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Great Director Profile: Akira Kurosawa

“For me, film-making combines everything. That’s the reason I’ve made cinema my life’s work. In films painting and literature, theatre and music come together. But a film is still a film.”

– Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

By D.G. McCabe

One day, you look at your blog and realize that you haven’t written a “monthly” great director profile in three months.  To make up for lost time, I thought I would discuss the man whom I consider to be the most important of all filmmakers – Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  Why Kurosawa and not Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, or other directors more familiar to the modern filmgoer? Allow me to demonstrate.

Multiple Cameras

While Kurosawa wasn’t the first filmmaker to use multiple cameras in his films, he was the first to really take full advantage of the technique.  The final battle scene in 1954’s Seven Samurai involves shots from hundreds of different angles and directions, previewing techniques that modern, special effects laden films such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) would use to capture busy action sequences.


In 195o’s Rashomon, Kurosawa pointed his camera at the sun, which until that point, had not been done.  This wasn’t a gimmick, however, as Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, used mirrors and sunlight to enhance the natural light of their set instead of using lighting equipment on a controlled backlot or soundstage.  Kurosawa also successfully used rain (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), fog (Throne of Blood, 1957), snow (Ikiru, 1952), cloud formations (Ran, 1985), and other natural elements to establish mood and contrast in his films.

Character Sketches

Kurosawa was once quoted as saying that even a great director could not make a good film from a bad script, and he practiced what he preached.  He not only either wrote or co-wrote the scripts for all of his films, but also drafted long, detailed character sketches in the same way that a novelist might.  This allowed Kurosawa to portray fully realized characters on screen even if they only had a few moments of screen time.  One example is the character of Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) in Ran, who is one of the most terrifying villains in all of cinema, but is only on screen for a half dozen scenes at most.

Artistic Vision

While Kurosawa’s greatest masterpieces exist as films, his first love was painting.  His black and white films contain hundreds of unforgettable images.  With very few shots, Kurosawa could establish mood, theme, and emotion.  The ending to Ikiru, for example, is only a few seconds but captures the theme of that film arguably as well as the rest of the film combined.


Instead of using sound simply to convey emotion, as was the style in studio-era Hollywood for the most part, Kurosawa used sound to highlight contrast and thereby heighten emotion.  Arguably, his films mark the end a style of film soundtrack that relied heavily on 19th century, Romanticist style instrumental music to force an emotion on the audience (think 1939’s Gone with the Wind).


Kurosawa edited all of the films that he directed, and his editing has been praised as some of the finest in film history.  Generally speaking, his editing style stops to create juxtaposition and theme without disrupting the overall flow of the narrative.  Indeed, the reason why Kurosawa started using multiple cameras was so that he would have more options for putting all of the pieces together in the editing room.


Kurosawa wrote, directed, and edited thirty films.  He was able to create completely realized visions of storytelling and theme that are more akin to novels than many other films, and inspired hundreds of his successors to do the same.  While he is credited with dozens of filmmaking innovations, it is his success as the creator of completely unified and consistent films that make him the most important filmmaker in the history of the artform.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Ran (1985)


Directed by Akira Kurosawa (1985, Japan/France)

“You spilled measureless blood.  You showed no mercy, no pity.  We too are children of this age, weaned on strife and chaos.  We are YOUR sons, yet you count on our fidelity?  In my eyes that makes you a fool – a senile, old fool!”

King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, is many things, but uplifting it is not.  Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, “Ran,” is even darker, and like all great adaptations, shaped by its author to fit his vision of the story.

King Lear itself is an adaptation of a simpler medieval romance.  The complexity and depth of the story are Shakespeare’s innovations.  The ending is especially ahead of its time, as showing the dead Cordelia in her father’s arms, ending any chance of a true reconciliation between the two, was considered too intense for audiences for over a century after the original production.

Kurosawa adapts King Lear to make it fit into his world of pre-Edo Period Japan.  The most obvious change is that Lear’s three daughters are replaced by Hidetora’s (Tatsuya Nakadai) three sons. Unlike Lear, who has become old and foolish but by all accounts is treated by Shakespeare as a just ruler, Hidetora sits on a throne built upon a legacy of bloodshed and chaos.  For instance, his two married sons, Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), have wives who’s fathers were conquered, and murdered, by Hidetora.

While Hidetora is far more deserving of his predicament than Lear, the audience still feels the same pity for him.  While we hear stories about past conquest and bloodshed, providing a deeper motivation to the surrounding characters than exists in King Lear, we are presented with a frail, old man who simply wants to pass his life’s work on to his offspring.  His loyal son, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) tries in vain to stop his father, and is rewarded for his insight with banishment.  Taro and Jiro, in turn, squander what their father has built.

This is where the complexity lies in Ran – are we to pity Hidetora, or view the destruction of his kingdom as a deserved outcome?  After all, the horrors that he unleashed to build that kingdom are not treated lightly by Kurosawa.  It is hard to say, as there is no simple justice or simple tragedy in Ran, there is only a cycle of violence and retribution, of men trying to seize power only to ultimately lose it.  At least the people in Lear’s world have Albany and Edgar to guide them after the downfall, for the world of Ran there is no such hope.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe