Kurosawa’s Three way with America – Vindana Ariyawansa

John Ford

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, John Ford directed over 140 films (although nearly all of his silent films are now lost) and he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation. Ford’s films and personality were held in high regard by his colleagues, with Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles among those who have named him as one of the greatest directors of all time.

In particular, Ford was a pioneer of location shooting and the long shot which frames his characters against a vast, harsh and rugged natural terrain. Ford has further influenced directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Bogdanovich, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Pedro Costa, David Lean, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino, John Milius, Satyajit Ray, François Truffaut, Lindsay Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard.

When John Ford made movies the whole America  watched them. And there was even an international audience for his acclaimed westerns with the leading man John Wayne.  His influence spread over the pacific to the empire of the sun where an eager filmmaker, a master crafter was awaiting.

John Ford effect

Kurosawa embraced John Ford’s pictures. He wanted to make movies just like Ford did. He found his leading man in enigmatic Toshiro Mifune. ( He starred Mifune in 16 of his films) Kurosawa, who is usually unimpressed by actors, said of Mifune, “ he overwhelmed me”.

His admiration of John Ford was so high he even went on to dress as him on the sets. This has been one of the main features that distinguish Kurosawa amongst the film crew. It was not just due to his height which was above average Japanese, the outfit made him stand out among the Japanese filming crew.

John Ford’s habit of wearing dark glasses Kurosawa emulated. When Kurosawa met Ford, the American simply said”, “You really like rain.” Kurosawa responded, “You’ve really been paying attention to my films. He would later instruct Yoshio Tsuchiya, one of the actors in Seven Samurai, to retrieve the same hat Ford wore during that meeting.

Still, Kurosawa’s best-known film is probably 1954’s The Seven Samurai, widely considered by many critics to be one of the best films ever made. Yet many of the movie’s most memorable shots and scenes were directly influenced by John Ford and the style of other classical Hollywood Westerns.

Despite criticism by some Japanese critics that Kurosawa was “too Western,” he was deeply influenced by Japanese culture as well, such as the Noh theaters and the Jidaigeki (period drama) genre of Japanese cinema.

Influence of western literature

A notable feature of Kurosawa’s films is the breadth of his artistic influences. He re-did Shakespearan plays in Feudal Japanese settings.Some of his plots are based on William Shakespeare‘s works: Ran is loosely based on King Lear, Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth, while The Bad Sleep Well (1960) parallels Hamlet, but is not affirmed to be based on it. Kurosawa also directed film adaptations of Russian literary works, including The Idiot (1951) by Dostoevsky (his favorite author) and The Lower Depths (1957), from the play by Maxim Gorky. Ikiru was inspired by Leo Tolstoy‘s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Dersu Uzala (1975) was based on the 1923 memoir of the same title by Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. Story lines in Red Beard (1965) can be found in The Insulted and Humiliated by Dostoevsky.

High and Low (1963) was based on King’s Ransom by American crime writer Ed McBain. Yojimbo may have been based on Dashiell Hammett‘s Red Harvest and also borrows from American Westerns. Kurosawa was very fond of Georges Simenon and Stray Dog was a product of Kurosawa’s desire to make a film in Simenon’s manner.

From Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa inherited the concept of redemption. As had Dostoyevsky’s czarist Russia, Kurosawa’s Japan was going through momentous economic changes and had to brace itself against an impending catastrophe. The tortures of historical change produced in the artist a humanitarian ideal, to seek redemption through acts of self-sacrifice. In Seven Samurai, the samurai display great perseverance in protecting the farmers, their social inferiors. In the closing sequence, as the farmers joyously plant rice seedlings and sing, the surviving samurai stand by their comrades’ grave, on a mound, and sigh, “The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.”

Besides Dostoyevsky (whose novel The Idiot Kurosawa adapted to the screen in 1951), Gorky was also a significant influence. Kurosawa penned an adaptation of his The Lower Depths, bringing to the screen Gorky’s insights on lowly human behavior born out of evil, cruelty, and poverty. The warmth and moderation in human nature, so celebrated in Yasujiro Ozu’s films, have no place in Kurosawa’s works. There is instead much affinity with Gorky in matters concerning the contradictions and innate antagonism in human nature, as well as the fierce struggle for survival. This also explains why Kurosawa was fond of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, particularly those of the 1930s.

