How Did Akira Kurosawa Make Such Powerful & Enduring Films? A Wealth of Video Essays Break Down His Cinematic Genius

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, a selec­tion that also includes Scott on Rana 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Aki­ra Kuro­sawa Used Move­ment to Tell His Sto­ries: A Video Essay

How Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Sev­en Samu­rai Per­fect­ed the Cin­e­mat­ic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa Paint­ed the Sto­ry­boards For Scenes in His Epic Films: Com­pare Can­vas to Cel­lu­loid

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspir­ing Film­mak­ers: Write, Write, Write and Read

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Adap­ta­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death Final­ly in Pro­duc­tion, Com­ing in 2020

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.

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