Last week, cinematic fandom the world over was rocked by the news that Chinese production company JINKE ENTERTAINMENT had successfully come to an agreement with KUROSAWA PRODUCTIONS to bring the legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s unproduced screenplays to the silver screen.
Those screams you hear? That’s the sound of cine-geeks worldwide screaming out in joy. It’s big news, and while it’ll likely take a couple years before Kurosawa lights up theaters once more, now’s as good a time as ever to celebrate his work.
If you’re yet to dip your toes into the Japanese filmmaker’s mammoth filmography, don’t worry. We get it – international cinema is a wide ocean with unknowable depths. It can be hard and daunting task just figuring out where to begin. Still, as writers, its important for us to know the masters. Especially one as influential as Akira Kurosawa.
Known best for his excellent samurai films starring legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, the truth is that not all of Kurosawa’s work features robed warriors running around Edo period Japan. The fact of the matter is, Kurosawa’s influence created a ripple effect across a multitude of genres that can still be seen in the films of today.
George Lucas. Sergio Leone. Christopher Nolan. Fact is, a list of the filmmakers who haven't been influenced in some way by the films of Akira Kurosawa would be a shorter list than the one's that have (whether they know it or not). Quite frankly, it's impossible to imagine the modern cinematic landscape without this titan of Japanese cinema.
So, without further adieu, lets take a look at 5 essential screenplays of Akira Kurosawa, along with a couple of cinematic trends they helped to establish. Keep in mind that this is just the beginning. Kurosawa's filmography is vast, and scarily consistent. You really can't go wrong with any of his movies.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Elevator Pitch: A bureaucrat tries to find a meaning in his life after he discovers he has terminal cancer.
What critics are saying: "I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently." – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Cancer is a tricky subject, cinematically speaking. It's something that resonates deeply with all of us. Prompting fear, sadness, grief, or something in between. It's easy, narraitvely speaking, to pull the cancer card and plumb tears from your audience. Too easy, in fact. Does this mean any movie with cancer at its core is an automatic pass? No, of course not. Because the truth is, cancer is a thing that we're all forced to grapple with at one point another, which makes it fertile ground for careful, nuanced storytelling. In recent years, we'd point to films like 50/50 and ME, EARL, AND THE DYING GIRL as examples of how to do it right. Still – they pale in comparison to IKIRU.
In many ways, IKIRU (which translates loosely as "To Live") isn't really about cancer. Sure, we know from the outset that the film's protagonist Watanabe is doomed to die, but the exact cause of his death is incidental. The point is, he knows his fate, and so do we, and this knowledge hangs over the film like a spectre, slowly encroaching on the sum of Watanabe's wasted life. It's no spoiler to say Watanabe doesn't make it. You will, though, and it's likely you'll have gained some perspective on your own life along the way.
Not bad for a filmmaker known primarily in the west for his Samurai epics.
HIGH AND LOW
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Elevator Pitch: An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of extortion when his chauffeur's son is kidnapped and held for ransom.
What critics are saying: "One of the best detective thrillers ever filmed." -A.O. Scott, New York Times.
HIGH AND LOW is an essential pillar of film noir. If you're a fan of films like THE THIRD MAN and OUT OF THE PAST, you owe it to yourself to see this sometimes forgotten classic, which is arguably just as good if not better than anything Kurosawa ever made (though admittedly you could say the same for vast swaths of his filmography). HIGH AND LOW isn't the only noir the filmmaker ever made (we're also fond of STRAY DOG and its elegant inciting incident involving a missing gun), but its by far the most thematically rich.
What's most incredible here is Kurosawa's use of symbolism and metaphor, which is never so nuanced that it goes unnoticed, but never obvious enough to feel on the nose. Even the wealthy Gondo's estate, which hangs high over the slums below, says something about the film's descontruction of social class and its determining role in criminality. In other words, it's a rich piece of crime fiction that every screenwriter needs to see.
Oh, and did we mention the first act takes place almost entirely in one room?
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Elevator Pitch: In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other…and him.
