Wow. What a phenomenal question. Little do you know, dear reader, that I am the perfect person to ask such a question. You really crushed it.
Throughout quarantine, I have been tearing through my favorite film director’s filmography – which is rather immense. Clocking in at 30 films, with a career spanning 57 years, Akira Kurosawa’s body of work is breathtaking, sculpted, bursting at the seams with the sheer flexing of filmmaking muscle. It is quite the body. Which is exactly why Akira Kurosawa was given the Academy Award for Greatest Bodybuilder in 1969 (no citation; this is not true).
For myself at the onset of quarantine, the answer to the already neglected question I posed with the title of this essay was simple – the beginning. I began with Kurosawa’s first film Sanshiro Sugata, a sports drama about a young man who becomes debatably the best Judo martial artist in Japan – though I remain confident that were I around, I could very well kick his ass in half.
However, in the spirit of the very same agility and shiftiness employed by the very same Sanshiro Sugata (from the very same film Sanshiro Sugata), I must juke you out, dear reader, and say that I cannot recommend you begin your inevitable Kurosawa Quest with Sanshiro Sugata. Though certainly an inoffensive piece of filmmaking, Sanshiro Sugata is truly a foundational piece for our beloved Kurosawa and holds more value as a document in his historic filmmaking trajectory than a standalone piece.
So, now we are all asking, “Will Seth just answer the god-damn question?” Yes. And I will be answering it in the most unsatisfactory way imaginable. With a fury-inducing, “Well… it depends.”
Let us begin with the genre of Action, the genre (along with drama) that Kurosawa most frequently visited. The obvious answer is to begin with Kurosawa’s most famous and beloved epic Seven Samurai. An action-packed yet emotional journey and masterclass in directing, editing, and acting – Seven Samurai is one of the most beloved action films in film history for a reason. It is also one of many films in Kurosawa’s filmog that have had elements ripped endlessly by other filmmaker’s globally, and in the case of the beloved Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven,almost directly re-made with no writing credit given to Kurosawa. Notably, Kurosawa responded to this slight with pure class, and reportedly enjoyed the film so much that he presented director John Sturges with a ceremonial sword… LODGED IN HIS BACK!!!
(this is also un-true, Akira Kurosawa did not ever commit murder, I think)
Let us say you do not have much of an action attraction, no need to worry. For all you TNT fans, yes, all you Drama Mama’s (fans of drama) look no further than Ikiru. Ikiru is a film about an aging Japanese bureaucrat who is diagnosed with cancer, and in his final days he decides to do all that he can to get a neighborhood playground built. It is debatably the most gut-wrenching film I have seen, but I do not mean this in the same way that, say, a war film wrenches your gut. Nor do I mean this in the way that Taco Bell and 4 gin and tonics wrenches your gut. Rather, Ikiru instills a beautifully somber hope within the viewer by its conclusion, even encouraging self-evaluation in one’s own life for the better – such as the best films can do. I cannot recommend this film enough, as when I first viewed it, it ignited within my 17-year-old self a small bonfire that would soon grow completely out of control and form a roaring inferno of flames found only within the heart of a fully-fledged film freak.
Let’s say you are a romantic, shall we? Well firstly, I might recommend William Shakespeare’s classic 1500s indie novel Romeo & Juliet, and once you finish that I must recommend Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known, yet brilliant and hopeful 1947 Romance-drama film One Wonderful Sunday. A gorgeous film about a young couple in a war-ravaged Tokyo trying to make the most of a weekend with very little money between the two of them. As is standard in most Kurosawa pictures, this film is not pigeon-hole-able as a pure romance film. Its setting quite obviously denies that. However, the two inexperienced lead actors in this film act their entire hearts out and it is impossible to not fall in love with their relationship, and lovers of joy will be unable to hold back a grin of delight at this film’s stunning conclusion.
Let us say that you are perhaps a Western fanatic! You dressed as a cowboy every year for Halloween and blasted a shoddy .mp3 of Kid Rock’s 1998 single “Cowboy” right off your flip phone’s speakers every morning on the bus-ride to school and got in trouble for hog-tying your best friend David one day because he broke your copy of Red Dead Redemption. Well, if you are the person I have described, I have the perfect recommendation for you…
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, although not a western, provided the blueprint for so many beloved westerns to follow. Very notably including the Dollars trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone and starring Richard Jewell’s Clint Eastwood of Richard Jewell fame – A Fistful of Dollars,by the way, being another “unofficial remake” with no Kurosawa credit given. The origin of the endlessly clever, nameless film protagonist with strong morals had its roots in Yojimbo and as you might well know transcended into multiple genres beyond the western and the samurai film. Yojimbo puts on display an oft-seen director trademark for Kurosawa in one of my favorite ways, with strong gusts of wind blasting dust and debris (soon to be famously replaced by the most prolific star of many Western films – tumbleweeds) directly into the slew of bandits and mercenaries that have found a home in the film’s setting – a dilapidated town in the final years of Japan’s Edo Period. And if this film really got your blood pumping, boy do I have a treat for you… a sequel film by the name of Sanjuro was released following the success of Yojimbo, and it is truly just as superb a film.
“But Seth, I only like films in color.” Well, you psychopath, go and watch Kagemusha, a film less mentioned than one of Kurosawa’s other color masterpieces Ran. Kagemusha displays some of the most brilliant use of color you will witness in film. Absolutely stunning for a director who lived in the realm of black and white films for so long.
If you have not seen all of the films I have mentioned above, then I do truly envy you dear reader. You have what I view as the most exciting lineup of films to tear through and if you follow my official guide, I guarantee that you will be satisfied. Additionally, if you watch any Kurosawa film ever and even if I do not even know who you are, feel free to talk to me about the wonderful man known only as The ‘Saw-ster – I would be delighted!