Culture

Akira Kurosawa: 5 Essential Movies from Japan’s Greatest Filmmaker

You know his name and might be aware of his pervasive influence but how many of the maestro’s movies have you seen?

By 9 min read

Anyone who’s a cinephile or Japanophile is likely familiar with the name Akira Kurosawa.

Even if you’re not well-versed in his work as a movie director, Kurosawa’s reputation precedes him through his oft-cited influence on films like Star Wars. In 2012, the British Film Institute’s once-a-decade poll of directors and critics worldwide ranked two Kurosawa classics, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, among the 25 greatest motion pictures of all time. No fewer than five of his films can be found on the user-rated IMDb Top 250. Those are the five films we’ll be looking at here in chronological order.

Frankly, any discussion of great Japanese filmmakers is fated to begin with Kurosawa. He’s the legend who first brought Japanese cinema to the West, inspiring Hollywood directors and paving the way for anime and J-horror in subsequent decades. Like music, the visual medium of film is something that translates across cultures and can provide a point of commonality among people of different nationalities. If nothing else, samurai movies like Yojimbo are an entertaining way to keep immersing yourself in all things Japan-related even when you’re in-between travels or just looking to fill your downtime while living in Japan.

With that in mind, let’s brush up on the greatest Japanese filmmaker of them all with this five-film Kurosawa starter pack. (To give a complete overview of the major works in Kurosawa’s filmography, we’ll be making plenty of additional honorable mentions throughout this list.) Think of it this way: if TV mob wives on The Sopranos can work their way down the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American movies, then don’t you owe it to yourself to hit up the Kurosawa section at your local Tsutaya? Increase your movie knowledge! Be cineliterate! Impress your friends! Get to know — or rediscover — the films of Akira Kurosawa.

1. Rashomon (1950)

Photo:
The gate at Togoji Temple in Fuchu, Tokyo, rendered in Rashomon-style black-and-white.

Clocking in at a brisk 88 minutes, Rashomon is currently available to stream on Netflix Japan. For readers inside or outside Japan who are connected to the Japanese or U.S. iTunes store, this film and most of the other Kurosawa titles listed or mentioned below are available there, as well. There’s really no excuse, then, not to watch Rashomon, which is the film that served as Kurosawa’s international breakthrough hit.

A masterpiece of perspective (and just generally a masterpiece), Rashomon offers four conflicting accounts of a bandit’s attack on a woman and her husband in the forest. Bright spots of sun filter in through the treetops, illuminating the forest’s shadowy spaces with new facets of the same story. With each telling, characters contort the truth, painting themselves as the victim or the hero in order to save face. We understand why they lie and we understand what that says about the self-serving aspects of human nature.

Rotting in the rain, the film’s half-destroyed temple gate is an entrance to the human soul. That iconic gate was modeled on real ones in Japan like the gate at Togoji Temple in Fuchu, Tokyo, and the main two-story gate at Todaiji Temple in Nara. As recently as last year, Rashomon’s influence could be felt in a big-budget Hollywood film. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the so-called “Rashomon effect” is at play in the three versions of the backstory between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. All the more reason to double-feature Rashomon with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), which heavily informed early drafts of the Star Wars: A New Hope screenplay.

2. Ikiru (1952)

Photo:
Ikiru movie still, courtesy of the American distributor Janus Films.

The mere thought of Ikiru produces a lump in the throat. This film, whose title translates to  “To Live,” is utterly devastating in its portrayal of a middle-aged widower searching for meaning in his life before he succumbs to terminal illness. Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura plays Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat who witnesses the failure of the machine at city hall. It can’t even get a playground built, preferring instead to give parents the run-around as a cesspool at the proposed playground site makes their children sick.

Despairing over his wasted, loveless life, Watanabe throws himself into the nightlife of post-war Tokyo, trying to extract pleasure from its pachinko parlors and bars. His experiences in the red light district ultimately prove hollow. As his newfound drinking buddy, a nameless novelist, puts it: “This man bears a cross called ‘cancer.’” It’s eating away at his stomach but the real problem, Watanabe indicates with a thump of the chest, is what’s eating away at his heart.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert regarded Ikiru as Kurosawa’s greatest film. If you’ve seen this movie and are on the right emotional wavelength (which is to say, a human who’s not dead inside), it’s hard to confront it without getting choked up a little. In that way, Ikiru is no less consummate and timeless a tearjerker than It’s a Wonderful Life. Cue the enduring image of Watanabe softly singing on a swing set in the snow, circa his last night on Earth.

3. Seven Samurai (1954)

Photo:
Seven Samurai movie still, courtesy of the American distributor Janus Films.

