BFI Player’s Japan 2020 season is now live, with two first rate collections to keep you occupied during lockdown. One focusses on Japan’s most famous filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, and features 21 films from the 30 he made in a career spanning six decades. The other showcases classics of Japanese cinema across the decades – click here for details on that one.
People most likely know the name, but as the years tick by the audience for Kurosawa’s films inevitably dwindles. Which makes Japan 2020’s collection essential… for many reasons.
Chiefly, Kurosawa movies are dazzling. As important, they still seem fresh and accessible to modern eyes.
Kurosawa was the first director to bring Japanese films to Western attention, when 1950’s Rashomon won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and an Honorary Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The director has also significantly influenced post-war American cinema and modern movie culture. With his samurai films proving remarkably adaptable to Hollywood westerns, Seven Samurai (1954) became The Magnificent Seven (1960), Rashomon was remade as The Outrage (1964) and Yojimbo (1961) translated to A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
But, Kurosawa may be most widely known for influencing George Lucas. The Japanese master’s feudal adventure The Hidden Fortress (1958) served as a template for 1977’s Star Wars, aka, the film that changed everything.
There was an element of a favour being returned here. Kurosawa knew American cinema and Western culture. He was impressed by the films of John Ford (whose 1956 Western The Searchers also influenced Star Wars) and drew inspiration from Shakespeare for multiple movies.
But, it was not simply broad plot points that inspired Western filmmakers. The moral murk of his films, populated by flawed characters who must take responsibility to resolve a crisis, means Kurosawa’s movies resonate across different levels. No wonder he was so taken with the Bard.
And as we shall see, what paint was for Picasso, the movie camera was for Kurosawa.
Best remembered for his samurai epics, less known is how well he melded genre filmmaking with social issue movies (or the shakai-mono film).
Social awareness was instilled in the director from an early age, as was a love of movies. Born into a samurai family on 23rd March 1910, he saw his first movie aged 6 at the encouragement of his father. Kurosawa’s brother, Heigo, was another key figure in his childhood and may have been a formative influence on the master/pupil relationships that occur across the director’s work. In 1923 Heigo took the 13-year-old Akira to witness first-hand the devastation caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed an estimated 142,000 people.
Heigo was also a benshi, someone who would narrate and interpret silent films as they played onscreen. Considered an artform in its own right, accomplished benshi could be as famous as movie actors. The advent of sound rendered the position obsolete and Heigo Kurosawa committed suicide in 1933, something that would haunt his younger brother.
Institutions and “respectable” citizenry are viewed with a critical eye in Kurosawa’s movies. Making it ironic the director’s first films were made during World War 2, when Japan was under military rule.
Kurosawa’s debut, 1943’s Sanshiro Sugata, was almost banned by the censorship office for being too “British-American”. A release was secured only after famed director Yasujiro Ozu intervened, and Kurosawa would be pressured into helming a propagandistic sequel two years later.
During the war years, Kurosawa snuck a critique of the military’s rule into The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, by basing it on a kabuki play and setting the story in the 12th century. Ironically, it was not completed until after Japan had surrendered, and a film branded “too democratic” by the Japanese censor was now too “feudal” for the occupying American forces. The movie would not be released until 1952, when the occupation had ended.
BFI Player’s Akira Kurosawa collection includes the above movies, plus masterpieces he made across the decades up to and including 1985’s Ran, his astonishing adaptation of King Lear.
Choosing only five films from the collection is tough, if not foolhardy. Some may howl at what we’ve suggested and the many we omitted. But, in our opinion these films showcase Kurosawa’s genius for new audiences and reward repeat viewings for those watching for a second, third, fourth, etc. time.
DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948)
Although Kurosawa’s eighth movie, Drunken Angel is a film of firsts. The filmmaker declared this the first film where he felt himself a director, evident in the unblinking view of the suffering Japan had brought on itself in the aftermath of World War 2. As importantly, this was Kurosawa’s first collaboration with superstar actor Toshiro Mifune, who would appear in 16 of the director’s movies until a mysterious, unresolved conflict after 1965’s Red Beard.
