There are certain phrases that are thrown around too often in today’s world so that they lose their original impact. When somebody is referred to as the “greatest of all time” or the “most influential,” we usually take it with a grain of salt. But there are times when such phrases are not only valid and acceptable, but critical and necessary in order to summarize the impact that a single individual had in the world. One of these people is Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910-September 6, 1998).
He is, quite literally, one of the most important and influential film makers of all time. His work spanned all kinds of genres, including drama, samurai epics, historical fiction, film noir, detective, and action/adventure. He adapted stories from source materials as vast as Shakespeare to dime store American pulp novels. But he was also one of the greatest screenwriters to ever grace Japan. Frequently acting as producer, director, screenwriter, and editor of his films, they are all consummate works of art from one of the field’s most committed professionals. He would inspire countless filmmakers, with the likes of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and John Woo among his disciples. Federico Fellini probably best summarized Kurosawa by saying that he was, “the greatest living example of what an author of the cinema should be.” The only way to truly appreciate Kurosawa’s impact is to evaluate and analyze his work.
To do this, I have compiled a list of Kurosawa’s ten greatest films. Trying to rank them in order of quality would be like trying to rank the masterworks of Michelangelo, so they have been presented chronologically. Every self-respecting cinema lover owes it to themselves to seek out and watch every single one of these cinematic gifts from one of the world’s greatest artists.
10. Rashomon (1951)
One of Kurosawa’s earliest masterpieces, Rashomon is responsible for introducing him to Western audiences. Based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, it is a milestone in nonlinear storytelling. It focuses on three men, a woodcutter, a priest, and a commoner, recounting a curious story that they heard. It involves a bandit (played by a ferocious Toshiro Mifune) killing a samurai that he encounters on the road and raping his wife. The problem is, nobody knows exactly how it happened. Four different accounts are given from the viewpoints of the woman, the dead samurai (through the help of a medium), the bandit, and the woodcutter. They are mutually contradictory and it is up to the viewer to discover who is telling the truth and who is lying. In addition to winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards, it inspired countless imitators, being remade into countless movies and television shows. Its method of narration gave rise to the term “Rashomon Effect,” which is used to describe situations where several conflicting but mutually plausible accounts of an event are provided. Filmed with a hypnotizing use of light and shadow, Rashomon will leave you in a trance with more questions than answers and a desire to see it again.
9. Ikiru (1952)
Deemed Kurosawa’s greatest film by Roger Ebert, Ikiru (the Japanese verb for to live) is a devastatingly powerful meditation on one man’s life and his search for meaning. Focusing on a low level Tokyo bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura, one of Kurosawa’s most frequently used actors), the movie dares to ask the question of what would you do if you found out that your life was literally meaningless. This is the situation that Watanabe finds himself in after he is diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer. He realizes that in the thirty years that he has been a bureaucrat, he has done nothing with his life. This harsh realization sends him on a mission to accomplish at least one important thing with his life. He makes the cause of a group of mothers who want to turn a local cesspool into a children’s playground his personal crusade. With one of the cinema’s most literally powerful closing shots, Ikiru is a humanist triumph that will make even the most cynical viewer reevaluate their life and its impact on the people around them.
8. Seven Samurai (1954)
It is no exaggeration that Seven Samurai is one of the most beloved and influential films ever made. Frequently voted one of the top ten greatest movies of all time by the British Sight and Sound magazine, Seven Samurai literally set the ground rules on how to write, film, and edit action/adventure films. The plot in a nutshell is that a group of seven down and out samurai band together to protect a poor farming village from bandits. That is really oversimplifying things, tough, because the film is over three hours long and takes the time to develop each samurai’s character. But what’s incredible is that despite its length the film flies by and feels like it is over much too soon. It was one of the first films to use the formula of recruiting and gathering a team of specific individuals together to achieve a common goal, foreshadowing such films as The Guns of Navarone, Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen, and its western remake The Magnificent Seven. Many of the individual samurai would inspire character archetypes that are now common in films, such as the wild rogue, the quiet master swordsman, and the older tactician who assembles and organizes the team. This film’s influence has echoed throughout the ages. With compelling characters, a gripping storyline, some of the best fight scenes in film history, and some of the best cinematography ever captured on celluloid, Seven Samurai is an eternal milestone in the evolution of film making.
