Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers, and in fact, one of the most acclaimed directors to have ever done it. In a career spanning over fifty years, he directed 31 feature films. Their influence cannot be understated and compiling a list of his best works is a hard task as there are so many incredible films to chose from. Most filmmakers never make a masterpiece during their lifetime. Some are lucky enough to make one or two but Kurosawa is one of the very select few who accomplished making many. His filmography is littered with magnificent movies and even his lesser works are better than most others would be able to deliver on their best days.
Kurosawa is the director that also really opened up the eyes of the West to Japanese cinema when Rashomon was entered at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and proceeded to win the festival's highest award, The Golden Lion. This breakthrough opened the floodgates as soon the films of Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirō Ozu all received high critical praise and even commercial success in Europe and the United States. Below you'll find ten of the Japanese master's essential works. It should also be noted that eight of these titles star Toshiro Mifune, Japan's most renowned actor. The director and actor made a grand total of 16 films together from 1948 till 1965, which was without a doubt the most fruitful period in the career of both men and arguably constituted the greatest director-actor collaboration in the history of cinema.
Red Beard (1965)
The last film that Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune made together is the first entry on this list. Ironically, it was the beard referred to in the title of the movie, that ultimately caused the greatest director-actor partnership in the history of film to come to an an end. Production of the movie took two years and for most of that time Mifune was forced to keep his natural beard, which made it virtually impossible for him to do other work. This was the straw that broke the camels back, as the relationship between the two men had already been strained, and the two never worked together again. Red Beard also was Kurosawa's last film to be shot in black and white and one of his most restrained films to star Mifune. The story of a young doctor who interns at the clinic of the much older and established Dr. Niide (Mifune) does away with much of the director's famed visual style in order to present a far more stark and intimate portrait of a master-student relationship. Like most of Kurosawa's films, Red Beard's storyline is firmly planted in the director's favorite themes of humanism and existentialism. Not as well known as his other period pieces, Red Beard is a beautiful film, which should be seen by all serious cinema aficionados.
Stray Dog (1949)
Probably unbeknown to those who are not very familiar with Kurosawa's work, the director made plenty of films which were not set in samurai times and with Stray Dog he delivered a classic Japanese entry in the film noir genre. The film deals with a novice detective whose gun is pick pocketed on a busy tram and who spends the rest of the movie trying to get it back, especially after it turns out the firearm has been used in various crimes. And even though I'm not sure of this, it might be the first film to deal with a police officer losing his gun, a subject which almost constitutes its own mini-genre nowadays. The film also pre-empts later buddy cop movies, as Mifune teams up with the older and more experienced Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular. Stray Dog was the third movie Mifune and Shimura did together for Kurosawa and there would be many more in the years to come. Pay special attention to the eight minute sequence without dialogue in which Mifune walks through Tokyo and its underbelly in search for his gun. It's one of the film's many highlights. A must-see for Kurosawa and film noir fans alike.
Throne of Blood (1957)
The first of three films adapted from or inspired by the works by William Shakespeare by Kurosawa (which all made it onto this list and are usually ranked amongst the best adaptations of the famed playwright ever), Throne of Blood is one of the director's most visually impressive films. Shot in stark black and white, employing harsh editing and containing various strong visual motifs based around atmospheric conditions, the film is a visual delight. Most scenes in the forest are steeped in fog and both wind and rain are prevalent throughout the movie. It's also the only film by Kurosawa to contain a strong supernatural element and the film has an underlying creepy atmosphere, unlike any other of the director's samurai period pieces. As usual, Toshiro Mifune gives a towering and compelling performance as the warlord whose quest for power spirals out of control and ultimately leads to his downfall. Mifune's death scene in which his own archers turn on him is simply magnificent. Part of the reason being that the entire scene was filmed with actual arrows being fired at Mifune, who would wave his arms in the direction he was planning to move and whose expressions of fear are the real deal. One of cinema's iconic death scenes and a grand finale to a brilliant film.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
The second film to have its roots in Shakespeare, The Bad Sleep Well, is not so much an adaptation as a film inspired by Hamlet. Set in postwar corporate Japan, the film tells the story of Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), who has worked his way into a corporation and is marrying the disabled daughter of a high executive in order to avenge his father's death, who committed suicide years earlier to halt an investigation into corruption within the company. A harsh critique of the lack of morals in corporate culture and the outdated feudalistic power structure still present in its structure, The Bad Sleep Well is another starkly shot black and white film and a harsh indictment of the power hungry. Whilst Kurosawa's films which are not set in feudal times and dealing with samurai aren't as well known to the general public, they are equally remarkable pieces of work with equally humanistic themes, in which Kurosawa clearly displays his concern and affection for the poor and oppressed in society. A brilliant accusation of corporate greed and social injustice, the film is as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago.
