Ran is almost invariably described as legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s samurai version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. And why not? The story was originally stimulated by a story Kurosawa came across about the Sengoku-era warlord Mōri...
Akira Kurosawa was a Japanese film director and screenwriter, who is regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history. He directed 30 films during a career that spanned more than 50 years, and is responsible for bringing Japanese cinema to an international audience with films like Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). Several of his films have been remade as English language adaptations, and still others have provided inspiration for popular franchises like Star Wars (1977-2018). He is often cited as one of the most influential directors of his generation.
Kurosawa was born into a wealthy family with samurai ancestry in Tokyo. His father encouraged him to watch Western films from a young age, and encouraged his interest in the arts. He studied painting in Tokyo after high school, and moved in with his older brother, Heigo, who further encouraged him to study films. In 1935, Kurosawa submitted an application to Photo Chemical Laboratories (P.C.L.) in response to a call for assistant directors. The successful Japanese director Kajiro Yamamoto took an interest in him, insisting that the studio hire him and later personally mentoring him.
Kurosawa worked as an assistant director for the studio for 5 years, assisting with 24 films, 17 of which were made under Yamamoto. Yamamoto advised Kurosawa to work on his screenwriting skills, and Kurosawa would later write or co-write all of his own films. Kurosawa finally debuted as a director in 1942, after convincing P.C.L. to acquire the rights to a popular judo novel that year called Sanshiro Sugata. The film was produced under the same title and faced some censorship by the Japanese government for being too sympathetic toward British-American perspectives, but was ultimately released to commercial and critical success. In 1944 Kurosawa directed The Most Beautiful, a propaganda film about wartime female factory workers.
During the American occupation immediately after the war, Kurosawa's films focused (in part due to American censorship pressure) on ideas about democracy. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) criticized the oppression of Japan's pre-war government; it was commercially successful and became culturally important in the postwar years, despite having a mixed critical reception. His next film, One Wonderful Sunday (1947) dealt with the hardship of living in post-war Tokyo, and the same year a film written by Kurosawa (though directed by Senkichi Taniguchi) called Snow Trail introduced Toshiro Mifune to the screen, who would go on to act in sixteen out of Kurosawa’s seventeen next films.
In the 1950s, after a few years of wide recognition in Japan, Kurosawa's films began to reach an international audience. Rashomon (1950), a samurai film that follows a murder from four perspectives, was initially only moderately well-received in Japan, but was then submitted to the Venice Film Festival, without Kurosawa’s knowledge, by a representative of an Italian film company. It won the Golden Lion, the most prestigious award of the festival, and was distributed in the West, with particular success in the United States. This paved the way for many more of his films, as well as the films of other Japanese directors, to be distributed to international audiences. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, Kurosawa directed a new film nearly every year. He modeled Seven Samurai (1954) after American westerns, which he admired, and this movie itself was then remade as one of the most enduring American westerns, The Magnificent Seven (1960). It was also his first samurai movie, which became the genre for which he is most remembered, and its reputation grew over the decades following its release, to the point that it is now considered by some to be the best Japanese film ever made and appears on many lists of all-time greatest films.
Several of his films would be remade in the West, especially samurai films, which translated well to American westerns or spaghetti westerns (films made in Italy in the style of American westerns). Yojimbo (1961) would be remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which would itself have two sequels, A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which have become some of the most famous spaghetti westerns of all time. George Lucas would later name Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) as a major influence on the massively successful Star Wars franchise.
With Toho’s backing (and at their urging), Kurosawa started his own production company in 1959 so that he could work on larger and riskier projects without Toho having to be completely financially responsible for any losses. He then took on several riskier and more expensive projects, many of which proved massive successes, such as The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), and Red Beard (1965).
Kurosawa moved to Hollywood in the late 1960s, and his career entered a sharp decline. His first project, Runaway Train, was eventually cancelled after several setbacks. He had trouble raising money for his projects. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), a film about the Pearl Harbor bombing that was to be told from the perspectives of both the Japanese and US soldiers, proved a massive setback for him, as the studio first cut down the Japanese portion of the film and then removed him from the project over creative differences. In 1971, after many artistic and financial setbacks, he attempted suicide but made a full recovery.
He staged a revival as a filmmaker when the Soviet studio Mosfilm asked him to help direct Dersu Uzala (1975). It received mixed critical reviews, with some labeling it further evidence of his decline and others calling it one of his most brilliant films. It was appreciated by international audiences, though less so in Japan, and won the Golden Prize at the 9th Moscow International Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Several directors who admired his work were responsible for helping him make a full comeback. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped him produce Kagemusha (1980), which was an international critical success, and French producer Serge Silberman produced Ran (1985), which Kurosawa would point to as his greatest film. Stephen Spielberg helped him secure financing for Rhapsody in August (1991).
Kurosawa is notable for structuring shots to create dynamic images and compositions. He is considered a master of movement, using environmental movement, directed movement, and camera movement to hold the viewers' attention and draw them to certain aspects of a scene. He was considered to have a painterly eye as a filmmaker, likely because of his background as a visual artist, carefully constructing each shot to stand alone as a beautiful image. He was honored with the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1990.
Study Guides on Works by Akira Kurosawa
Even if you have never heard of Rashomon, you are still likely familiar with the plot of this 1950 Japanese film directed by the master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Television shows as diverse as All in the Family, The X-Files and King of the Hill...
During the occupation of Japan by U.S forces following its surrender at the end of World War II, samurai films fell out of favor. The controlling U.S. political machine looked unkindly on the samurai code of Bushido, which required allegiance to...