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Ease your way into the films of Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon
RashomonThe Criterion Collection

The films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) can be intimidating owing to their scope, length and subject matter. Here is one way for the uninitiated to ease into his work:

One Wonderful Sunday (1947). A plotless confection about a young couple with little money who improvise their own memorable day-long Sunday date, One Wonderful Sunday is an atypically light and happy film for Kurosawa. While it contains little drama or action, the film is enjoyable thanks to the leads, Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita, who bring just the right light touch to their roles. Nowhere near as heavy as many later Kurosawa films, One Wonderful Sunday makes a good starting point for exploration of the director’s work.

Rashomon (1950). The film that made Akira Kurosawa the first Japanese director to become famous outside his own country, Rashomon tells the story of the murder of a husband and the rape of his wife, as recalled by four different witnesses. Each witness has a completely different memory of what happened, turning the film from a “whodunit?” to a “who knows?” by the end. The film features a good sampling of Kurosawa’s stock players, including Takashi Shimura, an amazing actor more recognized today by average movie fans for his work in Godzilla movies, and Toshiro Mifune, who became the most recognized Japanese actor in the world soon after this film.

Yojimbo (1961). One of Kurosawa’s most popular films, Yojimbo is essentially an American western (Kurosawa was a huge fan of director John Ford) transferred to 1860 Japan. Toshiro Mifune stars as an unnamed samurai who enters a town with two warring and corrupt factions, and plays them against each other until all hell breaks loose. With its perfect blend of action, drama and comedy, Yojimbo is one of Kurosawa’s most popular movies, and was remade almost scene for scene in 1964 by Sergio Leone as the western For a Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood in the Mifune part.

Seven Samurai (1954). Possibly Kurosawa’s most influential film, Seven Samurai was the director’s reaction to what he saw as the blandness of many Japanese films. A huge, nearly four hour long film, Seven Samurai follows the story of a group of farmers who, afraid of being attacked by bandits at harvest time, hire seven samurai to protect their valley. This film inspired several quasi-remakes including the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), the science fiction film Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and the animated A Bug’s Life (1998), all of which feature a community in peril who hire an outside group to protect them from harm.

Once you have worked your way through these four films, and assuming you enjoyed them, you may be ready for some of Akira Kurosawa’s other works. These would include Ikiru (1952) starring Takashi Shimura as a dying bureaucrat who longs to find meaning to his life before he dies; Drunken Angel (1948), with Shimura as an alcoholic doctor treating a violent small-time gangster (Mifune) for tuberculosis in post-war Japan; Throne of Blood (1957), an eerie retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth using elements of Japanese Nōh drama; and Ran (1985), yet another retelling of a Shakespeare play, this time King Lear, starring longtime Kurosawa player Tatsuya Nakadai as an aging head of a clan who transfers his power to his three sons, leading to tragic consequences for all. This film, Kurosawa’s last epic, is notable for one of the finest battle scenes ever filmed.