Learn about creating “Cinematic Beauty” and the cultural role of movies from Akira Kurosawa, one of the world’s greatest directors.

This introduction to Akira Kurosawa provides the student with a quick but thorough exposure to this talented artist.

Introduction

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was a Japanese movie director whose movies were enjoyed all over the world. Although he made over 30 movies with a wide range of themes and settings to considerable acclaim, he humbly claimed always to be a student of movies trying to learn and understand more about how they work.

Kurosawa did not write a treatise on how to make movies. However, his autobiography and interviews given over the years include many thoughts about the nature of cinematic beauty, movie making, and some advice to beginners.

Late in life, Kurosawa considered Ran as his best movie. However, several of his movies have been influential in many different ways. The subjectivity of recollections about an event witnessed by different observers is now sometimes named “The Rashomon Effect” after Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The Hidden Fortress provided inspiration for the Star Wars series of movies. Seven Samurai may be Kurosawa’s best loved movie, and was 17th in the critic’s 2012 Sight and Sound poll of best all-time movies.

Fantasy screen worlds in feudal Japan, contemporary settings, current topics, Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa was at home everywhere.

Kurosawa Stats

Movies Directed

Movies in the Top 250

Award Wins

Movie Insights in this Book

How does this introduction aid students?

  1. It collects Kurosawa’s many insightful ideas and astute observations about movie making in one place.
  2. It organizes these ideas and observations according to the movie making process.
  3. It contains reflections on some of Kurosawa’s ideas.
  4. It concludes with a unique analysis of several Kurosawa movies.

Topics Covered

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On the Nature of Movies

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On the Audience for Movies

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On Sources or Script Material

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On a Director's Mindset

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On Shooting Movies

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On Sound or Music

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On Acting

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On Editing

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On the End to Keep in Sight

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An Extended Analysis of Select Movies

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On the Nature of Movies

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On the Audience for Movies

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On Sources or Script Material

N

On a Director's Mindset

N

On Shooting Movies

N

On Sound or Music

N

On Acting

N

On Editing

N

On the End to Keep in Sight

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An Extended Analysis of Select Movies

Preview

Preface

All students of movies, movie making or 20th Century history can learn interesting and useful things from Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998.) So also can those interested in the treatment of philosophical or social issues in popular culture.

Kurosawa directed 30 movies. He is credited with 26 screenplays. From time to time, he also had an ownership interest in various production companies. Widely acknowledged as among the front rank of moviemakers, his movies consistently find their way onto “best all time” lists created by both fans, critics and fellow directors.

This shawnswanky.com introduction to Kurosawa focuses on his reflections about the art of movie making. In addition, however, we should note some of his usual habits and innovations.

Kurosawa sought what he described as “cinematic beauty.” In doing so, he hoped to produce tears, laughter and other manifestations of a cathartic experience among this audience. “Catharsis” refers to a cleansing, purging or exercising of emotion. Seeking such experiences is one of the fundamental reasons that human beings attend dramatic performances in almost every culture. Whether our motives are opportunistic, healing, educational, or too complex to express easily, seeking catharsis seems a central feature of human nature. Kurosawa understood the search for emotional effect as the primary purpose of creating movies.

Very optimistic about human nature until after Redbeard, Kurosawa believed movies could motivate people to understand each other better, to reduce harm and to improve social relations. The privilege of making movies, then, creates a duty to the audience. He considered it morally wrong to make movies simply for entertainment or with a primary aim to produce profits. On his view, along with creating the opportunity for catharsis, a moviemaker should consider the work’s implicit teaching or its potential for beneficial social impacts. Notwithstanding this general position, a great fan, Kurosawa usually can be found praising individual movies rather than disapproving specific works of other creators.

Trained as a painter, Kurosawa began his career in the movie industry as a screenwriter. Indeed, he continued creating scenarios and scripts to the end. Notwithstanding a justifiable confidence in his own abilities, on his own projects he typically collaborated with two or three other writers. He did this as a check against some one aspect or character becoming unbalanced in proportion to the whole. Resisting the unfortunate effects of personal ego was a habit in his life as well as a theme in his work. This underscores his belief that beauty in a movie performance requires proportion in allocations of both time and screen power.

Kurosawa was very much a hands-on director. In addition to creating scenarios, supervising the set and directing actors, Kurosawa did most of his own editing. In fact, he would edit at the end of each day, partly for the advantage of instructing actors and crew about what they were trying to achieve the following day. This also allowed him to meet tight schedules: for example, despite a fire at the studio, he began shooting Rashomon July 7, wrapped on August 17 and premiered it August 25.

Kurosawa is known for “axial cuts” in editing. Here the audience is moved through the action not by tracking shots or dissolves but by a series of jump cuts. He also sometimes fragments the action in a scene by removing parts of a single motion. Each of these effects shows how untroubled he was, in contrast to some European directors, about reproducing real or natural life motions.

Kurosawa used the freedom he won through success to innovate whenever he believed it would help build emotional effects. He sometimes employed silent screen techniques as an aid to the theme. He used long lenses and multiple cameras for more options and unique vantage points. He frequently disregarded the 180-degree axis that movies typically honor to keep from disorienting the audience. He sometimes used wipes, a line or bar crossing the screen, as a form of punctuation marking a scene’s end. He commonly used extremes of weather as aids to the plot, not necessarily only as metaphors. He favored counter-point between images and sounds. He believed that sorrow was magnified, not diminished, when reminders of joy or delight accompanied sad or awful images. It is not just dying that is sad, it is worse to imagine never again enjoying love and laughter.

All these features make Kurosawa’s movies unique. While apparently endorsing the basic concept, Kurosawa also says in a note reproduced below, “The art of cinema has been called an art of (sculpting in) time. But time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but a waste of time.” In seeking to maximize the power of each moment, Kurosawa shows his great respect for movie audiences.

Kurosawa did not write a treatise on making movies. However, his 1981 memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, (Trans. Audie E. Brock, Vintage Books) included thoughts about the nature of cinematic beauty, movie making and notes on some of his early movies. This has an appendix of “Random Notes” published earlier as advice to young movie makers. Those notes have been condensed and reordered here according to the issues arising at each stage of the movie making process. To these have been added his observations about movie making as expressed in interviews given over the years and collected in Akira Kuosawa Interviews, (Ed. Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2008.)

What other movie lovers think about Kurosawa.

One of the great filmmakers of the 20th century.

– George Lucas

A true visionary…for students and film lovers all over the world.

– Steven Spielberg

Kurosawa’s films have an awe-inspiring power.

– Martin Scorsese

A note from the author.

“The thing I remember about discovering Kurosawa is his sense of the importance for spectacle in a movie,” says Shawn. “Almost all his movies have grand scenes in which the viewer can become completely lost. He’s a great moviemaker. Incredibly, Kurosawa also had such faith in people and in the power of movies that he believed moviemakers could help create a better world. I admire his passion.”

Discover more about Shawn here.

How to Improve Your Movie Literacy with Akira Kurosawa

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