Akira Kurosawa | Sanshiro Sugata | The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail | Stray Dog | Scandal | The Idiot | The Bad Sleep Well | High and Low | Kagemusha The Shadow Warrior | Dreams | Rhapsody in August

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Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa is a major Japanese film director.

Sanshiro Sugata

Sanshiro Sugata (1943) was the first film that Kurosawa directed. It is one of his best. The title is the name of the lead character, a young man studying martial arts. Set in 1882, it is not quite the typical Japanese historical drama, which tends to take place much earlier, but its setting does invoke tradition, and the "old ways" of doing things.

The whole film is really beautiful to look at. It is a very enjoyable viewing experience, and shows Kurosawa's skills at their peak. The scene at the meadow at the end reminded me of the scene in Dreams, many years later, of the giant flowers. One of the most beautiful images in this film is of the lotus.

Construction in Scenes

The film breaks down into a series of scenes, each around 10 to 15 minutes long. Each scene is a mini drama, in Kurosawa's best style, a little self-contained play. Within each scene Kurosawa shows his great inventiveness with visual composition and camera angles. For example: Kurosawa's approach causes his film to have a different, and refreshing, pace from those of many other directors. Scenes do not follow as rapidly from each other, as they do in many other filmmakers. This gives Kurosawa a chance to explore each scene in depth, for its characterizations, drama, and ideas. In theory, it sounds as if this slower succession of scene changes should lead to a slow paced film. However, Kurosawa's continuous inventiveness with his camera, lends each scene in fact a fast pace, a sense that a lot new is always happening on screen.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) is a short film for Kurosawa, just an hour long, and made on a small budget. It is a good movie, and should be better known.

Large Scale Discussions in Kurosawa

Although a samurai film, it is the kind of drama found more often in Kurosawa's modern day films, such as Ikuru (1952), the first half of High and Low (1963) and Rhapsody in August (1991). All of these films are favorites of mine among Kurosawa's works. All of these dramas are in depth examinations of a group of characters and a single theme. They often have a restricted locale: High and Low spends an hour in the hero's living room, for example; here the location is a few areas in a mountain forest. Intellectually, I can recognize that these films are much slower paced than most movies. Action is slowed down, so that the characters can thoroughly explore some issue, which is discussed in depth. There are also rich character studies along the way. Emotionally, however, these films do not feel slow. On the contrary, they speed by like the wind, and are completely gripping.

Moving to Better Values, Rather than War

Tiger depends on two outstanding performance. Kenichi Enimoto is the comic porter. He gives a rich comic portrait of how an ordinary, working class guy looks at the upper crust samurai code. His performance opens the film, and gives a refreshing non standard twist to the usual solemnity of feudal epics. He is also a humane character: someone with non violent, non militaristic values who represents common human feelings, and rich everyday life. Denjiro Okochi plays the samurai leader, Benkei. His performance only slowly emerges during the film, and provides much of the dramatic substance, thematic meaning, and suspense of the later portions of the movie. He profoundly represents civilization. He expresses religious values. And also the richness of literature, with his complex poetic dialogue. These values, too, gradually subvert the samurai ethos of the characters in the film: an ethos that the pacifistic Kurosawa believes is wrong headed, a product of a superficial, mindlessly violent view of life. Kurosawa suggests that we should stand back from the conflicts of war, nationalism and other calamities of the modern world, and instead look subtly for much deeper and humane values. The patriotic and militaristic ideologies that support such war should be weighed against deeper religious and humane values, and be replaced.

Benkei's scheme at first is just represented as a device to get past the barrier. Gradually however, it seems to take on a life of its own. It causes new values and a new way of living to take over, and slowly replace the values and life style that have dominated the characters up to that time. Benkei never quite gives the show away: he never quite suggests that this is what he is consciously doing. It just happens, after a titanic struggle on his part.

The two characters he is trying to "deceive" by his stratagem are also strikingly paradoxical characters. The sympathetic magistrate is deceived by his stratagem, but only because he wants to be. He is a man with a deep desire to return to civilization after the ugliness of war. His militaristic associate is not deceived. In some ways, this would normally make the associate "smarter": after all, truth is an important value, and on the surface, this war mongering aide is in possession of the truth. However, it is the magistrate who knows what is important in life, and is deeply impressed by the values Benkei represents. The magistrate, like Benkei, also subverts the samurai ethos around him. He wants a return to values that have been lost in the fighting. His profession is a clue: he is not a soldier. Rather, he was a man whose job it was to uphold law and order in his province, presumably from a time before the war started. So his behavior represents a connection with a deep current of life: civilization and humane life.


