"Celebrating 100 years of pioneering film-making by Akira Kurosawa"
If legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa were still alive he would be a century old this year.
Arguably, he might be the most influential film maker in history. Born in Tokyo in 1910, the prolific writer-director has a hugely celebrated film-making career that spans more than 50 years.
After training as a painter (he storyboards his films as full-scale paintings), Kurosawa entered the film industry in 1936 as an assistant director, making his directorial debut in 1943. Akira first received international acclaim when his masterpiece "Rashomon" won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1950. Unfortunately, he never won a much-deserved Oscar, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did award Kurosawa with an Honor in 1990.
While he's perhaps best known to western audiences for such sword-play epics as "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and "Ran" (1985), he also directed crime thrillers, like 1949's "Stray Dog" and 1963's "High and Low", plus fantasy features (1990's "Dreams") and captivating dramas, with 1952's "Ikiru" and finally, his thirteenth film "Madadayo" from 1993. Kurosawa had even brilliantly reimagined “Macbeth’’ transposed into fuedal Japan, in his masterpiece “Throne of Blood: Spider Web Castle" from 1957.
In 1954, Akira Kurosawa began production on the most popular and beloved film of his storied career, his "The Seven Samurai" epic. This amazing feature seems to slowly unravel like a great and wonderful Kakemono (hanging scroll); requiring over an hour to just recruit the seven. At three hours and twenty-seven minutes, the film is only a few minutes shorter than "Gone with the Wind" made in 1939.
The story, set in 16th century Japan, is an unlikely tale about a group of Ronin (unemployed samurai) who come to the aid of desperate farmers who are continually harassed by roving bandits. In most cases, this would be an unlikely stretch for the setting since members of the samurai class would hardly offer to help mere farmers who occupied the lowest rung of the social classes, without quite a substantial payment.
Upon defeating the bandits, one of the seven says: "In the end, we've lost this battle too. The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us."
The narrative is really what the Germans refer to as a bildungs Roman; a character development novel of the young samurai wannabe Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) who grows into a full fledged Ronin by film's end.
The star of the film is the great Toshiro Mifune, perhaps Japan's most celebrated actor, who's partnership with Akira would make many films with Kurosawa. Mifune claims to have loved playing the animated Kikuchiyo, with his unconventional personality, who dynamically steals almost every scene while artfully wielding his grand oversized sword.
The filming of "The Seven Samurai" proved to be a great adventure in its own right. The screenplay was written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni who holed up in a remote location with no outside contact for over six weeks. The film required 148 shooting days, which stretched over an entire year, inflating into an astronomical budget of $500.000.
This is when the typical Japanese film only cost around $70,000!
Three times the production had to be halted due to a lack of additional funds and Kurosawa simply went fishing...knowing full well, he would be back on the set soon, since the film would not be shelved with so much already invested. And, he was right.
When the final edited version was completed, no one involved in it's production had any regrets.
Even today, in this electronically advanced world of High-Definition 3D technology, "The Seven Samurai" is continually being discovered by new generations of avid filmgoers.
After the eventual success of this grandiose blockbuster, it seemed Kurosawa could do no wrong.
Yet, even after one of the most astonishing decades in film history, Akira spent much of the 1960's and nearly all of the 1970's locked away in seclusion where it is rumored he suffered from a variety of bouts with anxiety, attempting suicide and struggling with personal inner demons, while making only two movies during all those long years.
Finally came “Kagemusha’’ in 1980, co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, which was seen as a preliminary template for Kurosawa’s long-planned adaptation of “King Lear.’’
In "Ran" (1985), a sweeping period drama of epic proportions, Kurosawa sets his “Lear’’ in 16th-century Japan. Instead of daughters, Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) has sons. He divides his kingdom among them. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), whom we see early on cutting saplings to shield his dozing father from the sun, urges against this plan. He is the Cordelia figure.
The standout in the cast is Mieko Harada, playing a Lady Macbeth figure, married to one son and the mistress of another. She combines ferocity with restraint, and the result is a stunning intensity. There are times so intense you almost expect the screen to melt as Harada, nearly motionless, completely captivates you as she spits out her lines!
In the end, Lord Hidetora's dreams for his clan all die a dramatic blood-drenched tradgedy.
Among the esteemed notables in Hollywood who openly acknowledge Kurosawa's contributions to their works are George Lucas (whose "Star Wars" films were inspired in part by Kurosawa's 1958 adventure "The Hidden Fortress") and John Sturges who based his classic 1960 western "The Magnificent Seven" on "The Seven Samurai" by Kurosawa. Akira is also said to be one of director Quentin Tarantino's favorites.
Italian-born director Sergio Leone, claims to have been tremendously influenced by Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" and based his early "Spagetti-Westerns" after the film. The starring role he gave to then young actor Clint Eastwood is even based on Kurosawa's samurai charactor.
Martin Scorsese credits Kurosawa as being a major influence in his life's work. In an interview, Scorsese couldn't stress enough the importance of Kurosawa, "Let me say it simply, Kurosawa was my Master."
Kurosawa himself admitted how much he was influenced by the classic western's films of revered veteran American director John Ford.
Kurosawa was a humanist at heart, his message is that although warriors are needed from time to time, the farmer will always endure.
Akira Kurosawa made his final film in 1993. He made 13 classics.
His undeniably huge influence on the entire film industry is still clearly apparent today. His lasting contributions to the art-form is too massive to completely fathom. He will forever be missed.