"Of the several directors who made their debuts in Japan during the World War II, the most promising was Akira Kurosawa. A scriptwriter and assistant director at Toho studios, he worked for Kajirô Yamamoto before being entrusted with directing Sugata Sanshirô (1943), a tale of martial arts set in the late nineteenth century. Sanshiro brings hurly-burly action back to the period film, which had become static and solemn under the influence of wartime ideology. The plot centers on a classic martial-arts conflict: Sanshiro, a hot-headed young judo fighter, must learn restraint under the guidance of a harsh but wise master. Kurosawa handled the combat sequences with a kinetic bravura, using elliptical editing, slow motion, and sudden changes of angle. Sanshiro Sugata was a major influence on postwar jidai-geki films, and it was the ancestor of Hong Kong martial-arts films and the "spaghetti Westerns" of Sergio Leone.
The film's success led Kurosawa to make a sequel (Zoku Sugata Sanshirô - Sanshiro Sugata Part Two, 1945). More significant, however, was his second film, the home-front drama Ichiban utsukushiku (The Most Beautiful, 1944). Several women are working at a plant that manufactures precision lenses for airplanes' gunsights. The plot shows, in episodic fashion, a string of personal dramas, some comic, some intensely serious. Lacking the physical exuberance of the judo films, The Most Beautiful reveals Kurosawa's interest in the psychology of stubborn, almost compulsive dedication to a social ideal. Both Sanshiro and The Most Beautiful fitted wartime ideology, but they also showed Kurosawa to be a virtuosic, emotionally intense director.
Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, 1945), was a satiric jidai-geki made at the very end of the war and was banned by SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers). It was a rare setback for Kurosawa, who remained prolific for many decades. After the World War II he quickly adapted to Occupation policy with Waga seishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946), a political melodrama about militarist Japan's suppression of political change. Kurosawa followed this with a string of social problem films focused on crime (Nora inu - Stray Dog, 1949), government bureaucracy (Ikiru - To Live, 1952), nuclear war (Ikimono no kiroku - I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being, 1955), and corporate corruption (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru - The Bad Sleep Well, 1960). He also directed several successful jidai-geki (historical films), starting with Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) and including Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958) and Yôjinbô (Bodyguard, 1961)." 
"The mature Kurosawa appeared in the 1948 Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel). Here he displays not only a full command of black-and-white filmmaking technique with his characteristic variety of pacing, lighting, and camera angles for maximum editorial effect, but his first use of soundimage counterpoints in the "Cuckoo Waltz" scene, where lively music contrasts with the dying gangster’s dark mood. Here too is the full-blown appearance of the typical Kurosawan master-disciple relationship first suggested in Sanshiro Sugata, as well as an overriding humanitarian message despite the story’s tragic outcome. The master-disciple roles assume great depth in Takashi Shimura’s portrayal of the blustery alcoholic doctor and Toshiro Mifune’s characterization of the vain, hotheaded young gangster. The film’s tension is generated by Shimura’s questionable worthiness as a mentor and Mifune’s violent unwillingness as a pupil. These two actors would recreate similar testy relationships in numerous Kurosawa films from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s, including the noir police drama Nora inu (Stray Dog), the doctor dilemma film Shizukanaru kettô (Quiet Duel, 1949), and the all-time classic Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai)." 
"It was Rashômon (1950) that burst upon western culture, which greeted it as both an exotic and a modernist film. Drawn from two stories by the 1920s Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film utilized flashback construction in a more daring way than had any European film of the period.
In twelfth-century Kyoto, a priest, a woodcutter, and a commoner take shelter from the rain in a ruined temple by the Rashomon gate. There they discuss a current scandal: a bandit has stabbed a samurai to death and raped his wife. What really happened in the grove during and after the crimes? In a series of flashbacks, the participants give testimony. (Through a medium, even the dead samurai testifies.) But each person's version, shown in flashback, differs drastically from the others'. When we return to the present and the three men waiting out the rain at the Rashomon gate, the priest despairs that humans will ever tell the truth. The woodcutter abruptly reveals that he had witnessed the crimes and relates a fourth contradictory version.
Kurosawa's staging and shooting sharply demarcate the film's three major "time zones". These stylistic differences make for great clarity of exposition, but they do not help the viewer determine exactly what happened in the grove. As with Paisan and other neorealist works, the film does not attempt to tell us everything; like The Bicycle Thief, Voyage to Italy, and some of Bergman's works, Kurosawa's film leaves key questions unanswered at the end. Rashomon's unreliable flashbacks were a logical step beyond 1940s Hollywood experimentation in flashback technique and beyond European art cinema as well. By presenting contradictory versions of a set of events, Rashomon made a significant contribution to the emerging tradition of art cinema. In 1951 Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon won the Golden lion at the Venice Film Festival, thereby opening the doors of the western art circuit to Japanese cinema." 
"Throughout his career, he had been considered the most "western" of Japanese directors, and, although this is not completely accurate, his films proved highly accessible abroad. He drew many of his stories from western literature. Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Ran (Revolt, 1985) are based on Shakespeare; Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low, 1963), on a detective novel by Ed McBain. Kurosawa's films have strong narrative lines and a good deal of physical action, and he admitted that John Ford, Abel Gance, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and Howard Hawks influenced him.
Critics looking for an authorial vision of the world found in Kurosawa's work a heroic humanism close to western values. Most of his films concentrate on men who curb selfish desires and work for the good of others. This moral vision informs such films as Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru. It is central to Seven Samurai, in which a band of masterless swordfighters sacrifice themselves to defend a village from bandits. Often Kurosawa's hero is an egotistical young man who must learn discipline and self-sacrifice from an older, wiser teacher. This theme finds vivid embodiment in Red Beard (1965), in which a gruff, dedicated doctor teaches his intern devotion to poor patients." 
While this concept of humanity is meant to be universal, it came to seem somewhat anachronistic as a film theme in the agitated social situation of the late 1960s, when new Japanese directors were making innovative works, and numerous foreign films made by the new generation were imported into Japan. Kurosawa's film art came to be regarded as old fashioned in this period.
"After Red Beard, however, Kurosawa's films slide into pessimism. Dodes'kaden (1970), made after he attempted suicide, presents the world as a bleak tenement community holding no hope of escape. Kagemusha and Ran depict social order as torn by vain struggles for power. Yet Dersu Uzala (1975) reaffirms the possibility of friendship and charitable commitment to others, and Madadayo (1993) becomes a poignant farewell to a teacher's humanistic ideals.
The first few years of Kurosawa's postwar career established him in three genres: the literary adaptation, the social-problem film, and the jidai-geki. To all these he brought that pluralistic approach to cinematic technique typical of Japanese filmmakers. His first film, Sanshiro Sugata (1943), displays immense daring in editing, framing, and slow-motion cinematography. Soon after the war, perhaps as a result of exposure to a variety of American films, Kurosawa adopted a Wellesian shot design, with strong deep focus. He later explored ways in which telephoto lenses could create nearly abstract compositions in the widescreen format.
He also experimented with violent action. In Seven Samurai (1954), the combat scenes were filmed with several cameras. The cameramen used very long telephoto lenses and panned to follow the action, as if covering a sporting event. Kurosawa began to apply the multiple-camera technique to dialogue, as in I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being (1955). His revival of multiple-camera shooting (a commonplace of the early sound era) allowed the actors to play the entire scene without interruption and to forget that they were being filmed. Both telephoto filming and the multiple-camera technique have become far more common since Kurosawa began using them.
Throughout his career, Kurosawa was noted for his frantically energetic editing. In Sanshiro Sugata he boldly cuts into details without changing the angle, yielding a sudden "enlargement" effect. When using the multiple-camera, telephoto-lens strategy, however, he has a penchant for disj unctive changes of angle. These editing strategies can dynamize tense or violent confrontations.
There is a more static side to Kurosawa's style as well. His 1940s films exploit extremely long takes, and his later works often utilize rigidly posed compositions, as in the startling opening of Kagemusha (1980), which holds for several minutes on three identical men. This tendency toward abstract composition can be seen in his settings and costumes. Early in his career, Kurosawa depicted environments in extremely naturalistic ways; no film was complete without at least one scene in a downpour and another in a gale. But this tendency steadily yielded to a more stylized mise-en-scene. After Dodes'kaden, the orchestration of color in the image became Kurosawa's primary concern. Originally trained as a painter, he lavished attention upon vibrant costumes and stark set design. In Kagemusha and Ran, the precise compositions of the early works give way to sumptuous pageantry captured by incessantly panning cameras." 
"Part of Kurosawa’s characteristic technique throughout his career involved the typical Japanese studio practice of using the same crew or "group" on each production. He consistently worked with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and composer Fumio Hayasaka, for example. Kurosawa’s group became a kind of family that extended to actors as well. Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura were the most prominent names of the virtual private repertory company that, through lifetime studio contracts, could survive protracted months of production on a Kurosawa film and fill in with more normal four-to-eight-week shoots in between. Kurosawa was thus assured of getting the performance he wanted every time.