The music in the film is unusual by Hollywood standards: songs whose lyrics directly comment on the action. It reminds one, to a degree, of Prokofiev's score for Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), which also has similar songs.


Two montages in this film are striking. Both involve quick cuts to a series of close-ups of the major characters: Both montages have considerable power.

Stray Dog

A Japanese Film Noir: Links to American Semi-Documentary Film

Stray Dog (1949) was inspired by the American film The Naked City (1948), according to interviews with Kurosawa. The Naked City (directed by Jules Dassin) is a police drama that used hidden camera photography to show real life images of crowds in New York City. It was part of a trend in American film during the 1945 - 1951 period, to make crime dramas that were realistic in detail and shot on location. Stray Dog has similar vivid photography of Tokyo. The photography is packed with crowds, who are seething through many of the shots.

Kurosawa's interviews state that the film is showing specific neighborhoods of Tokyo. Unfortunately, I know too little about that city to know where Kurosawa is shooting in each scene; and the film's narration never tries to make this clear, either. The Naked City has a detailed voice over narration that often identifies locations in New York City, while Stray Dog's narration ends a few minutes after the start of the film.

Stray Dog shows elements similar to the other American police semi-documentaries of the period:

The Naked City contains both a young handsome policeman (Don Taylor), and an older experienced cop who is mentoring him (Barry Fitzgerald). Stray Dog has a similar structure. However, in Kurosawa's film, it is the young policeman played by Toshiro Mifune, who steals the show, while in City, Fitzgerald's older cop is the focus of the action. Partly this is because Mifune is such a dynamic performer, but it is also because Stray Dog is designed to make the younger cop the central character.

Comparison with The Idiot

In Kurosawa's work, Stray Dog pairs with The Idiot (1951), as two films with a similar approach: Mifune's characters in the two films have many similarities. In both films he is a dandy, dressed in glamorous modern clothes, and mainly clean shaven. He seems young, and often naive about society. In both films he is intensely emotional, playing characters that are very different from the macho, controlled Samurai figure he portrayed in The Hidden Fortress, for instance. Both films are full of scenes where he pleads with often perverse women to give him something: love in The Idiot, information in Stray Dog. Usually, he is not immediately successful, if at all. In both films his emotionalism eventually leads to a nervous breakdown, which is displayed on screen at full force.

Both films contain an intense close up of Mifune's eyes, which then dissolves into city scenes. This scene in a high point of both pictures. Both launch brilliant sequences of Mifune trailing another character through the streets.


Links to Other Kurosawa Films

Scandal (1950) relates to a number of other Kurosawa features.

The Idiot. The characterization by Mifune of an artist anticipates his flamboyant role in The Idiot. These show Mifune broadening his range, and playing characters other then men of action. His performance as the artist here is excellent. He creates a dynamic, idealistic, kind-heated and refreshingly human and real seeming character. This is a believable and likable hero.

Mifune's studio anticipates his elaborate lair in The Idiot. The heavy looking furniture and chairs here anticipates the distinctive Hokkaido look of the later film, as does the extensive use of wood in this building.

The floor to ceiling windows anticipate the studio windows of the heroine's house in The Idiot.

Stray Dog. Scandal also recalls Stray Dog in being a film set among modern day people in contemporary Tokyo - always an interesting setting for Kurosawa, whose modern day films tend to be a bit undervalued by some viewers. The many beautiful exteriors of Tokyo recall Stray Dog. They are not as extensive as in the earlier film, but they are visually spectacular. Kurosawa creates superb compositions out of his cityscapes. He uses multiple superimpositions, within a montage sequence. These recall in their complexity the dissolves of Sternberg. The shots in these dissolves often involve motion, being tracking shots of moving busses and vehicles in the Tokyo streets.

