There are few names in cinema more intimately associated with the medium than that of Akira Kurosawa. A painter by trade, he rose through the Japanese film industry to the rank of director in the middle of the Second World War where he had to balance between commercial, artistic, and imperial interests. He learned his trade as an associate director, getting his first directorial assignment in 1943 with Sanshira Sugata, a film about judo and based on a Japanese novel of the same name.
He went on to direct a total of thirty feature films including some of the most influential films ever made like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress. Outside of these are a host of great films that go beyond influence and just exist as great art that will stand the test of time like Ikiru (my personal favorite), Throne of Blood, Rashomon, and Ran.
He was one of the absolute titans of cinema. In another hundred years his films will still be remembered, and deservedly so. He was one of the most intelligent and visual filmmakers, able to transpose works from all over the world to a Japanese idiom that never felt out of place, using everything from contemporary Japanese mores to ancient Japanese forms like Noh to tell the stories of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Hammett, and Gogol, adapted to another culture’s filmic medium.
Commerce vs. Art
Like almost anyone who works in the movies, Kurosawa had to balance the major concerns of art and commerce throughout his career (he also had to deal with a couple of different types of censorship in his first decade or so). The way this usually manifests with filmmakers is the attitude of making “one for them” and then “one for me”. The “them” movies tend to be broader in appeal, working within popular genres with popular actors that help get butts into seats. The “me” movies tend to be smaller, outside of genre, and can skip over the use of popular actors. John Ford’s Wagon Master is a good example of the latter while the Cavalry Trilogy is a good example of the former.
With Kurosawa, his interests were actually quite varied, and he encountered enough success early, even from his very first film, the judo-themed Sanshiro Sugata, that he was able to more easily choose his projects as he wanted. If he wanted to make a three-and-a-half-hour samurai epic that ends with most of the titular characters dead in Seven Samurai, he can do it. If he wants to make a five-hour adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, then, well, he can at least get the funding (the studio forced him to cut the length in half when it came time to release it).
The starkest movement from “me” to “them” pictures was between The Lower Depths and The Hidden Fortress. Most people know the latter to be one of the largest influences on George Lucas when he wrote Star Wars, and it’s easy to see why. It’s pure entertainment about an aged general who must protect an endangered princess as they pass through enemy territory, and yet, it was a purely reactive piece of storytelling from Kurosawa. His previous film, The Lower Depths, an adaptation of a Maxim Gorky play of the same name that starred the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune, was a commercial disappointment. The look at poverty in the Tokyo slums was partially an experiment on Kurosawa’s part to bring the theatrical experience to cinemas by using multiple cameras at once to create the loose in feel, yet incredibly precise in execution, performances of his actors across the entirety of the play. Kurosawa was trying to expand the cinematic artform in the direction of the theatrical play, and it works from an artistic point of view. It is by no means an artistic failure, and yet, not nearly enough people cared at the time. He had to come back with something that would sell tickets, so he threw together a script about a fighting princess.
For at least two decades, it feels like Kurosawa was finding a very comfortable combination of commerce and art, and the height of that is probably Throne of Blood, his adaptation of Macbeth starring (of course) Toshiro Mifune. This wasn’t just an adaptation of a great piece of English literature adapted into a Japanese form, it was also Kurosawa very consciously using the Japanese theatrical form of Noh in cinema. Noh and Kabuki had been present in Japanese cinema since the inception of the country’s entry into the medium in the early silent period, but audiences had, much like in most other markets, grown accustomed to the more straightforward storytelling mechanics of a realistic approach. Classical and formalistic approaches are things that filmmakers often try to revive (think Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart), but very few meet any kind of sustained success while doing it (Federico Fellini did). And that’s exactly what Kurosawa was striving for in Throne of Blood.
There isn’t a realistic thing in the whole movie. Mostly filmed on sets, the costumes are all exaggerated, the makeup is all highly pronounced, and the performances are all elevated almost to the point of parody. And yet, not only does it work on an artistic level, but it was also a large financial success, bringing in more money for Toho Studios than any other movie it released that year. Why? Why would the unrealistic portrayal in Throne of Blood meet great success while The Lower Depths did not?
If I were to hazard a guess, it has to do with audience expectations. The movement across time, like transporting audiences back to the medieval period of Japan’s past, is the kind of jump in the suspension of disbelief that more naturally allows for other jumps. So, adopting the stylings of Noh to the medieval setting feels natural. On the other hand, The Lower Depths is more outright an experiment with less to offer broader audiences. It’s not that audiences cared about the bringing of Noh to cinema but that the experiment there helped to enhance an experience audiences were already interested in. When it came to The Lower Depths, they simply didn’t want to see a movie about poor people dying in slums, no matter the experiment.
I also think it points to Kurosawa’s curious lack of business sense.
