Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明
Akira Kurosawa was born in 1910 in what is now the Higashi Oi district of Shinagawa ward, Tokyo, the youngest of eight children of a family of samurai lineage. By age 23 his three brothers and one of his sisters had died, leaving him as the only son. His father was a school principal who firmly believed in the educational benefits of films, and regularly took his family to see them.
The young Akira Kurosawa had an interest in and a talent for drawing, and originally wished to become an artist. However, at age 26, due in some degree to financial considerations, he successfully applied for a place on an apprenticeship program for film directors offered by Photo Chemical Laboratories (PCL) later to become Toho Studios, where he devoted himself first and foremost to script writing. This was in 1936 during wartime.
Having been disqualified for military service in a physical examination, Kurosawa continued with film making. His first films, beginning with Judo Saga (Sanshiro Sugata) in 1943, were made under the scrutiny of the military government and therefore often quite nationalistic, not to mention maudlin and, while popular at the time, generally unremarkable.
He married the actress Yoko Yaguchi in 1945. They went on to have a son, Hisao, and a daughter, Kazuko.
Path to Success
Kurosawa went on to direct a total of 25 more films before his last, Not Yet (Madadayo) in 1993. The first film to attract worldwide recognition was Rashomon (1950), which won the Golden Lion Award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival as well as a Special Oscar. As with several of his films, it was remade in the United States for foreign consumption. He followed with The Idiot (Hakuchi) (1951) taken from Dostoevsky's eponymous novel, but it was Seven Samurai (1954) that proved to be his next masterpiece.
The Obsessive Perfectionist
Kurosawa was a perfectionist, and dictatorial in style. He was legendary for being extremely exacting, some of his requirements bordering on the unreasonable. Notable examples include insisting that the roof be removed of a house that appeared briefly in a scene filmed from a train, getting archers to shoot real arrows at (or actually, just missing) the hero of Throne of Blood (1957) (a film based on Shakespeare's Macbeth), dyeing the water used for rain in the film Rashomon black to give it a heavier look, and getting actors to wear their costumes in everyday life weeks before shooting.
He was as equally as hard on himself as he was on others, however, slashing his neck and arms in a suicide attempt when his first color film Dodesukaden (1970) was badly received.
Kurosawa was by no means a steady favorite as a director within Japan. He had his heyday between about 1950 and 1965. However, in spite of what are now the obvious influences of Japanese culture on his film making, he was criticized for being too Western, for being a maverick, and too free with his budget.
Therefore, for his films, Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), he was forced to seek funding abroad - in these cases the Soviet Union and the United States respectively. It was the backing he received for Kagemusha from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola that propelled Kurosawa into producing his next great milestone movie, Ran (乱 "Rebellion") (1985) which came out in the same year that his wife Yoko died. Ran was a grandiose adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear (with music by the noted composer Toru Takemitsu). Ran was Japan's most expensive movie ever at the time, and took over five years to make. After this, the tone of his films became more subdued and quietly philosophical.
The Kurosawa Approach
Kurosawa's approach to the making of each of his films was diverse. Fellow movie director Ingmar Bergman emphasized the dissimilarities between them by saying that "Kurosawa never made a Kurosawa film" - a comment on how difficult his style was to epitomize. One theme that can be identified, however, is the importance in Kurosawa's films of the weather - picked up on by another director - one with a great influence on Kurosawa, John Ford, who said upon meeting him "You like rain!" Kurosawa is said to have responded with, "You've really watched my movies."
Both Kurosawa's children followed him into the movie industry. His son, Hisao Kurosawa, is also a movie director, and helped his father as a production coordinator for Ran. His daughter, Kazuko Kurosawa, is a film costume designer.
Kurosawa died in 1998 at age 88, and is buried in Anyo-in temple in Kamakura.