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Kurosawa Akira

Asiaweek Pictures
BORN: March 23, 1910, in Tokyo
1943: Directs his first feature film, Sanshiro Sugata (Judo Saga)
1951: Rashomon, about four conflicting accounts of a crime, wins the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion and the Oscar for best foreign film in the U.S.
1971: Suicide attempt, slashing arms and neck
1975: Second Oscar for Dersu Uzala
1990: Oscar for lifetime achievement
1998: Died in Tokyo; posthumously given Japan's People's Honor Award

A fiery-eyed samurai pinned to a wall by an unceasing hail of arrows. An old man playing on a children's swing, singing low to himself as snow dapples his long, gray coat. Mud-caked mercenaries clashing swords under the lash of an unforgiving rain. Cinema is arguably the art form of the 20th century. With films like Throne of Blood, Ikiru and The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa Akira provided us with many of its most indelible images.

In his half-century of filmmaking, Kurosawa by turns thrilled, incensed and bemused critics and audiences alike. Two decades of box-office magic were followed by three where he could hardly get a movie made. The director knew awards and acclaim, but also disdain, failure and suicidal depression. Yet the 31 movies he left behind at his death in 1998 are consistent in one thing: a mastery of form and content that earned him an undisputed place as one of the greatest directors since motion pictures began in 1895.

It was with a rape and murder that Kurosawa sprang to international acclaim. Rashomon (1950), in which four characters give conflicting accounts of a violent crime, exposed the West to an entire new aesthetic. In 1951 the picture scooped the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Oscar for best foreign film in the U.S. The West's ardor for Kurosawa's work has lasted throughout and beyond his life. There would be two further Oscars and a Cannes Palme d'Or. Flattery would come in both imitation and Hollywood remakes of Kurosawa films.


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

Critics in Japan were not so adoring. Its golden age of cinema had been largely built on the refined, pastoral calm of Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujiro. Kurosawa was brash in comparison, pasting elements of Western style onto the traditional visual poetry of his elders. A love of Dostoevsky and Shakespeare gave his characters a psychological depth which allowed him to slyly challenge the givens of his society: duty and honor. The more purist critics sniped at the pioneering style. Rashomon, featuring a feral bandit and stiff convention-bound couple, was criticized for portraying a backward Japan to the world. With The Seven Samurai and other feudal epics, Kurosawa was accused of peddling the samurai tradition as exotica for Westerners.

The charges were unfair. As a young assistant director, Kurosawa attended a double feature where a foreign movie and a Japanese one were shown together. He watched despairingly as a woman read a book throughout the home-grown picture. "Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice," he once remarked, a jibe at Ozu's The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice. Kurosawa set out to make spicier fare that every Japanese would love. And succeeded. Contrary to the West's perception of Kurosawa as a prophet unappreciated in his own land, every one of a dozen films, from Rashomon to Red Beard 15 years later, was a smash hit.

As Kurosawa grew in stature, so did tales of his eccentricities. Shooting would be held up for a week while "the Emperor" waited for a perfect cloud. In The Seven Samurai, the final battle scene used eight cameras and was shot at the expense of the director's toes, frostbitten from days stood in freezing mud. But by the late 1960s Kurosawa's costly standards were unaffordable as color TV seduced the public. In 1970 he made Dodes'ka-den, his first color film, on a shoestring budget. Its tale of impoverished urban outcasts fell flat as audiences turned to sensational gangster flicks and treacly family dramas. As the money dried up and the studio system collapsed, the dejected director attempted suicide, slashing himself 21 times.

Recuperating, Kurosawa was invited to Moscow to shoot Dersu Uzala (1975), a story of a Soviet army officer, in Russian. It won him his second Oscar and launched a new chapter in his career. Championed by luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Kurosawa found finance in the West. After Dersu Uzala was Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior), winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1980, and Ran (Chaos, 1985), an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear which won him an Academy Award nomination for best director - a feat almost unheard of for a foreign-language film. In 1990 came a lifetime achievement Oscar and the cementing of the Kurosawa legend.

His legacy is projected on the screen at every multiplex. In 1964, Rashomon was reshot scene-for-scene as The Outrage, which starred Paul Newman. Kurosawa's epic masterpiece The Seven Samurai (1954) became the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven. Know George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) and you can guess the plot of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958).

But Kurosawa's most lasting influence has been on succeeding generations of Asian filmmakers. "Kurosawa tells me to keep my own Chinese character and style," while embracing the outside world, wrote director Zhang Yimou in a recent Time magazine appreciation. "That is his great lesson for Asian filmmakers." As cinema enters its second century, the links that Kurosawa Akira forged between Asia and the West continues to enrich the medium he loved and mastered. Long live the Emperor.

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