akira kurosawa

Classic Bit Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954), which is one of Kurosawa’s most recognisable films, and was a success in Japan and the West too as Seven Samurai made more money than any other film that year and won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Kurosawa could finally make jidaigeki films with no barriers, and he began to have more freedom to make a variety of genre films that he couldn’t during the War and during the Occupation. The film follows seven rōnin as they defend a poor village from a group of bandits. His post-Occupation films no longer had direct American influence, as he went back to samurai films that reflected Japanese’s past whilst still making a critical statement about the present. Ironically, his films that he made during this time which reflect a modern, and a past version of Japan, were remade in America. The most noticeable examples were The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which were a remake of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (1961) respectively. The relationship between Japan and the US were strained post-Occupation, as the relationship between the US and Japan during the Occupation seemed to be equal but comments made after the events highlighted how accurate this was. Kurosawa’s films, after the Occupation and until 1965, were Japanese based and chronicled problems in Japanese society and social inequality.

The film of course stars two of Kurosawa’s favourite actors, both Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura as part of the group of rōnin samurais. Ironically, the group of samurai were originally six, but Kurosawa found that the group were boring and needed a wildcard. Therefore, Mifune was recast as Kikuchiyo and was given the freedom to improvise his lines. The raw emotion of the villagers and the pure talent of the cast is admirable. The cast are a brilliant ensemble, but Mifune outshines everyone per usual with both his enigmatic and boyish ways. The film became Japan’s third highest-grossing film of 1954, and the film had stiff competition with films such as Godzilla being released during this time. The charm of the characters, and the brilliance of Kurosawa made the film an event and a landmark in cinema telling the story of a rambunctious group of men who band together to save a village despite the lack of reward.

The Seven Samurai was one of the first films to use the narrative of recruiting a group of heroes to defeat a common goal. Character traits featured in the film were modern, as they featured the reluctant hero in the form of Mifune and the romance between the young local girl and the youngest hero. The score is of course perfect. The lone beat of a drum during tense and decisive moments, such as deciding on what to do about the bandits, and the lone chord of the shamisen emphasises the anxiousness and tense moments. Composed by Fumio Hayasaka, a friend of Kurosawa who passed away during his film I Live in Fear (1955), and the score adds to this work of art. The hopeful music when the villagers are looking for their samurais, and the triumphant encouraging music of brass when the samurai are making their journey.

The sets are a force themselves. Kurosawa refused to shoot at the Toho Studios for most of the exterior scenes, and had a set constructed despite protests. He did this to make the film seem more authentic, and greatly so. The costumes, the acting and the set come together to make it credible and convincing. Kurosawa is the master of editing, he did the editing himself and sometimes even late at night during shooting. What else can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. I unfortunately haven’t had the pleasure to see this film in the cinema or on any screen bigger than forty inches, but even with those limitations I am certain it is one of the greatest films ever made. Sure, The Seven Samurai isn’t my favourite film, or favourite Kurosawa film, but I know a masterpiece when I see one and it is a must see for humans in general. If you have never seen the film, you definitely need to educate yourself and sit down to watch this absolute classic.




Classic Bit Review: Ikiru (1952)

Kurosawa’s first post-Occupation film, Ikiru (1952), was released in October of that year and was a huge hit in Japan both critically and commercially and in the West too. The film follows Takeshi Shimura’s character as he finds out he has a terminal illness and how he deals with it. Ikiru is also called To Live, which highlights the overall theme of the film as it is Shimura learning how to live. The film deals with the problems of bureaucracy and inefficiency of help within a community, the decay of family life and loss of respect for elders.

The film was different to his previous films, as the lead character dies half way through the film and depicts a more contemporary reading of present Japan showing families concerned with wealth and status rather than caring for their elder relatives and giving them respect. Confucianism is a way of life that China embraced, and eventually was embodied by some in Japan. The notion of the central feature of Confucianism, which revolves almost entirely around issues related to the family, morals, and the role of the good ruler. Therefore, respect for elders and family are important within Japan, as Confucianism is very strong in Japan because it affects and was affected by Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Kurosawa emphasises this in Ikiru, as Shimura’s character is the head of his division and yet is mocked and gossiped about as he disappears from work. The disregard for family life is shown in Ikiru, as his son and daughter in law don’t respect him and constantly refer to his retirement money. The film was a success in Japan as it touched upon present day Japanese issues such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). These past ideologies that influenced Japan would have not been able to be depicted in the Occupation, as the past was discouraged and Shintoism and East Asian religions were dissuaded.