Western critics often chastised Kurosawa for using symphonic music in his films. His reply to this is to point out that he and his entire generation grew up on music that was more Western in quality than native Japanese. As a result, native Japanese music can sound artificially exotic to a contemporary audience. Nevertheless, he succeeded in his films in adapting not only boleros and elements of Beethoven, but snatches of Japanese popular songs and musical instrumentation from Noh theater and folk song." 
It was Kurosawa's technical brilliance and his kinetic treatment of spectacular action in particular that won the reverence of Hollywood's "movie brat" generation. (George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped finance Kagemusha and Ran; Martin Scorsese portrayed Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990). In addition, his preoccupation with human values comprehensible to audiences around the world has made him a prominent director for almost fifty years.
The wide-screen films of Akira Kurosawa
In the years after Rashomon was introduced to European audiences, Kurosawa became the most influential Asian director in film history. His use of slowmotion cinematography to portray violence eventually become a cliché. Several of his films were remade by Hollywood, and Yôjinbô spawned the Italian Western. George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) derived part of its plot from Hidden Fortress.
"Prior to making The Hidden Fortress (1958), Kurosawa had completed three films that were derived from Western sources: Throne of Blood (1957), from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1957) and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1951). The Hidden Fortress is a rousing adventure, the most unabashed entertainment of the group. Much has been written about its influence on George Lucas and Star Wars (1977), including structuring the story around the viewpoints of the lowest figures in the story in terms of class hierarchy, not to mention the vast horizontal landscapes, a morally-ambiguous action hero, and the crossing of a hostile border by a young sheltered princess – the latter element actually a re-visiting of Kurosawa’s early film The Men Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) from historically-based kabuki.
Less acknowledged but equally exacting is the influence that The Bad Sleep Well (1960), the first film that Kurosawa produced independently of Toho, exerted on Francis Ford Coppola, who has said: "The first thirty minutes of The Bad Sleep Well seem to me as perfect as any film I have ever seen." He, in fact, uses it as a template for the opening sequences in all three of his Godfather films, and this influence is particularly evident in the first film as both The Godfather (1972) and The Bad Sleep Well open with wedding sequences, stylishly delineating a great deal of plot and character information while a celebratory public ceremony serves to counterpoint a darker reality. Although it is scarcely a direct adaptation, in the manner that Macbeth was to Throne of Blood, there are clearly calculated similarities to Hamlet in the characters, plot and theme. The hero, played by Toshiro Mifune, has plotted a measured revenge that takes us through a corrupt corporation. Rather than Shakespeare, however, it is the indigenous Japanese tradition of tales of vengeance that were more relevant sources for Kurosawa. The avenging hero shares with Ôishi Kuranosuke, the head of the Akô league of revenge in the Chushingura story, a great deal of ingenuity and seemingly endless patience. The primary interest is with the elemental ethical issues of good and evil, basic to all revenge tragedies, and with the inevitable moral price that must be paid in order to exact revenge, no matter how justified.
Kurosawa said that, in The Bad Sleep Well, he wanted to make a film of social significance. This represents something of a return to the type of contemporarilyset film that first established his reputation, in such works as Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949). The film was made in 1960, during the early stages of that Japanese ‘economic miracle’ that signalled recovery from the devastation of the war. It was an era of growing prosperity that would, in time, evolve into the opulence of the ‘bubble economy’ of the 1980s. In this early phase, however, the chief preoccupations were corporate survival and ruthless expansion by highly competitive businessmen. Kurosawa would revisit this corrupting mindset in High and Low (1963), only the second film that he had made in the wide-screen format. An unusually large number of scenes feature three people, such as the three principal ‘bad guys’, the police in their office, Nishi with his two confederates, or the trio of Nishi, his wife, and her brother. These are shot either on a flat plane to form a triptych composition, or with one or two people in the foreground to create a triangular formation. Throughout the film doors are constantly opened and shut, seeming to symbolize a border between the public and private personas and serve as passageways into the true nature of the characters. We see elevator doors that open and close like stage curtains, setting off contrasting groups of passengers. Another door is slammed in the faces of the reporters. A series of bank doors create a labyrinth for access to laundered money. Shoji screens are opened to reveal a married couple’s true relationship. The door between a company president and his personal aide provides both proximity and separation. And a heavy vault door in a bombed-out munitions factory is used to imprison and taunt.