Other influences

Kurosawa’s early training in Western painting and kendo, both under his father’s supervision, was also instrumental to his creative life. Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s dense, layered brushstrokes and sensitivities find their glorious way into Kurosawa’s screen images, evident in their composition, outline, and emotional vibrancy. His is a strong and robust emotion that favors the seasons of winter and summer and the plain flavor of daily life.

Meanwhile, the sport of kendo endowed Kurosawa with a high-spirited heroism, complete with an unbending faith in the pursuit of perfection. An individual hero, powerful and carrying within him a humanitarian ideal bequeathed by literature and politics, goes on a quest to put society on a just path: such is the philosophical backbone of Kurosawa’s Bushido (the way of the warrior) cinema.

Influence on Hollywood

Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960). Seven Samurai is also considered the progenitor of the “men on a mission” film, popularized by films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Guns of Navarone (1961). The film is also recognized for popularizing the use of slow-motion in action films/sequences. Many Hollywood films have been made loosely based on the story line of Seven Samurai. The latest being the Pixar’s animated A Bug’s Life.

Rashomon was remade by Martin Ritt in 1964’s The Outrage. Several films and television programs have also come to use what is known as the Rashomon effect, wherein various people give opposing or contrasting accounts of an event; these films include, but are not limited to Vantage Point, Courage Under Fire, Hero, Hoodwinked, and The Usual Suspects.Basic, Tajomaru, a film that centers on the eponymous character from Rashomon, was released in 2009. The 1964 Western The Outrage, which starred Paul Newman, Claire Bloom and Edward G. Robinson, was a remake of Rashomon.

Yojimbo was unofficially remade as the Sergio Leone western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) (resulting in a successful lawsuit by Kurosawa) and was remade as the prohibition-era film Last Man Standing (1996). Leone’s movie then became a major reference point in another hugely popular sci-fi staple: Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series.Sanjuro was remade in 2007 as Tsubaki Sanjuro, directed by Yoshimitsu Morita.

it wasn’t just American John Woo Wants to Remake YojimboKurosawa’s presence as a director still holds a major place in global cinema. Acclaimed filmmaker John Woo — who directed Face/Off — said on July 15, 2008 that at some point in his career he wanted to remake Yojimbo.

Everybody knows the characters: Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and of course, Chewbacca. Perhaps no film creation is as universally recognizable or popular as George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise. But what might not be such a well-known fact is the inspiration behind the planet’s most successful space epic ever: Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress was the foundation for Star Wars, which Lucas envisioned as a loose remake of Kurosawa’s movie. (1958) The Hidden Fortress. was a major inspiration for the Star Wars saga, which takes many inspirations from westerns and is often referred to as a space western. Common story elements include General Makabe, who became Obi-Wan Kenobi; Princess Yuki, who became Princess Leia, and whose trick of disguising herself as a handmaiden would later be used by Queen Amidala; and the farmers from whose viewpoint the film is told, Matashichi and Tahei, whose constant bickering inspired C-3PO and R2-D2. As well as using a modified version of Kurosawa’s signature wipe transition, it has been observed that specific scenes from various Kurosawa films have been emulated throughout George Lucas’s Star Wars saga

The Hidden Fortress (1957) was remade as The Last Princess (2008). Remakes for Ikiru and High and Low are in progress.

Recognition

Although the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s films continue to grow long after his death, his skill and vision as a director was appreciated among his contemporaries.

In 1990, he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement “for cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world.” He was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film culture

Although he received an Honorary Award in 1990 “For cinematic accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained worldwide audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world,” Akira Kurosawa was only nominated once for a Best Director Oscar for Ran (1985). Also, his only film to have ever received the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was for Dersu Uzala (1975)…his only film not done in Japanese (it was in Russian).

His movie Dodesukaden (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980) were Oscar-nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film”. Dersu Uzala (1975) won. Rashômon (1950) won an Honorary Award as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1951.

Later Years

After a lean period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though, Kurosawa attempted suicide. He survived, and made the Russian co-production Dersu Uzala (1975) and, with the help of admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the samurai epic Kagemusha (1980), which was in many ways a dry run for Ran (1985), his second Shakespeare adaptation. He continued to work into his eighties with the more personal Dreams (1990), Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (1991) and Madadayo (1993).