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GaijinPot on Location: A Quest for Kurosawa

Discover the real-life locations seen in some of the acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa's most iconic movies.

By 4 min read

Akira Kurosawa is widely considered the most visionary Japanese director of all time. He could create everything from ancient battlefields to surreal landscapes through his lens. For fans, visiting these locations in Japan and comparing them to the version that appeared on film allows us to get a small taste of Kurosawa’s unique transformative vision.

While the director wasn’t above using sets to achieve his vision, real-life locations from Kurosawa’s movies can be found throughout Japan. For example, there is Ninooka Shrine in Gotemba, Shizuoka, and the Izu Peninsula’s Jogasaki Coast featured in Seven Samurai and the iconic gate at Komyoji Temple from Rashomon—to name only a few.

So to pay homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, here you can find some of Akira Kurosawa’s most memorable movie settings in real life.

Gotemba and the cursed forest

Gotemba’s backdrop was a favored location of Kurosawa.

In the 1950s, Kurosawa was riding high on the success of his visionary Seven Samurai, which was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 in Japan. Emboldened by its success, he would embark on one of his most ambitious movies, Throne of Blood.

Much of the film was shot in Gotemba, a favored location for Kurosawa, and one that appears in several of his movies. The city sits at the foot of Japan’s most famous landmark, Mount Fuji. However, the great mountain is virtually unrecognizable in Throne of Blood—a backdrop to add to the movie’s misty ambiance.

Throne of Blood is the director’s retelling of Macbeth, full of ghostly goings-on in the deepest, darkest part of the woods. Kurosawa required a location just as ominous. The forest that appeared in the film was the infamous Aokigahara Forest in Yamanashi. The woods are known as the “sea of trees” and their unfortunate reputation of being cursed and a magnet for suicide deaths.

The real hidden fortress

The ruins of Akizuki Castle.

After the success of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa made his epic, The Hidden Fortress. Here, he continues the trend of vast clashes between samurai clans over wide-open spaces with sweeping camera movements over sparse, open landscapes.

Watching The Hidden Fortress, I immediately recognized Hyogo Prefecture’s Horai Valley as a longtime Kansai resident. Its landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see. The film depicts the valley with an ambiance of emptiness—perfectly suited for the bloody battles that Kurosawa wanted to portray.

The fortress used in the movie atop Mount Kosho was a real castle—Akizuki Castle. Once the seat of the powerful Akizuki clan who ruled over the Fukuoka region, the castle was in ruins long before The Hidden Fortress was filmed there. Nevertheless, Kurosawa was a master at making things look bigger and more spectacular than real life. The castle’s few remaining structures, such as its stone walls and gates, were used to great effect throughout the film.

The castles of Kagemusha

Kagemusha’s Himeji Castle is also known as the “White Heron Castle.”

Towards the end of his life, Kurosawa became obsessed with atmosphere and authenticity. With his clout in the film industry and his internal reputation, he began to film using some of Japan’s most important buildings. His epic Kagemusha features Kansai’s beloved castles, with Himeji Castle in Hyogo and the fantastic Iga Ueno Castle in Mie appearing in the picture.

Another famous castle used is Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamoto Castle was built shortly after the historical Battle of Sekigahara at the tail end of the Sengoku period (1467–1615), which led to warlord Ieyasu becoming Shogun over a united Japan.

With such real-life bloody history, the castle feels almost sinister—and is a character in itself in Kagemusha.

Kurosawa’s Dreams

The beautiful Daio Wasabi Farm featured in Dreams.

Less than eight years before he died, Kurosawa created one of his more experimental movies, Dreams. So, appropriately, he needed a location that looked surreal. Eventually, he would choose Marchen Hill of Ozara, in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido—a simple but stunning field of wheat planted against the backdrop of larch trees and a dreamy blue sky.

Similar surrealism can be seen at the Daio Wasabi Farm in Nagano Prefecture. Its rolling fields of green and fairy tail-like structures with waterwheels are essential to the film’s final dream. Visiting there will remind you of the director’s themes of nature and conservation.

Kurosawa’s room and grave

The final resting place of Akira Kurosawa.

Today, visitors to Ishihara Ryokan (inn) can stay in the same room where Kurosawa brainstormed and entertained guests about his next films. His favorite room faces the inn’s garden and is appropriately named the “Kurosawa Room.” You can even spot the director’s autographed slippers sitting under the ryokan’s stairs.

Finally, pay respects to the legend at his final resting place near Anyo-in Temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa. Despite his tremendous contribution to cinema, Kurosawa has a modest grave simply engraved with his family name. Fans visiting his grave often leave flowers, coins or other gifts to honor him.

These movie locations give you an idea of the genius of Kurosawa and how he transformed them into works of art, and it’s a privilege to visit them if you have the chance. Unfortunately, although we can always celebrate him through his films, there is no official Kurosawa Museum in Japan. Thus, it’s the responsibility of the fans to keep his memory alive.

What’s your favorite Akira Kurosawa film? Are there any locations a fan should absolutely visit? Let us know in the comments below.

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