Many elements make Yojimbo (1961) just as rewarding today as it was the nearly fifty years ago: the irreverent morals and black humour, the artistry of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and the contemporary-sounding score of Masaru Sato. Similar to the realism that Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954) brought to jidai-geki film-making, Yojimbo had a direct influence on depictions of heightened graphic violence on screen. While Rashômon and Seven Samurai were early and accurate renderings of how physically difficult it is to actually wield a sword, it is in Yojimbo and Sanjuro that the residual effects that swordplay has on human flesh – such as the depiction of severed limbs and arterial spurts – are shown graphically for the first time. The unforgettable climax to Sanjuro takes the arterial spurt to its limit and adds an unearthly sound effect to the stand-off in a quick draw method called iaijutsu, in which no thrusts or parrying of blows take place. This abbreviated, close-quartered, lethal duel is more like a gunfight. Kurosawa makes full use of all cinematic components. The static composition, the long single take (by comparison, Sergio Leone may have had as many as fifteen extreme close-ups in his rendition of a similar scene), the sound effects of wind, swoosh of sword and gurgling of the cut (not to mention the minimizing of sound), the technology in the spurting of blood and, most of all, the unprecedented patience to allow the dramatic tension to build, all make this an unforgettable scene. It is still impressive today, even after years of spectacular, largely gratuitous, screen violence.
In Yojimbo, as in most Kurosawa films, nature’s elements become characters within the story. An untimely visit by officials is prolonged by heavy rain. The dust and wind that travel down the main street, the stage for the showdown, are among the many cross- references to American Western films that Yojimbo became known for. The first screen meeting between Toshiro Mifune and a gun-toting Tatsuya Nakadai is most memorable. The introduction of the gun, a new weapon, implies a new set of rules and morals. The sword, the eternal symbolic soul of Japan, has been quickly outdated and, by implication, a code, a morality, a way of life ends with it. Therefore this battle between sword and gun might also be viewed as a struggle between East and West, or perhaps maintaining the East against the oncoming West: a last stand for the traditional against the technical. But mostly it is a struggle between good and bad. The character that Toshiro Mifune plays in this film is often referred to (even in later non-Kurosawa films) as Yojimbo, which means ‘bodyguard’, and he is one of the actor’s most original and engaging characters. Mixing in both broad and subtle reactions, the first ten minutes of Yojimbo are virtually silent as he becomes accustomed to his environment and the people in it. Unshaven and unconventional, it is his wit and superior sword skills that get him out of the dangerous situations that he himself orchestrates. Survival is based upon dealing with an imperfect, bad, world by making his own rules and being detached from alliances of any kind.
In the sequel, Sanjuro (1962), Mifune reprises his role, with the differences being the situation and the environment. Yojimbo took place in a small town in its own world of bad and worse characters and morals and Mifune fits right in the fringes among the gamblers, yakuza and outlaws; Sanjuro takes place within a more formal, more refined world where bad deeds are done less in the open. Because the ronin has long been free from the constrictions of reserved samurai behavior, Sanjuro is something of a comedy of manners with 'fish-out-of-water' elements. Much of the humour in this very funny film comes from his disregard for, or impatience with, traditional conventions and protocol.
The structure of the next film, High and Low (1963), is most unusual as the first part of the film is confined to a single set: the luxury high-rise apartment. While the set itself may be limiting, the action is not. The staging is remarkable, with character movements, plot delineation and developments all played out in the claustrophobic setting of the high-rise, air-conditioned apartment overlooking the low, sweltering city. The middle section of the narrative, the train sequence, seems even fasterpaced following the confinement of the previous section. It plays in ‘real time’ and the split-second timing in the narrative is largely due to the split-second timing in the staging and actual filming. Even more so than the beginning, the final section of the film, the manhunt, is about procedure. The concept of finding a single individual in a huge metropolis recalls the early Kurosawa motif of Stray Dog (1949).
Revisited in Red Beard is the relationship between teacher and reluctant pupil, found many times in Kurosawa’s work, from his first directorial effort, Sanshiro Sugata (1943), through to Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Seven Samurai and even Sanjuro. The story takes place during a period of transition in Japanese history: the end of the Edo/Tokugawa period when the age of the samurai is about to end and Western influences are to become more prevalent. Red Beard also marks the end of many aspects of Kurosawa’s career. Not only is it his last ‘scope’-formatted film, it is his last black-and-white effort. After replacing Fumiyo Hayasaka, whose death was untimely, composer Masaru Sato wrote every score for Kurosawa beginning with Throne of Blood in 1957. Red Beard was his last film with Kurosawa. Yet nothing exemplifies the era’s closure more sadly than the fact that the great collaboration, spanning sixteen films in seventeen years, between director Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune ended with Red Beard. It is also the end of the prolific bulk of Kurosawa’s career in which he made twenty-three films in twenty-five years. After making Red Beard, it would take five years for his next film, Dodeskaden (1970), to reach the screen and the following twenty-eight years would yield but seven films." 