7. Throne of Blood (1957)
Widely considered to be one of the greatest film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Kurosawa transported the infamous tragedy to feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune plays the Macbeth character, here named Washizu Taketoki. He kills his master, Lord Tzuzuki, at the insistance of his wife Asaji (Lady Macbeth). This version of the classic tale is a bit different because Washizu isn’t portrayed as an inherently evil character. Instead, he is almost a kind of victim to the circumstances arising from the murder that was committed at the behest of his wife. These points are irrelevant, though, for Throne of Blood is as powerful a drama as one would expect from Shakespeare. The best scene, and by far the most memorable, is when Washizu’s troops rebel against him at the end and kill him. Washizu dodges countless arrows before finally getting shot in the neck. What’s incredible is that Toshiro Mifune’s fear in this scene is real, as Kurosawa hired archers to actually shoot live arrows at him. At any moment Toshiro Mifune could have been hit and killed. It is a thrilling conclusion to a masterful adaptation of one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
6. The Hidden Fortress (1958)
In The Hidden Fortress, a general escorts the princess of a destroyed royal family through enemy territory along with the remains of her family’s wealth. Along the way, they meet up with two beggars who more or less make things difficult for them. Together, they must keep the princess safe from the evil empire that wants her. Sound familiar? If you said that this is reminiscent of Star Wars, you would be correct. The Hidden Fortress was one of the biggest influences of George Lucas’ career. The princess would inspire Princess Leia, the general Han Solo, and the two peasants R2-D2 and C-3PO. But The Hidden Fortress is not important just because it inspired one of the biggest franchises in human history. It is also a magnificent film in its own right. One of the main reasons is that the story works on two levels. The first is that the story itself is compelling and watching the group of travelers overcome obstacles is a joy. But the second level on which this movie works is how the characters interact with each other. They don’t act like stock characters, but real people engaged in a desperate situation. Half of the fun of this movie is watching the two beggars cause so much trouble for the princess and the general. With a gripping plot and genuinely memorable characters, The Hidden Fortress is one of Kurosawa’s most satisfying films.
5. Yojimbo (1961)
To truly understand how influential Kurosawa’s work has been, one needs look no further than his classic Yojimbo. Inspired largely by the film noir classic The Glass Key which was itself an adaptation of the 1931 Dashiell Hammett novel, it tells the story of a wondering ronin (masterless samurai). He arrives in a small town ruled by two competing crime lords. Each side tries to recruit him in their fight against each other. But he plays both sides against each other so brilliantly that they wipe each other out, thereby restoring peace. The film’s visual style and themes were largely inspired by westerns, especially those by John Ford, the director that Kurosawa tried to emulate throughout his entire career. So, in essence, Yojimbo is a western set in feudal Japan. But it doesn’t end there. In Yojimbo Kurosawa creates one of the first “Man with No Name” characters in film history. This character would later be adapted by Sergio Leone in his Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) with Clint Eastwood playing the starring. In fact, A Fistful of Dollars is a direct adaptation of Yojimbo. So let me summarize: Yojimbo is a Japanese film that was inspired by American westerns which in turn inspired a new generation of westerns. Therefore, the impact of Yojimbo and its inherent themes and character models cannot be ignored.
4. High and Low (1963)
Based on a 87th Precinct police procedural by Ed McBain, High and Low tells the story of Kingo Gondo, once again played by Toshiro Mifune (are you seeing a pattern yet?). He is a powerful executive of a company entitled National Shoes. At the beginning of the film he has mortgaged everything that he has in order to buy out the company from the other executives who want to cut costs by making lower quality shoes. With everything already on the line, things get worse when he is told that his son is kidnapped. In a bold directorial decision, Kurosawa delivers the film’s biggest twist near the beginning of the film instead of at the end when it is revealed that the kidnappers accidentally abducted his chauffeur’s son. The film then goes into police procedural mode as the authorities try to figure out who the kidnappers are and how to rescue the boy. Author Dennis Lehane once wrote that the authentic heart of film noir is working class tragedy played out for Shakespearean stakes. If this is true, then Kurosawa’s narrative construction and Mifune’s powerful performance make High and Low a worthy successor to its film noir roots. While it may not be as influential as the other films in this list, it displays Kurosawa at the top of his game and is a delirious joy for fans of great cinema.
