Akira Kurosawa (黒澤 明, Kurosawa Akira; also 黒沢 明 in Shinjitai) (March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a prominent Japanese film director, film producer, and screenwriter, famous for such films as Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), The Throne of Blood (1957), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985). His films greatly influenced a generation of filmmakers the world over, ranging from George Lucas to Sergio Leone.
His film Rashomon won an award at the Venice film festival in 1951, and opened the world to Japanese cinematography. Kurosawa was known for his attention to detail and his insistence on perfection. He drew his subject material from a wide range of literary sources—from Shakespeare to American Westerns and mysteries. 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.
Kurosawa was born March 23, 1910, in Omori, Ota-ku, Tokyo, the youngest of seven children. His father, a one-time army officer, was a teacher who contributed to the development of athletic instruction in Japan. After secondary school, Kurosawa attended an art school and studied painting in the Western style. His work received a number of awards and prizes, but he gave up his ambition to become a painter and instead began work in the film industry as an assistant director to Kajiro Yamamoto in the PCL cinema studio. He worked there from 1936 to 1943 and gained a reputation as an excellent scenarist.
His directorial debut was Sanshiro Sugata, produced from his own screenplay; the story of Japanese judo masters of the 1880s was a popular success. His next few films were made under the watchful eye of the wartime Japanese government and sometimes contained nationalistic themes. The Most Beautiful is a film about Japanese women working in a military optics factory. Kurosawa married the actress who had played the leading part in the picture, Yaguchi Yoko; they had two children, a son and a daughter.
In August 1945, when Japan surrendered in World War II, Kurosawa was in the midst of shooting Tora no o fumu otokotachi (They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail), a parody of a well-known Kabuki drama. The Allied occupying forces prohibited the release of most films dealing with Japan’s feudal past, and this outstanding comedy was not distributed until 1952.
Kurosawa’s 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, which made him internationally famous and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. It also won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. Another of his films, Ikiru (To Live), is regarded by many critics as one of the finest works in the history of the cinema.
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 ("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 centimeters of Mifune's body. For 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 anecdotes include his demand that 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, and later replaced, because he felt the roof's presence was unattractive in a short sequence filmed from a train.
His perfectionism also showed in his approach to costumes: he felt that an actor in a brand new costume did not look like an authentic character. He often gave his cast their costumes weeks before shooting was to begin and required them to wear them daily and “bond with them.” In some cases, such as Seven Samurai, where most of the cast portrayed poor farmers, the actors were told to make sure their costumes were worn 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 did he use more finished pieces.
A notable feature of Kurosawa's films is the breadth of his artistic influence. 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 seems to parallel Hamlet. 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 was 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. The American film director John Ford also had a large impact on Kurosawa's work.
Despite criticism by some Japanese critics that Kurosawa was "too Western," he was deeply influenced by Japanese culture, including the Kabuki and Noh theaters and the jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema. Throne of Blood can be considered a Noh drama on film.
Kurosawa's films had a huge influence on world cinema. Most notably, Seven Samurai was remade as the western The Magnificent Seven, science fiction movie Battle Beyond the Stars, and Pixar's A Bug's Life. It also inspired two Hindi films, Ramesh Sippy's Sholay and Rajkumar Santhoshi's China Gate, with similar plots. The story has also inspired novels, among them Stephen King's fifth Dark Tower novel, Wolves of Calla.
The Tamil films titled Antha Naal (1954) and Virumandi (2003) starring Shivaji Ganesan and Kamal Hassan respectively, also use a method of storytelling similar to that in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Rashomon was also remade by Martin Ritt in 1964 as The Outrage.
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 had an influence on George Lucas's Star Wars films, in particular on Episodes I and IV and the characters of R2-D2 and C3PO. The wipe transition effect used in several movies, including Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, was later used by George Lucas on his Star Wars saga.
Rashomon not only helped open the world to Japanese cinema, but it virtually entered the English language as a term for fractured, inconsistent narratives. It also influenced episodes of television series and many motion pictures.
During his most productive period, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, 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 Mifune, 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.
Red Beard marked a turning point in Kurosawa's career. 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 one film every year. Kurosawa was signed to direct a Hollywood project, Tora! Tora! Tora!, but 20th Century Fox replaced him with 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 difficult in spite of his international reputation. Dersu Uzala, made in the Soviet Union and set in Siberia in the early twentieth 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). The screenplay was written by Akira Kurosawa. The story is based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, Ogosokawa nawaki.
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