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Five Films From… Akira Kurosawa

Most people can name at least a handful of Hitchcock films. The mildly more daring may also be able to name a gaggle of Kubrick’s. If I were to ask the question “name a Spielberg film,” the bigger challenge would presumably lie in getting you to stop at just ten. Each of these directors is, of course, a legend in their own respect. Yet for Akira Kurosawa, the same question is often met with silence, followed by a mumble. Followed by, very dutifully, Seven Samurai intoned as though it were a question – very, very maybe with Yojimbo or Rashomon accompanying it. This should be surprising. After all, Kurosawa is a director with a near-perfect record and he boasts a legacy in film history longer than Seven Samurai itself, yet is far too often reduced to this reductive lens. Frankly, whittling his expansive filmography down to just five films was a far greater challenge than I’d care to admit (one sec, just need to change the list for the sixtieth time). Even then, it doesn’t come close to encompassing the entirety of what made his work so special.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood is not just any old adaptation of Macbeth. For one, there is not an ounce of iambic pentameter to be found within; for another, Kurosawa’s choice of setting marks a slight departure from the Scottish highlands. The titular tyrant is transported into feudal Japan and transformed into a samurai warrior, armed to the teeth with prophecies and samurai swords galore. In this respect, Throne of Blood is a highly unconventional reshaping of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, but by stripping the story down to its most fundamental themes and emotions, Kurosawa reaches the story’s tragedy more poignantly than most adaptations ever do. Toshiro Mifune’s breath-taking performance in the lead role is a tour-de-force explosion of the story’s most central themes. Kurosawa, ever the pioneer, reinvents much of the narrative to suit his needs, always evoking the story’s spirit, if not the rhyming couplets and infamous “eggs.” It’s arguably the greatest adaptation of Macbeth to ever grace the silver screen; but more impressively, it is arguably among the greatest adaptations of anything, in any time, ever, period. 

Stray Dog (1949)

It may seem quite audacious to say that, without Stray Dog, neither Beverly Hills Cop nor Lethal Weapon, nor, indeed, Hot Fuzz, my own personal favourite comedy, would ever exist. But given the fact Kurosawa outright invented the buddy-cop film here, that is probably not quite audacious enough. Stray Dog is a gritty journey through the seedy streets of Tokyo, following Toshiro Mifune’s police detective Murakami (an early performance for the actor) as he desperately searches for his stolen gun. Whilst it’s not quite as traditionally funny as Eddie Murphy placing a banana in the tailpipe of a car, Kurosawa’s mastery of tension is evident here more so than almost anywhere else. The use of the stolen gun’s ammo as a countdown motif is frankly brilliant, while the overall depiction of the post-War streets of Tokyo proves that Kurosawa had mastered Japan in all its eras, both classical and contemporary. Even today, it is one truly riveting piece of work.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Kurosawa may be most famous for his darkness, but as evidenced through the purely enjoyable Hidden Fortress, he was also not above the odd adventure film too! Toshiro Mifune once again assumes the leading role, yet this time (unlike in most of their other fifteen collaborations) Mifune allows his raw charisma to shine through unimpeded. He plays a valiant warrior tasked with transporting a disguised princess to safety, on the run from a fascistic army, with nothing but his sabre and two doofus sidekicks as support. It is a delightfully fun film, decorated with ample kooky hijinks and wielding one particularly spectacular sword fight. If some of those plot beats sound familiar to you, then that is presumably because they are. George Lucas, quite famously, riffed on this film quite a lot as the general plotline for The Phantom Menace (a tragedy to be sure, albeit not quite as bad as Casablanca getting remade into Barb Wire), but he also took ample inspiration from it in creating A New Hope, from the use of wipes to the focus on a comic relief duo as the story’s heart and soul. What the film lacks in depth it overachieves in spirit and legacy; if nothing else, it’s fascinating to see the little moments and motifs that, twenty years later, would go on to define film history.

Ran (1985)

Despite neglecting colour for much of his career (and having his work be made all the better for it), the visual splendour of Ran does conjure up the tragic thought of “what could have been.” Simply put, to use hyperbole for the hundredth  (and certainly not the last) time this article, Ran is one of the most visually gorgeous and aesthetically rich films ever composed on screen. A tragic symphony in its adaptation of King Lear, yet a spectacular crescendo to his career nonetheless, oft-celebrated as his last definitive masterpiece. Kurosawa’s mastery of narrative, performance, and majestic scope are all present, though it is through his visuals that the power of the film, like much of his work, is fully revealed. Epic, quite frankly, doesn’t entirely do Ran justice.

High and Low (1963)

If Drunken Angel was Kurosawa’s first foray into film noir, Stray Dog invented the buddy cop genre, and 1960’s The Bad Sleep Well reinvented Hamlet into yet another masterpiece, then it’s only fitting that Kurosawa’s final take on film noir is, very aptly, the greatest one ever made. The on-screen combination of Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune is an electrifying blend of actors at the peak of their game, and they each play an integral role in the deliberately split structure of the film: half set in the esteemed halls of a wealthy executive’s home, overlooking the impoverished below, and half set in the seedy streets that gives said impoverished a home. An exploration of the duality of good and evil, rich and poor, “High and Low,” is compelling in its own right, but ultimately just serves as the backdrop for one of the most compelling mysteries ever put to screen. It blends the character work of Drunken Angel with the tension of Stray Dog and the cinematic mastery long-since perfected by The Bad Sleep Well into a visually spectacular, emotionally challenging, and thoroughly engrossing masterpiece. It is without a doubt Kurosawa’s greatest film.

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