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  • 3/18/2004

Akira Kurosawa
(23 March1910-6 September1998)

Japanese film director, considered with Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu among the greatest of Japanese modern film makers. Kurosawa also collaborated on the scripts of most of his films and edited or closely supervised the editing. Several of Kurosawa's works were adaptations of Western literary works, includingDostoevsky'sThe Idiot,Gorky'sThe Lower Depths,Shakespeare'sMacbeth (adapted intoThrone of Blood) andKing Lear (reworked asRan). The director Steven Spielberg called once Kurosawa "the pictorial Shakespeare of our time."

"I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot inRanin a particular way. His answer was that if he he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport - neither of which belonged in a period movie. Only the person who's made the movie knows what goes into the decisions that result in any piece of work." (Sidney Lumet inMaking Movies, 1995)

Akira Kurosawa was born inTokyo. His father, Isamu Kurosawa, was a veteran army officer who turned athletic instructor. His mother, Shima, came from anOsaka merchant family. She was forty years old when Kurosawa was born. Isamu took often his whole family to the movies, and later Kurosawa said, that his father's attitude toward film encouraged him to become a director. In 1923 Kurosawa enteredKeika Junior High School. He began taking Japanese calligraphy lessons and became captain of the school'skendo club. For his father's disappointment, he was not interested in formal training in arts, and he also failed to pass the entrance examination of an art school he applied. After joining the Proletarian Artists' League in 1929 he contributed to a radical newspaper, and worked as a commercial artist. Kurosawa's close association with Communists lasted a few years. His brother Heigo committed suicide in 1933, and a littler later his oldest brother, Masayasu died. Kurosawa's youngest sister, Momoyo, had died in 1920. Little is known of Kurosawa's dark years in 1933-35.
In 1936 Kurosawa began as an assistant and scriptwriter to one of the most successful director's of the country, Kajiro Yamamoto, at Photo Chemical Laboratories. P.C.L. had been founded in 1929 and later the company became better known as Toho Studios. Kurosawa's talents were soon noted. His scripts were awarded in contests and by 1941 he was directing whole sequences for Yamamoto's films. InSomething Like an Autobiography (1982) Kurosawa wrote: "Yama-san said: 'If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.' I felt he was right, so I applied myself wholeheartedly to scripwriting."
During World War II Kurosawa did not serve in the army - he had been deemed physically unfit in his conscription examination in 1930. As a director Kurosawa made his debut in 1943 withJudo Saga, set in the 1880s. It was based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, a judo master, who had become a writer. Tomita's novel depicted a skilled tough, Sanshiro, who learns the art of judo and self-realization under a guidance of a wise master. The film was well received in the war time Japan and shared the National Incentive Film Price. In the sequel of the story,Judo Saga II(1945), Sanshiro fights with an American boxer.
In the following works Kurosawa dealt with the effects of the war upon his country and changes in the post-war society.The Most Beautiful (1944) was about young women working in a lens factory, drafted to aid in the war effort. While making the film Kurosawa met Yoko Yaguchi, an actress, whom he married in 1945.The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail(1945) was banned by the American Occupation Forces due to ist alleged "pro-Feudalism."
Kurosawa's collaboration with the actor Toshiro Mifune started from Drunken Angel (1948). "A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy," was Kurosawa's first impression when he saw Mifune's audition in 1946. "It was frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed."Drunken Angel was about a gangster (Mifune), who suffers from tuberculosis and rises against ayakuza boss. An alcoholic doctor, who fight against disease in the vicinity of an oily sump, tries in vain to change his self-destructive way of life. "In this picture I finally found myself," Kurosawa confessed. InStray Dog(1949) Mifune played a police detective who is plagued by feeling of guilt when his pistol is stolen and used in a robbery and a murder.Stray Dog was remade in 1973 by director Azuma Morisaki, starring Tetsuya Watari and Shinshuke Ashida.
Kurosawa gained international fame with his great series of films in the 1950s and 1960s, which mixed Eastern and Western styles and established him as one of the world's leading film makers. In 1951 Kurosawa's Rashomonwon the first prize at the Venice Film Festivals and a Special Oscar. The production company had been first rather reluctant to submit the film, fearing incomprehension. John McCarten's review in the New Yorker (December 29, 1951) consolidated early fears: "Perhaps I am purblind to the merits ofRashomon, but no matter how enlightened I may become on the art forms of Nippon, I am going to go on thinking that a Japanese potpourri of Erskine Caldwell, Stanislavski, and Harpo Marx isn't likely to provide much sound diversion." The dark tale of a rape of a woman and murder of her husband has been interpreted as a philosophical examination of the nature of objective truth. The Finnish film critic Peter von Bagh wrote inElämää suuremmat elokuvat (1989) that Rashomon is about narcissism, about ways by which people deceive themselves. Kurosawa himself has said that he wanted to return with this work to the beauty and heritage of the silent film.
