Throughout the 1950s, Akira Kurosawa (黒澤明) was riding the high wave of critical and financial success. He was already one of the hottest directors in the world. The American film company 20th Century Fox was planning a huge military epic movie titled “Tora Tora Tora!”, this was planned to be a film depicting the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American side directed by an American director, and the Japanese side directed by a Japanese director.
Fox approached Kurosawa and asked him to direct the Japanese half of the movie. He was led to believe that the American director would be the prestigious English director David Lean and that he would have a lot of freedom. This was Kurosawa’s first film outside of Japan.
Kurosawa put a lot of thought and effort in preparing for this film. He had very high hopes that this would be his magnum opus. He hands his writing team created a screenplay that would run over 4 hours, and they hoped would fairly represent the Japanese Empire’s strategy to world audiences. But when filming began, things quickly fell apart. Akira was shocked to find out that his favored David Lean would not be directing the American half. It was to be directed by a formerly unknown, first-time director. This irked Kurosawa to no end. When he brought his complaints to the studio, he was treated (in his opinion) very rudely. In Japan, directors are very well respected by studios and producers, but in America directors are often treated very poorly. Furthermore, the movie’s budget and running time were cut. These things and the studios meddling with his script drove Kurosawa crazy. At one point, purely out of spite, he left the camera running for hours pointing at an empty area of water, wasting hundreds of yards of the studio’s most expensive film. Eventually, the studio kicked him off the project, and none of the footage he shot would ultimately be used in the film. Broken and dejected Kurosawa returned to Japan.
Akira’s spotless record was severely tarnished by the bungle that was “Tora Tora Tora”. So he wanted to make a quick critically, and commercially successful movie to show that he still had the chops to be a contender. But his next film Dodesukaden, despite being Kurosawa’s first full-color film, was tepidly received by both audiences and critics. The association that he put together to fund the movie would go under. Unable to find funding for new projects, suffering from some health problems, and feeling no hope for the future, Kurosawa sliced open his wrists and throat.
Despite the effort, Akira survived the suicide attempt. He was not sure whether he would ever direct again. In 1973, the Soviet movie studio Mosfilm, eager to be recognized internationally, invited Kurosawa to work with them. Akira wanted to direct a film based on a work by Vladimir Arsenyev about a hunter who lives at one with nature until his quiet world is wrecked by the encroachment of civilization. He spent over a year and a half working on the film in Siberia. For the 63-year-old director, this was a very difficult shoot. But the film premiered worldwide to general applause. It would even go on to win the Academy Award for best Foreign Film. After this success, American filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom were greatly influenced by Kurosawa in their younger days, would use their newly acquired Hollywood heft to help Kurosawa get funding for his next two films.
First was Kagemusha. The story of a Japanese warlord’s body double who ends up ruling in place of the lord when he suddenly dies. The film’s scale was truly epic. It included giant battle scenes, unlike any Kurosawa had filmed before. It was another massive success. Next, Akira would write another adaptation of a Shakespeare play King Lear and make one of his most iconic and successful films Ran. Ran is the story of a warlord who leaves his lands between his sons. It is a tragic tale of intrigue, passion, revenge, and tragedy. It is Kurosawa’s most tragically beautiful film. During the filming, Kurosawa’s wife Yoko passed away. After a short break, Akira returned to complete filming. Like Kagemusha and Dersu Uzala the film was very successful abroad, but in Japan these later, and arguably best, films were largely ignored.
In his final years, Kurosawa would make three more films. The very artistic Dreams based on Akira’s own dreams. Rhapsody in August the story of the scars of the Nagasaki bombings. And finally, Madadayo a surprising optimistic and slightly melodramatic tale that greatly departed from any of his other films. While these films were not so successful, that seemed less important to him. These films meant something for him. Until the very end Akira Kurosawa would continue working while he had to stop directing due to poor health conditions, he continued writing until the day he died. On September 6th, 1998 the humanity lost one of it’s greatest directors.
Akira Kurosawa was a seminal filmmaker in the history of the art. There are few other directors that can claim the influence that he has had. He has greatly influenced my life personally, his sense of humanity helped a teenage me understand Japan and Japanese culture. He is also responsible for some of my favorite films and franchises. I began to be interested in film (rather than just watching movies) after seeing his. I sincerely hope that Japan can produce another director of his quality in my lifetime.
Related: Akira Kurosawa: On the Golden age of the Japanese Cinema
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