The film follows the edgy bond that forms between Mifune’s gangster, Matsunaga, dying of tuberculosis, and Takashi Shimura’s alcoholic, yet defiantly humanistic Dr. Sanada.
“The Japanese always sacrifice their lives for stupid ideals,” Takashi Shimura’s Sanada bitterly proclaims, fitting for a film made amidst the bombed out ruins of post-war Tokyo. Sanada’s surgery overlooks a disease-ridden pond presumably formed from a bomb crater, serving as a metaphor for the swampland the doctor is trying to heal.
Disease infects every corner of the movie. The alcoholism that refuses to dull Sanada’s senses. The TB eating away at Matsunaga. Plus, figuratively the crime boss fresh out of prison and looking to inflict misery on his ex-wife, now under the doctor’s protection.
Yet, Drunken Angel is not a heavy bowl of cinematic greens. Scenes sizzle as Mifune and Shimura spar like wounded ronin. There is fiery anger directed at the dance clubs affordable only to the criminal class, while ordinary people live in squalor. These clubs are also one of the few signs of the American occupation’s influence.
Visually, Kurosawa shoots this social drama like a thriller. Deep shadows and low angles come to dominate the film as the world increasingly presses down on the main players.
A climactic fight in a corridor slick with white paint is so striking it must have been ripped-off since, and throws ambiguity on whether the title refers to merely one character.
STRAY DOG (1949)
For those who know Mifune from Kurosawa’s samurai films, when watching Drunken Angel and Stray Dog it is shocking how matinee idol good-looking he is. Clean-shaven and razor jaw-lined, he is initially unrecognisable when compared to the bearded, coarser sword swinging warriors of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
Stray Dog walks similar territory to Drunken Angel in its tale of Mifune’s Detective Murakami, forced to journey through the slums of reconstruction period Tokyo when his gun is stolen by a pickpocket.
Murakami discovers that, like himself, the man using his gun for violent crime was also a soldier during the war, driven to desperation when his knapsack, his only means of support, was stolen. Parallels such as these put Stray Dog in Crime and Punishment territory. Unsurprising, as Dostoyevsky was another influence on Kurosawa, who would adapt the novel The Idiot two years later.
A moral uneasiness coats Stray Dog the same way the summer heat paints an oily film on the desperate Murakami. Can his dishonour in losing the pistol and the subsequent violence caused be read as war guilt? Conversely, are repeated threats from criminals that they will sue the police force a sign of filmmaker apprehension at the newly installed US style democracy?
The audience must decide for themselves, although a climactic fight in a muddy forest, an inverse of Drunken Angel’s white paint tussle, provides clues to Kurosawa’s opinion.
Drunken Angel’s Takashi Shimura also appears, here as Chief Detective Sato, who aids Murakami in the pursuit for his firearm. Building on the relationship from Drunken Angel, Kurosawa employs the mentor/mentee device that recurs throughout his films (and is a significant part of Japanese professional life).
Alongside Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Stray Dog is also one of the great “hot day” films. Although set over several days the sweltering heat never abates, heightening the claustrophobia as much as the back alleys and cramped shacks through which Murakami hunts.
A key scene focusses on the detective’s legs walking the crowded slums. Shot in bleached sunlight, the sequence conveys both the moral blankness that has affected this area and that these characters have been consigned to the gutter. This section may have been directed by Ishirô Honda, who served as chief assistant director here and five years later would transform Japanese and world cinema himself when directing a film called Godzilla.
As we will see when looking at Seven Samurai, Kurosawa is arguably the father of the modern action movie. Rashomon, with its flashback structure and unreliable narrators, expanded cinema’s storytelling potential. Between these films is Ikiru, as formally daring as Rashomon and with moments as thrilling as Seven Samurai.
A deceptively simple story about a Tokyo city bureaucrat’s vow to do one worthwhile thing before succumbing to cancer, Ikiru is two-and-a-half hours of cinematic perfection. In which Kurosawa demonstrates mastery in shifting tone and genre.