Ikuru. The intense scenes where the crooked lawyer agonizes over the worthlessness of his life seem like a dry run for Ikuru. They employ the same actor, but have a more comic tone in this film. Still, their grim seriousness threatens to overbalance the otherwise comic mood of Scandal. I confess I like these sections the least of all scenes in the movie.

High and Low. The scenes shot through grillwork in the publisher's office anticipate the finale of High and Low, where a conversation takes place through a grid in a prison. Kurosawa uses the grillwork for richly inventive compositions. A long take sequence, which starts outside the publisher's private office, then moves inside it, is particularly complexly staged.

The scenes towards the beginning, which show groups of reporters clustered alternately around the artist and publisher, also recall the group scenes with policemen at the station in the second half of High and Low. Kurosawa likes to create compositions, showing groups of men all performing their job.

The Idiot

The Idiot (1951) is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel. It is far more of a serious drama than such later Kurosawa Shakespeare adaptations as Throne of Blood and Ran, which transform Shakespeare into Samurai adventure.

In Dostoyevsky's novel, the hero is motivated by explicitly Christian beliefs. In the film, the hero is actuated by a universal compassion. This is a translation of Dostoyevsky's ideas into a form consistent with Buddhist teachings. Kurosawa shows consistent sympathy with Buddhism throughout his works. The monks in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail might be impostors, but the Buddhist doctrines they preach gradually make an impact on themselves and others, and become the moral core of the film. In The Lower Depths (1957), the itinerant Buddhist priest gives hope and compassion to the other characters. And in Rhapsody in August, the Buddhist memorial prayer ceremony is a moving ritual.

Location Photography: Hokkaido

The Idiot contains stunning photography of the Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in the wintertime. Hokkaido has its own architectural style, which is different from that of mainstream Japanese architecture of the Southern Islands. It relies on heavy buildings made out of wood, firmly constructed to withstand the fierce winters and heavy snows of the region. The houses and landscapes reminded me irresistibly of my own American Middle West, where I have lived most of my life. In fact, if someone had shown me a random clip from this movie before I'd seen it, I would have tagged it as an American film shot somewhere in Illinois or Wisconsin. This convergence in style is probably due to the common weather needs of both Hokkaido and the Midwest; after all, both regions have to cope with snow and cold. Still, it gives The Idiot an unique look, very different from most Japanese movies. For some reason, very few classic Japanese films were ever set in Hokkaido. It does not look at all like a "typical" Japanese film. Combined with its Russian story, the film seems to be taking place in a different world from that of standard Japanese film.

Among the most vivid scenes in The Idiot is the ice carnival. This is a visual extravaganza that reminds one of the films of Orson Welles. This scene, and the guests at the engagement party, display Kurosawa's ability to direct crowds. The complex movements of many different people make exciting visual effects on the screen.

The outdoor scenes in The Idiot show snow, snow and more snow. This is very photogenic. But one wonders if Kurosawa really placed his actors in these outdoor areas, or whether he used process photography to shoot them against rear projections of snow footage. Similarly, every time the heroine sits down to play her piano in her house, a blizzard is raging through the window. Is this back projection, or did Kurosawa actually wait to shoot these scenes for a major blizzard to appear? Back in the days before Global Warming, we used to get such huge snows here in the Middle West. The tall drifts that occur in the later stages of The Idiot used to be common in Milwaukee when I lived there in the late 1970's.

Architecture and Sets

I loved the ornate room the Mifune character has - it is really original. He also gets to wear spectacular clothes, like the quilted dressing gown with the embroidered dragons on the lapels - it is like something a fantasy gangster would wear, not the merchant's son he plays in the film. All this helps contribute to the film's unique look.

Each main home in The Idiot has its own style, which contributes to the characterization of the people who live there:

Storytelling Construction

The technique of The Idiot recalls such earlier Kurosawa films as The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945). The story is made up of a handful of long scenes. Each includes several characters, all interacting in a single setting. Much of the drama in each scene involves character revelation. As we enter a scene, typically we know little or nothing about the personalities of most of the people in it. Throughout the scene, as the characters talk and act, we learn all about them as people. By the end of the scene, we have a full character sketch of their personality, talents, emotions and ideas.

