In the end, though, it’s a touching look at a woman finding meaning after the death of her husband. It’s handsome and well-acted, and it’s another move in the right direction for the young Japanese director.”
“Still, it’s an effective morality tale that gets to its subject in time. It’s got its heart in the right place and a pair of very nice central performances. It may not be one of Kurosawa’s great films, but it’s a quality addition to his filmography.”
21. Drunken Angel
“The film is good, though, despite the change in focus. It shows that Kurosawa could improvise quickly to capture something worth capturing. That it helped start one of the great director/actor combinations is just gravy.”
“Still, with Kurosawa’s expert eye, Mifune’s loose and entertaining performance, and a tight 90-minute runtime, Sanjuro does consistently entertain. I get more out of the previous film, but there’s still a lot to like in the quickly cobbled together sequel.”
19. The Idiot
“This probably would have been a stronger film, especially in the beginning, in the longer form, but the basic passiveness of the central character can only be overcome so far. Still, that birthday party scene is amazingly compelling and really, honestly, one of the best single sequences Kurosawa ever put to film.”
18. The Lower Depths
“The film as a whole is handsome and interesting, though I never quite found it involving emotionally. It’s an experiment, similar to Hitchcock’s other film Lifeboat, in trying to recreate the theatrical experience in a cinema, and I think it’s a reasonable success at that.”
“As it is, though, it’s solidly good little film with a great twenty minutes that are just pure tension. Everything around those minutes are fine, but those twenty minutes are a doozy.”
“When given the complete freedom, he didn’t tell a grand adventure in medieval Japan, he told the tales of a group of people cast off from the world in contemporary Japan trying to survive and keep their own humanity. It may not be top-tier Kurosawa, but it’s a complex, involving work that deserves attention.”
“It feels something like a coda to a life’s work, capped with Ran. ‘I have accomplished everything, and here I am.'”
14. Dersu Uzala
“It may not be on the same level, reaching the same emotional highs, as Ikiru, but Dersu Uzala is an affecting film that wonderfully uses the backdrop of the Siberian wilds to tell its story well.”
13. I Live in Fear
“This feels like Kurosawa using a smaller scale to stretch himself in a different direction. It’s largely successful with a great ending.”
12. The Quiet Duel
“I really did get into it all, and as the emotional arc came to its zenith, I was feeling the pain and frustration Kyoji felt. The lesson is kind of obvious and moralistic, but I felt like it all worked quite well. Well made, well acted, and affecting, The Quiet Duel is a wonderful early entry in Kurosawa’s career.”
“This is much more than a dress rehearsal for Ran. This is a wonderful vision of an elder filmmaker finding the kind of access to production he hadn’t seen in decades.”
10. High and Low
“This is another example of primo entertainment from Kurosawa. Penetrating deeply into the minds of characters while telling an intricate story at the same time, High and Low is one of Kurosawa’s best films.”
9. Stray Dog
“The tension of key moments is palpable. The motifs are strong and interesting with the added benefit of extending ideas Kurosawa had been toying with in his previous films”
8. Red Beard
“There’s something special about Red Beard. It’s Kurosawa’s most purely humanist work since Ikiru. I took several classes with Stephen Prince, the film scholar, when I was at Virginia Tech, and I asked him what his favorite Kurosawa film was. He said it was Red Beard, and it’s easy to see why.”
“I love that ending. It’s such a marked departure for Kurosawa. The Bad Sleep Well would make a rather uncomfortable double feature with Ikiru, with the latter showing a way to succeed even slightly in the contemporary world of bureaucratic Japan while the former shows that bureaucracy completely crushing the individual.”
“Rashomon isn’t homework. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s classic in the best of ways.”
“Yojimbo is primo entertainment, up with Seven Samurai in Kurosawa’s body of work. It’s also an hour and a half shorter, which makes for easier watching.”
“This feels like Kurosawa stretching his muscles both artistically and within the power structures of the Japanese film industry to make a large, esoteric adaptation of a piece of major Western literature. This feels like Kurosawa at the height of his power, doing something different, and finding great success.”
“This is just grand adventure filmmaking. It’s populist fare. It’s fun, it’s involving, and emotionally satisfying. This is popular entertainment at its best.”
“This is literally every cinematic lesson Kurosawa ever learned and put up on screen in one concentrated dose. This is the work of an old master in full control over the production, made all the more impressive considering he was essentially blind by this point.”
“Ikiru is a masterpiece. It’s one of my favorite films. It is a towering achievement of humanism and emotion. I adore this movie.”