Cinematek honors Akira Kurosawa, the director who inspired Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino…

Federico Fellini is the one who best summed up Akira Kurosawa’s cinema: “I feel in Kurosawa the total show […]. I feel the cinema exploited in all its means of expression […]. His cinema is a kind of expressive miracle.” We can rediscover it during a retrospective at Cinematek, until November 7.

Often reduced to his samurai films, his work is otherwise rich and varied. “Extremes please me, because they are a source of life” said the director who died in 1998, at the age of 88.

While Kurosawa is often epic, he is also contemplative. If it is very masculine, it has its share of female figures. If he depicts warriors, he is resolutely pacifist. If it remains, finally, impregnated with the culture and history of Japan, it is universal.

Influenced and Influencer

Akira Kurosawa has never hidden his influences (Capra, Griffith, Murnau…). Simenon infuses in Enraged dog (1949), Ed McBain in Between heaven and hell (1963). He transposed Shakespeare (macbeth in The Spider’s Castle1957, Hamlet for The bastards sleep in peace1960, King Lear with ​Ran1985), adapted Dostoivesky (The Idiot, 1951) and Maxim Gorky (The Shallows1957) while inspiring a number of Western films, included in the retrospective.

When Europe discovers it with Rashomon (1951), Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Akira Kurosawa already has ten films to his credit, three of which are remarkable: The Drunk Angel (1948), Enraged dog (1949) and Scandal (1950), which already sealed his collaboration with actor Toshirô Mifune.

Besides its monuments (The Seven Samurai1954) and success (Yojimbo1961), Kurosawa signed humanist and existentialist masterpieces that are Live (1952), with the director’s other favorite actor, Takashi Shimura (the leader of Seven Samuraiassociated with Mifune from Enraged dog) and Dersou Ouzala (1975), crowned with an Oscar, without forgetting the films which say the most, even today, about the quirks of modern Japan, The bastards sleep in peace (1960) and Between heaven and hell (1963). Without forgetting its social fresco, Dodeskaden (1970), his first color film.

The Seven Samurai ©Toho

From nationalist propaganda to pacifism

Last of six children, Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in March 1910. His father, who descends from a line of samurai, teaches martial arts. As a good contemporary of the Meiji era (1868-1912), he is open to Western culture. He takes his children to the cinema. Heigo, Akira’s older brother, is benshisilent film commentator.

Akira Kurosawa grew up in this cosmopolitan cultural climate but became an adult in the Japan of militarist imperialism which plunged him into the Second World War. After studying painting, the young man cut his teeth in the cinema from 1935, climbing all the levels.

In 1943, he moved on to directing with The legend of great judo. The work, with a propagandist vocation, depicts the mystical and physical initiation of an authentic judo champion at the end of the 19th century. Kurosawa immediately imposes his sense of composition and editing, combined with a lyrical propensity (see the final battle in tall grass under the wind).

"The Legend of Great Judo"
“The Legend of Great Judo” ©Toho

Individual ethics

Going beyond the nationalist and virilist subject, he insists on the master-novice relationship and individual ethics going beyond blind obedience. “The spectacle of a being who progresses on the path of maturity, of perfection, fascinates me” he confided.

All his cinema has explored the human condition through various genres Softer (1943), his second film, a tribute to the workers of a military factory, until madayo (1993), his last film on the banquet in honor of an old professor.

In the immediate post-war period, Kurosawa depicted the realities and difficulties of Japan in the background of melodramas (A wonderful Sunday1947, The Silent Duel1949) and thrillers (The Drunk Angel1948, Enraged dog1949) which constitute a realistic painting of the years 1945-1950 in Japan and a discreet criticism of imperialism.

Rashomon (1950) inaugurates the jidai-geki (historical dramas) and chanbara (saber films) which earned Kurosawa numerous international awards, including a Palme d’Or for Kagemusha (1980).

His mastery of storytelling, his art of dynamic editing, his painterly sense of composition culminated in the masterpiece Ran (1985).

Kurosawa's two favorite actors, Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura, in "Enraged dog".
Kurosawa’s two favorite actors, Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura, in “Enraged Dog”. ©Toho

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Cinematek honors Akira Kurosawa, the director who inspired Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino…