Akira Kurosawa – A Short Analysis of Directing Style
Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the last of seven children. His earliest influences were an older brother named Heigo and a progressively minded elementary school art teacher. He attended the Doshusha School of Western Painting in 1927, and struggled to make a living as a painter.
Kurosawa stumbled into film making in 1935 after answering a newspaper ad asking applicants to write an essay on the inherent problems in Japanese films. He went to work for P.C.L. studios as an assistant director for Kajiro Yamamoto.
Yamamoto became his mentor and probably his biggest influence within the film world. Kurosawa speaks highly of him and refers to him as Yama-san in his autobiography. Kurosawa’s directorial debut came in 1943, with the film Sanshiro Sugata.
Two traumatic events impacted Kurosawa in his early life and came to influence his art over the years; one was the suicide of Heigo, who was only 27 at the time. The other was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. He states in his autobiography that it was a terrifying experience and extremely important: “Through it I learned not only of the extraordinary powers of nature, but extraordinary things that lie in human hearts.” It may be because of this experience that Akira Kurosawa often used the elements of nature, such as wind, rain and heat as foreshadowing indicators and subtext in his films.
His work is visually stunning, mostly deep focus, as he exhibits total control over a film’s Mise en Scene. His artistic strength comes through not only in imagery; he was also a talented scriptwriter. Richly layered plots, multidimensional characters, and dialog that is both dramatic and funny without being trite or pretentious, are all hallmarks of Kurosawa’s films, many of which are cult favorites.
Kurosawa’s genres and story lines are varied. Stray Dog, Yojimbo, and Red Beard represent a wide spread of his career both stylistically and chronologically. All three films’ screenplays were written, at least in part, by Kurosawa; Toshiro Mifune stars in all three; they all deal with concepts of the make up of moral character, self sacrifice, and the reasons for and the consequences of our actions.
Stray Dog, released in 1949, is a crime drama set in post WWII Tokyo. It is the one of these three movies that actually takes place in the period that it was filmed. The film was heavily influenced by its times. Issues such as rationing, poverty, the declining value of currency, and the creeping influence of western culture on occupied Japan, are all touched upon.
Yojimbo, while not as well known as Rashomon or The Seven Samurai, is an often copied film. It comes at the height of Kurosawa’s career and displays a perfect balance of scriptwriting and film directing. Released in 1961, it is the quintessential samurai film, set in 1860, just after the collapse of Japans’ feudal system.
Red Beard, released in 1965, is a medical drama that takes place near the end of Japan’s Tokugawa period.
Stray Dog’s story is based on an actual event. Rookie Police detective Murakami’s (Toshiro Mifune) gun is stolen from him on a crowded bus. The story progresses as Murakami tries to track down his lost weapon. At first he seems concerned for the consequences on his future as a police officer. But we soon see a growing obsession, and guilty conscience, in Murakami, as he realizes his gun is being used in a one man crime spree.
Murakami enlists the aid of the older more experienced officer, Sato, played by Takashi Shimura, in his quest. Sato uses his calm patience and knowledge of the streets that come from experience to temper the impulsive and angry Murakami, along the way.
This is a plot device that Kurosawa will use many times in the future: a mature, sometimes fatherly, character dispensing knowledge and wisdom to a younger pupil (and the audience) through the course of the film. Interestingly, Mifune’s roles will transform from that of student to teacher over the course of his career, yet Kurosawa will keep the focus on him.
This plot device is often abused by American film makers, most notably in the “buddy cop” genre. Stray Dog contains many of the elements that would become a staple of noir films; crime, the motivations of the characters, manipulative women, and even a brief examination of the effects of the war on the characters. Noticeable differences from noir include a majority of well lit day shots, characters who aren’t duplicitous, and a less fatalistic view of the human condition.
In Yojimbo Mifune plays the original “man with no name” character. The name he gives, “Sanjuro Kuwabatake,” is obviously false and when questioned, he tersely replies, “I’m nobody anyway.” He is never referred to by name again in the film.
He is a mysterious figure, introduced to us with his back to the camera, a wandering samurai, who by chance finds himself in a small village that’s being torn apart by two warring criminal gangs. He hires himself out to one side, quits and then joins the other, only to quit again and wait as the two sides begin to compete for his services. His actions nearly cost him his life, but they also cause the eventual destruction of the rival gangs.
