Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Great Directors: Akira Kurosawa

with 4 comments

Essential films: Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, and many more.

By the end of his career, Kurosawa, as his detractors are quick to point out, was much less popular in Japan than he was in the West, and there’s a good case to be made that his mainstream success among American audiences—as opposed to the art house appeal of Ozu and Mizoguchi—was at least partially due to a sort of orientalist fascination with swords and samurais. “If an American director proved so content to film nothing but battles and their context,” David Thomson notes, “there would be eyebrows raised.” Perhaps. But Kurosawa’s very exoticism—in terms of subject matter, not filmmaking, which is as accessible as that of any director who ever lived—is what allowed Western audiences to embrace a kind of pure, exuberant storytelling that might have seemed unfashionable in their own language.

Because Kurosawa is the greatest storyteller in cinema, and no other director—not even Spielberg—has displayed such mastery of all elements of filmmaking in the service of unforgettable stories. The finest Kurosawa films are so simple in their broad outlines, and so complex in their particulars, that they appeal to the child in us while speaking to us directly as adults. Seven Samurai, as I’ve said elsewhere, has the best story in all of movies, a setup so classic and elegant that it’s startling to realize that it had never been done before, and yet its complexities are endless. The farmers, we find, may not be worthy of being saved, and there is more at stake here, in the lives of the seven men we come to know so well, than the fate of a single village. Striking action giving way to boundless depth: it’s in all of Kurosawa’s best movies, and it’s why they continue to speak to us on so many levels.

Tomorrow: Alfred Hitchcock and the supremacy of suspense.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2011 at 7:28 am

4 Responses

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  1. I am still guilty of not having seen Ikiru or even Ran. My favorite moment, not involving a dog with its tea-time snack in jaw, is in Sanjuro when the hapless gang of well-meaning samurai younglings (that’s what they’re called, right?) accomplish something and start cheering loudly, music blaring, then realize that they are hidden next door to the enemy compound, hush, and cheer again, softly, music swelling. Or, ::prisoner scolds captors, goes back into closet::

    Or the rain of grain as Sanjuro pretends that he’s a six-man wrecking crew.


    February 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm

  2. I haven’t seen Sanjuro, and I don’t have an excuse—they’re all on Netflix on Demand, right? And I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on Ikiru.


    February 13, 2011 at 6:43 pm

  3. I love to look at ast. charts of people like this…to see what’s working “through” them. What piece of the pie did they get?

    It’s like looking at art.


    April 8, 2011 at 9:46 am

  4. okay…just looked.

    In his case

    Deep, deep, deep wisdom.

    Universe says, “now share it”!

    You can talk about it, write about it — you just can’t think about it anymore.

    And he’s a poet.


    April 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

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