The music and the cinematography are outstanding. and the film itself is just beautiful. Shimura stars in his best role I’ve ever seen him in, he has so much dimension as a character varying from the remorseful father to a charitable member of the community. He begins as a bureaucrat whose son, and daughter in law, only want him to retire just to give them money, not respecting or caring about him. His doctors even refuse to tell him the truth, but he soon realises that he is dying. Ironically, it’s only after his diagnosis that he actually begins to enjoy and live his life as he parties with a poet and befriends a young woman. Ikiru both lifts the human spirit whilst crushing it with heartbreaking moments, such as Takashi Shimura singing the song ‘Gondola No Uta’ which makes both the audience and the people around him suddenly sympathetic.

It is my third favourite Kurosawa film, after Drunken Angel being my first and Rashomon being my second, but it’s a film that you cannot live without. There’s not much to say but it is a masterpiece that will start with a sour taste in your mouth and end with restored faith in humanity. All I can say is Shimura is timeless, and underrated as an actor, but this film lifts him up into the lead and shows of his talents as oppose to being overshadowed by Toshiro Mifune in most of his roles. Shimura both lifts the spirits of the audience, whilst simultaneously bringing it down in perfect harmony.

Classic Bit Analysis: The Most Beautiful (1944)

During the Second World War, Kurosawa made indirect propaganda films which promoted ideals for the country to help the war effort. Sanshiro Sugata, Sanshiro Sugata part II (1945) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) are all propaganda but less literal and direct. The use of Sanshiro defeating the American boxer in the sequel acts as a subliminal propaganda tool highlighting that Japan can defeat the Americans, and that they are superior in both spirit and force. However, this wasn’t the only type of propaganda films made by Kurosawa. His second feature was a propaganda film called The Most Beautiful, and it follows a group of female volunteers who work in an optics factory developing and perfecting the scopes on weapons for soldiers. The emphasis on the female workers and the style of film-making resulted with a film that really made the audience and public sympathise with these characters and ultimately boosted moral.

The film opens with on-screen text ‘Attack and Destroy the Enemy’, see figure 8, and directly gives out a message for the audience, specifically Japan. The Most Beautiful is unashamed propaganda; it’s also a film that attempts to lift the spirits of the Japanese people on the Homefront. The simple statement that the film is a ‘movie of the people’ is inclusive, and gives the impression to the everyday person that the movie is for them. Kurosawa’s use of inclusive messages, combined with the documentary style of filmmaking gives the impression that the film is extremely personal. The documentary style features an almost non-existent musical score, and the camera is often close and feels intrusive. The film feels very cinéma vérité, and Kurosawa uses this effect for an audience response. Cinéma vérité is a documentary style which translates from French as truthful cinema, and The Most Beautiful is paraded as such. Kurosawa could’ve used a more polished and glamorous setting for the factory, and made the actresses more primped and preened. Instead, he used a style that closely resembles documentary therefore posing as a factual story of these girls in an optics factory. The truth remains, that these girls are actresses playing fictitious parts but Kurosawa has manipulated the direction to suggest to the audience that these are in fact real and relatable.

The film follows the girls of the optics factory, and their story begins with their director who releases a broadcast to the factory workers. All the workers of the factory are standing in the courtyard in a militaristic style, with their hands straight and their heads high. His message spreads that the quotas for the workers are increasing hundred percent for the men, but only fifty for the women. Naturally, the girls are upset that they are only given half of the men’s quota. Therefore, they demand a higher one and the film follows them trying to reach it. The girls go through emotional and physical exhaustion, but pull through with determination and comradery which is emphasised. The characteristics of the girls are inspirational models towards the intended audience of wartime Japan. The use of propaganda is to boost moral but also provides a source of inspiration and an ideal for the audience to aspire to be.

Instead of featuring a love interest for the female; the women are devoted to their country and Japan becomes their love interest. The female workers are highlighted as sexless, and their devotion to Japan is the key love interest and acts as a suggestion that this should be the norm for everyone during this period. Their devotion to the war effort and Japan means more than personal problems; injuries, illnesses and even the death of a close family member can’t stop any of the girls from wanting to work. Kurosawa’s use of characterising the girls as relatable to the public, and the documentary style of film-making both combine as a tool of propaganda. Instead of showing soldiers fighting against the Americans, and showing brutality and the soldiers on battlefront. Kurosawa decides against showing propaganda to encourage enlistees, as the workers on the Homefront are more likely to need a boost in moral and national pride. Therefore, the film revolves around the workers in Japan to emphasise what audience members should be striving to.