Kurosawa's approach has both strengths and weaknesses. It makes for rich drama. The viewer is usually surprised at what happens, which is often very original and imaginative. The viewer is also often kept in considerable suspense - how will these people react? On the negative side, the viewer is often kept in the dark about the people for far longer than in a conventional film. One can be two hours into this drama, and still not yet know basic facts about characters that have been wandering through its frames nearly from the start. Some exposition would have come long before in many conventional movies.

To be fair to Kurosawa, his original print was apparently 4 and a half hours, which does not seem to be available to anyone today; the version I've seen on video is the 166 minute one, with over an hour and a half chopped out by the studio. This will play havoc with exposition, and the little details that mean so much to character development. It is odd, that for all of Kurosawa's huge prestige both in Japan and the world, that no one ever seems to release director's cuts of this film or Dodes'ka-den (1970), chopped from 244 to 140 minutes for release.

Visual Style

Several compositions in The Idiot are based on triangles. Kurosawa likes to show three people, two of whose heads are on a horizontal line, the third of whose head is in between, and which forms the vertex of a triangle. Sometimes this head is on top, as in the portrait shot with the two men on the horizontal base, and the woman's photograph forming the upper vertex. Less frequently, the vertex is on the bottom: one of the last shots at the engagement party shows the head of Kameda below that of a horizontal line formed by Mifune and the heroine. Even when there are only two characters in the shot, an inanimate object can form a triangle. The heroine is often paired up with fire, either through the fireplace in her home, or the stove in Mifune's room. She, Mifune and the stove form a triangular composition in one shot.

The remarkable dissolve between Mifune's eye's and the hero also places the hero at the apex of a triangle formed by the eyes. This is one of several scenes in the film that involve superimposition. We also recall the scene at the photographer's window, and the shot where the hero seems to see Mifune reflected in his table top through a store window.

Interior shots in The Idiot are often architectural in composition, taking advantage of building shapes in the background to form the pattern of the composition. Kurosawa likes to show deep focus shots of the interiors stretching away behind the characters:

The location photography of the streets of Hokkaido shows some similarity with that of Tokyo two years before in Stray Dog (1949). Both films serve as documentaries on their environments. Kurosawa often shows a straight horizontal approach in his street compositions in The Idiot. The street forms a horizontal segment, so do the stores and buildings above it.

The Bad Sleep Well

This revenge melodrama is not as good as Kurosawa's other films, but it has its moments. It deals with a young man who assumes a new identity to avenge his father's death at the hands of a conspiracy of high powered crooked businessmen. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is among the first films known to me to deal with such a group of white collar criminals. It seems to be the prototype for the vast number of 1970's and 1980's American TV films dealing with this sort of crook. Kurosawa's corrosive portrait of the powerful and corrupt anticipates the corporate power struggles in High and Low, and the warlords attempting to take over Japan in Kagemusha. The young avenger seems like a figure out of Victorian melodrama, however, or one of the lesser pulps. Neither he nor his schemes ever seem remotely believable. This vitiates what could have been a more interesting film.

Kurosawa's sense of wide screen composition is not as good here as in High and Low, either, although there is a well shot scene on top of a cliff that is visually striking.

The best scene in the film is the opening, dealing with a society wedding reception. This is one of Kurosawa's long, well done drama sequences, that seem like plays. I was hoping it would go on a lot longer than it did - maybe for an hour, instead of the 20 minutes or so it takes in the film.

The other big problem I have with this film is that I am just not into revenge as a theme. It seems petty and horrifying.

High and Low

High and Low (1963) is a thriller, from the days in which movie thrillers were genuinely thrilling. Kurosawa manages to generate almost limitless excitement, in his masterpiece in the mystery genre.

The first half, the events leading up to the ransom payoff, takes place almost entirely in the hero's living room. It is in the tradition of Ikuru, an intense dramatic encounter among a group of characters, in which they all discuss some central issue.

The second half concentrates on the police investigation. It is not quite as gripping as the first part, but it is still well done. It cross cuts between group discussions of the police, as they work on the case, to shots of the police doing the leg work they have just described. These shots move all over Yokohama, and remind one of the Tokyo montage sequences in Stray Dog (1949).

