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Overview for Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa


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Also Known As: Died: September 6, 1998
Born: March 23, 1910 Cause of Death: complications from a stroke
Birth Place: Japan Profession: Writer ... director screenwriter editor illustrator cartoonist dubber


Akira Kurosawa is unquestionably the best known Japanese filmmaker in the West. This can perhaps be best explained by the fact that he is not so much a Japanese or a Western filmmaker, but that he is a "modern" filmmaker. Like postwar Japan itself, he combines the ancient traditions with a distinctly modern, Western twist.

Kurosawa got his start in films following an education which included study of Western painting, literature and political philosophy. His early films were made under the stringent auspices of the militaristic government then in power and busily engaged in waging the Pacific war. While one can detect aspects of the pro-war ideology in early works like "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" (1945) or, more especially, "Sanshiro Sugata" (1943), these films are notable more for stylistic experimentation than pro-war inspiration.

Before he had a chance to mature under these conditions, though, Kurosawa, like all of Japan, experienced the American occupation. Under its auspices he produced pro-democracy films, the most appealing of which is "No Regrets for Our Youth" (1946), interestingly his only film which has a woman as its primary protagonist. His ability to make films that could please Japanese militarists or American occupiers should not be taken as either cultural schizophrenia or political fence-sitting, for at their best these early films have a minimal value as propaganda, and tend to reveal early glimpses of the major themes which would dominate his cinema. His style, too, is an amalgam, a deft dialectic of the great pictorial traditions of the silent cinema, the dynamism of the Soviet cinema (perhaps embodied in the Japanese-Russian friendship dramatized in his "Dersu Uzala" 1975) and the Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking (which explains how easily his work has been remade by American directors).

Above all, Kurosawa is a modern filmmaker, portraying (in films from "Drunken Angel" 1948 to "Rhapsody in August" 1991) the ethical and metaphysical dilemmas characteristic of postwar culture, the world of the atomic bomb, which has rendered certainty and dogma absurd. The consistency at the heart of Kurosawa's work is his exploration of the concept of heroism. Whether portraying the world of the wandering swordsman, the intrepid policeman or the civil servant, Kurosawa focuses on men faced with ethical and moral choices. The choice of action suggests that Kurosawa's heroes share the same dilemma as Albert Camus' existential protagonists--Kurosawa did adapt Dostoevsky's existential novel "The Idiot" in 1951 and saw the novelist as a key influence in all his work--but for Kurosawa the choice is to act morally, to work for the betterment of one's fellow men.

Perhaps because Kurosawa experienced the twin devastations of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and WWII, his cinema focuses on times of chaos. From the destruction of the glorious Heian court society that surrounds the world of "Rashomon" (1950) to the never-ending destruction of the civil war era of the 16th century that gives "The Seven Samurai" (1954) its dramatic impetus, to the savaged Tokyo in the wake of US bombing raids in "Drunken Angel" (1948), to the ravages of the modern bureaucratic mind-set that pervade "Ikiru" (1952) and "The Bad Sleep Well" (1960): Kurosawa's characters are situated in periods of metaphysical eruption, threatened equally by moral destruction and physical annihilation; in a world of existential alienation in which God is dead and nothing is certain. But it is his hero who, living in a world of moral chaos, in a vacuum of ethical and behavioral standards, nevertheless chooses to act for the public good.

Kurosawa was dubbed "Japan's most Western director" by critic Donald Richie at a time when few Westerners had seen many of the director's films and at a time when the director was in what should have been merely the middle of his career. Richie felt that Kurosawa was Western in the sense of being an original creator, as distinct from doing the more rigidly generic or formulaic work of many Japanese directors during the height of Kurosawa's creativity. And indeed some of the director's best work can be read as "sui generis," drawing upon individual genius such as few filmmakers in the history of world cinema have. "Rashomon," "Ikiru" and "Record of a Living Being" (1955) challenge easy classification and are stunning in their originality of style, theme and setting.

Furthermore, Kurosawa's attractions to the West were apparent in both content and form. His adaptations from Western literature, although not unique in Japanese cinema, are among his finest films, with "Throne of Blood" (1957, from "Macbeth") and "Ran" (1985, from "King Lear") standing among the finest versions of Shakespeare ever put on film. And if Western high culture obviously appealed to him, so did more popular, even pulp forms, as evinced by critically acclaimed adaptations of Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest" to fashion "Yojimbo" (1961) and Ed McBain's "King's Ransom" to create the masterful "High and Low" (1962). Of course such borrowings show not only the richness of Kurosawa's thinking and his work but also just how notions of "genius" require a complex understanding of the contexts in which the artist works.

Indeed, for all of the Western adaptations and the attraction to Hollywood and Soviet-style montage, Kurosawa's status as a Japanese filmmaker can never be doubted. If, as has often been remarked, his period films have similarities with Hollywood westerns, they are nevertheless accurately drawn from the turmoil of Japanese history. If he has been attracted to Shakespearean theater, he has equally been drawn to the rarefied world of Japanese Noh drama. And if Kurosawa is a master of dynamic montage, he is equally the master of the Japanese trademarks of the long take and gracefully mobile camera.

Thus to see Kurosawa as somehow a "Western" filmmaker is not only to ignore the traditional bases for much of his style and many of his themes, but to do a disservice to the nature of film style and culture across national boundaries. Kurosawa's cinema may be taken as paradigmatic of the nature of modern changing Japan, of how influences from abroad are adapted, transformed and made new by the genius of the Japanese national character, which remains distinctive yet ever-changing. And if Kurosawa tends to focus on an individual hero, a man forced to choose a mode of behavior and a pattern of action in the modern Western tradition of the loner-hero, it is only in recognition of global culture that increasingly centralizes, bureaucratizes and dehumanizes.

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