Takashi Shimura delivers his best performance as trembling wallflower Watanabe. Three years later, Shimura would appear in Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, with Toshiro Mifune as a man convinced nuclear annihilation is inevitable. Ikiru translates as To Live, but up to the film’s beginning when Watanabe is diagnosed as terminal, he too has lived cowed by dread. Not of anything as spectacular as atomic holocaust; rather the anxiety of life chewing him up.
Kurosawa is at his most humanist here, following Watanabe from despair to abandon to uncharacteristic resolve. Ikiru is also a travelogue movie through Tokyo seven years after the surrender. A city still pockmarked by ruins, but also a wonderland to the timid paper shuffler, most brightly illustrated when he visits a pachinko parlour (pachinko is vertical pinball without the flippers and quite baffling…).
Kurosawa’s ambivalence to contemporary Tokyo is best seen when Watanabe pointedly descends into a nightclub to lose himself, but realises this is mere distraction. The director shoots this night on the town with a freneticism and delirium reminiscent of 1920s surrealist cinema.
Later, when the dying office worker must navigate the cruelly dismissive corridors of bureaucracy to achieve his modest, though beautiful act, Kurosawa positions Ikiru almost as film noir. Tight close-ups and shadows suggest the peril facing the salaryman. A scene when he politely refuses to take no for an answer from his incredulous superiors is as tense as the build-up to Seven Samurai’s climactic showdown.
Midway through Kurosawa and co-writers Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto execute an audacious narrative twist. What could have knocked the film off balance instead perfectly juxtaposes Watanabe’s resilience against the bureaucracy of post-war Japan. A system seemingly content to busily do nothing while basking in the glow of others’ achievements.
We’ll not reveal here what Watanabe works to achieve in the time he has left, but it provides the film it’s most enduring image.
SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
Seven Samurai’s story is such a great hook you cannot believe it took someone until 1954 to figure it out. Defenseless villagers discover they are to be raided by bandits come harvest time and hire ronin (masterless samurai) to defend them.
This basic plot was reworked as The Magnificent Seven (1960), but has also popped up in such films as Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998), and the Hong Kong period action movie Seven Swords (2005). On the small screen examples include episodes of Robin of Sherwood (1984) and The Mandolorian (2019), plus anime series Samurai 7 (2004).
Kurosawa’s best film is also a “getting the team together” tale, now a mainstay of action cinema. Seven Samurai may run three-hours-and-thirty-seven minutes, but the director fills it with a lot of movie.
Set in 16th century Japan, Kurosawa and Ikiru co-writers Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto create an immersive audience experience. Early on, Kurosawa’s camera is like an excited time-traveler dropped into feudal Japan. Shots literally look this way and that, soaking up period detail in the towns where the villagers recruit their defenders.
Kurosawa makes space to critique social structures that cast good men aside, as relevant in 1954 as in the 1500s. Plus, no Hollywood exec ever picked up on the fact the film is a socialist call for unity, where everything is shared and people work towards a common goal. Individual responsibility is championed, but not individualism.
Seven samurai? Technically, there are six. Toshiro Mifune’s crazy farm boy Kikuchiyo tags along in samurai armour, furious that rigid societal rules mean he cannot escape his peasant origins. Will he be accepted into the ranks? A big clue is that Takashi Shimura plays lead samurai Shimada. The film is also a textbook lesson in featuring multiple characters without making of them feel underwritten.
As intellectually rich as the film is, Seven Samurai must also be vaunted for its climactic showdown with the bandits. Earlier skirmishes hint at what Kurosawa will unleash, but the film’s final forty minutes remain a tour-de-force of action cinema almost 70 years after the film was made.
A genius stroke was setting the climax in torrential rain, a decision that added extra layers of difficulty and complexity to the shoot. Crucially, it also adds movement to every shot, even when that shot is static and characters remain still within it.