Both films also concentrate on male bonding. Ultimately, some women characters emerge in both films' police manhunts. They are of the Degraded Woman type, in this case, a junkie. It's a type that seems to both fascinate and appall Kurosawa. This film also resembles Stray Dog in that it takes place during intense summer heat. Men are always mopping their brows, or fanning themselves. (This fanning started right in Kurosawa's first film, Sanshiro Sugata (1943).) There is also an older and younger policeman in each film. Each of the numerous police characters in High and Low gets his own well thought out, distinctive personality.

Both the discussions in the living room, and the group sessions of the police, are shot with considerable ingenuity. Kurosawa comes up with some new composition for each scene, different from the others, and dramatically appropriate for the relationships being depicted on screen. These are remarkably inventive, and show a visual virtuosity. They are less pictorial, and less sheerly beautiful, than Mizoguchi's or Naruse's, but they are highly creative, none the less.

Kagemusha The Shadow Warrior

Kagemusha (1980) is the best of Kurosawa's late spectacle films. I much prefer it to what film history books describe as his official masterpiece, Ran / Chaos (1985). The story of an ordinary man who has to pretend to be a major leader, Kagemusha has an emotionally involving look at a sympathetic character at its core. It also has a visually elaborate, well done historical spectacle sweeping around it.

Kagemusha deals with a subject of real historical importance: the consolidation of power in Japan in a central military government during the Momoyama period. This followed hundreds of years of civil war, and led to the stable period of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kagemusha depicts the battle for rule of Japan, as centering around three rivals. Typical of Kurosawa's trenchant critique of history, he shows the victory going to the most ruthless and immoral of the three men. This is not a whitewash of history, but a serious look at its dark side.

The Shakuhachi: A Japanese Flute

The Japanese flute known as the shakuhachi plays a role in the tale. Shakuhachi music is used in Japanese culture to depict people's most intimate feelings. One of the best known works in its repertoire is "Depicting the Cranes Leaving Their Nest", a look at the sadness of parents when their children leave home. This ancient tradition survives today. I saw a modern Japanese TV movie dealing with business corruption on PBS. It was mainly set in gleaming skyscraper office buildings. Yet, at the climax of the drama, when the hero and his wife have to make a decision about the corruption, out comes the shakuhachi music on the soundtrack. It expressed their deep anguish and resolve over the situation, as well as their marital feelings.

Kurosawa draws on this tradition in Kagemusha. There is what at first looks like a humanist scene in Kagemusha. The playing of the shakuhachi during a truce can be heard by both sides during a lull in a battle. Men on both sides of the fight listen to the music, expressing their common deep humanity and idealistic feelings. But one of the commanders betrays and exploits this moment of idealism by ordering a surprise resumption of the fighting. It is a shocking moment. It shows a modernistic concern for war and power riding roughshod over the highest values of traditional Japanese culture. The scene symbolizes the process of historical change going on in Japan, as a new ruthlessness in fighting takes over the society.


One of the last films of the great 80 year old Japanese director, Dreams (1990) consists of 8 short film versions of dreams, all on various subjects. Slow moving but visually beautiful.

Kurosawa has always been socially conscious, and many of the dreams contain simple minded but heartfelt environmental warnings. It is both surprising and logical to see Kurosawa going Green at the end of his career.

Rhapsody in August


Rhapsody in August (1991) is one of the most gripping and absorbing of Kurosawa's later films. It serves as a memorial to those killed at Nagasaki during the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Kurosawa's point of view is pacifist. War itself is repeatedly blamed for the bomb. The film argues strongly against the use of warfare itself in the future, and warns people that wars are still going on.

Growing Links between East and West

A major theme of the film is the rapprochement between Japan and the United States, seen as a good thing. The Japanese family in the film has just discovered that they have American cousins, living in Hawaii. The family in fact should not be considered as purely "Japanese" any more; it is a mixture of Japanese and American, Asian and white. This is considered by Kurosawa as a good thing. The kids in the film all speak English, which they have learned in school, and they are typically clothed in sweatshirts bearing the logos of American Universities. Kurosawa uses this to show the growing Americanization of Japanese culture. Similarly, there is a recognition that America is becoming more Japan influenced. The Japanese-American cousins in Hawaii are persons of major wealth and influence in American life, with a world wide business empire. Although they are of mixed race, they have kept up with Japanese language and traditions, and can serve as a bridge between the two cultures.