No Japanese filmmaker has received quite as much international scrutiny, and for so long, as Akira Kurosawa. Though now almost twenty years gone, the man known in his homeland as the “Emperor” of cinema only continues to grow in stature on the landscape of global film culture. Film students still watch Rashomon, swords-and-sandals fans still thrill to Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, midcentury crime-picture buffs still turn up for screenings of Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, and many a Shakespeare buff still looks in admiration at his interpretations of Macbeth (as Throne of Blood) and King Lear (as Ran).
How did Kurosawa and his collaborators imbue these and many other acclaimed pictures with such enduring power? An entire subgenre of video essays has emerged to approach an answer to that question. At the top of the post we have one from Tony Zhou, creator of the well-known cinematic video essay series Every Frame a Painting, on Kurosawa’s “innate understanding of movement and how to capture it onscreen.”
His staging also demonstrates a highly developed sense of space, which Zhou reveals in the short essay just above by breaking down a scene from 1960’s corporate-corruption drama The Bad Sleep Well.
All of those film students watching Seven Samurai may not consider it a true action film, at least by their ultra-modern standards, but the way Kurosawa’s best-known picture tells its story through artfully rendered movement and violence has stood as an example for action filmmakers ever since. Lewis Bond, the video essayist behind Channel Criswell, draws out the lessons Seven Samurai still holds for action cinema today, in the essay above. But what happens in the frame also gains much of its impact from the construction of the frame itself. A video essayist by the name of Mr. Nerdista looks at Kurosawa’s unusual mastery of the art of framing, as seen in Rashomon, in the essay below.
But no film, no matter how skillfully made, could cross as many historical and cultural boundaries as Kurosawa’s have with aesthetics alone. The strong moral sense at the dramatic core of his work — a characteristic, too, of the Shakespeare plays from which he drew inspiration — will keep it forever relevant, not because it presents the audience with simple lessons about what to do and what not to do, but because it forces them to consider the most difficult moral questions. This comes most clearly to the fore in 1963’s modern-day ransom story High and Low, examined in the Jack’s Movie Reviews essay below.
A.O. Scott selected High and Low as a New York Times “Critic’s Pick” back in 2012, and you can see him discuss the movie’s virtues in this video. It appears as just one of a roundup of Kurosawa-related videos at akirakurosawa.info, a selection that also includes Scott on Ran, a Criterion Collection clip of Kurosawa experts on the violence of Seven Samurai, a look at Kurosawa’s evolution as an artist through four of his best-known movies, a two-part essay on Kurosawa’s influences as well as those he has influenced. For as much as all these videos have to say about Kurosawa’s movies, though, few of them reference the details of Kurosawa’s life. The Emperor, who once wrote that, “there is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself,” would have approved.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.