Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha (1980).
Born 23 March 1910
Ota, Tokyo, Japan
Died 6 September 1998
Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan

Akira Kurosawa ( Kyūjitai: 黒澤 明, Shinjitai: 黒沢 明 Kurosawa Akira ?, 23 March 1910— 6 September 1998) was a prominent Japanese film director, film producer, and screenwriter.

His first credited film ( Sugata Sanshiro) was released in 1943; his last ( Madadayo) in 1993. His many awards include the Legion d'Honneur and an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.

Early Life

Akira Kurosawa was born to Isamu and Shima Kurosawa on March 23, 1910. He was the youngest of eight children born to the Kurosawas in a suburb of Tokyo. Shima Kurosawa was forty years old at the time of Akira's birth and his father Isamu was forty-five. Akira Kurosawa grew up in a household with one older brother and three older sisters. Of his three older brothers, one died before Akira was born and one was already grown and out of the household. One of his four older sisters had also left the home to begin her own family before Kurosawa was born.

Kurosawa's father worked as the director of a junior high school operated by the Japanese military and the Kurosawas descended from a line of former Samurai. Financially, the family was above average. Isamu Kurosawa embraced western culture both in the athletic programs that he directed and by taking the family to see films, which were then just beginning to appear in Japanese theaters. Later when Japanese culture turned away from western films, Isamu Kurosawa continued to believe that films were a positive educational experience.

In primary school Akira Kurosawa was encouraged to draw by a teacher who took an interest in mentoring his talents. His older brother, Heigo, had a profound impact on him. Heigo was very intelligent and won several academic competitions, but also had what was later called a cynical or dark side. In 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake destroyed Tokyo and left 100,000 people dead. In the wake of this event, Heigo, 17, and Akira, 13, made a walking tour of the devastation. Corpses of humans and animals were piled everywhere. When Akira would attempt to turn his head away, Heigo urged 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.

Heigo eventually began a career as a benshi in Tokyo film theaters. Benshi narrated silent films for the audience and were a uniquely Japanese addition to the theatre experience. However with the impact of talking pictures on the rise, benshi were losing work all over Japan. Heigo organized a benshi strike that failed. Akira was likewise involved in labor-management struggles, writing several articles for a radical newspaper while improving and expanding his skills as a painter and reading literature. Akira never considered himself a Communist despite his activities that he later would describe as reckless.

When Akira Kurosawa was in his early 20s, his older brother Heigo committed suicide. Four months later, the oldest of Kurosawa's brothers also died, leaving Akira as the only surviving son of an original four at age 23. Kurosawa's next-oldest sibling, a sister he called "Little Big Sister," had also died suddenly after a short illness when he was ten.

Early career

In 1936, Kurosawa learned of an apprenticeship program for directors through a major film studio, Nikkatsu. He was hired and worked as an assistant director to Kajiro Yamamoto . After his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata, his next few films were made under the watchful eye of the wartime Japanese government and sometimes contained nationalistic themes. For instance, The Most Beautiful is a propaganda film about Japanese women working in a military optics factory. Judo Saga 2 has been held to be explicitly anti-American in the way that it portrays Japanese judo as superior to western (American) boxing.

His first post-war film No Regrets for Our Youth, by contrast, is critical of the old Japanese regime and is about the wife of a left-wing dissident arrested for his political leanings. Kurosawa made several more films dealing with contemporary Japan, most notably Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. However, it was a period film – Rashomon– that made him internationally famous and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Directorial approach

Kurosawa had a distinctive cinematic technique, which he had developed by the 1950s, and which gave his films a unique look. He liked using telephoto lenses for the way they flattened the frame and also because he believed that placing cameras farther away from his actors produced better performances. He also liked using multiple cameras, which allowed him to shoot an action from different angles. Another Kurosawa trademark was the use of weather elements to heighten mood: for example the heavy rain in the opening scene of Rashomon, and the final battle in Seven Samurai and the fog in Throne of Blood. Kurosawa also liked using frame wipes, sometimes cleverly hidden by motion within the frame, as a transition device.