What the critics are saying: "Few other directors had Kurosawa's ability to convey the intimate as well as the epic, to handle stillness as well as violence." -Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Based on King Lear, Kurosawa's RAN represents the filmmaker's second go at adapting Shakespeare. The first was THRONE OF BLOOD, which was essentially MACBETH relocated to Edo period Japan. For our money, THRONE OF BLOOD is actually the better of the two films, if only because we prefer Macbeth to Lear, and the film itself is by far the scariest, most haunting thing Kurosawa ever made. RAN, on the other hand, sticks closer to the mould of SEVEN SAMURAI, albeit with all the fixings of a genuine, Shakespearean tragedy.
So why is it here? Two reasons. One, it's an incredible film in its own right. Even if THRONE OF BLOOD edges it out ever so slightly, RAN is still one of the best Shakespearean adaptations ever put to film. And two, the sheer scope and magnitude of it is enormous. It's also the best Kurosawa film to be shot in color, making it a good starting point for newcomers just starting to discover the director's work. The color also lends a more striking sense of realism to the violence, making RAN's masterful battle sequences feel grittier, and more immediate.
Remember the Battle of the Bastards from last summer's penultimate episode of GAME OF THRONES? You better believe the showrunners had RAN playing on repeat.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Elevator Pitch: A heinous crime and its aftermath are recalled from differing points of view.
What the critics are saying: "Kurosawa's most brilliant move in Rashomon is never to reveal what really happened. We are left to make our own deductions." -James Berardinelli, ReelViews
Rashomon is one of the best (and earliest) examples of non-linear narratives in film. It laid the groundwork for more recent films like MEMENTO, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and AMORES PERROS. And like the best of these films, the unconcentional, labyrinthine structure feels essential and never artificial.
Kurosawa isn't just showing off his screenwriting prowess here. Instead, RASHOMON'S frequent flashbacks and narrative roundabouts flow naturally from the film's themes as well as the screenplay's tricky relationship with "point of view". Throughout the film, we're treated to multiple versions of the same event, each time told from the perspective of a different character. No two tellings are the same. As for the truth? It's hard to say. And that's the point.
Fun fact: The film runs 88 minutes in length, making it one of the easiest Kurosawa films to revisit (most run well past the two hour mark).
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Elevator Pitch: A poor village under attack by bandits recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves.
What critics are saying: "…the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century." -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Here it is. The center-piece. The big kahuna. If there's one film on this list that embodies everything that's so great about the work of Akira Kurosawa, it's SEVEN SAMURAI. Its influence is everywhere, from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, to last year's ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY. If you thought Peter Jackson's take on Helms Deep was impressive, wait until you see what Kurosawa pulls off in the middle of a torrential downpoud with nothing but a handful of men, and a couple of horses. Not a single visual effect in sight (it was 1954, after all).
No other film in Kurosawa's library has had a more profound impact on cinema than this one. The only one that comes close – for better or worse – is HIDDEN FORTRESS, which is somewhat closer to the boiler-plate heroes journey archetypes we see today (don't get us wrong – we still dig it). SEVEN SAMURAI, on the other hand, is different. It's blockbuster cinema as it should be. Full of rich characters, insurmountable odds, and incredible courage – both in front of the camera, and behind it.
As a screenplay, it's a masterclass in structure, character, and story. The only drawback? At 3 and a half hours (which translates to rougly 210 pages), it's a bit on the long side.
So there you have it. If this is your first foray into the epic world of Akira Kurosawa (jealous), then consider yourself lucky because you're in for a treat. We hope that this brief overview is enough to guide you in your journey from masterpiece to masterpiece. A couple films in should be enough to give you a good idea of why we're so darn excited to catch a glimpse of the Kurosawa's unfilmed screenplays on the big screen.
Could there be a reason these particular scripts never entered active production? Maybe. But unless something comes along to dash our collective hype-balloons, we're choosing to remain cautiously optimistic until further notice. In the meantime, the first of these films, SILVERING SPEAR, is scheduled to begin filming next year.