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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: director, screenwriter, editor, illustrator, cartoonist, dubber

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

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...

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.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Madadayo (1993) Director
2.
  Rhapsody In August (1991) Director
3.
  Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) Director
4.
  Ran (1985) Director
5.
  Kagemusha (1980) Director
6.
  Dersu Uzala (1975) Director
7.
  Dodes'ka-Den (1971) Director
8.
  I Live in Fear (1967) Director
9.
  Red Beard (1966) Director
10.
  High and Low (1963) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Kurosawa (2001) Himself (Archival Footage)
2.
 75 Years of Cinema Museum (1972) Himself
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1928:
Painting accepted by Nitten exhibition
1929:
Joined Japan's Proletarian Artists' League in order to study new art movements
1932:
Left Artists' League
1936:
Answered newspaper ad and was hired by Photo Chemical Laboratory (later Toho Motion Picture Company) as assistant director, worked with mentor Kajiro Yamamoto
1936:
Worked way up with Yamamoto's crew from third assistant to chief assistant and B-group second unit director at PCL; also learned editing and dubbing techniques
1941:
First screenplay published, "A German at the Daruma Temple"
:
Wrote seven scripts that won awards but were not filmed and were often censored
1943:
Film directing debut with "Sugata Sanshiro/Sanshiro Sugata"
1948:
Made first film starring Toshiro Mifune, "Yoidore Tenshi/Drunken Angel"
1950:
Directed a film, "Rashomon", which received widespread international acclaim not only for his own films but for much of Japanese cinema as a whole
1959:
Gave first press conference; formed, Kurosawa Productions, first independent company run by working director
:
Co-founded Film Art Association/Eiga Geijutsu Kyokai
:
Co-founded independent production company, "Yonki no Kai/The Four Musketeers" in the late 1960s
1966:
Joseph E. Levine of Embassy Pictures announced the upcoming production of Kurosawa's screenplay "Runaway Train"; differences between Levine and Kurosawa Productions' producer Tetsuro Aoyagi brought project to halt; film was finally made by director Andrei Konchalovsky, working from a re-written version of Kurosawa's original in 1985
1970:
Shot first color picture as director, "Dodes'ka-den", in 28 days
1971:
Hospitalized in ill health, attempted suicide on December 22
1975:
Directed "Dersu Uzala"; received Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award
1978:
Traveled to USA; foreign rights to "Kagemusha" bought by 2Oth-Century Fox
1985:
Helmed "Ran", inspired by Shakespeare's "Macbeth"; nominated for four Oscars including Best Director
1985:
Subject of Chris Marker's documentary "AK: Portrait of Akira Kurosawa"
1985:
Scripted "Runaway Train", directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
1986:
Made Fellow of British Film institute
1989:
Awarded honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement
1990:
Wrote and directed "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams"
1991:
Helmed "Rhapsody in August", featuring Richard Gere; also scripted
1993:
Final film, "Madadayo"; released in USA in 2000
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Morimura Gakuen: -
Kuroda: -
Doshusha School of Western Painting: -
Keika Middle School: - 1922 - 1927

Notes

Kurosawa has seen several of his films remade in the West. His epic "Seven Samurai" (1954) was converted into John Sturges's popular Western, "The Magnificent Seven" (1960); "Rashomon" (1950) was "westernized" as "The Outrage" (1964) by director Martin Ritt; Italian director Sergio Leone unofficially borrowed the plot of "Yojimbo" (1961) for his "spaghetti Western" "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and George Lucas has acknowledged the influence of Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" (1958) on his "Star Wars" trilogy.

"When I watch my movies I still find only a few parts which are truly film. I've never made a film where I though that from beginning to end, it was all a film. so i'm still hoping to make one." (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, 10/2/1992)

Honored at the first London Film Festival together with John Ford, Rene Clair and Vittorio De Sica as the movie directors most contributiong to film and art in 1957.

Received the National Medal with Laurel (together with Charles Chaplin and John Ford) presented by President Tito of Yugoslavia (1973).

Decorated with the French Legion of Honor (c. 1982)

"Rashomon" honored as the "Golden Lion Among Golden Lions" by LA REPUBLICIA newspaper on the anniversary of the Venice Film Festival.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Yoko Yaguchi. Had three others; survived her.
wife:
Yoko Yaguchi. Actor. Married in 1945 at Meiji shrine (Tokyo); shrine was bombed by US fighters the following morning; died in 1985 during production on "Ran" (1985); appeared in his film "The Most Beautiful" (1944); died on February 1, 1985 at age 63.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Isamu Kurosawa. Army officer, athletics teacher, school administrator. Born in Akita Prefecture, Japan; of samurai descent; died on February 8, 1948; graduated from Toyama Imperial Military Academy.
father:
Isamu Kurosawa. Has nine.
mother:
Shima Kurosawa. From family of merchants eight children--four sons and four daughters--by Yutaka (Akira the youngest); died on November 4, 1952.
mother:
Shima Kurosawa. Survived him; resides in Beijing.
brother:
Heigo Kurosawa. Writer of movie theater program notes, narrator for silent films. Older; committed suicide (second attempt) in 1933 at age 27; of his brother Kurosawa said: "It was because of the existence of my brother as the negative that I was born the positive".
brother:
Heigo Kurosawa. Married when Howard was a teenager; marriage annuled at insistance of Howard's mother; her name is reportedly unknown even to family members.
son:
Hisao Kurosawa. Producer. Born on December 20, 1945; produced several of his father's films; survived him.
son:
Hisao Kurosawa. Had four; survived him.
daughter:
Kazuko Kurosawa. Costume designer. Born on April 29, 1954; worked on several of her father's films; survived him.
daughter:
Kazuko Kurosawa. Has three.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Something Like an Autobiography"

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