Pre-World War II, Japanese cinema had little real influence on the U.S. film industry. Then came Akira Kurosawa.
Throughout a career spanning seven decades from 1936 to 1993, director Kurosawa introduced Japanese cinema to the rest of the world with 30 celebrated films, including “Seven Samurai,” “High and Low” and “Rashomon.”
The enigma of Kurosawa is that, despite his compelling impact on global filmmaking, the director remains underrecognized outside the circles of film buffs and theorists. Western audiences and casual moviegoers may be acquainted with other names of Kurosawa’s time like Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, yet few are as familiar with Kurosawa and his far-reaching influence on film in the United States. A true pioneer and triumphant innovator, Kurosawa created a style that inspires iconic films to this day, from the “Star Wars” saga to Marvel’s “The Avengers.” The legacy of Kurosawa is still seen today in the themes and techniques that define modern cinema.
Kurosawa’s eclectic filmography varies widely in subject and scope. Between subtle melodramas and extravagant epics, Kurosawa maintained a standard of excellence throughout his career marked by careful attention to detail and deeply emotional storytelling.
His 1950 breakout hit, “Rashomon,” and 1954 epic, “Seven Samurai,” illustrate the key differing components of what make Kurosawa’s films so special. “Rashomon” is a philosophical contemplation of truth and human nature. “Seven Samurai” is over twice as long as “Rashomon” and follows a town’s desperate struggle for survival against a relentless clan of marauders.
Despite their differences, “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” are tied together by a familiar set of conventions that elevate Kurosawa’s films to another level. Japanese heritage and pride are featured prominently. At a macro level, themes reflect cultural values of familial loyalty, moral clarity and religious spiritualism, and the stories are set amid historic civil war. At a micro level, Kurosawa’s deliberate character staging within each frame and his symbolic use of weather serve to reinforce power structures and imply internal emotions in ways that surpass verbal expression.
Not to be outdone, Hollywood capitalized on Kurosawa’s meteoric rise by translating his most successful films into Westerns and other Americanized versions, oftentimes blatantly lifting plotlines and other story elements in the process.
“Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven.” “Yojimbo” was remade as “A Fistful of Dollars,” starring Clint Eastwood. Both U.S. remakes, of course, have had massive cultural significance in establishing the Western genre. According to George Lucas, the original ideas for the “Star Wars” saga were heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress.” Kurosawa’s films played a central role in sparking the New Hollywood era of reform in the mid-1960s that deviated from classic linear narratives with tied-up ends and opted for something much more human.
Though Kurosawa received credit from the studios behind those pictures for inspiring the basis of those films, most casual viewers today remain unaware of their source material. Many would perhaps be shocked to discover that Luke Skywalker, Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and many other U.S. pop culture icons are in fact derived from stories about medieval samurai. The successful translation of Kurosawa’s exceptional heroes across social and cultural borders serves as a testament to his films’ undeniable significance and universal appeal among global audiences.
Kurosawa didn’t achieve such heights all alone, of course. He embraced the support of several recurring collaborators throughout his career to ensure the translation of his visions to the screen. Actor Takashi Shimura appears in 21 Kurosawa films, while the great Toshiru Mifune stars in a total of 16. Both play roles in “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai.” Behind the scenes, cinematographer Takao Saito and production designer Yoshiro Muraki were essential members of the team. The intricate attention to detail maintained by these skilled professionals is indicative of their primary focus on genuine artistic expression, rather than profit.
Though Kurosawa may seem forgotten in this day and age because he is from an older generation and most of his best work was produced during the mid-20th century, this fact does not by any means justify his underrecognition. Great films never truly go out of style, and classics like “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai” continue to hold up today as models of inspiration.
Greater hindsight will do justice to Kurosawa. The merits that distinguish Kurosawa’s legacy as one of history’s greatest filmmakers speak for themselves and will continue to distinguish him from his contemporaries — at least to those willing to read up on some film history the next time another “Star Wars” installment arrives.
Tucker Oberting is a rising senior in the College. The Reel Deal appears online every other week.