This year, Akira Kurosawa would have turned 100 years old. I wanted to celebrate this so here’s a guide to ten key Kurosawa movies, from classics such as Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood to late greats such as Ran. He’s a legendary figure and his best work is some of the greatest ever. Compiling a top 10 list of his films was no easy task and I feel my picks are custom fitted to my tastes yet can be universally appreciated. I hope you enjoy! Let’s kick things off with the number 10 entry:
Why it’s great: This was Kurosawa’s first feature filmed in a widescreen format, Tohoscope, which he continued to use for the next decade. Hidden Fortress was originally presented with Perspecta directional sound, which was re-created for the Criterion DVD release. George Lucas has acknowledged the influence of The Hidden Fortress on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Awards: Won Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Bear for Best Director.
Why it’s great: An iconic scene from Ikiru is from the last few moments in Watanabe’s life, as he sits on the swing at the park he built. As the snow falls, we see Watanabe gazing lovingly over the playground, at peace with himself and the world. He again starts singing “Gondola no Uta“.
Awards: Won 1953 Bucharest Film Festival’s Golden Wolf and 1954 4th Berlin International Film Festival’s “Special Prize of the Senate of Berlin”. Ikiru ranks 459th on Empire magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Ranked #44 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010.
Why it’s great: Madadayo is the thirtieth and final film to be completed by Akira Kurosawa. The portrayal of Uchida in the film might be interpreted as a metaphor for Japan of the Meiji, Taishō and early Shōwa periods, trying to cope with the fast changing world of the later Shōwa period. It was screened out of competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
Why it’s great: Nakadai and production designer Yoshirô Muraki relate that the notorious “blood explosion” at the film’s end was done in one take. Originally Sanjuro was to be a straight adaptation of the story “Peaceful Days“. After the success of Yojimbo the studio decided to resurrect its popular antihero, and Kurosawa reimagined the script accordingly. The film combines action and humor, and is lighter in tone than its predecessor, Yojimbo.
Why it’s great: Both in Japan and the West, Yojimbo had a considerable influence on various forms of entertainment. In 1964, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first appearance as the Man with No Name. Leone and his production company failed to secure the remake rights to Kurosawa’s film, resulting in a lawsuit that delayed Fistful’s release in North America for three years.
Why it’s great: Rashomon can be said to have introduced Kurosawa and Japanese cinema to Western audience. Kurosawa’s admiration for silent film and modern art can be seen in the film’s minimalist sets. Kurosawa felt that sound cinema multiplies the complexity of a film. Rashomon’s concept has influenced a variety of subsequent films, such as Hero, Vantage Point, Courage Under Fire, Basic and One Night at McCool’s.
Awards: Won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and also received an Academy Honorary Award at the 24th Academy Awards.
Why it’s great: The warlord whom the kagemusha impersonates is based on daimyo Takeda Shingen and the climactic 1575 Battle of Nagashino. According to George Lucas, Kurosawa used 5000 extras for the final battle sequence, filming for a whole day, then he cut it down to 90 seconds in the final release.
Awards: At the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, Kagemusha shared the Palme d’Or with All That Jazz. Kagemusha was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Art Direction (Yoshirō Muraki) and Best Foreign Language Film). The film won the César Award in 1981 for Best Foreign Film.
Why it’s great: The film transposes the plot of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to feudal Japan. Toshirō Mifune’s death scene was the source of inspiration for Piper Laurie’s impalement death scene in Carrie. Throne of Blood is also referenced in the anime film Millennium Actress. The movie has received a great reception from literary critics, despite the many liberties it takes with the original play. The American literary critic Harold Bloom judged it “the most successful film version of Macbeth.” Throne of Blood is reputed to have been a favorite of poet T. S. Eliot.
Why it’s great: Ran was Kurosawa’s last epic. With a budget of $12 million, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced up to that time. After Ran, Kurosawa directed three other films before he died, but none on so large a scale. The film was hailed for its powerful images and use of color—costume designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for Costume Design for her work on Ran. The distinctive Gustav Mahler-inspired film score, written by Tōru Takemitsu, plays in isolation with ambient sound muted.
Awards: Roger Ebert had awarded the film Four out of Four stars, stating “‘Ran’ is a great, glorious achievement. Kurosawa often must have associated himself with the old lord as he tried to put this film together, but in the end he has triumphed, and the image I have of him, at 75, is of three arrows bundled together.” In 2000, he added it to his list of Great Movies. In addition, it won two Prizes for Best Art Direction and Best Music Score and received four other nominations, for Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Hitoshi Ueki, who played Saburo’s patron, Lord Fujimaki). Ran also won two awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Make Up Artist and was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Screenplay – Adapted. Ran was also nominated for Academy Awards for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design (as previously mentioned).
Why it’s great: Seven Samurai is described as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, and is one of a select few Japanese films to become widely known in the West for an extended period of time. Seven Samurai was among the first films to use the now-common plot element of the recruiting and gathering of heroes into a team to accomplish a specific goal. The single largest undertaking by a Japanese filmmaker at the time, Seven Samurai was a technical and creative watershed that became Japan’s highest-grossing movie and set a new standard for the industry.
Awards: Venice Film Festival (1954) Winner – Silver Lion. British Academy Film Awards (1956) Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Film. Voted onto Sight & Sound’s list of the ten greatest films of all time in 1982 and 1992, and remains on the directors’ top ten films in the 2002 poll.
I hope you enjoyed the list. Feel free to sound off in the comments section with your feedback or provide your own Top 10. Until next time…