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David Stratton on Akira Kurosawa

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David Stratton introduces the works of Akira Kurosawa

During the ‘golden era’ of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa was by far the best-known Japanese director internationally. His films were not only accessible, they were marvellously executed. He made no secret of his love of Hollywood cinema, especially the work of John Ford, but his lyrical, dazzling, breathtaking style in turn influenced a younger generation of Americans – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese among them. But he was also a great humanist, and his films explore the problems and concerns of ‘ordinary’ people as much as they do the exploits of the warriors for which he is so celebrated.

Akira Kurosawa with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas on the set of 'Kagemusha'

Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the son of an aristocratic father whose family had been samurai (warriors). As a young man, he became interested in art and studied painting, but he was drawn to cinema and joined the Toho Company in the mid-1930s. He wrote several scripts and assisted on the films of Toho contract directors before he made his first film, the two-part Judo Saga in 1943. Already his dynamic yet painterly style was in evidence. For the next seven years he made a series of films with contemporary settings, but it was the screening of the 15th Century drama Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 that brought him, and Japanese cinema in general, to world attention.

Two of the actors from Rashomon had already featured in earlier Kurosawa films and would be given key roles in many more to come. Toshiro Mifune, one of the cinema’s most physical actors, who was capable of bringing an almost balletic style to his action scenes, played the bandit, while Takashi Shimura, as the woodcutter, was an actor with a wonderfully calm, introspective presence. Shimura would portray the dying bureaucrat in Living and the leader of the Seven in Seven Samurai, demonstrating remarkable versatility. Mifune, until he quarrelled with Kurosawa during the making of Red Beard, played the leading role in almost all the director’s films of this period.

A still from 'Rashomon'

Given the international acclaim and commercial success of so many of the director’s films it still seems astonishing that he was only able to make two features during the 1970s. The first was his personal production, Dodeska-den (1970), his first film in colour – and its failure at the box-office led to a period of ill-health and depression, followed by an attempt at suicide. This is why Kurosawa was unable to attend the retrospective of his films that was held during the 1971 Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals in conjunction with the Australian premiere of Dodeska-den. He subsequently made Dersu Uzala (1975), a film produced by the Soviet Union on location in Siberia. During the 1980s, Kurosawa made two expensive and lavish epics – Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) – with the help of foreign producers.

A still from 'Seven Samurai'

The best of Kurosawa’s films possess a grandeur combined with a common touch. No-one filmed action scenes like he did – his use of multiple camera, long lenses and intricate editing combined to make these sequences unforgettable. And who else ever filmed rain in the same way Kurosawa did? The elements play a key role in his work, alongside his extraordinary actors and the sheer brilliance of his eye behind the camera.

Welcome to this exciting retrospective of ten of this great director’s finest films.

- David Stratton

Essential Kurosawa: Selected by David Stratton screens from 26 May – 4 June