My ratings of his movies:
1. Throne of Blood (1957) – 10/10
2. Seven Samurai (1954) – 10/10
3. Red Beard (1965) – 10/10
4. Ikiru (1952) – 10/10
5. High and Low (1963) – 10/10
6. Ran (1985) – 10/10
7. Stray Dog (1949) – 9/10
8. Kagemusha (1980) – 9/10
9. Rashomon (1950) – 8/10
10. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) – 8/10
11. Yojimbo (1961) – 8/10
12. Sanjuro (1962) – 8/10
13. Drunken Angel (1948) – 7/10
14. Sanshiro Sugata (1943) - 7/10
15. Dreams (1990) – 6/10
16. The Hidden Fortress (1958) – 5/10
Akira Kurosawa's career ran from his first feature, 1943's Sanshiro Sugata until 1993's Madadayo. In his 50 year career, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for 1985's Ran, while his movies were nominated four times for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (winning twice), and was granted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1990.
He also loved Shakespeare, though called him "too wordy", and adapted the Bard's work into movies like Throne of Blood (an adaptation of MacBeth), The Bad Sleep Well (a very loose version of Hamlet), and Ran (his take on King Lear). All are some of the best takes on Shakespeare's work that the movies have ever given us, and I'd even argue that Throne of Blood is the best Shakespeare movie period. In both Ran and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa shifted the action to his favorite time period, feudal Japan, the time of the samurai. Ran has some of the most beautiful battle scenes ever filmed, while Throne of Blood keeps the creepy foreboding spirits from MacBeth, both movies seamlessly transitioning into the change of setting.
Most of all, I think I love Kurosawa’s mastery of narrative. Even in a 3.5 hour movie like Seven Samurai, he’s paced it in such a way that there’s not a wasted moment, and it all builds towards the climax of the picture. Either through building the characters or advancing the story, Kurosawa is always telling us something. Sometimes he intrigues us simply with the plot, such as in High and Low, where a powerful young executive is told his son has been kidnapped and he must pay the ransom (which will essentially bankrupt him and have him lose everything he's worked his whole life for), only to find out that the kidnappers didn't take his son, but the son of his driver. There's an amazingly powerful shot of the eyes of both fathers meeting, unsure of how this changes things. Is the driver's son worth less than his own? Are our lives worth the same? What does the executive do? It's probably Kurosawa's most emotionally and morally complex movie, and also a terrific crime drama. It was not adapted from Shakespeare or even Dostoyevsky (whose The Idiot Kurosawa adapted as well), but from pulp American crime writer Ed McBain. Kurosawa took influence from everywhere all over the world.
Actually, in Japan, though successful (Seven Samurai was the all-time box office king in Japan for a long time), he was often dismissed as "too western", as John Ford was his favorite filmmaker and he loved the westerns popular in America at the time. Really, when you look at it, Kurosawa's samurai films are not really any different than Ford's (and others') westerns, just samurai instead of cowboys. His movies have even been adapted into westerns. The Magnificent 7? Just a remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai translated from feudal Japan into the American west. Rashomon was also remade into a western called The Outrage, with Paul Newman. And, maybe most famously, Sergio Leone took Kurosawa's Yojimbo and turned it into A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. Eastwood has even said that he took the role because he loved Kurosawa's movie so much and was then told not to tell anyone that they were remaking Yojimbo because they weren't giving Kurosawa credit and legal issues would ensue.
Kurosawa was long associated with his two favorite actors, Takashi Shimura and (more famously) Toshiro Mifune. Shimura acted in 21 of Kurosawa's movies, more than any other actor, and gives one of the great performances of all time in Ikiru, the story of a man who finds out he has terminal cancer and resolves himself to do something worthwhile with the small time he has left, deciding to help build a playground for children on a hotly contested piece of real estate. Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa's movies, always in a lead or co-lead role. It led to Mifune becoming an international icon and the biggest star in Asia at the time. John Belushi created his classic SNL Samurai character based on his love of Mifune's movies. Mifune gave many powerful performances during his time with Kurosawa, the gruff but loving doctor in Red Beard being my favorite. Although if you'd told me that his work in High and Low or Yojimbo or even Seven Samurai was better, I wouldn't argue much. Mifune later said that despite having nearly 200 acting credits on his resume, he wasn't proud of much of the work he'd done, except for everything he did with Kurosawa.
Kurosawa's framing is astounding as well, showing his background as a painter. Unlike other directors who often sketch their storyboards with stick figures, Kurosawa painted his. Here are some examples, alongside their eventual movie counterpart:
There are so many images from Kurosawa movies stamped into the heads of cinema fans, whether it’s the arrow through the neck in Throne of Blood, the remaining samurai looking at the graves of the fallen in Seven Samurai, or, my favorite, the ending shot in Ikiru, of the man on the swing. Even in lesser movies like Dreams (where those last two painting versus real shot examples came from), an anthology film based on Kurosawa's own dreams, I have many images stuck in my head like the dead soldiers coming out of the tunnel, the snow mountain, or the demon on the fiery mountain.
Hugely influential to filmmakers in his own time and now, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have referred to themselves as "Kurosawa's children", and in the late 70's when Kurosawa was having trouble finding funding for his work, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola added their names as Executive Producers and got the funding secured so that Kurosawa could make 1980's Kagemusha.
Kurosawa died in 1998, at age 88. When writing of his death, famed film critic Roger Ebert said "Of the postwar giants who redefined the art of the cinema, what other director, save perhaps Sweden's Ingmar Bergman, could claim so many masterpieces? The titles are like a roll-call of greatness...He combined two qualities not always found together in filmmakers: He was a visual stylist, and a thoughtful humanist. His films had a daring, exhilarating visual freedom, and a heart of deep human understanding. He often made movies about heroes, but their challenge was not simply to win; it was to make the right ethical choice."
He is a certifiable cinematic legend, my favorite filmmaker, and I hope to have shed some light on him for you whether you're new to his work or a seasoned viewer like myself.