See his autobiography (1982); studies by D. Richie (1965, 1970); S. Galbraith 4th, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (2002).
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 theater 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.
In 1936, Kurosawa learned of an apprenticeship program for directors through a major film studio, PCL (which later became Toho). 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 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 who is arrested for his political leanings. Kurosawa made several more films dealing with contemporary Japan, most notably Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. However, it was his period film Rashomon that made him internationally famous and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
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 the final scene of Throne of Blood, 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 worn down and tattered by the time shooting started.
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 are more finished pieces heard.
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. When Kurosawa got to meet John Ford, an American film director commonly said to be the most influential to Kurosawa, Ford simply said, "You really like rain." Kurosawa responded, "You've really been paying attention to my films.
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.
Rashomon not only helped open Japanese cinema to the world, but also entered the English language as a term for fractured, inconsistent narratives (see rashomon effect).
After an attempted suicide, Kurosawa went on to make several more films, although he had great difficulty in obtaining domestic financing 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 of Japan and not in the Japanese language. It is about the friendship of a Russian explorer and a nomadic hunter, and 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. The film was awarded by the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival (which was shared this year with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz). Ran was the director's version of Shakespeare's King Lear, set in medieval Japan (and the only film of Kurosawa's career that he received a "Best Director" Academy Award nomination for). It was by far the largest 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 an international success and is generally considered Kurosawa's last masterpiece. In an interview, Kurosawa said that he considered it to be the best film he ever made.
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 atomic bomb and his final film, Madadayo, is about a retired teacher and his former students. Kurosawa died of a stroke in Setagaya, Tokyo, at age 88. is a 1998 posthumous film directed by Kurosawa's closest collaborator, Takashi Koizumi, co-produced by Kurosawa Production (Hisao Kurosawa) and starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Shiro Mifune, son of Toshirō Mifune. Screenplay, script and dialogues were both written by Kurosawa himself. 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 incredibly large quantity of fine delicacies, especially meat, for the cast and crew, although the meat was sometimes left over from recording sound effects of the sound of blades cutting flesh in the many swordfight scenes.
|1943|| Sanshiro Sugata|
aka Judo Saga
|1944||The Most Beautiful||Ichiban utsukushiku|
|1945|| Sanshiro Sugata Part II|
aka Judo Saga 2
|Zoku Sugata Sanshirô|
|The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail||Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi|
|1946||No Regrets for Our Youth||Waga seishun ni kuinashi|
|1947||One Wonderful Sunday||Subarashiki nichiyōbi|
|1948||Drunken Angel||Yoidore tenshi|
|1949||The Quiet Duel||Shizukanaru ketto|
|Stray Dog||Nora inu|
aka To Live
|1954||Seven Samurai||Shichinin no samurai|
|1955|| I Live in Fear|
aka Record of a Living Being
|Ikimono no kiroku|
|1957|| Throne of Blood|
aka Spider Web Castle
|The Lower Depths||Donzoko|
|1958||The Hidden Fortress||Kakushi toride no san akunin|
|1960||The Bad Sleep Well||Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru|
aka The Bodyguard
|1963|| High and Low|
aka Heaven and Hell
|Tengoku to jigoku|
|1975||Dersu Uzala||Derusu Uzāra|
aka Akira Kurosawa's Dreams
|1991||Rhapsody in August|| Hachigatsu no rapusodī|
aka Hachigatsu no kyōshikyoku
aka Not Yet