The Paintings of Akira Kurosawa


Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, “the Emper­or” of Japan­ese film, made movies — and in some sense, he nev­er was­n’t mak­ing movies. Even when he lacked the resources to actu­al­ly shoot them, he pre­pared to make movies in the future, think­ing through their every detail. Crit­ic and his­to­ri­an of Japan­ese cin­e­ma Don­ald Richie’s remem­brance of the direc­tor who did more than any­one to define the Japan­ese film empha­sizes Kuro­sawa’s “con­cern for per­fect­ing the prod­uct” — to put it mild­ly. “Though many film com­pa­nies would have been delight­ed by such direc­to­r­i­al devo­tion,” Richie writes, “Japan­ese stu­dios are com­mon­ly more impressed by coop­er­a­tion than by inno­va­tion.”


Kuro­sawa thus found it more and more dif­fi­cult, as his career went on, to raise mon­ey for his ambi­tious projects. Richie recalls a time in the 1970s when, “con­vinced that Kage­musha would nev­er get made, Kuro­sawa spent his time paint­ing pic­tures of every scene — this col­lec­tion would have to take the place of the unre­al­ized film. He had, like many oth­er direc­tors, long used sto­ry­boards. These now blos­somed into whole gal­leries — screen­ing rooms for unmade mas­ter­pieces.” When he could­n’t shoot movies, he wrote them. If he’d writ­ten all he could, he paint­ed them.


At Fla­vor­wire, you can see a com­par­i­son between Kuro­sawa’s paint­ings and the frames of his movies. “He hand-craft­ed these images in order to con­vey his enthu­si­asm for the project,” writes Ali­son Nas­tasi, going on to quote the direc­tor’s own auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “My pur­pose was not to paint well. I made free use of var­i­ous mate­ri­als that hap­pened to be at hand.”

But as you can see, the Emper­or knew what he want­ed; the actu­al shots clear­ly rep­re­sent a real­iza­tion of what he’d devot­ed so much time and ener­gy to visu­al­iz­ing before­hand. Occa­sion­al­ly, Kuro­sawa’s own art­work even made it to his movies’ offi­cial posters, espe­cial­ly less­er-known (what­ev­er “less­er-known” means in the con­text of the Kuro­sawa canon) per­son­al works like 1970’s Dodes’­ka-den and 1993’s Mada­dayo.


We might chalk up the film­mak­er’s inter­est in paint­ing — and per­haps in film­mak­ing — in large part to his old­er broth­er Hei­go, with whom he gazed upon the after­math of Toky­o’s 1923 Kan­tō earth­quake. A live silent film nar­ra­tor and aspir­ing painter in the Pro­le­tar­i­an Artists’ League, Hei­go com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1933 after his polit­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion­ment and the career-killing intro­duc­tion of sound film. Young Aki­ra would make his direc­to­r­i­al debut a decade lat­er and, in the 55 years that fol­lowed, pre­sum­ably do Hei­go proud on every pos­si­ble lev­el.

A cat­a­log includ­ing 40 vivid, large, full-col­or draw­ings by Kuro­sawa was pub­lished in 1994 to accom­pa­ny an exhi­bi­tion in New York.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s 80-Minute Mas­ter Class on Mak­ing “Beau­ti­ful Movies” (2000)

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s List of His 100 Favorite Movies

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez Talk About Film­mak­ing (and Nuclear Bombs) in Six Hour Inter­view

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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