He was known as "Tenno", literally "Emperor", for his dictatorial directing style. He was a perfectionist who spent enormous amounts of time and effort to achieve the desired visual effects. In Rashomon, he dyed the rain water black with calligraphy ink in order to achieve the effect of heavy rain, and ended up using up the entire local water supply of the location area in creating the rainstorm. In Throne of Blood, in the final scene in which Mifune is shot by arrows, Kurosawa used real arrows shot by expert archers from a short range, landing within centimetres of Mifune's body. In Ran, an entire castle set was constructed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji only to be burned to the ground in a climactic scene.

Other stories include demanding a stream be made to run in the opposite direction in order to get a better visual effect, and having the roof of a house removed, later to be replaced, because he felt the roof's presence to be unattractive in a short sequence filmed from a train.

His perfectionism also showed in his approach to costumes: he felt that giving an actor a brand new costume made the character look less than authentic. To resolve this, he often gave his cast their costumes weeks before shooting was to begin and required them to wear them on a daily basis and “bond with them.” In some cases, such as with Seven Samurai, where most of the cast portrayed poor farmers, the actors were told to make sure the costumes were allowed to gradually get worn down and tattered.

Kurosawa did not believe that “finished” music went well with film. When choosing a musical piece to accompany his scenes, he usually had it stripped down to one element (e.g., trumpets only). Only towards the end of his films do we hear more finished pieces.


A notable feature of Kurosawa's films is the breadth of his artistic influences. Some of his plots are adaptations of William Shakespeare's works: Ran is based on King Lear and Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth, while The Bad Sleep Well parallels Hamlet, but is not affirmed to be based on it. Kurosawa also directed film adaptations of Russian literary works, including The Idiot by Dostoevsky and The Lower Depths, a play by Maxim Gorky. Ikiru was based on Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. High and Low was based on King's Ransom by American crime writer Ed McBain, Yojimbo may have been based on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and also borrows from American Westerns, and Stray Dog was inspired by the detective novels of Georges Simenon. Story lines in Red Beard can be found in The Insulted and Humiliated by Dostoevsky. The American film director John Ford also had a large influence on his work.

Despite criticism by some Japanese critics that Kurosawa was "too Western", he was deeply influenced by Japanese culture as well, including the Kabuki and Noh theaters and the jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema. Indeed, Throne of Blood can be considered a Noh drama on film.

His influence

Kurosawa's films have had a major influence on world cinema and continue to inspire filmmakers, and others, around the globe.

Seven Samurai was officially remade into the John Sturges western The Magnificent Seven and unofficially in such genres as comedy, Three Amigos, science-fiction, Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars, and animation in Pixar's A Bug's Life . It has inspired two Bollywood films, Ramesh Sippy's Sholay and Rajkumar Santoshi's China Gate, which feature similar plots. The story was also used as inspiration in numerous novels, among them Stephen King's 5th Dark Tower novel, Wolves of Calla.

Rashomon was also remade by Martin Ritt in 1964's The Outrage. The Tamil films Andha Naal (1954) and Virumaandi (2004), starring Shivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hassan, respectively, employ a storytelling method similar to that Kurosawa uses in Rashomon.

Yojimbo was the basis for the Sergio Leone western A Fistful of Dollars and the Bruce Willis prohibition-era Last Man Standing.

The Hidden Fortress is an acknowledged influence on George Lucas's Star Wars films, in particular Episodes IV and VI and most notably in the characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Lucas also used a modified version of Kurosawa's "trademarked" wipe transition effect throughout the Star Wars saga.

Rashomon not only helped open Japanese cinema to the world but entered the English language as a term for fractured, inconsistent narratives (see rashomon effect).


During his most productive period, from the late 40s to the mid-60s, Kurosawa often worked with the same group of collaborators. Fumio Hayasaka composed music for seven of his films — notably Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Many of Kurosawa's scripts, including Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai and Ran were co-written with Hideo Oguni. Yoshiro Muraki was Kurosawa's production designer or art director for most of his films after Stray Dog in 1949, and Asakazu Naki was his cinematographer on 11 films including Ikiru, Seven Samurai and Ran. Kurosawa also liked working with the same group of actors, especially Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Toshiro Mifune. His collaboration with the latter, which began with 1948's Drunken Angel and ended with 1965's Red Beard, is one of the most famous director-actor combinations in cinema history.

