Don’t say “who?”, or I swear to God, I will contact Liam Neeson, and he will find you, and he will kill you.
Arguably the most influential filmmaker that ever lived (I would have to say he’s in the discussion along with Hitchcock, Chaplin & John Ford) Akira Kurosawa directed over thirty films in a span of fifty years, and there’s not a dud among them. How many other directors can you say that about?
It’s difficult to select his top five films, if for no other reason than there are at least twenty films that have virtues which could easily earn them a spot in such a list.
Hit the break to view my Top 5 Akira Kurosawa Films.
Knowing that there are lots of readers who may be discovering Kurosawa for the first time, I decided to focus on his five most accessible films. These belong on any list of the greatest films ever made, but they’re also great enough to work their magic on first time viewers. That these films all fall within his most prolific period of the 1950’s and early 60’s is also no coincidence. All five of these films (and 21 others) are available on DVD & Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
5. Ikiru (1952)
Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, Ikiru tells the story of a wealthy bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) diagnosed with terminal cancer. Learning that the actions of his former employer have caused a cesspool in a neighborhood to go untreated, he decides to spend his remaining days on this earth transforming the cesspool into a playground.
While it lacks the finesse and subtlety of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, it is far and away Kurosawa’s most life-affirming and heartwarming film, and bears enough of his hallmarks to never feel manipulative. And the image of the dying man, sitting on the empty playground in the falling snow, is enough to soften even the hardest of hearts.
4. Throne of Blood (1957)
I wrestled between this and Ran, but I think this film is just a hair more accessible, if for no other reason than it’s a full hour shorter and the third act is a veritable orgy of violence and craziness.
One of Kurosawa’s favorite things to do was re-purpose the works of Shakespeare for his films, and Throne of Blood is his version of Macbeth by way of feudal samurai film. In one of his many collaborations with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune plays the Macbeth role, receiving the foretelling of his greatness in a fog covered forest, and meeting his end in a hail of arrows. The film is visually arresting, borrowing the formality of the Japanese theatre movement known as Noh, it is one of the most gorgeous films you can see, even if it’s in black and white.
3. Yojimbo (1961)
While certainly not his most copied and homaged film, Yojimbo has had its fair share of variations & remakes over the years. You may have seen these more than the original as they include 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars & 1996’s Last Man Standing.
Mifune stars as the eponymous stranger who wanders into a town as a hired hand, finding himself in the middle of a conflict he tries to play to his own advantage. The film is usually paired with the similar, but more overtly comical Sanjuro (1962), but Yojimbo is superior is virtually every way, particularly the fact that it’s vastly more entertaining. And, on top of everything else, it has one of the more memorable climaxes in film history.
2. Seven Samurai (1954)
If you’re intimidated by its length or its reputation, let me be the first to say, get over it. This is one of the few films that lives up to everything you’ve heard.
Remade countless times, the titular samurai are a ragtag band of mercenaries who are hired by some helpless villagers to stop a pack of bandits from pillaging their homes. Led by, who else, Mifune, the samurai are fully formed characters, each with his own peculiarities, insecurities & ambitions, and the film manages to feel simultaneously epic & intimate. It’s a masterpiece and a classic for a reason… you’ve seen the rest, now see the best.
1. Rashomon (1950)
One of the first Japanese films to ever to get noticed in the US, Rashomon may be based on a short story, but it is pure cinema.
Rashomon is about the murder of a samurai, the man accused of his murder, and the possible sexual assault of the samurai’s wife. However it is told through a flashback structure wherein four wildly varying accounts of the events are given equal credence and screen time, leaving it to the audience to decide what really happened. It may not seem revolutionary in this day and age, but when you consider the fact that this sort of thing had never even been dreamed of at the time, its significance in the history of cinema cannot be overstated.
Did I also mention that it’s damn entertaining & clocks in at a breezy 88 minutes? You’re doing yourself and cinema at large a disservice by not seeing this film, and once you see it, you’ll find yourself wanting to revisit it often, just to see who’s side you’re on.
Films that just missed the cut:
The Hidden Fortress (a must watch for all Star Wars fans)
Kagemusha (Produced by Francis Ford Coppola & George Lucas)