Post-Red Beard Commerce
By 1960, Kurosawa was powerful in the Japanese film industry, and to gain more power he started co-financing his own films along with Toho Studios. That ended with the two-year production of Red Beard, a protracted process brought on by Kurosawa’s insistence on perfectionism in the physical production where an entire 19th century village was built with era-appropriate materials, the outside of which you see on screen for less than a tenth of the runtime. The movie could have been filmed on studio sets at Toho and it wouldn’t have made a visual difference to the audience. The production turned so many people against him, including his star Toshiro Mifune who never worked for him again, and after an ill-fated stint in Hollywood where he was supposed to direct the Japanese segments of Tora! Tora! Tora!, he returned to Japan and formed his own production company along with three other Japanese directors: Masaki Kobayashi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kon Ichikawa.
The idea of The Committee of the Four Knights was to raise money so that each could make their own movie under the committee’s banner. Kurosawa came first, and they never made another movie again. The movie they produced was Dodes’ka-den, a colorful, surrealist, and depressing little tale of poverty in the slums of Tokyo. The financial failure of the film really shouldn’t have been that hard to predict. It was purely an art house film, completely lacking plot or even much of a main character, that ends with the death of a child out of neglect from his father. The only audience this could have been a success with was critics, and even they didn’t really like it. The depression Kurosawa sank into led to his suicide attempt.
Kurosawa had completely abandoned any effort to appeal to a broad audience, and he was only saved by first the Soviet Union throwing money at him to make a film based on a Russian literary source (Dersu Uzala), followed by George Lucas who used his newfound clout at Twentieth Century Fox to secure the international rights to Kurosawa’s return to jidaigeki films, Kagemusha. The story of a warlord’s double suddenly finding himself playing the part of warlord all the time upon the warlord’s death was a partial return to the similar jidaigeki films he had made in the 50s like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. His next film, Ran, was a return to Throne of Blood, adapting Shakespeare into medieval Japanese clothes with heavily stylized visuals, giving him his largest late career financial success.
He crawled his way back to some semblance of power, and he used his final three movies to go purely introspective. Dreams is quite literally just that, half a dozen recreations of dreams Kurosawa had had throughout his life. Rhapsody in August is about the psychological effects of the atomic bomb on the Japanese psyche. Madadayo, which translates to “Not Yet”, is about an old man not quite ready to stop living after he retires.
Commerce or Art?
Most successful directors have things they want to pursue that don’t align with what audiences want to pay $9 a ticket to see on a Friday night or what they’re generally known for. John Ford can make The Fugitive after establishing himself with broader fare and get rejected by audiences. Martin Scorsese can make Shutter Island after a career of more art-house fare and get accepted by audiences. It kind of depends on the niche one establishes and what they’ve been doing for so long.
Kurosawa made all sorts of populist fare in his earlier decades. Crime films, buddy cop movies, samurai epics, and even comedic action films dotted his body of work from the fifties through the sixties. It seems, though, that he simply lost interest in telling those kinds of stories, pouring a year or two at a time into them as he went. By the late 60s, he wanted to branch out and do new things, and that meant trying to bring his paintings to life through a story about the slums of Tokyo. It was certainly different. Even when he started making his comeback with Kagemusha and Ran he made more introspective medieval epics that outright entertainments like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. His earlier examples weren’t dumb action movies or anything. He treated the characters seriously and there were ideas at play, but they were more freewheeling. Kagemusha and Ran are the works of an obviously older man, more inclined to take time to consider small things and let scenes play out a bit slower. He was still making art films to a certain extent, but they were couched in more broadly accepted genre tropes that helped sell them to larger audiences.
Who was Kurosawa
I think Kurosawa was an artist of the highest order who could as easily entertain as he could push the medium in new directions. Audiences weren’t always on board with him when he tried to move beyond his more entertaining films, but time has been much kinder to his extra efforts than some other directors like Ford.
That being said, I’ve waxed on about how he’s a born entertainer, and yet the circumstances of his birth, the country he worked in and the time he was born, is a big obstacle for some people. Old, foreign, black and white movies that aren’t widescreen can get dismissed as “art house”. People want colors. They want stars they know. They don’t want to read a movie. They want their widescreen TVs filled to the edges with image. It’s just a lot of little things that add up to, “that’s too different from what I’m used to, I don’t want to put in the effort. Just entertain me.”
And yet, Kurosawa made some of the most effortlessly entertaining action films of all time. I don’t imagine that this audience of well-informed and erudite film watchers are put off by such things as subtitles, but for those who do find such things to a hinderance to enjoying a film, I would really still encourage you to discover Kurosawa. Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, Scandal, Drunken Angel, and my personal favorite Ikiru are the exact kinds of movies that people say that they want. Smart, with great characters, and well-filmed action, Kurosawa, for decades, made entertainment for everyone.