Akira Kurosawa(黒澤 明 or 黒沢 明, Kurosawa Akira, 23 March 1910 – 6 September 1998) was a Japanese film director, producer, screenwriter and editor. In a career that spanned 50 years, Kurosawa directed 30 films. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers in film history. In 1989, he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement "for cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."
Akira Kurosawa was born to Isamu and Shima Kurosawa on 23 March 1910. He was the youngest of eight children born to the Kurosawas in a suburb of Tokyo. Shima Kurosawa was forty years old at the time of Akira's birth and his father Isamu was forty-five. Akira Kurosawa grew up in a household with three older brothers and four older sisters. Of his three older brothers, one died before Akira was born and one was already grown and out of the household. One of his four older sisters had also left the home to begin her own family before Kurosawa was born. Kurosawa's next-oldest sibling, a sister he called "Little Big Sister," also died suddenly after a short illness when he was ten years old.
Kurosawa's father worked as the director of a junior high school operated by the Japanese military and the Kurosawas descended from a line of former samurai. Financially, the family was above average. Isamu Kurosawa embraced western culture both in the athletic programs that he directed and by taking the family to see films, which were then just beginning to appear in Japanese theaters. Later, when Japanese culture turned away from western films, Isamu Kurosawa continued to believe that films were a positive educational experience.
In primary school, Kurosawa was encouraged to draw by a teacher who took an interest in mentoring his talents. His two older brothers, Heigo and Tachikawa had a profound impact on him. Heigo was very intelligent and won several academic competitions, but also had what was later called a cynical or dark side. In 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake destroyed Tokyo and left 100,000 people dead. In the wake of this event, Heigo, 17, and Akira, 13, made a walking tour of the devastation. Corpses of humans and animals were piled everywhere. When Akira would attempt to turn his head away, Heigo urged him not to. According to Akira, this experience would later instruct him that to look at a frightening thing head-on is to defeat its ability to cause fear.
Heigo eventually began a career as a benshi in Tokyo film theaters. Benshi narrated silent films for the audience and were a uniquely Japanese addition to the theater experience. In the transition to talking pictures, later in Japan than elsewhere, benshi lost work all over the country. Heigo organized a benshi strike that failed. Akira was likewise involved in labor-management struggles, writing several articles for a radical newspaper while improving and expanding his skills as a painter and reading literature.
When Akira Kurosawa was in his early 20s, his older brother Heigo committed suicide. Four months later, the oldest of Kurosawa's brothers also died, leaving Akira as the only surviving son of an original four at age 23.
Kurosawa's wife was actress Yoko Yaguchi. He had two children with her: a son named Hisao and a daughter named Kazuko.
In 1936, Kurosawa learned of an apprenticeship program for directors through a major film studio, PCL (later Toho). He was hired and worked as an assistant director to Kajiro Yamamoto. After his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943), his next few films were made under the watchful eye of the wartime Japanese government and sometimes contained nationalistic themes. For instance, The Most Beautiful (1944) is a propaganda film about Japanese women working in a military optics factory. Judo Saga 2 (1945) portrays Japanese judo as superior to western (American) boxing.
His first post-war film No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), by contrast, is critical of the old Japanese regime and is about the wife of a left-wing dissident who is arrested for his political leanings. Kurosawa made several more films dealing with contemporary Japan, most notably Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949). However, it was the period film Rashomon (1950) which led to him being known internationally and won him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
Kurosawa had a distinctive cinematic technique, which he had developed by the 1950s. He liked using telephoto lenses for the way they flattened the frame. He believed that placing cameras farther away from his actors produced better performances as they would not be conscious of the camera. He also liked using multiple cameras, which allowed him to shoot an action scene from different angles. As with the use of telephoto lenses, the multiple-camera technique also prevented Kurosawa's actors from "figuring out which one is shooting him" and [invariably turning] one-third to halfway in its direction." Another Kurosawa trademark was the use of weather elements to heighten mood; for example, the heavy rain in the opening scene of Rashomon and the final battle in Seven Samurai (1954); the intense heat in Stray Dog; the cold wind in Yojimbo (1961); the snow in Ikiru (1952); and the fog in Throne of Blood (1957). Kurosawa also liked using frame wipes, sometimes cleverly hidden by motion within the frame, as a transition device.
He was known as "Tenno", literally "Emperor", for his dictatorial directing style. He was a perfectionist who spent enormous amounts of time and effort to achieve the desired visual effects. In Rashomon, he dyed the rain water black with calligraphy ink in order to achieve the effect of heavy rain, and ended up using up the entire local water supply in creating the rainstorm. In the final scene of Throne of Blood, in which Mifune is shot by arrows, Kurosawa used real arrows shot by expert archers from a short range, landing within centimetres of Mifune's body. In Ran (1985), an entire castle set was constructed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji only to be burned to the ground in a climactic scene.