High and Low (1963)
Based on the American crime novel King's Ransom: An 87th Precinct Mystery by Ed McBain, High and Low is another crime drama set in modern times with some film noir influences. The film tells the story of wealthy industrialist and shoe manufacturer Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) whose son has been kidnapped for a large ransom, which will send him into bankruptcy if he agrees to pay it. The twist however is that soon after he decides to gather the money it becomes apparent that the kidnappers have made a mistake and have taken the son of his chauffeur instead, leaving Gondo with the moral dilemma on whether he is still willing to pay the large sum. The film can roughly be divided in two parts, with the first hour taking place solely in Gondo's apartment but once the second part starts, in which the movie moves out into the streets of Tokyo, the film really takes off. Pay close attention to the magnificent and mildly surreal scenes in the alleys of the underbelly of Tokyo where junkies roam the streets like a bunch of zombies from the original Night of the Living Dead. A suspenseful and gritty police procedural with another intense and compelling performance by Mifune.
One of Kurosawa's most influential and imitated works, Yojimbo is probably the first undisputed masterpiece on this list (in fact, the whole top five is really sort of a tie). The film is also one of the lightest entries on this list, or even in Kurosawa's entire filmography, and was so popular that the director made a sequel called Sanjuro the following year (which also deserved a spot on this list but was omitted as I had to stick to a top ten). The film is an action packed adventure with a healthy dose of black humor and succeeds on all levels. From its impeccable direction, masterful cinematography, fantastic lead performance by Toshiro Mifune and the iconic slightly surreal opening sequence in which Mifune encounters a dog carrying a severed hand as he rides into town, the entire film is pure cinematic bliss. Yojimbo was remade twice in the West, most famously (and unauthorized) as the first of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, A Fistful of Dollars, and much later as Last Man Standing by Walter Hill, set in prohibition-era Texas. Needless to say, the remakes don't come close to Kurosawa's original, which towers over them.
Rashomon is the film that caused both Akira Kurosawa as well as Japanese cinema as a whole to breakthrough in the West when it won the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Whilst the film's fragmented flashback structure, in which the same story is told multiple times from different perspectives, might seem like old news now, it was revolutionary at the time of the film's release. Apart from its now infamous plot device, the film is also a typical Kurosawa-like exploration of the human condition, in which all characters present self-serving versions of the same story but where faith in humanity ultimately still prevails. Whilst the film was a huge success in the West, it failed to get much critical acclaim in Japan itself, a situation which would be repeated many times throughout Kurosawa's lengthy career. It should also be noted that Rashomon was another one of Kurosawa's films which has been remade twice in the West, once for television by Sydney Lumet and once as The Outrage by Martin Ritt.
Ran is without a doubt Kurosawa's late career masterpiece and his magnum opus when it comes to sheer grandeur and magnitude. Another of Kurosawa's samurai films based on one of the works of Shakespeare, Ran is a reinterpretation of King Lear mixed legends of the legendary Japanese warlord Mōri Motonari. With a budget of 12 million dollars, Ran was the most expensive Japanese production up until that time but from the look of the film it's a miracle it didn't cost a whole lot more. Every dollar is on screen in this two hours and forty minute epic, as large armies do battle and castles get burned to the ground. The film is filled with striking imagery and is especially noteworthy for its amazing use of color. Rarely have battle scenes been brought to life with such beauty as well as pure horror. Ran is definitely Kurasawa's last true masterpiece and a film which is unparalleled in scope within its genre. Special mention should also go out to veteran Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who gives a career best performance as the warlord who sees his kingdom come apart at the seams.
The only Kurosawa film between 1948 and 1965 not to feature Toshiro Mifune, Ikiru is a stunningly meditative and quietly humanistic drama starring that other Kurosawa regular and Japanese great, Takashi Shimura. The story of a bureaucrat in Tokyo, who has spent thirty years of his life in a small office and is told he has no more than a year to live when he's diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, is possibly the purest example of Kurosawa's re-occurring existentialist and humanistic themes. As the man searches for meaning in his last year on earth, the viewer is taken on an beautiful journey, which ultimately leads one to ponder one's own purpose in life. Centered around a staggering performance by Shimura, Ikiru is one of Kurosawa's most intimate yet grandest films.
Seven Samurai (1954)
What can one possibly write about a movie like Seven Samurai? Considered one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, the film is possibly the most famous Japanese film of all time in the West and the third consecutive masterpiece Kurosawa directed between 1950 and 1954. The story of a bunch of poor villagers hiring seven samurai to protect them from a superior force of marauding bandits has been imitated endlessly and has virtually turned into its own genre of films. The film was remade most famously as the western The Magnificent Seven but Pixar's A Bug's Life and Roger Corman's Battle Beyond The Stars are other noteworthy examples.
The movie was Kurosawa's first real samurai film, a genre he would become synonymous with, and one of the most expensive and greatest productions undertaken in Japan at the time. The film went severely over budget and the studio closed down production at least twice, but once the final product was eventually released it turned out to be Japan's biggest box-office success ever.
Featuring visceral battle scenes, a magnificent screenplay, great sets and costumes rich in period detail, a talented ensemble cast and perhaps one of Mifune's greatest acting achievements, The Seven Samurai is a towering achievement in world cinema and the crowning masterpiece amongst the many of Kurosawa's incredible directing career.
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