Few Japanese artists have won the international attention and critical acclaim enjoyed by filmmaker Kurosawa Akira (b. 1910). His films span a career of over fifty years, and whether framed as period pieces or modern dramas, explore the elusive topography of self and society. The popularity of his films has led to their wide availability on video with English subtitles, and stimulated many books and essays of critical interpretations. This essay will present a brief introduction to Kurosawa’s life and work, followed by plans for teaching two of his well-known films in the college classroom: Ikiru (To Live), a 1952 film which offers a cynical look at life and its meanings in the post-war bureaucracy, and Rhapsody in August, a 1993 film that explores the nature of memory, especially in ways that people choose to remember and to forget the atomic bombings of Nagasaki.
KUROSAWA: A LIFE IN ART
Though Kurosawa made his career in film, his earliest artistic ambitions focused on painting and illustration. In 1936, forced to find a more lucrative profession, Kurosawa found work as an assistant film director trainee and succeeded so well in this form that he began directing entire films himself in the 1940s. His first film, Sugata Sanshiro, released in 1943, depicts in Buddhist terms a young man’s spiritual and physical path to becoming a judo expert. According to film historian Donald Richie, this film not only shows Kurosawa’s artistic independence (the director constantly fought with war-time censors who wanted the film to show nationalistic spirit and support for the war effort), but also reveals a major theme of Kurosawa’s work: the interplay of illusion and reality. The popularity of this film in Japan led to several more, some set in the past world of the warrior, such as Seven Samurai (1954), while others, such as No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) and Ikiru (1952), explore illusion and reality in post-war Japan, engaging the personal and political dimensions of social issues. Kurosawa’s first international success, as well as his first academy award, came in the early 1950s with Rashomon, a film which relates a crime through the accounts of three participants whose quite different perspectives on the event make the viewer wonder whether the notion of truth has any value at all.
Although many know Kurosawa as the most famous Japanese director, his works have both influenced and been influenced by Western arts. Seven Samurai (1954), for example, served as the model for The Magnificent Seven, while The Hidden Fortress (1958) greatly influenced Star Wars. Kurosawa found inspiration himself in foreign works, modeling Throne of Blood (1951) on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ran (1985) on King Lear, and The Idiot (1958) on Dostoevsky’s novel. As Kurosawa freely explores the western canon and Japanese culture, he both alludes to the possibility of universals in art (the grand questions) even as he exploits the particular (Japanese settings, their images and language).
Kurosawa never abandoned his love of painting but has often planned for his films by creating illustrations and paintings. Perhaps no other film evinces this attention to the “painted” as well as Dreams (1990), a film whose vivid, pre-production illustrations by Kurosawa inspired special exhibitions. Admired as much as these visual creations, the scripts of major Kurosawa films (Ikiru, Ran, Rashomon, Seven Samurai) have been translated into English.
Those interested in Kurosawa himself will enjoy reading his Something Like an Autobiography, a narrative rich with lively anecdotes about his childhood and his film career to 1950. Yet, as film scholar James Goodwin has observed, Kurosawa prefers to look forward to new work rather than backby the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990 for a lifetime of artistic achievement, Kurosawa commented that the honor had come too early in his career and promised that “I will continue to devote my entire being to understanding this wonderful art.” Clearly, the sheer variety of Kurosawa’s works provides a source of endless interpretation. While the lesson plans offered here come from college-level courses in Japanese literature, teachers working in high schools and adult education courses will also find the use of a Kurosawa film highly effective, either in creating a Japanese module in a world civilization or film course, or in a class devoted to Japanese culture.
Chang, K.W., ed. Kurosawa: Perceptions on Life, An Anthology of Essays. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1991.
Ernes, Patricia. Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979.
Goodwin, James, ed. Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa. Toronto: G.K. Hall, 1994.
Herbert, Bob. “A Nation of Nitwits.” The New York Times, 1 March, 1995, Sec.A, p. 15.
Hibbett, Howard, ed. Contemporary Japanese Literature. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1977.
Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Trans. by A. Bock. New York: Vintage, 1983.
———. Ikiru. New York: Ungar Publishing Co., 1988.
Mellen, Joan. The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan Through Its Cinema. New York: Pantheon, 1976.
Oe, Kenzaburo. A Personal Matter. Trans. by John Nathan. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1969.
———, ed. The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. New York: Grove Press, 1985.
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Sato, Tadao. Currents in Japanese Cinema. Trans. by G. Barre