Kurosawa shot the climax with multiple camera units, revolutionary at the time. One focussed on wide shots, another on quick details, while a “guerilla” crew would capture other angles. What is standard practice for modern blockbusters was pioneered here. An amusing side note is that a version of this was also employed on Mork and Mindy to keep track of Robin Williams when recording episodes.
Finally, Seven Samurai, particularly during the climax, is a masterclass in editing composition and movement. Too many action movies mistake busy visuals for direction; Kurosawa keeps his showdown coherent. The final forty minutes land such an emotional wallop because the audience knows who-is-who and where they are. Watch the above fan-trailer, the actual film is as fresh-feeling and exciting.
The ending is typically regarded as a downer for the titular samurai. But, in these days of lockdown, those ensuring food is on the table, i.e. the workers, can rightly be regarded as the real heroes.
Akira Kurosawa’s biggest commercial success in Japan also inspired moviemakers in the West. Sergio Leone lifted the plot for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), without seeking permission and so had to pay up when Kurosawa sued him. In 1996, Walter Hill did the honourable thing and credited Kurosawa when remaking this film as the nihilistic Bruce Willis gangster/western hybrid Last Man Standing. 2006’s Lucky Number Slevin also owes Kurosawa’s samurai actioner a debt of gratitude.
It is fitting Yojimbo translates to American cinema so easily, as Kurosawa was inspired by a prime piece of American pulp. Namely, Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, in which a detective new to a city slyly pits rival gangs against each other. If that plot has an air of familiarity to it, Red Harvest also influenced the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing.
In Kurosawa’s film, the stranger in town is Toshiro Mifune’s unkempt ronin. Awarding himself the false moniker “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” (thirty year old mulberry field), he can be seen as a Man with No Name…
Given the lowdown by an innkeeper, Sanjuro learns the town is being destroyed by an on-going war between two gangs. One controls the silk trade, the other sake manufacturing. Offering his services as bodyguard (yojimbo) first to one gang, then the other, Sanjuro plots their downfall.
Seven Samurai’s chivalry has soured here. Partly this is because most of the town is not worth saving. Early on a dog trots down the main street with a severed hand in its mouth. Late in the film the local undertaker bemoans the fact that there is now too much death, with no-one alive to pay for coffins.
An anti-hero, Mifune’s Sanjuro vibes with the anti-establishment mood that would come to define the sixties. While the outcome of his actions is positive, we suspect he is doing this for his own curiosity and amusement. Kurosawa’s view of samurai seems to have shifted, much the same as his hero John Ford’s regard for the cowboy became more jaundiced in later years.
But, Kurosawa and co-writer Ryûzô Kikushima (who collaborated with the director on, amongst others, the morally murky Stray Dog) know that Sanjuro himself needs redeeming features. They provide a family for him to rescue and deliver a formidable and unquestionably villainous adversary in the form of Tatsuya Nakadai’s Unosuke.
Another of Japan’s great actors, Nakadai’s first onscreen appearance was essentially as an uncredited extra in Seven Samurai. By the time Yojimbo rolled around, Nakadai had become a vital presence on Japanese screens. He carried Masaki Kobayashi’s epic World War 2 trilogy The Human Condition, the final part of which was also released in 1961.
It is no accident if you sense something animalistic about the characters in Yojimbo. Kurosawa described Sanjuro to Mifune as a wolf or dog, which is why the actor routinely rolls his shoulders, as if shedding fleas. Nakadai was informed Unosuke is a snake, hence a performance dominated by heavy-lidded, unblinking eyes and a fork-tongue in the shape of a pistol.
Yojimbo is set around 1860, when America was forcing Japan to open its borders after 200 years of isolation. Gunpowder was outlawed by the samurai class for forty years because they knew it would mean the end of chivalry. The pistol gives Unosuke an edge no matter how adept Sanjuro is with his sword.
Chivalry is generally in short supply in Yojimbo. It makes a re-appearance of sorts in the softer-hearted, hugely enjoyable sequel, Sanjuro, which sees Mifune and Nakadai play variations on their characters here.