Rashomon (1951) - The film was based on two stories byAkutagawa Ryunosuke (d. 1927). As with several of Kurosawa's films, it was remade in the United States. In director Martin Ritt's version, entitledOutrage (1964) Paul Newman played an Mexican bandit accused of rape - Claire Bloom was the victim and Laurence Harvey the husband. Kurosawa'sRashomon received the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival in 1951, the Best Foreign Film Oscar in the U.S., and opened up Japanese cinema to acclaim in the West. Kurosawa abandoned in the story the idea of an objective narrator in a way which had much similarities with he Frenchnouveau roman of the 1950s.Rashomon was set in the eighth century Japan. The acting is overstated in Kabuki fashion for dramatic effect but at the same time totally believable. Caught in a storm, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) tell to their companion a story which begins with the woodcutter's discovery of a corpse. An inquest is being conducted to determine the facts of the case. A captured bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), tells that he had followed a woman, Masago (Machiko Kyo), and her husband, Takehiro (Masayuki Mori), a samurai. He confesses that he had raped the woman and later killed the man but in a fair fight - the wife wanted it because she felt that one of the men must die to preserve her honor. Masago asserts that she was raped and wanted to die but she believes that she killed her husband when he disowned her. The priest confirms that the wife begged her husband to kill her and fainted. Through a medium, the husband claims to have committed suicide in response to the dishonour. For his shame, he had never seen his wife as happy as with the bandit. The woodcutter wows that Takehiro had been forced to fight - he felt that the rape had rendered her worthless - and that Tajomaru acted in self-defense. However even his objective testimony may not be reliable. A child appears on the gate of Rashomon and the woodcutter decides to adopt the child.
"I think that to learn what became of me after 'Rashomon' the most reasonable procedure would be to try to look for me in the characters in the films I made," Kurosawa wrote inSomething Like an Autobiography. InIkuru (1952) one of the characters, a gangster, demands: "Say something! Do you value your life?"
Ikuru was awarded the Silver Bear at the fourth Berlin International Film Festival. It is generally considered one of the finest films Kurosawa made. The story depicts a minor bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), who tries to find meaning for his existence during the last months in his life. "The effectIkurucan have on audiences is almost religious. Is it possible to watchIkuru and not have it change you? Or is its effect much the same as Watanabe's impact on his co-workers? What does it mean to truly be alive?" (The Emperor and the Wolf by Stuart Galbraith IV, 2001)Throne of Blood was a dreamlike adaptation of Shakespeare'sMacbeth, in which fog embraced the beautifully composed cold images. When it was released in the Unites States in 1961, Bosley Crowther wrote inThe New York Times. "The action is grotesquely brutish and barbaric... with Toshiro Mifune as the warrior grunting and bellowing monstrously and making elaborately wild gestures to convey his passion and greed..."The Hidden Fortress (1958) was a great commercial success. Later the American director George Lucas told that two of its characters inspired his bumbling robots in Star Wars. The film won the International Film Critics Prize and the Silver Bear at the ninth Berlin International Film Festival.Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film of 1975. Kagemusha (1980) shared the Golden Palm at the Cannes Festival. With these and earlier achievements - and for his famous perfectionism - Kurosawa was addressed by his colleagues at Toho Studios as "Tenno' - 'Emperor." Kurosawa's regular working group included among others the actor Katamari Fujiwara, whom he used more frequently than he did any other actor, including Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the composers Fumio Hayasaka and Masaru Sato, the cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, and the art director Yoshiro Muraki. With Ryuzo Kikushima he wrote a dozen scripts together. His own production company Kurosawa had officially established in 1959.
"In all my films, there are three or maybe four minutes of real cinema." (fromFilm Yearbook, 1987)
Seven Samurai (Shichinin No Samurai) started Kurosawa's samurai series, and is the most popular of all Kurosawa's films in the West. The director has acknowledged the influence of the classic westerns of John Ford on this work. In the story, set in the 16th-century Japan, farmers in a village find their livelihood under the threat from marauding bandits. They buy protection from a samurai warrior Kambei, who recruits a companions to defend the village. In the main battle the bandits are defeated, but only three samurai survive. Usually Kurosawa's films are slow but in this work he also showed his skill in creating fast action sequences.Seven Samuraiwas imitated in the Hollywood productionThe Magnificent Seven, but its camera movements were more conservative and it did not try to imitate Kurosawa's images of the rain-swept nature.
The Italian "spaghetti" WesternA Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, was pirated from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune. In a letter to Leone, which the Italian director wrongly considered a compliment, Kurosawa wrote: "Signor Leone - I have just had the change to see your film. It's a very fine film, but it is my film."Yojimbowas remade in 1996 by Walter Hill as a gangster storyLast Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis. Hill's film, which was set in the 1930s, brought the story to the United States and in time close to Dashiell Hammett's novelRed Harvest (1929), which perhaps had inspired Kurosawa.Sanjuro (1962), based on the story 'Hibi Heian' by Shugoro Yamamoto, was a lighweight sequel toYojimbo, which made Stanley Kauffman ask in New York Herald-Tribune: "One wonders how the people who could make a film so superbly could be content to make one so shallow."
 WithKagemusha (1980) Kurosawa returned to the large-scale historical epic, which continued inRan (1985), a version of Shakespeare'sKing Lear. Although Kurosawa was the most famous Japanese director in the West, he had troubles in getting finance from his own country.Ranwas made possible by the support of Francis Coppola and George Lucas. In the 1990s Kurosawa made his last and personal films,Akira Kurosawa's Dreams(1990),Rhapsody in August (1991), a family drama returning to the horror of the atomic bomb, and Madadayo (1993), an anecdotal story about a teacher and his former students.Kurosawa died onSeptember 1, 1998, in Tokyo. His last script,After the Rain, was finished by the directorTakashi Koizumi, who had known Kurosawa since 1970. The film also marked the return of Kurosawa's composer Masaru Sato, aged seventy-one, and the art director Yoshiro Muraki, aged seventy-five. The city ofImari on Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan's four main islands, was chosen as the site for Kurosawa memorial museum. Kurosawa made on Kyushu several of his masterpieces, includingRan andKagemusha.

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Also see:
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000041/bio http://www2.tky.3web.ne.jp/~adk/kurosawa/biography-1.html
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