Samurai films are Japan’s equivalent of the American Western. They are meant to be fun, entertaining action flicks, Kurosawa (and Mifune) obviously have fun with this film. But the story is also infused with morality plays and examines the make up of character.
Sanjuro rests somewhere in the realm between hero and anti-hero. His motivations aren’t always clear. Superficially he pretends it is money, but he is constantly returning his spoils or giving them away. He’s a samurai and presumably likes a good fight, but in the end his actions free the town’s people and he walks off having accomplished his original, unstated goal.
Yojimbo was the uncredited template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Clint Eastwood would be typed as “the man with no name” for years to come. Yojimbo was also remade as Last Man Standing which seemed more focused on violence, relying on overblown gunfights to show Bruce Willis’ manhood and his voice over narration to convince us that he really is a complex character.
Red Beard is a normal length story in an epic movie frame work. At just over three hours, it is slow-paced, and at times tedious. Yasumoto (played by Yuzo Kayama) is a young doctor, forced by circumstance to work in a free clinic for the poor run by a stern sage-like doctor known as “Red Beard” played by Mifune. This role completes Mifune’s transition from playing the student to master in Kurosawa films.
Naturally Yasumoto believes the clinic to be beneath him and his talents and sets out to create trouble in order to be fired by Red Beard. Of course this doesn’t happen, and a series of events conspire to change Yasumoto’s heart and his view of life. In the end he announces at his own wedding that he will be turning down his dream job of being a shogun doctor to stay on at the clinic.
The series of events starts off as strung-together short stories that run the risk of seaming like filler, even though a movie this long needs no filler. Eventually the movie begins to take appropriate focus of Yasumoto’s experiences with Red Beard at the clinic. Its early tangents (some of which are never resolved) give way to a more coherent narrative.
In the films only action sequence, a gang of men attempt to prevent Red Beard from taking a sick girl away from her abusive foster mother. Mifune rips into the gang, one at a time in true martial arts fashion, snapping arms and legs like twigs. This bone crunching sequence is apparently the basis for Steven Segal’s entire career.
Kurosawa’s style became more refined, as he perfected his art, over the course of his career. His visual techniques slowly change, becoming more controlled, and his characters change from idealistic heroes to more wise and tragic (sometimes jaded) figures.
I feel it is telling that Kurosawa ends his autobiography at the time Rashomon was released in 1950. Written in 1981, it leaves 31 years off the page. In 1971 he attempted suicide. It is not unusual for Japanese artists to commit suicide after a long career, when perceived talent begins to fade.
Kurosawa’s survival represents a rebirth of the artist, and many elements of his filmmaking and life change. He also starts using color film, and stops using Toshiro Mifune as his lead. Up to this point, Kurosawa, and Mifune had been an actor-director combination as common in Japan as many American combinations like John Ford and John Wayne, or Woody Allen and Woody Allen.
His unwavering view of humanity is accompanied by a consistent use of the powerful forces of Mother Nature as a story-telling device. Kurosawa uses them purposefully and with great meaning, to accentuate what are deeply human stories.
The main element of nature that Stray Dog uses is heat. We are constantly reminded of it; in every scene some sweat drenched character is fanning himself. Characters talk of it often and wonder when it will end. In one shot the camera points up through an awning at the sun, and the viewer can almost feel its heat coming off of the screen.
Kurosawa’s portrayal of the heat does seem a little over done; I attribute this to his relative inexperience at the time and the difficulty of portraying heat visually. The story which could have been set in December, takes place in July. The reason for this is the subtext of heat. It stands as metaphor for Murakami’s sense of helplessness and frustration as he is constantly one step behind on the path of destruction his stolen pistol is causing. In the climatic scene, Murakami faces down the killer, and retrieves his gun, and there is no evidence of the heat.
The other element we see used in Stray Dog is rain. Kurosawa rain storms have a character all their own and are hardly ever central to the text of the story. They are visually deliberate and usually appear just before the climax of the story. Rain doesn’t normally register on film and special techniques are often employed so we can see it. Kurosawa goes one step further; his rainstorms are torrents, downpours that evoke images of Noah feverishly building his ark.