Other stories include demanding a stream be made to run in the opposite direction in order to get a better visual effect, and having the roof of a house removed, later to be replaced, because he felt the roof's presence to be unattractive in a short sequence filmed from a train.
His perfectionism also showed in his approach to costumes: he felt that giving an actor a brand new costume made the character look less than authentic. To resolve this, he often gave his cast their costumes weeks before shooting was to begin and required them to wear them on a daily basis and "bond with them." In some cases, such as with Seven Samurai, where most of the cast portrayed poor farmers, the actors were told to make sure the costumes were worn down and tattered by the time shooting started.
Kurosawa did not believe that "finished" music went well with film. When choosing a musical piece to accompany his scenes, he usually had it stripped down to one element (e.g., trumpets only). Only towards the end of his films are more finished pieces heard.
Unusual among directors, Kurosawa edited his films himself during production. After each day's shooting he would go to the cutting room and cut the dailies.
A notable feature of Kurosawa's films is the breadth of his artistic influences. Some of his plots are based on William Shakespeare's works: Ran is loosely based on King Lear, Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth, while The Bad Sleep Well (1960) parallels Hamlet, but is not affirmed to be based on it. Kurosawa also directed film adaptations of Russian literary works, including The Idiot (1951) by Dostoevsky (his favorite author) and The Lower Depths (1957), from the play by Maxim Gorky. Ikiru was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Dersu Uzala (1975) was based on the 1923 memoir of the same title by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. Story lines in Red Beard (1965) can be found in The Insulted and Humiliated by Dostoevsky.
High and Low (1963) was based on King's Ransom by American crime writer Ed McBain. Yojimbo may have been based on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and also borrows from American Westerns. Kurosawa was very fond of Georges Simenon and Stray Dog was a product of Kurosawa's desire to make a film in Simenon's manner.
Cinematic influences include Frank Capra, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, his mentor Kajiro Yamamoto, and his favorite director John Ford, whose habit of wearing dark glasses Kurosawa emulated. When Kurosawa met Ford, the American simply said, "You really like rain." Kurosawa responded, "You've really been paying attention to my films." He would later instruct Yoshio Tsuchiya, one of the actors in Seven Samurai, to retrieve the same hat Ford wore during that meeting.
Despite criticism by some Japanese critics that Kurosawa was "too Western," he was deeply influenced by Japanese culture as well, such as the Noh theaters and the Jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema.
Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Rashomon was remade by Martin Ritt in 1964's The Outrage.
Yojimbo was unofficially remade as the Sergio Leone western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) (resulting in a successful lawsuit by Kurosawa) and was remade as the prohibition-era film Last Man Standing (1996). Sanjuro was also remade in 2007 as Tsubaki Sanjuro, directed by Yoshimitsu Morita.
The Hidden Fortress (1957) was remade as The Last Princess (2008) and is an acknowledged influence on George Lucas's Star Wars films, in particular Episodes IV and VI and most notably in the characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Lucas also used a modified version of Kurosawa's signature wipe transition throughout the Star Wars saga.
Remakes for Ikiru, High and Low and Seven Samurai are in progress. A second remake of Rashomon is also on the way.
The following directors either were directly influenced by Kurosawa, or greatly admired his work:
Satyajit Ray - the great Indian director (famous for his Apu trilogy) and winner of Oscar Lifetime Achievement award.
Ingmar Bergman - "Now I want to make it plain that The Virgin Spring must be regarded as an aberration. It's touristic, a lousy imitation of Kurosawa."
Federico Fellini - Having only seen Seven Samurai from Kurosawa's oeuvre, he still thought Kurosawa was the "the greatest living example of what an author of the cinema should be."
Bernardo Bertolucci - "Kurosawa's movies and La Dolce Vita, Fellini, are the things that pushed me sucked into being a film director."
Sidney Lumet - "Kurosawa never affected me directly in terms of my own movie-making because I never would have presumed that I was capable of that perception and that vision."
Sam Peckinpah - "I'd like to be able to make a Western like Kurosawa makes Westerns."
Francis Ford Coppola - "One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn't make a masterpiece or two masterpieces, he made, you know, eight masterpieces."
Zhang Yimou - "Other filmmakers have more money, more advanced techniques, more special effects. Yet no one has surpassed him."
Takeshi Kitano - "...the ideal definition of cinema: a succession of perfect images. And Kurosawa is the only director who has attained that."
John Woo - "I love Kurosawa’s movies, and I got so much inspiration from him. He is one of my idols and one of the great masters"
Werner Herzog - "Of the filmmakers with whom I feel some kinship Griffith, Murnau, Pudovkin, Buñuel and Kurosawa come to mind. Everything these men did has the touch of greatness."