Released in 1954, the same fateful year as another one of the most well-known Japanese movies — the original GodzillaSeven Samurai is the Kurosawa film that usually garners the most votes as his best. Together with Godzilla, it’s the seven ronin, or masterless samurai, from this film who adorn a pair of massive murals outside the Toho Studios entrance in Setagaya, Tokyo. While you’re racking up Cinemileage points at Japan’s Toho Cinemas theater chain, remember that it descends from the rich history of these movies.

The character of Kikuchiyo looms largest on Toho’s Seven Samurai mural, as befitting an actor of Toshiro Mifune’s stature. Mifune was Kurosawa’s go-to leading man. Their long string of collaborations is as highly esteemed as that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Photo:
The full Seven Samurai mural outside Toho Studios in Setagaya, Tokyo.

The plot of Seven Samurai is simple yet relentlessly engaging. It involves Kikuchiyo and the other ronin being hired to fortify and defend a village of poor farmers from a band of crop raiders. If you saw the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, what you were watching there was actually the remake of a remake. The original John Sturges-directed version of The Magnificent Seven in 1960 was a remake of Seven Samurai.

It wouldn’t be the last time that one of Kurosawa’s samurai films got remade with cowboy hats in the setting of the old American West.

4. Yojimbo (1961)

Photo:
Yojimbo movie still, courtesy of the American distributor Janus Films.

In Yojimbo (which means, “bodyguard”), Mifune perfects his samurai strut, this time playing a lone ronin who wanders into the middle of a gang war in a desolate Japanese town. While looking at a mulberry field, the ronin gives his name as Sanjuro Kuwabatake (“thirty-year-old mulberry field” in Japanese). Playing both sides off each other, Sanjuro endeavors to rid the town of it warring gangs. The character proved popular and Kurosawa would soon bring him back in Sanjuro (1962). That film — an ideal double feature with Yojimbo — is notable for its use of blood geysers of the kind Quentin Tarantino would emulate in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

There’s also the Clint Eastwood connection. As a director, Eastwood seems to have earned a special following in Japan, perhaps because of his Japanese-language World War II film Letters from Iwo Jima, starring Ken Watanabe and Arashi band member Kazunori Ninomiya. As an actor, Eastwood is a cinema icon, too, of course, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, he first rose to prominence in movies as something of an American Toshiro Mifune.

Photo:
Toshiro Mifune's handprint on the old Walk of Fame outside Toho's headquarters in Hibiya, Tokyo.

Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars introduced the world to Eastwood’s poncho-draped, cigarillo-smoking Man with No Name. That film was an unsanctioned remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. The two movies hit the same plot beats, even framing similar camera shots. More popular abroad than at home in Japan, Kurosawa synthesized Western influences like Dashiell Hammett and John Ford and in turn had his own films embraced and copycatted in the Western world.

Oh, and if you really want to get nerdy? Anyone who grew up during the heyday of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the late ’80s and early ’90s may recognize Yojimbo as the namesake of the rabbit ronin Usagi Yojimbo.

5. Ran (1985)

Photo:
Ran movie still, courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

This list is mostly focused on the fertile ’50s and ’60s period in Kurosawa’s career when he filmed many of his greatest masterpieces. However, there’s at least one late-period Kurosawa title that is required viewing for Shakespeare buffs. Rendered in vivid color as opposed to the stark black-and-white of Kurosawa’s earlier films, Ran re-imagines Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear as a Japanese jidaigeki (period drama).

An aging warlord tries to abdicate his rule in favor of a three-way division of power between his sons. Betrayal and bloodshed ensue. The emotional outbursts that punctuate Ran are arguably more powerful because of how disruptive and highly concentrated they are in the face of Japanese stoicism. This film is perfect fodder for a double feature with Throne of Blood (1957), which uses a feudal Japan setting and Noh-style drama as the basis for a retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Like Rashomon, Ran is currently available to stream on Netflix Japan. After you’ve watched it and all the other films name-checked above, you can seek out more Kurosawa titles like Drunken Angel (1948), High and Low (1963), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980) and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990).

Fun fact: Martin Scorsese was in Japan filming a cameo as Vincent Van Gogh for Dreams when he finished reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. If you’ve got a tablet, maybe you can pass time on the shinkansen by watching some of these films. Again, check the iTunes Store, Netflix, Tsutaya or other streaming and rental outlets like Hulu and Amazon.

What’s your favorite Kurosawa film? Are there any other titles of his that you would recommend? Share your own “essential Kurosawa” picks in the comments.

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