Later films

Red Beard marked a turning point in Kurosawa's career in more ways than one. In addition to being his last film with Mifune, it was his last in black-and-white. It was also his last as a major director within the Japanese studio system making roughly a film a year. Kurosawa was signed to direct a Hollywood project, Tora! Tora! Tora!; but 20th Century Fox replaced him with Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku before it was completed. His next few films were a lot harder to finance and were made at intervals of five years. The first, Dodesukaden, about a group of poor people living around a rubbish dump, was not a success.

After an attempted suicide, Kurosawa went on to make several more films although arranging domestic financing was highly difficult despite his international reputation. Dersu Uzala, made in the Soviet Union and set in Siberia in the early 20th century, was the only Kurosawa film made outside Japan and not in Japanese. It is about the friendship of a Russian explorer and a nomadic hunter. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Kagemusha, financed with the help of the director's most famous admirers, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, is the story of a man who is the body double of a medieval Japanese lord and takes over his identity after the lord's death. Ran was the director's version of King Lear, set in medieval Japan. It was by far the greatest project of Kurosawa's late career, and he spent a decade planning it and trying to obtain funding, which he was finally able to do with the help of the French producer Serge Silberman. The film was a phenomenal international success and is generally considered Kurosawa's last masterpiece.

Kurosawa made three more films during the 1990s which were more personal than his earlier works. Dreams is a series of vignettes based on his own dreams. Rhapsody in August is about memories of the Nagasaki atom bomb and his final film, Madadayo, is about a retired teacher and his former students. Kurosawa died in Setagaya, Tokyo, at age 88.

After the Rain (雨あがる, Ame Agaru) is a 1998 posthumous film directed by Kurosawa's closest collaborator, Takashi Koizumi, co-produced by Kurosawa Production (Hisao Kurosawa) and starring Tatsuda Nakadai and Shiro Mifune (son of Toshiro). Screenplay, script and dialogues are both written by Akira Kurosawa. The story is based on a short novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, Ame Agaru.


  • Kurosawa was a notoriously lavish gourmet, and spent huge quantities of money on film sets providing an uneatably large quantity and quality of delicacies, especially meat, for the cast and crew.
  • On one occasion Kurosawa got to meet John Ford, a director commonly said to be the most influential to Kurosawa. And not knowing what to say Ford simply said, "You really like rain." Kurosawa responded "You've really been paying attention to my films"
  • Kurosawa considered Ran the best film he ever made.


  • 1951 – Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Rashomon
  • 1952 – Honorary Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film for Rashomon
  • 1955 – Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Seven Samurai
  • 1975 – Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film for Dersu Uzala
  • 1980 – Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival for Kagemusha
  • 1982 – Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival
  • 1984 – Legion d'Honneur
  • 1990 – Honorary Academy Award
  • 2006 – 10th Iran Cinema Celebration, Special honour


  • Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
  • The Most Beautiful (1944)
  • Sanshiro Sugata Part II aka Judo Saga 2 (1945)
  • The Men Who Tread On the Tiger's Tail (1945)
  • No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
  • One Wonderful Sunday (1946)
  • Drunken Angel (1948)
  • The Quiet Duel (1949)
  • Stray Dog (1949)
  • Scandal (1950)
  • Rashomon (1950)
  • The Idiot (1951)
  • Ikiru aka To Live (1952)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Record of a Living Being aka I Live in Fear (1955)
  • Throne of Blood aka Spider Web Castle (1957)
  • The Lower Depths (1957)
  • The Hidden Fortress (1958)
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
  • Yojimbo aka The Bodyguard (1961)
  • Sanjuro (1962)
  • High and Low aka Heaven and Hell (1963)
  • Red Beard (1965)
  • Dodesukaden (1970)
  • Dersu Uzala (1975)
  • Kagemusha aka Shadow Warrior (1980)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Dreams aka Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)
  • Rhapsody in August (1991)
  • Madadayo aka Not Yet (1993)

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