Trevor Hogg celebrates the centenary of internationally renowned filmmaker Akira Kurosawa...
Born a century ago on March 23, 1910 was an artist who had the ability to cinematically blend Japanese culture with Western storytelling, allowing him to craft an enduring legend. “I am a man who likes Sotatsu, Gyokudo, and Tessai in the same way as van Gogh, Lautrec, and Rouault,” stated renowned filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. “I collect old Japanese lacquerware as well as antique French and Dutch glassware. In short, the Western and the Japanese could actually be said to live side by side in my mind, without the least sense of conflict.”
Nicknamed “the Emperor” for his ability to handle everything from screenwriting, to film editing and directing, Akira Kurosawa came about his chosen profession accidentally. The twenty-six year old discovered the advertisement of a film studio looking for assistant directors; he applied and was hired by the Toho Motion Picture Company (then known as Photo Chemical Laboratory) for which Kurosawa went on to produce thirteen movies from 1943 to 1958. “I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theatre, music, and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of film,” wrote the filmmaker in the memoir Something Like an Autobiography (1982). “Yet I had never noticed that cinema was the one field where I would be required to make full use of all I had learned.”
Assigned to assist Kajiro Yamamoto (Hawai Mare oki kaisen), the young protégé embraced his mentor’s credo, “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” Reminiscing about his early directing career which debuted with Sugata Sanshiro (1943), Kurosawa stated, “There was no freedom of expression during the war. All I could do was read books and write scenarios, without having any real outlet for my own feelings. Derzu Uzala  was one of the ideas that came to me then. Like other ideas, it underwent a process of fermentation and maturing, rather like alcohol. Those ideas exploded once the war was over. Looking back, those were happy days.”
Akira Kurosawa garnered global attention with a story about a rape and apparent murder told from multiple points-of-view; Rashomon captured the prestigious Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award in 1952. The former painter cemented his international reputation with the release of Shichinin no samurai (1954) better known to the English speaking-world as Seven Samurai. “I like to see this film once every few years,” remarked New Zealand filmmaker and Oscar-winner Jane Campion (The Piano) of the classic Kurosawa tale that revolves around a group of warriors hired to defend a village. “I love it for its balance of humour, drama, and its deep affection for our noble and flawed natures. When I remember the film I smile and enjoy very much the breadth of the characters, all the beautiful courageous, broken and romantic samurai. I too want to be one of those samurai, and I want to make such a strong and kind film.”
By resetting the works of William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Maxim Gorky in his homeland, the Tokyo-native inspired his Western counterparts to imitate him with the star-studded The Magnificent Seven (1960), the Italian “spaghetti” Western A Fistful of Dollars (1967), and the space odyssey Star Wars (1977).
Not all was golden for the moviemaker; he was so intimately connected to his cinematic craft that the commercial failure of his first colour picture Dodesukaden (1970) contributed to him emulating his deceased brother Heigo. Fortunately, Kurosawa was unsuccessful in his suicide attempt and the director rebounded to produce Derzu Uzala; the picture was lauded with the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and its creator became the first filmmaker to be awarded Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure, thereby, designating him a Person of Cultural Merits.
Channeling Shakespeare’s King Lear as a 1985 epic masterpiece about an aging Sengoku-era warlord and his three sons, Akira Kurosawa created the most expensive Japanese film of the time. “In Ran I tried to give Lear a history,” explained the director. “I tried to make clear that his power must rest on a lifetime of blood thirsty savagery. Forced ultimately to confront the consequences of his misdeeds, he is driven mad. But only by confronting his evil head-on can he transcend it and begin the struggle to virtue.” The movie won the BAFTA award for Best Foreign Film, and Kurosawa was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars.
As testimony to his legacy as a filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa received the Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1990. “In sum, I don’t believe that the “messages” of my films are very obvious,” observed the director. “Rather, they are end products of my reflection.” Despite his death from a stroke on September 6, 1998, Kurosawa has continued to have an impact on the movie industry; his last script After the Rain was directed by Takashi Koizumi in 2000, the city of Imari became the site of a memorial museum, and Kurosawa’s son Hisao is completing a documentary begun by his father; Gendai no noh is about Noh, the classical Japanese musical drama performed since the 14th century. Commenting on the worldwide celebrations, christened AK100 Project, which include the release of addition footage to Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), video games, commemorative stamps, and newly published books, Hisao said, “My hope is that people, especially younger audiences, see the work of Akira Kurosawa. This memorial will be my final act of devotion.”
Be sure to read Trevor's in-depth article covering the filmmaker's illustrious career - Epic Dreamer: An Akira Kurosawa Profile.
Watch Alex Cox's documentary - Kurosawa: The Last Emperor - parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.