Cinema Revisited: Akira Kurosawa, Japan’s greatest film director?

Still image from Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

The Emperor Kurosawa

It’s the Asian cinema issue here at the TFS, and you don’t talk about Asian cinema without talking about Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Or rather, you don’t talk about cinema (and you certainly don’t revisit classic cinema) without talking about Akira Kurosawa. It turns out that the “Asian cinema” part is a little more complicated than I might have thought.

Undeniably, over the course of his 57 year career, Kurosawa proved himself to be a master filmmaker. The list of his best films – Stray Dog, Yojimbo, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Ran, Throne of Blood – is longer than than the entire body of work of other lesser film legends.

Every cinematic heavy hitter to shout “Action!” in Hollywood has praised, acknowledged or worked with Kurosawa, up to and including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Robert Altman. Martin Scorsese even took a cameo turn as a one-eared Vincent Van Gogh in Kurosawa’s Dreams (no, seriously, check it out).

Akira Kurosawa is one of history’s greatest film directors. Akira Kurosawa is Japanese. Ergo, he must Japan’s greatest film director, yes? Not so fast.

How Japanese is Japanese enough?

Akira Kurosawa was born in Japan in 1910. He grew up in Japan, spent his entire adult life in Japan and eventually died in Japan in 1998. He did the bulk of his filmmaking in Japan, minus a notable epic-fail detour to Hollywood to co-direct Tora! Tora! Tora! His production crews were Japanese and the cast of his films were Japanese. That seems to add up to being pretty damn Japanese.

However… despite the critical acclaim, the global awards, and the full embrace from the West that considers Kurosawa as a paragon of Asian filmmaking, his standing within the matrix of Japanese filmmaking is more problematic. In short, Japanese audiences, critics, and scholars often level the criticism of “pandering.” The argument is simple – if Western audiences like Kurosawa so damn much, he must have been pandering to them.

Some other cultural distinctions come into play on the anti-Kurosawa front. For one, Japan views his celebration of the individual – individual growth, heroics, and triumphs – as a little suspicious. I don’t want to engage in broad cultural stereotypes here, but the Western reverence of the individual character is not necessarily shared by our Eastern counterparts. Indeed, a second complaint made about Kurosawa by his own countrymen is the charge of arrogance. Hence the origin of the disparaging epithet “Kurosawa Tennō” (“The Emperor Kurosawa”).

Kurosawa: Panderer or Cultural Sponge?

Why did Western audiences so thoroughly embrace Kurosawa and (at least in theory) Japanese cinema? Easy – he made all that Japanese-ness accessible to those audiences. Famously, Kurosawa drew from the most popular and iconic film genres. In Yojimbo and Seven Samurai , we find straight up westerns, albeit with samurai instead of cowboys. In Drunken Angel and Stray Dog we find the kind of crime/gangster flick that Western audiences love so much. And One Wonderful Sunday , released one year after It’s a Wonderful Life , is really a Frank Capra film relocated to post-war Japan.

Even more than deploying well-loved genres, Kurosawa drew on a vast pool of source materials. He’s neither Eastern nor Western in his inspirations, but rather he is global. Ran is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear . He adapted several works from Dostoevsky, notably in   The Idiot . Stray Dog is based on a Kurosawa’s own unpublished novel, written in the style of his favorite novelist, the French crime writer Georges Simenon. Obviously, Kurosawa’s imagination did not observe borders.

The only question left for me is how much cultural weight did Kurosawa’s samurai cowboys carry in his own culture? I know how they read as gunslingers, but I can’t gauge how they read in the historical context of Japan.

Rashomon , My Friends

I’m revisiting Kurosawa, right? And any excuse, no matter how flimsy, is a good excuse to slip away on a weekday afternoon to watch Rashomon . If you haven’t seen it, here’s the gist: a samurai, his wife and a bandit meet in the woods one afternoon and the samurai dies. The exact nature of that meeting and that death are the subject of Rashomon and those details are never actually established.

Rashomon is 88 minutes of gloriously beautiful cinematography and stubbornly ambiguous storytelling. We see the incident in question replayed from the point of view of the samurai, the wife, the bandit and a handful of witnesses. Each version is incomplete, inconclusive, and wildly different. As a stand-ins for judge and jury, the camera and the viewer are left to examine the fuzzy edges of the accounts, the points where the differing accounts appear to overlap and where they diverge.

And I wonder – is Rashomon a perfect metaphor for Kurosawa and his perceived place in the pantheon of great Asian film directors? Is it possible that I will see it one way and a Japanese film critic will see it an entirely different way? Can we both be right and both be wrong at the same time? Do I have to admit that even though I know Kurosawa’s work and admire it so deeply, I still don’t know jack about “Asian cinema”?

In The Janus Films Director Introduction Series, Robert Altman waxes poetic on Rashomon and mentions, offhandedly, that Japanese viewers will probably read the fight scenes between the samurai and the bandit in a different way than he does. He’s pretty cavalier about this fact. He doesn’t care. He takes what he takes from Rashomon . His Japanese counterpart takes what he takes. It’s all good to Robert Altman. Rashomon spoke to him, meant a lot to him, provided inspiration for him. Well played, Altman.

Asian cinema, Canadian cinema, Slovakian cinema – who cares?

It’s all cinema, stupid. Film is made by people with specific cultural baggage. It’s produced physically in a place. It may be socially motivated. But in the end, it’s cinema and it’s universal. When I read translated literature I always harbor a fear that I’m missing something. But I when I watch a “foreign” film, I know what I’m seeing. It’s a visual language and my eyeballs work the same way as your average Slovak’s do.

I have no idea how Kurosawa ranks in the hierarchy of Japanese directors, mostly because I’m not so familiar with other Japanese directors. Ozu, Naruse, Suzuki, and Okamoto – to name a few – are all on my must watch list. Someday, someday. Also, I have no idea what (if anything?) his recasting of Japanese cultural touchstones like the samurai meant to Japanese culture at large, especially during Japan’s own post-war cultural flux.

What I do know about Akira Kurosawa is this: He’s a brilliant film director. He is visually and narratively inventive; he is wide ranging; he is fearless in confronting less than pleasant realities. Watching a Kurosawa film is always rewarding. And, all else being equal, Kurosawa managed to take a thing that seemed very Japanese on the face of it and invite everyone inside for a look around. To take the specific and transmogrify it into the universal is the highest of cinematic achievements. The Emperor is dead, long live the Emperor.


Brandy Dean is the owner of the digital marketing consultancy Pretty Clever Things and the editor, writer, and janitorial staff for the film blog Pretty Clever Films. She likes dogs, poutine, silent movies, and hockey, not necessarily in that order.

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