Sergio Leone - His film A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo.
During his most productive period, from the late 40s to the mid-60s, Kurosawa often worked with the same group of collaborators. Fumio Hayasaka composed music for seven of his films — notably Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. When Hayasaka died, he collaborated with composer Masaru Satō, who scored most of his later films. Kurosawa worked with the same five scriptwriters during his career: Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide. Yoshiro Muraki was Kurosawa's production designer or art director for most of his films after Stray Dog in 1949, and Asakazu Nakai was his cinematographer on 11 films including Ikiru, Seven Samurai and Ran. Kurosawa also liked working with the same group of actors, especially Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, and Toshirō Mifune. His collaboration with the latter, which began with 1948's Drunken Angel and ended with 1965's Red Beard, is one of the most famous director-actor collaborations in cinema history.
The film Red Beard marked a turning point in Kurosawa's career in more ways than one. In addition to being his last film with Mifune, it was his last in black-and-white. It was also his last as a major director within the Japanese studio system making roughly a film a year. Kurosawa was signed to direct a Hollywood project, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) but 20th Century Fox replaced him with Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku before it was completed. His next few films were to be significantly more difficult to finance and were made at intervals of five years. The first, Dodesukaden (1970), about a group of poor people living around a rubbish dump, was not a commercial or financial success.
After an attempted suicide, Kurosawa went on to make several more films, although he had great difficulty in obtaining domestic financing despite his international reputation. Dersu Uzala, made in the Soviet Union and set in Siberia in the early 20th century, was the only Kurosawa film made outside of Japan and not in the Japanese language. It is about the friendship of a Russian explorer and a nomadic hunter, and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Kagemusha (1980), financed with the help of the director's most famous admirers, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, is the story of a man who is the body double of a medieval Japanese lord and takes over his identity after the lord's death. The film was awarded the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival (shared with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz). Ran was the director's version of Shakespeare's King Lear, set in medieval Japan (and the only film of Kurosawa's career that he received a "Best Director" Academy Award nomination for). It was by far the largest project of Kurosawa's late career, and he spent a decade planning it and trying to obtain funding, which he was finally able to do with the help of the French producer Serge Silberman. The film was an international success and is generally considered Kurosawa's last masterpiece. In an interview, Kurosawa said that he considered it to be the best film he ever made.
Kurosawa made three more films during the 1990s which were more personal than his earlier works. Dreams (1990) is a series of vignettes based on his own dreams. Rhapsody in August (1991) is about memories of the Nagasaki atomic bomb and his final film, Madadayo (1993), is about a retired teacher and his former students. Kurosawa died of a stroke in Setagaya, Tokyo, at age 88.
After the Rain is a 1998 posthumous film directed by Kurosawa's closest collaborator, Takashi Koizumi, co-produced by Kurosawa Production (Hisao Kurosawa) and starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Shiro Mifune, son of Toshirō Mifune. The film's screenplay was written by Kurosawa. The story is based on a short novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, Ame Agaru.
To coincide with the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth, his unfinished documentary Gendai no Noh will be completed and released in 2010. While filming his masterpiece Ran in 1983, Kurosawa experienced a number of problems during production, including financial troubles, and temporarily postponed filming to work on a non-fiction project. The documentary was to be about classic Japanese Noh theater, whose style had a substantial influence on Ran, as well as Throne of Blood and Kagemusha. Only about 50 minutes of footage exist, but to finish the film, an additional hour will be shot using Kurosawa's original screenplay.
The Akira Kurosawa Foundation was established in December 2003.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth, the AK100 Project was created. The AK100 Project aims to "expose young people who are the representatives of the next generation, and all people everywhere, to the light and spirit of Akira Kurosawa and the wonderful world he created."
To mark the 99th anniversary of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, Anaheim University launched the Anaheim University Akira Kurosawa School of Film at the Beverly Hills Hotel on March 23, 2009, which would have been Kurosawa's 99th birthday. Kurosawa's son, Hisao Kurosawa, attended as Guest of Honor and a special memorial tribute video was played at the event featuring video presentations from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Kurosawa's Assistant Director Teruyo Nogami and "Dreams" Producer/Nephew of Akira Kurosawa, Mike Inoue.
Two awards have been named in Kurosawa's honor, the Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film Directing, awarded during the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Akira Kurosawa Award, awarded during the Tokyo International Film Festival.
The Criterion Collection has been the primary distributor of Akira Kurosawa films on DVD. On Dec. 8, 2009, the label will release "AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa", which reprises many of Criterion's previous Kurosawa titles and adds four more, including both Sanshiro Sugata movies. Criterion also released the box set Post-War Kurosawa. In August 2009, Kagemusha debuted in the Blu-ray format. Kurosawa historians Stephen Price and Donald Richie are frequent contributors to these Criterion releases.1
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