The Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa (born 1910) is noted for his visually arresting and intellectually adventurous evocations of Japan's mythic past and agonized present. His films have established him as one of the great epic poets of the cinema.
Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo and educated there at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting. He entered the world of film almost accidentally, by winning an essay contest on the major weakness of Japanese cinema. After working for five years in various capacities at Toho Studios, he made his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943), an intimate study of the life of a judo champion.
Kurosawa's second venture, Most Beautifully (1944), focuses on the Japanese working-class woman, producing a vivid and authentic documentary. The Men Who Tread on the Tails of Tigers (1944), a brilliant parody of a Kabuki story, was banned by the Japanese government because of its religious irreverence and lack of national patriotism. His other major works of this period were One Wonderful Sunday (1945); Drunken Angel (1946), a poignant study of the confrontation between a slum doctor and a gangster dying of tuberculosis; Stray Dog (1949), a portrayal of postwar Japanese life in the form of a detective melodrama; and Scandal (1950), an exposé on the concomitant evils of yellow journalism and unbridled public curiosity.
With Rashomon (1950), a sophisticated inquiry into the elusiveness of objective reality, Kurosawa won international recognition. Winner of the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Rashomon was highly influential in theme and technique in both East and West. The Idiot (1951), based on the Dostoevsky novel, drew a less enthusiastic response. But his two subsequent works—Ikiru (1952), a profound exploration of the psychology of dying, and the great battle epic The Seven Samurai (1954)—are secure among the great achievements of contemporary cinema.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a productive time for Kurosawa. His films of this period included Throne of Blood (1957), a moving though eccentric adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth; The Lower Depths (1957), a profound treatment of the Gorky play; The Hidden Fortress (1959), a powerful medieval fresco; Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), two dynamic samurai epics; and High and Low (1963), an intriguing crime thriller.
Around this time, Kurosawa's notorious perfectionism began to take its toll on his career. He spent two years filming Aka Hige (Red Beard; 1965), an ambitious medical drama. But the film flopped at the box office and its star, Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, vowed never to work with the director again. After a long fallow period, Kurosawa next signed on to direct a segment of the Hollywood Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He resigned amid arguments over control of the project and rumors that he was mentally unhinged. Kurosawa could not even get financing for his next film, Dodes' ka-den (1970), his first in color, only completing the project when two other Japanese directors stepped in as co-producers. Savaged by critics, this drama about Tokyo slum life failed with audiences as well. The cumulative disappointments drove Kurosawa to attempt suicide in 1971. He recovered from multiple slash wounds but did not return to work until the mid-1970s.
In 1975 Kurosawa began shooting Dersu Uzala (1976), a powerful survival story set in the Siberian wilderness. With strong financial backing from Soviet and Japanese sources, the director was once again equipped with the time and budget to create on the epic scale. The resulting film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as the Gold Medal at the Moscow Film Festival. It signaled a major comeback by Kurosawa.
In 1980, with financial support from American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Kurosawa made Kagemusha (1980), a spectacular—but deeply humanistic—Samurai epic about a condemned thief who impersonates a slain warlord. The film captured the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in addition to numerous international awards. Kurosawa's first Oscar nomination for Best Director came for Ran (1985), a Japanese retelling of King Lear that featured some of the most breathtaking battle sequences ever filmed. The success of these two epics solidified Kurosawa's reputation as one of the masters of modern cinema.
Then 80 years old, Kurosawa next directed Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) a rendering on film of the director's own nighttime fantasies. The intensely personal film met with mixed critical reception, though few could deny its visual splendor. Rhapsody in August (1991), a more mainstream release aimed at Western audiences and starring the American actor Richard Gere, met with an even less favorable response. Madadayo (1993) was a return to more uniquely Japanese subject matter, in its tale of an ex-professor who lives in a hut and refuses to accept the reality of approaching death. In the mid-1990s, several of Kurosawa's screen treatments were turned into films, most notably in the Bruce Willis's vehicle Last Man Standing (1996).
An artist of subtle inventiveness, Kurosawa deliberately avoided the stylistic tricks and emotional exhibitionism of many of his postwar contemporaries in favor of logical but complex structural development, compositional precision, and studied character analysis. His indifference to restrictive cultural ritual helped to make him the most catholic of his country's motion picture directors. In 1989, the director was presented with an honorary Academy Award "for accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched, and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."
Further Reading on Akira Kurosawa
For Kurosawa's views on his own early productions see Andrew Sarris, ed., Interviews with Film Directors (1968). The definitive early study of the cinema of Kurosawa is the full-length work by Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965). See also Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1960). Perceptive critical commentary can be found in Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (1965) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968); Stanley Kauffmann, A World on Film: Criticism and Comment (1966); John Ivan Simon, Private Screenings (1967); and wight Macdonald, Dwight Macdonald on Movies (1969). Kurosawa's own account of his life is presented in Something Like an Autobiography (1982). Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1996) covers all of Kurosawa's films to that point.