The argument in the film nerd world for the greatest Japanese filmmaker ever comes down to two names, Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu. Both excellent choices. For me, Kurosawa is the master. He was far more diverse in his movie making style and went through multiple strifes in life including an attempted suicide in the middle of shooting his first big-budget Hollywood movie “Tora, Tora, Tora!” From supreme samurai action to light hearted comedy to heart warming tails, Kurosawa covered it all. These are my Top 7 Akira Kurosawa Movies of all time.
7. “Yojimbo” (1961):
Kurosawa collaborated with the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune on several occasion. They were Japan’s version of America’s Scorsese and DeNiro. Never was Mifune more of a badass than his role in “Yojimbo”. A film remade in America several times, as most Kurosawa classics are, Mifune plays Sanjuro. He is a crafty rogue samurai warrior who comes to a town plagued by gang leadership. Two rival criminal organizations are at war with the average citizens caught in the middle. Sanjuro, clearly the most skilled swordsmith, plays both groups like puppets by convincing them that he works for both of them, all the while getting the bad guys to kill each other off and free an oppressed town of innocent people. Way before “John Wick” came along, the ultimate killer with a moral compass was in “Yojimbo”.
6. “High and Low” (1963):
“High and Low” is perhaps Kurosawa’s most complicated piece in his cannon. Straying away from swords and sandals action, we find Mifune playing a well-off shoe salesman in the early 60’s. He becomes a victim of extortion when he receives a call saying his son has been kidnapped. Turns out, it is his chauffeurs son who was taken by accident instead. The kidnappers still insist on the large ransom sum for the child’s freedom. Obviously the driver cannot afford to rescue the child, but his boss can. The large sum of money being asked could also cripple his company as a new business deal is about to be finalized. It becomes an understandable moral dilemma as the child held hostage is not his own. When the police become involved an entirely different side dimension to this story begins. “High and Low” explores the ins and outs of what human decency truly is and the tough decisions life throws at you, and it does so without judgement.
5. “Throne of Blood” (1957):
The greatest playwright in history William Shakespeare was always a huge influence for Kurosawa, basing many of his films on the man’s work. The first of two such works on this list is based on the classic “Macbeth”. The filmmaker transported the British based play to ancient China with “Throne of Blood”. After securing a major victory on the battlefield, Taketoti Washizu (Toshiro Mifune once again) is lost in the forest before stumbling upon a spirit-like truth see-er. The strange being informs Washizu that he will one day be the great lord of the coveted ‘Spider’s Wed Castle’ soon. Washizu has no desire to become a Great Lord, but his wife basically twists his arm to rise to power. Not the best decision as his former comrades eventually become enemies, resulting in a bloody climactic battle. “Throne of Blood” was huge historically for the country. It was the first movie in Japan in which an entire authentic replica castle set was made for shooting. A filmmaker known for grandeur, this was one of his most awe-inspiring.
4. “Ikiru” (1952):
“Ikiru” is a straight up heart warmer. Many critics call it Japan’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Takashi Shimura plays Kanji Watanabe, a long time city office employee who does nothing but work and live a boring life outside of it. Needless to say he is a bit of a grouch. He gets the news that he is dying of cancer and has little time left to live. This invigorates the old man as he starts to experience bits of life, such as spending a night on the town with a crazy popular novelist and going on a date sorta-speak with a woman from the office. But in the end, Watanabe realizes he can make a difference before he goes. The longtime paper pushing bureaucrat makes it his mission to do something positive for the community, getting a beautiful new park built. His final swing set scene in the snow as he looks on the good he did is amazing. Plus the film is bookended by his fellow co-workers talking about the man and how they all can follow Watanabe’s lead and be better for their community. A great moral tale we could all learn from.
3. “Seven Samurai” (1954):
Certainly the most well known of Kurosawa’s work around the world, “The Seven Samurai” is the hands down definitive samurai picture. Many Americans will know this story better as the two different “The Magnificent Seven” remakes, with the first remake starring Steve McQueen being awesome and the new one with Denzel Washington being complete garbage. “The Seven Samurai” is how you do it when it comes to combining epic with exhilarating action. A small village of poor farmers is constantly being raided by a group of bandits. Four members of the village go to the main town nearby and convince “Seven Samurai” to help in battling off the bandits whenever they arrive next and save the village. Led by the older Ronin fighter Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura again), the group battles off the thugs that believe they can take what they want from those beneath them. A climactic showdown in the rain is jaw-dropping good cinema. From beginning to end “The Seven Samurai” is a blueprint for thrilling entertainment.
2. “Ran” (1985):
Obviously most of Kurosawa’s films are in Black & White. The man was making movies starting in WWII times. Bit of trivia, “Red Beard” was his first. A Russian produced fun romp as the higher-ups in Japan cinema were tired of the crazy filmmaker and sent him packing. Once he got back on good terms with his home countries’ production companies Kurosawa made several excellent color films to close out his career. Undoubtedly his best was “Ran”. Once again based on a piece by Shakespeare in ‘King Lear’, “Ran” was an epic and his most expensive film ever. An elderly warlord named Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is ready to retire and give away his empire to his three sons. Turns out, the kids are willing to proverbially slit each others throats for power over the entire kingdom. The three separate houses go to war back and forth then back and forth again, driving the former Lord into insanity as he watches his children destroy each other. “Ran” is an amazing example of how a great filmmaker can adapt and still produce perfection. From the battles to the exquisite costumes to the chilling acting, it makes one wonder what he could have done if color was available to him earlier. And keep in mind, Kurosawa was 80 years old when he made this!
1. “Rashoman” (1950):
This was the game changer for one of the greatest directors ever. The man had already made 11 films, most notably the great “Drunken Angel”. But “Rashoman” is the one that truly turned the tide not just for Kurosawa but also for Japanese cinema post-WWII. The Oscar for best Foreign Language Film was created because of this movie winning an “Honorary” Oscar in 1951. The simple story of a thief murdering a samurai and raping his bride to be is not that simple. Everyone is questioned including the spirit of the dead samurai and a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the event. None of the four stories matchup. You have to decide, which was a concept audiences in the 1950’s were not accustom to. However, all four accounts of the incident are thrilling and could each be their own films. This is a compound version of Kurosawa’s brilliance. Four stories put together into one idea, and it works beautifully.