In Stray Dog the rain everyone is hoping for comes as Murakami questions the killer’s selfish and defiant girlfriend, at the same time Sato closes in on the killer. The tension builds, and rain keeps temporal continuity as Kurosawa crosscuts between the two scenes of Sato and Murakami. Sato finds the killer and calls for back up, but is shot before Murakami can arrive. The rain is used as metaphor for the rising crises in the story. Rather than providing the relief everyone needs, it brings disaster.
Wind is also used in the film, briefly. Early on Murakami desperately pursues the pickpocket who stole his gun, and he comes to a crossroads not knowing which way the thief has gone. The wind kicks up, blowing his clothes and stirring up dust from the streets. His fateful decision, on which way to go, symbolically blows in the wind.
Yojimbo uses the element of wind significantly more than Stray Dog does. While it is not as pervasive as the heat, Kurosawa has progressed to a point in this film where he can use his techniques more judiciously. It is used for kinetic effect. In long shots it is sometimes the only movement that can be seen. It whips about furiously carrying dust and leaves. It blows before battles, and is at its heaviest when a particularly evil character is introduced to the story; though I don’t feel that it specifically represents evil.
The wind accompanies Sanjuro whenever he’s outside. It is his only ally when impossibly outnumbered. It becomes his sparing partner as he hides in a hut in the woods after nearly being killed; the wind carries a single leaf around in circles. He target practices, throwing his dagger at the leaf, sticking it to the floor every time. Wind is symbolic of turmoil and conflict. Its chaotic visual effect parallels the chaos present in the town. It is representative of Sanjuro’s character; he is mostly a hero, but still conflicted.
Kurosawa uses rain differently in Yojimbo. Instead of a climax, the rain comes during an uneasy yet relatively tranquil moment. An official of the government has come to town and a false peace has settled in. The rain pours down as Ushitora, one of the warlords, pays “Sanjuro” a visit. He lets slip that he had an official in another town murdered, and that this one will be leaving to go investigate. He offers “Sanjuro” 30 gold ryo to join his side. The rain, while outwardly calming, symbolizes treachery, and evil; the conflict is about to start again.
Red Beard is the one movie where the element of rain rises from subtext to become a catalyst in the story. A patient, named Sahachi, lies dying in his house. The torrent outside triggers a mudslide and the mourners, who are gathered round, rush out to see what has happened. They discover a skeleton in the debris. It is this event that causes the dying Sahachi to tell his secrets and clear his conscience before he dies, for the mudslide has turned up the skeleton of his long dead wife.
Within this subplot an earthquake and fire occur, and we see the wind once again, as heavy smoke and dust blow through the shots blocking out the sun. The earthquake serves as the excuse for the wife to disappear. When she is discovered two years later carrying another man’s baby, her solution is to kill herself while in her former husband’s embrace. At key points in this subplot, the wind is represented by the sound of wind chimes. The tinkling of a lone wind chime signifies Sahachi’s death.
The element of snow is also used as text in Red Beard. As Yasumoto lies desperately ill from fever, his nurse goes to the window and collects the snow to cool his forehead. But mostly it is left to represent tranquility and the goodness of humankind. At the end of the film a gentle snow falls outside as Yasumoto, his conflict with Red Beard over, makes his selfless announcement to stay on at the clinic, subjecting himself to be poor but at the same time do something good for the world.
In the noir genre Stray Dog serves as a footnote. Its significance lies in its portrayal of life in post World War II Tokyo. Red Beard serves as a testament to beautiful imagery and photography that was the hallmark of Kurosawa’s work. Of these three films, Yojimbo is by far the most significant and influential.
Kurosawa was a major innovator, not only in Japanese cinema; his work carried over to influence directors all over the world and can be seen in the works of directors as diverse as Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino.
His greatest strength may have also been his biggest weakness. Kurosawa was known as a perfectionist, and this often caused problems, alienating crew members, causing overruns in production, and resulting in clashes with producers, but this eye towards perfection can be clearly seen in his films.
The gritty rough edges in Stray Dog all but disappear in his later work. Sometimes, it’s the rough edges that make a film a more tangible story to an audience rather than a lofty art piece. For me his success in the visual portrayal of his stories far outweigh the need for gritty realism.
Kurosawa’s film career spanned nearly 50 years. He directed 31 films, and wrote dozens of screenplays. He earned over a dozen major awards for his work, including an honorary Oscar in 1990. Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998.