Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa

Introduction

            Akira Kurosawa, a man who would have turned one hundred years old in September 1998, will always be considered as one of the influential moviemakers in cinema history. In his entire filmmaking career that spanned fifty seven years, he made and directed thirty one movies earning him the Lifetime Achievement Oscar Award for his efforts in 1989. Among his many other awards is a 1975 Best Foreign Film Oscar for the movie Dersu Uzala and a Moscow gold medal for the same movie. His muscular storytelling and moral curiosity were quite influential in the film making industry. Some of his memorable trademarks include the wipe effect in the fading transition between scenes which was later used in making the Star Wars trilogy. He was also famous for his use of weather, for instance rain or heavy wind, to amplify mood.

In his entire career, beginning with his first movie in 1943, Akira Kurosawa left many of his audiences in the West entertained and informed about the Japanese culture. He has been hailed as a timeless inspiration to many of the modern day Hollywood film directors. Phenomenal Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas have named Akira Kurosawa as having greatly influenced them in their careers. This paper discusses the relevance of Akira Kurosawa’s life and filmmaking career as well as some of his works to the Japanese culture and civilization.

His Early Life

            Akira Kurosawa was born in Oimachi near Tokyo on March 23 1910. His father was known as Isamu Kurosawa who belonged to the Samurai family of the Aikita Prefecture (Galbraith 14). His mother was from a merchant family in Osaka. Akira was the eighth child in the moderately well to do family. He grew up with three sisters and one brother after his elder siblings left home. His father was a director at the Physical Education Institute of the Army (Galbraith 15).

The senior Kurosawa was a man who understood the value of theatre and motion pictures as an educational medium and viewed Western traditions with an open mind. He raised his children with the same principles which significantly influenced young Akira in his love for education, drawing, and movies. At the age of six, Akira Kurosawa was studying calligraphy and swordsmanship in the kendo discipline (Galbraith 16).

Besides his father, Akira’s older brother Heigo was also a major influence in the young man’s early life. Akira was only thirteen when Heigo took him to view the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto earthquake which is an experience that opened Akira’s eyes to the realities of devastation and dark side of nature. This experience influenced his later artistic work and his career as a movie director (Kurosawa 52). Heigo later went on to become a famous narrator for silent films. At this time Akira had become a painter while living with his brother. He, however, was not able to eke a decent living from his paintings due to his philosophical ideals that were not very popular with art collectors. His loss of enthusiasm with art coupled with his brother’s suicide left devastated and he moved back to his parents. In his autobiography, he talks about this phase in his life in a chapter aptly titled “A Story I Don’t Want to Tell” (Kurosawa 84).

He made his entry into the film industry as an inexperienced 25 year old assistant director at Photo Chemical Laboratories studio on February 1936. Photo Chemical Laboratories was later to change its name to Toho. In his five years as an assistant director at Toho, Kurosawa built his knowledge and experience under famous directors like Kajiro Yamamoto whom he worked under in 17 of his 24 movies as assistant director. Most of these movies were comedies in which the leading character was the famous actor Kenichi Enomoto (Galbraith 30). His major tasks included stage construction, film development and other activities like location scouting, lighting and editing among many others. His last film as an assistant director was Horse in 1941 (Cowie 68). Afterwards, Kurosawa took over the production of subsequent movies as a director.

One of the lessons Akira Kurosawa claimed to have learnt from Yamamoto was the importance and value of mastering screenwriting (Kurosawa 103). Writing scripts was more lucrative and paid higher than an assistant director’s salary. This prompted Kurosawa to either write or co-write all the movies he later produced. He even wrote screenplays for many other directors earning him a lucrative income on the side even after he had become famous in the 1960s (Martinez 47).

After releasing Horse in 1941, Akira Kurosawa spent the next two years seeking for a story to launch his career as a director with. This was a time of turmoil as Japan entered the Second World War against the United States. It was also a time when author Tsuneo Tomita published his book Sanshiro Sugata. The book had such a great impact on Kurosawa that he was able to convince Toho to secure its film rights.

In 1942, Kurosawa launched his career as a director with the movie version of Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa 123). His contribution to the movie industry and the effect it had on the promotion of Japanese culture and civilization can be best understood through a detailed analysis of the films he directed. His three significant films are Sanshiro Sugata, Seven Samurai, and Ran.

Sanshiro Sugata

            Sanshiro Sugata, translated as ‘Judo Saga,’ was Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut movie that Toho Studios released on March 25, 1943. It was eventually shown for the first time in the United States in April 1974. The movie was adapted from a book of the same title by Tsuneo Tomita. It depicts the life of Sugata, a young man whose search for mastery of jujitsu lands him in a self-defence discipline called Judo under the tutelage of a master judoka Shiro Saigo. The movie details the emergence of judo in the 19th century Japan. Sugata’s quest to learn is prompted by an incidence where he witnesses a man being bullied by a gang that is adept in the jujitsu fighting style. He eventually learns that before he can master any fighting style, he has to learn to wage a battle against his inner self (IMDB).

The theme of the movie revolves around the education, initiation, and self discovery of Sugata which he does in the process of learning judo. The theme is well depicted in a scene where Sugata leaps into cold water to prove to his master Yano his dedication after being involved in a street fight.

The movie also depicts two overtly religious concepts. The first one is the location of the judo facilities inside a Buddhist temple and the second one being Sayo, the love of Sugata’s heart, offering prayers at a Shinto shrine. It shows the Buddhist monk who lives in the temple as Sugata’s voice of wisdom who translates the leading character’s experiences into words. It is the monk who directs Sugata in his journey towards self-discovery. The monk’s words provide a connection between Sugata and Sayo and consequently between the two religions namely Buddhism and Shintoism (Chris).

The movie Sanshiro Sugata shows Kurosawa’s mastery of the process of making movies and depicts some of his trademark techniques like the use of wipes, camera speeds, and weather in reflecting character moods. The movie was such a great success that it has been remade five times. Its sequel Sanshiro Sugata Part II released in 1945 was also directed by Kurosawa.

In making the movie, Kurosawa was able to depict the importance of martial arts, which is a trademark of Japanese culture, as a discipline that went beyond mere fighting to mastery of the self and conquest of self-doubts and limitations. In the movie, Kurosawa was also able to show the interconnectedness between the two dominant religions in Japan namely Buddhism and Shin.............


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