Propaganda most effectively “works on an emotional level by showing soldiers suffering and making sacrifices for the emperor and his national community” (Tezuka, 2011). By showing the workers constantly striving for excellence in making the lenses perfect, suggests the suffering the soldiers would experience if any of them slacked. The emotional response that is provoked from the audience is driven from the sacrifices that the girls make for the emperor and Japan. The women could easily be in education or be married with a family, but instead they sacrifice their lives to work for a higher cause for the country and emperor. Most of the people who had access to the movies in Japan were civilians, therefore any of these girls in the film could be their sisters, daughters or even the audience member themselves. The morals are shown as aspirational, therefore emphasises what every wartime Japanese girl should be like by the standards of the propaganda office. The relationship between the girls in the factory is something that is shown as desirable as the girls form their own family in their dorms, and their matron and the directors of the family are shown as caring parental figures in this pseudo family. The comradery is also shown as friendship as the girls plays volleyball, laugh and have fun together almost like a type of summer camp. The film doesn’t show the factory as an unpleasant place but more like a desirable place which young girls should go to and not because they are forced due to a war and their obligations.

The closest comparison to Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful, would be the British propaganda film called Millions Like Us (1943) directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Millions Like Us follows British female factory workers and shows the friendship and loyalty that develops amongst the workers, but the film also shows a love story and how the Nazi Germans destroyed their happiness whilst Kurosawa’s film shows their devotion to their country and to their friends rather than a romance. The Most Beautiful was an obvious success for the propaganda office as it portrayed what they believed workers should be like during the war. The Most Beautiful is an anomaly in Kurosawa’s work as it feels unlike his style or signature such as the use of frequent axial cuts or fast editing techniques such as the wipe. Kurosawa’s usual themes such as heroic champion and weather to show a change in the scene are not present in this film which make it seem not at all like his style. The film isn’t fun to watch in the sense that it criticises the West and specifically Britain and America, but the film-making techniques and the comradry from the girls makes it interesting to watch. If you’re a Kurosawa fan, maybe give it a watch, but if you’re a film fan in general then definitely watch it.



Classic Bit Review: Sanshiro Sugata Pt I (1943)

Akira Kurosawa’s debut picture, Sanshiro Sugata, debuted during the Second World War. Sanshiro Sugata was Kurosawa’s first feature film that was greenlit to shoot and did not have any immediate cuts to the script. Prior to even starting with the idea of Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa had written another script a few years’ prior and he had trouble with the Japanese film industry itself. By 1943, Kurosawa was established as a credible screenwriter and assistant director thereforeif he himself had trouble trying to find a script for his directorial debut, as the strict censorship due to the war  already affected his decisions as a filmmaker.

 Sanshiro Sugata is a combination of two different genres, jidaigeki and gendaigeki. Both genres are considered safe choices for filmmakers during this time as they promote nationalistic Japanese views and are anti-western films. Film censors in Japan during this time are more likely to accept films that promote Japanese ideals rather than Western morals, therefore a film that highlights Japan’s history would correct the influence from films that aren’t Japanese. Sanshiro Sugata follows a Japanese protagonist, with the same name, who already has strength and power butlearn to become patient, honourable and make sacrifices for the greater good. Sanshiro isn’t a rich man, and has flaws and traits that make an everyday character for the Japanese public. He begins as an everyday man who goes to a respectable Judo Dojo to learn to train to be the greatest, but upon joining they are suddenly defeated in battle by Gennosuke Higaki. Selfishly, he leaves his Dojo to follow the man. He eventually returns to the Dojo and the Dojo master reprimands him. 

Sanshiro (played by Susumu Fujita), who is determined to prove that he is honourable, jumps into a pond and only has a stake to keep him above the icy water. It’s during this time that he begins to transition into the character he needs to be. As he stares at a single pure blossom, he begins to realise that he has been selfish and there is more to life than becoming a champion. He finally leaves the pond, and begins his repentance and punishment. The film ends with Sanshiro finally battling Higaki, and he demands a battle to the death, but Sanshiro refuses to kill him and moves on.

The film features a lot of characteristics deemed desirable for people during the war to serve as propaganda. However, the film still features some of Kurosawa’s traits such as the use of weather and editing techniques such as cut on motion and wipes. Despite it being short, and the lighting is off in most of the exterior shots, the film is enjoyable and fun to watch. The loyalty and honour that Sanshiro develops feels deserved as the audience goes along with him, and the budding romance between Sanshiro and Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki) is subtle but adorable. 

The film was cut almost twenty minutes therefore it is safe to assume that the lost footage was part of Kurosawa’s creativity and hindered his work. Kurosawa had many restrictions before and after filming Sanshiro Sugata, but the film was a success and he was approached to do a propaganda film for the war effort, The Most Beautiful. If you like martial arts movies, or are a fan of Kurosawa, then definitely watch this as it’s a treat. 