Kurosawa’s films of the 1990s were minor asterisks to the career of this formidable, legendary director. Dreams (Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams) is a disappointingly uneven recreation of eight of the director’s dreams; Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (Rhapsody in August) is a slight account of the recollection of a grandmother who remembers the bombing of Nagasaki. These films are linked to Madadayo, Kurosawa’s last film, in that all are deeply personal and reflective. Madadayo, released when Kurosawa was 83 years old, is an account of 17 years in the retirement of a beloved teacher who is respected by the generations of his former students. As he ages into a "genuine old man," he remains as feisty and vigorous as ever; his favorite phrase is the film’s title, the English translation of which is "not yet." But he is as equally vulnerable to the ravages of time and life’s losses, as illustrated by his grieving upon the disappearance of his pet cat. Madadayo is a flawed film, if only because one too many sequences ramble. While it most decidedly is the work of an old man, it and his other latter-period work do not negate the vitality of Kurosawa’s many all-time classics." 
It would be hard to imagine the modern American cinema without Kurosawa's palpable influence, whether in the action staging of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Martin Scorsese or the distinctive editing patterns that so clearly set off the films of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. And this is no less true of his influence on internationally acclaimed directors ranging from Italy's Western auteur, Sergio Leone, to Hong Kong's master of balletic violence, John Woo. The strategic use of slow motion, the transformation of Sergei Eisenstein's handling of crowd scenes, the use of jumpcuts on movement, the intermixing of long takes and montage, have all entered the lexicon of the modern action cinema.
It is likely that Seven Samurai (1954) is the single most remade and reworked film in all of world cinema, from Hollywood to Bollywood; Rashomon (1951) is as responsible for the modernist move in world cinema as Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Fellini's La Strada (1956), or Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960); and Yojimbo (1961) may fairly be said to have relaunched the Western in the 1960s. Similarly, Kurosawa's Shakespearean adaptations - Kumonosu jô ( Throne of Blood, 1957), Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960), and Ran (1985) - are generally acknowledged as among the finest filmic transformations of the Bard's classics, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, respectively.
Within the strictly Japanese context, Kurosawa has been one of the few filmmakers willing to tackle an issue generally suppressed in Japanese public art - the atomic bomb. Handled typically by allegory (e.g., Godzilla , 1954) or via the fantastic world of anime, the Bomb has been largely taboo in Japanese cinema. Yet in the middle of his career, with Ikimono no kiroku ( Record of a Living Being , 1955), and near the end, with Hachigatsu no kyôshikyoku (Rhapsody in August, 1991), Japan's best-known filmmaker squarely confronted Japan's most traumatic experience. Kurosawa's willingness to confront tradition, criticize modernization, and tackle taboo subjects made him the leading filmmaker of his generation, and his unequaled command of cinematic language made him one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of the cinema.
Madadayo (1993) ... aka Not Yet
Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (1991) ... aka Rhapsody in August
Dreams (1990) ... aka Akira Kurosawa's Dreams
Ran (1985) ... aka Revolt
Kagemusha (1980) ... aka Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior)
Dersu Uzala (1975)
Dodesukaden (1970) ... aka Clickety-Clack
Akahige (1965) ... aka Red Beard
Tengoku to jigoku (1963) ... aka High and Low
Tsubaki Sanjurô (1962) ... aka Sanjuro
Yojimbo (1961) ... aka The Bodyguard
Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960) ... aka The Bad Sleep Well
Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958) ... aka The Hidden Fortress
Donzoko (1957) ... aka The Lower Depths
Kumonosu jô (1957) ... aka Throne of Blood
Ikimono no kiroku (1955) ... aka I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being
Shichinin no samurai (1954) ... aka Seven Samurai
Ikiru (1952) ... aka To Live
Hakuchi (1951) ... aka The Idiot
Shubun (1950) ... aka Scandal
Nora inu (1949) ... aka Stray Dog
Shizukanaru ketto (1949) ... aka A Silent Duel
Yoidore tenshi (1948) ... aka Drunken Angel
Subarashiki nichiyobi (1947) ... aka One Wonderful Sunday
Waga seishun ni kuinashi (1946) ... aka No Regrets for Our Youth
Asu o tsukuru hitobito (1946) ... aka Those Who Make Tomorrow
Zoku Sugata Sanshiro (1945) ... aka Judo Saga II
Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi (1945) ... aka The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
Ichiban utsukushiku (1944) ... aka The Most Beautiful