After his success with Sanshiro Sugata Akira Kurosawa (黒澤明) began work on his second production The Most Beautiful. This would be a propaganda film about female factory workers. In order to get more realistic performances out of his actors and actresses, he had them live in the factory, eat the same food as factory workers, and call each other by thier character names throughout the shoot.
While filming many of the actors became tired with this style, and elected one of the actresses, Yoko Yoguchi, to bring speak to the director. These two would argue and argue, and soon marry. They remained together until her death in 1985. In an interview with thier daughter, Kazuko. She would talk about how when she asked her father how she and her mother fell in love, he would tell her one story, and her mother would tell her a completely different story, while others who worked with them would tell her that neither story was true. Seeing that this is the life of the man who would go on to create Rashomon, it makes sense (art immitates life).
Throughout the war Akira had to make films that would pass through the strict censorship rules that Japan had throughout the war. He would battle to maintain some semblence of creative control, but he had next to none. He had to make a sequel to his debut film, but due to the strict censorship rules Sanshiro Sugata 2 is often considered his weakest film.
In the years after World War Two, Akira would direct several films, but his next breakout film would be Drunken Angel. Drunken Angel is the story of an alchoholic doctor (played by Takeshi Shimura), who begins to treat a young gangster Matsunaga. The two would go on to become friends and try to help eachother. For the role of the young gangster, Akira would cast the then unknown actor Toshiro Mifune. This would be the first of 16 film collaborations between the two. Mifune would shock audiences with his electrifying and raw performance. Many compared him to Marlon Brando. Throughout the 40’s Kurosawa and Mifune would make several popular and successful movies. But it would be his second movie in 1950, that would change everything.
In August of 1950, Kurosawa would release the classic Rashomon. This is the story of a murder of a samurai, and the rape of his wife. But the movie is told through several different perspectives, and the “truth” is never made clear.
This is the first movie that would get the attention of viewers around the world. Many directors mention that it was while watching Rashomon that they decided to become movie makers. Without Kurosawa’s knowledge, Rashomon was entered into the prestigious Venice Film Festival, where it took the film’s highest prize. Now and international phenomenon, Kurosawa would make his next movie Ikiru. This is the tale of a Tokyo bureaucrat who finds out that he has cancer. He then goes on a journey to find a purpose to his life. In my opinion, this is Kurosawa’s greatest film, and I think it is the greatest film of all time. After the smashing success of Ikiru, Akira would take his same team from Ikiru, and make an entirely different movie; the masterpeice Seven Samurai. Do I even need to tell you the story of this movie? It is a true classic, that has influenced nearly every action movie since, and has been remade many times ins several genres. It was also the most expensive movie in Japanese cinema to that time. It is considered by many as the greatest Japanese movie ever made. Kurosawa would continue his steamroller of success with Throne of Blood, an adaptation of William Shakespear’s Macbeth. Near the end of this movie, the main character, played by Toshiro Mifune, is shot at by archers. While filming, Akira had professional archers shooting real arrows at Mifune. So the fear you see on Mifune’s face is all real. After a string of darker, more pessimistic movies Kurosawa would change gears again and direct the more light-hearted, comedic, action movie The Hidden Fortress. This story of a princess, with her brave knight protector, battling an evil ruler with 2 bumbling thieves, would influence a very young George Lucas. He would go on to create Star Wars.
Since Rashomon Akira’s movies kept getting bigger and bigger. The larger a movie’s budget gets, the more the film’s producers ring thier hands and try to get involved in production. So in order to keep more control, Kurosawa created his own production company. The second film of the Kurosawa Production Company would be the action classic Yojimbo. This is the story of a masterless, nameless samurai. He wanders into a town being ripped apart by two rival gangs. He plays the gangs off eachother, for his own benefit, but finds his weakness: he has a heart. Yojimbo is another film that has had an inestimably large influence on cinema since. It has been remade as Sergio Lione’s A Filstful of Dollars, which would go on to make Clint Eastwood’s career, and the mafia action movie Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis.
Throughout the 1950s, Akira Kurosawa was at the top of the world. But what goes up, must come back down. Akira would soon enter his darkest period.
Related: The Director Akira Kurosawa: Early Life
Related: “Ikiru”: Consequences of an Unexamined Life
Related: Seven Samurai: The Godfather of Action-Adventure Movies
Related: 7 Enjoyments of Rashomon