Classic Bit Review: I Live In Fear (1955)

Perhaps regarded as the worst Kurosawa film in his impressive catalogue, and also known as Record of a Living Being or 生きものの記録. The film follows the family patriarch, played by Toshiro Mifune, who suffers a mental breakdown post World War II and post Atomic Bombings. In efforts to save his family from the catastrophic effects of the bombs, he attempts to move his family, both his legitimate family and his mistress, to Brazil. However, his family take him to a family court in which Takashi Shimura plays the mediator who must decide if Mifune is really crazy or just being cautionary.

The film is not an enjoyable experience, it feels unpolished and not at all in line with Kurosawa’s style. The use of Mifune in makeup, and his acting as an older man is comedic but it doesn’t fit into the setting. He seems like a caricature in a dramatic piece. Perhaps with Shimura in this role, as he is a more mature and a better fit in the role. The film feels unfinished and almost rushed, this combined with the date of its release doesn’t give much for audiences. The film was released only ten years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and people hadn’t had a chance to properly grieve or even process the trauma of those events due to censorship from the US Occupation. The film was later praised for this, but it was a lost sentiment as the film didn’t eloquently present this emotion as much as it should.

The film was originally supposed to be a comedy, but due to the death of Kurosawa’s friend and collaborator, Fumio Hayasaka, it was changed to a drama. As a huge Kurosawa fan, I appreciate the message and sentiment but the film doesn’t reflect his genius or style. The most memorable part of the film is the pondering of whether or not the people who are pretending that they aren’t afraid are the crazy ones or perhaps the patriarch who openly proclaims his fears. Definitely watch if you are a Kurosawa fan, but be prepared.


Bit Analysis: Rashomon (1950)

Rashōmon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, is a Japanese film made in 1950 and it was also “Based on a 1921 story by Ryunosuke Aakutagawa entitled ‘In a Grove'” (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2005). The film follows an enquiry into the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. The story is told by a Priest and a Woodcutter as they recount the testimonies given by the Bandit (who raped and killed the Samurai), the Wife, the Samurai (through the use of a medium as he is deceased) and the Woodcutter. Despite being praised in the West, it was not received entirely well by its native home of Japan as Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography in 1982 “I did not even know that Rashomon had been submitted to the Venice Film Festival … It was like pouring water into the sleeping ears of the Japanese film industry…Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan?”, in which Kurosawa questions Japanese people and their own view of home grown talent.


The film opens with a sign in Japanese highlighting the title of the film, cutting to different images of the bridge with opening credits over them. As the film begins we are given the story of the film which is that three men are stuck in an abandoned bridge during a rain storm as they recount a murder trial and the crime that led up to that. The plot of the film is the outline of the story but in more extensive detail and development; therefore the plot is that these men are recollecting a trial from earlier in the day about the murder of a Samurai and the rape of his wife. Furthermore, there are three key witnesses in the trial and the Woodcutter’s own testimony which has been extended after the trial itself.


The Screen Duration of Rashōmon is relatively short to the standard of movies today as it is 88 minutes long, however it also is short in relation to films during this time as Kurosawa’s The Idiot (which is his next film after Rashōmon) is 166 minutes long which is over 2 hours. Despite that the duration of Rashōmon is just over an hour; both story and plot duration are between 3 days. The film therefore successfully manages to manipulate film techniques in relation to storytelling as 88 minutes is turned into 3 days with the use of editing techniques to represent flashbacks. The plot and story duration take place over 3 days as the film begins on the evening of the trial; the characters recount the story to 3 days ago to how the Woodcutter and the Priest both saw the victims beforehand. After these two tell how they found the body of the Samurai; they move time back to the morning of the present day as the trial was this day. During the trial the Bandit, the Wife and the Samurai (through a medium) recount back to 3 days ago to how event of the crime itself. Once all these accounts have been told by the Woodcutter to the Commoner; he has a further recount himself which ago goes back to 3 days ago. The film ends back in the present day of the film as each story has been told and nothing more has to be recounted. The use of manipulation to enhance the story and plot duration is extremely effective as it leaves the audience in the dark and having to follow the film to see how the plot unravels. The audience know as much as the Commoner, therefore the discovery of each story in accordance to flashbacks during recounting is valuable as it is an innovative way of revealing information.