3. Dersu Uzala (1975)
Based on the 1923 memoir of the same name by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, Dersu Uzala is simply one of Kurosawa’s most beautiful films. A Soviet-Japanese collaboration, Dersu Uzala would go on to win the Grand Prix at the Moscow Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells Arsenyev’s story of his exploration of the Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia and the friendship that he strikes up with a native tribesman named Dersu Uzala who agrees to be their guide. Like The Hidden Fortress, this film works on two different levels. First, it is heartbreakingly beautiful. Kurosawa makes what could very well be the most meticulously composed 70mm film since Lawrence of Arabia. Literally every single shot feels like Kurosawa spent days arranging it. The most memorable would probably be when Arsenyev and Dersu Uzala watch the sky over a ridge and see a rare instance of the moon side by side with the sun. But the heart of this film is the relationship between the two main characters. This is where the film truly shines. It perfectly captures how their relationship evolves from mere dependency to mutual respect and affection. Watching these two men from such different backgrounds, one from the industrialized world and one from the untamed wild, bond is a heartwarming experience. With Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa proves that not only is truth stranger than fiction, it can also be more involving and powerful.
2. Kagemusha (1980)
Of all of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, Kagemusha is the only one to win the Palme d’Or. So it might come as a surprise that it almost didn’t get finished! It was only after George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in as executive producers that 20th Century Fox coughed up the money to complete one of Kurosawa’s last triumphs. The title Kagemusha is Japanese for “shadow warrior.” It is a term that refers to an impersonator. In this film, the shadow warrior is a low-class criminal that is spared from execution on the condition that he becomes a double for a powerful warlord named Shingen. When Shingen is killed one night by a sniper, the criminal is forced to assume his identity so that the other warlords won’t invade. Over time, the criminal perfects his role as Shingen, even going so far as to fool Shingen’s family and friends. But eventually he is revealed through a horseback riding accident. Realizing that he is a fake, the other warlords invade in one of Kurosawa’s most powerful ending sequences. It’s not a perfect film because much of the story was later edited out, making it seem disjointed at times. But its power remains as one of Kurosawa’s last great epics. Which leads to…
1. Ran (1985)
This is in many ways the culmination of Kurosawa’s career. It wouldn’t be his last film, but it would be the last time that Kurosawa worked on such a large scale and told a story of such magnitude. Made with a $12 million budget (at the time the most expensive Japanese film ever produced) it took Kurosawa into a stratosphere that he had never reached before. A Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “revolt”) is about an aging warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji. One day he decides to abdicate as ruler to one of his three sons. But, as fate would have it, the three sons begin to fight over who is to rule. As the power and control of his kingdom crumbles, so does his sanity. So many things make this film one of Kurosawa’s greatest: the acting (heavily inspired by Japanese Noh theater), the scale (around 1,400 extras and 200 horses were used), the sets (filmed around Mount Aso and the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji), the music (an eerily creepy score inspired by Gustav Mahler), the costumes (which won an Academy Award), and of course the story. Besides being one of his best, it was also one of Kurosawa’s most personal films. Kurosawa once stated that “Hidetora is me.” In fact, in many ways the film can be interpreted as a commentary on Kurosawa’s life. While he was one of Japan’s most famous directors early on in his career, by the time Ran was made he could barely get funding for any of his work. He was so depressed at this time that he even attempted suicide. But thankfully he survived and managed to direct this last opus of film making genius. The world will forever be in his debt.
by Nathanael Hood
Read more about overlooked movies at the author’s blog: