Japanese film auteur Akira Kurosawa is widely considered one of the most influential directors in cinema history. With such infamous releases as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, Kurosawa has consistently delivered films with a distinct artistic style and unique personal vision. The range of his influence has reached across the globe; his films have inspired such western directors as George Lucas, Sergio Leone, and Francis Ford Coppola. Across his career, Kurosawa’s visionary storytelling techniques, spectacular visual style, and thematic preoccupations have drawn upon a combination of foreign, domestic, and personal influences and have gone on to radically influence the world of cinema.
While he draws upon influence from the west and east, many of Kurosawa’s methods of film storytelling have proven to be original, groundbreaking and highly influential. Rashomon, the film that put him and Japanese cinema on the map internationally, revolutionized the possibilities of narrative form in film. While it was classically taken for granted that film truth was visually evident, Rashomon’s unique form obscured that sense of truth by retelling the story of a man’s murder from four contradictory points of view. The characters tell their versions of the story to an unseen judge from a full frontal shot, implying that the viewer himself is the judge of truth. Each story is given equal weight, so as to imply that none are wholly true and none are wholly false. Radically different from anything seen before in cinema, the structure has been modeled in such films as Vantage Point and The Usual Suspects. It even inspired a western remake starring Paul Newman called The Outrage. The structure of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai was similarly groundbreaking. Not only was it an epic action film of unprecedented depth and scale, but it is thought to be the first film narrative in which a team of heroes is assembled to accomplish a specific task. This structure is seen later in films such as The Guns of Navarrone, The Dirty Dozen, Seven Samurai’s western remake The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s Eleven, and numerous others (Ebert). This is also a common structure of role playing video games (Final Fantasy, etc.). We see the continued influence of the film in Sam Peckinpah’s use of slow motion violence and death scenes in such action films as The Wild Bunch which went on to inspire numerous other western directors. The comic action film Yojimbo is also highly influential to western filmmakers: Toshiro Mifune’s character Sanjuro served as the basis for Clint Eastwood’s man with no name character, and the spaghetti western classic A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo. The story was again retold in Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis (Loftus). We see the influence of Yojimbo felt in Starwars when Obi-Wan hacks off a convict’s arm in a bar fight, much like Minfune’s Sanjuro does in the opening of the Yojimbo (Vera). The Hidden Fortress is yet another Kurosawa film that has such an original and exciting plot that it has been readapted, in this case as George Lucas’s epic sci-fi western Star Wars (Ebert). However, the power of the influence between Kurosawa and the west is reciprocal: Kurosawa owes the inspiration for Yojimbo to the western novel Red Harvest. Western influences upon his storytelling are most notable in his two Shakespeare adaptations: King Lear as Ran and Macbeth as Throne of Blood. Also, Kurosawa’s film Heaven and Hell is based upon the American crime novel King’s Ransom. Kurosawa draws inspiration from Russian novelists as well, with The Idiot, The Lower Depths, Ikiru, Dersu Uzala, and Red Beard all being based upon Russian novels. While considered to be the most “western” of Japanese filmmakers, he also draws upon domestic influences such as the Noh and Kabuki theatres, for which his older brother was a Benshi. A large portion of his films fall into the genre of Jidaigeki, or Japanese period-piece films. While simultaneously drawing upon domestic and foreign influences, Kurosawa has been able to innovate and in turn influence the world of cinema in a profound way. His visual style similarly draws upon classic influences in addition to the new technologies of color film and special effects.
Many aesthetic elements of Kurosawa’s work have drawn upon older influences in addition to new innovations. Rashomon’s cinematic style owes much to the unchained camera concept of silent-era films. Kurosawa relates: “Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past” (Kurosawa). Another influence is Kurosawa’s early training as a painter, which seems to have provided him with an instinct for beautiful composition. In The Seven Samurai, his use of deep focus achieved through the use of the telephoto lens puts each detail of the frame in sharp focus and also renders the dimensionality of the frame flat like a canvas.
This adds a pictorial quality to the picture, which, combined with an exceptional set design, serves to paint vividly the world of the narrative. In Ran, we see similar qualities in his use of color: the vivid colors of the costume and banner designs are diverse, distinct, and neatly organized. This not only adds stunning visual beauty to the films design, but enhances the storytelling. In the beginning of the film, the neatly organized patterns of color represent the stability of Hidetora’s kingdom. In the later battle scenes of the film the sharply contrasting blue on Saburo’s army and the red of Jiro’s convey clearly drawn battle lines. The colors take on symbolic effect as well, with the blue of Saburo representing his benevolent intentions to reunite with his father and Jiro’s fierce red representing the bloodshed he has committed by killing his brother Taro and tends to carry out further by the defeat of his younger brother. Dreams has an equally powerful visual design, but in this case it was achieved using the state of the art techniques of LucasArt’s Industrial Light and Magic team. Visual design is the primary tool of storytelling in Dreams, as the dialogue is sparse and the plots simplistic. The dazzling spectacle of color seen in “The Peach Orchard” and “Sunshine through the Rain” convey an impression of fantastic exuberance, evoking feelings of childlike delight in the viewer. The dark monochromaticism of “The Tunnel” and “The Weeping Demon” invoke morbid impressions of dread, fear, and terror. The use of color along with the powerful imagery of neatly dressed life-size porcelain dolls, dead soldiers whose faces have been painted a deathly blue-black, and weeping, savage, yet regretful demons marks the culmination of an aesthetic tendency for Kurosawa to achieve a visual poem of sorts rather than the mere telling of a narrative. We see this tendency in Rashomon in the preference for artistically appealing shots of symbolic plays of light, shadow, and woods over excessive dialogue. His beautiful landscape shots also achieve the effect of re-creating a tangible experience for the viewer, as they deeply impress upon the audience the sweeping grandeur and massive scale of the Japanese landscapes. Kurosawa’s use of landscape may be partially attributed to his early training as a painter, as the Japanese landscape painting is a cherished tradition that seeks to capture the very spiritual essence of the land. We can also attribute his preoccupation with landscape to the influence he felt from such American western filmmakers as John Ford (Crogan). In westerns, the landscape is so prominently featured as a vital aspect of the narrative that is becomes a character itself. We see a similar depiction of the landscape in Ran, such as when the wind-swept fields in which the mad Hidetora mindlessly picks flowers are suffused with a storm of violent wind, symbolic of the fate that has thrown Hidetora’s world into chaos. In the beginning of the film, the immense barrenness of the hills menacingly dwarfs the small group of riders traveling across the plains, and conveys the lonely place of man alone, without morals, and disconnected from God.
Many of Kurosawa’s recurring thematic preoccupations stem from a combination of his personal life and broader social contexts. The recurring samurai themes of his films are a result of his samurai ancestry and the samurai warrior identity as a significant part of the Japanese tradition. The themes of chaos, regret, and hopelessness seen in Ran and Dreams must come from the personal dejection he faced when, after Dodes Kaden failed at the box office, he attempted suicide. In “The Tunnel” we see a platoon of dead soldiers attempting to come back to life, and haunting the commander who sent them to die in the process. This sequence constitutes a vivid visual impression of hopelessness and regret. These themes are closely related to themes concerning the senselessness and devastation of war and the dread of the nuclear menace. These feelings could be attributed to the general mood of post-war Japan, and are reflected also in Ran and Dreams. In Ran, we witness a powerful final image of a blind young man dropping a scroll with the image of the Buddha on it off a battlement onto the rocks below, symbolic of the hopelessness for salvation, the abandonment of morality, the impossibility of peace, and the chaotic nature of war. In “Mount Fuji in Red”, the terror of a mountain exploding with nuclear waste and the horrors of radioactive clouds colored in toxic yellows and reds depict ultimate devastation, and the hopelessness for survival drives the people of Japan to the bottom of the ocean to die. In “The Weeping Demon”, men have been transformed into demons damned to eternal suffering for their destruction of the earth with nuclear weapons. The monstrous, overgrown flowers, the horrible demons screaming out in pain as they cannibalize each other, and the starkness of the barren brown landscape paint quite a bleak picture for the destiny of mankind. We are relieved, however, to see a more hopeful portrait of man in “Village of the Watermills”, in which it is implied that the salvation of man lies in his reconnection with nature. The idea Kurosawa depicts in Rashomon has gone on to be quite influential itself: as a testament to the power of the film’s thematic insights, the concept of the subjectivity of perception has gone on to be christened “The Rashomon Effect”.
In the course of his highly accomplished career as a film auteur, Akira Kurosawa has revolutionized the conventions of cinema while drawing upon a variety of influences, eastern, western, personal, and social, to portray powerful dramas that are at once widely accessible and deeply personal. His unique approach to narrative form, his dazzling visual style, and deep thematic relevance mark the fulfillment of his personal vision to make universally relevant films and stay true to the humanist nature of the drama: “Human beings share the same common problems,” he says. “A film can only be understood if it depicts these properly.”
Loftus, David. Review summary and commentary about Yojimbo. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from www.allwatchers.com
Vera, Noel. (November 16, 2007). Yojimbo. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from http://criticafterdark.blogspot.com/2007/11/yojimbo-akira-kurosawa-1961-ikiru-akira.html
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Retrieved December 4, 2008 from http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=138&eid=213§ion=essay
Ebert, Roger. August 9, 2001. The Seven Samurai. Retrieved 10/14/2008.
Crogan, Patrick. (2000). Translating Kurosawa. Retrieved December 4,2008 from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/9/kurosawa.html