Despite the use of flashbacks which are clearly non-chronological; the order of flashbacks follow some chronological order as each recount is given in order of who gave it at the trial. Of course, the events are shuffled as they are not shown in chronological order as if it was formatted this way then the film would start with the Priest seeing the characters before-hand. Then, the film would show the actual events that happened at the crime scene followed by the trial and the men discussing it. The effect of this would not be as effective as the way Kurosawa presented Rashōmon, the film would not only be shorter and less intriguing but also not present such factors as morality and the effect of self-preservation. The style in which Kurosawa used highlights the film to be more captivating and fascinating as this style leads audiences to be piece together the result of the end of the trial and more specifically suggests that audiences are more intelligent than perceived. Kurosawa treats his audience as equal intelligence by his smart use of storytelling via flashbacks.


The film recount is from the Bandit and his recounted enactment explains that he captured the Samurai, seduced his wife and she persuaded him to kill the Samurai after an honourable and brave battle between the two. Then we are given another perspective in the form of the wife and victim of the rape. She expresses herself as weak and that the Bandit raped her, she then tried to kill herself but helplessly fainted only to find her husband dead. The third account is given through a medium expressing the deceased Samurai’s account. He explains that his wife was seduced by the Bandit, afterwards neither the Bandit nor Samurai wanted her therefore he was set free and killed himself due to shame. This is where the audience believe the trial ends and there are no more enacted recounts; this is not true as the Woodcutter was secretly there and he begins to tell his perspective. The final recollection of the same event explains that the Bandit raped the woman yet begged her to run away with him and to try and honour her. The wife in the Woodcutter’s story is more manipulative as she manages to make the Bandit and the Samurai fight despite their initial protests and detestation of her. When the fight is recounted by the Woodcutter, he explains that the fight was not noble or brave as both men seemed afraid of each other and the Samurai even begged for his life. Another thing seen through the Woodcutter’s recollection is that the wife was initially manipulative but turned into fear as the men began to fight and the Bandit was soft towards the woman after his act of horror and not as vicious as the legends thought he was. These highlight that multiple recounted enactments were crucial into not only getting to understand the crime more but also in suggesting more in-depth discussions about humans themselves.


Rashōmon is beyond a doubt an incredible film. The obvious reasoning behind this was not only the revolutionary editing techniques but the innovative use of focalization and manipulation of narrative time. Kurosawa was one of the pioneers to truly use this technique and the film was so monumental itself that it even developed the Rashōmon effect in which explains that there are more than one different accounts for one single event. Rashōmon was also remade by the USA with their own version again emphasising the use of focalization and manipulation of time. One thing that is clear from this film that it was clearly ahead of its time and is now regarded as one of the most creative and most influential films due to the genius of Kurosawa. Rashōmon is a must see for film fans, and if you haven’t had chance to begin your Kurosawa viewing, start with this.




Classic Bit Review: Drunken Angel (1948)

Drunken Angel, aka 酔いどれ天使 Yoidore tenshi, is a drama film directed by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The film stars his two favourite actors Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. Drunken Angel is the first film collaboration between Mifune and Kurosawa, but most definitely not the last.

The films Kurosawa made prior to this were often not reflecting his style of filmmaking. Despite being an Occupation film, where the US occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952, it features many of Kurosawa’s traits such as using weather as a part of the story, and the master and disciple relationship between the leads. 

The film follows a doctor, Sanada played by Shimura, who is an excellent curer of Tuberculosis, but he is a drunk. His life takes a drastic turn as he treats a small time gangster, Matsunaga played by Mifune, for a gun wound but soon sees symptoms of T.B. Matsunaga is too proud of first to see the doctor again until his situation worsens. Sanada gives him an ultimatum that he should give up booze and women or die, so he almost successfully does so until his big boss returns to town. Once everyone finds out he has T.B. he is essentially downgraded and degraded by the people of the town, so in a drastic turn to confront his former boss who steals his girl as well, he ends in a knife fight which ultimately takes his life. The only people who grieves for him are his former doctor who formed a bond with him, and a girl from a local tavern who proclaimed her love for him almost tempting him to run away with her. 

The film is beautifully shot and the music is brilliant in providing a contrast to the mood of the scene. The cuts are quick but exciting. The film has almost a more America in the 1920s feel to it due to the costumes and the dancehall. The film is arguably the first Yakuza in Japanese cinema, and provides a strong inspiration for other films of this genre.

Drunken Angel, referring the drunken doctor who helps people and the good hearted Yakuza who’s drinking led to his demise. This wasn’t my first Kurosawa film but it’s definitely my favourite. whilst Stray Dog and Rashomon are two of my other favourites, Drunken Angel is my favourite as I think we finally see Kurosawa as the master that he is. Definitely a recommended watch for Japanese Cinema fans and overall movie buffs.