Akira Kurosawa: Breaking Down the Master’s Directing Techniques

Some of my favorite directors of all time are Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and of course Akira Kurosawa. Ever since I watched the Criterion Collection Laserdisc (yes I’m old) of Seven Samurai and Rashomon I was hooked.

Even in high school I knew that no one else in the world of cinema could frame a shot like Kurosawa. This is why George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola all called Akira Kurosawa “The Master.”

Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910. Kurosawa began his career as an assistant director in the years just before the World War II. His most famous works include the Rashomon, a movie made in 1950 and which gave him a solid foundation in International cinema.

This internationally acclaimed film was followed by works like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Throne of Blood. These films were received well by international audience and Kurosawa was able to establish his position as an acclaimed filmmaker not only in the Japanese Cinema but worldwide regions where Japanese films were appreciated.

Later, Kurosawa had to go through a difficult phase of his career where he had trouble finding sufficient backing for his films. It was a difficult phase on a personal level as well since Kurosawa attempted suicide.

However, the Japanese director was able to boost his career one more time given his influence on a new and younger line of directors. After the rebooting of his career, Kurosawa made films like Kagemusha and Ran.

The emotion, the composition, the framing, and the camera movement was perfection in film after film after film throughout his over 50 years crafting films. I’ve studied almost everyone of his films I could get my hands on.

Some of Akira Kurosawa earlier work is still hard to come by unless you live in Japan, his home country. Though the great folks over at Criterion Collection have been adding Kurosawa’s titles to the collection for years now. They have, by far, the best transfers, picture and sound quality available.

If your a filmmaker you must get your hand on as many Criterion Collection DVD, Blu-rays or digital downloads as possible. Each title is a compact film school with a dense film theory education that revivals any class in the best film schools in the world.

The commentaries, behind the scenes and extras are invaluable. I taught myself a ton watching their collection.

Unknown to the common people, Japanese film industry is one of the oldest film industries across the world. The film industry of Japan has some vibrant and interesting history. There have been a number of Japanese films that left their mark on the film industry all around the world. The credit can be associated with great actors, directors and other film professionals who put their respective efforts to make the Japanese Cinema as we know it today.

In the following profile, we will be highlighting a very famous director and filmmaker of the Japanese Cinema, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa played a very important role by making films that people still remember today.

How It All Began

Every great artist has to take their inspiration from someone and somewhere. Kurosawa was no different. Born 29 years before the Second World War began, the future filmmaker was taught in his early years about how he was a descendent of samurai. However, Kurosawa’s father was understanding of the fact they were born an era where it would be hard to ignore the western influence.

Therefore, Kurosawa had the opportunity of growing up watching films. One could say that this part of life must have been the inspiration to finally choose the career of being a director and filmmaker.

However, before Kurosawa had any interest in filmmaking, he was more into arts. He went to study at the Doshisha School of Western Painting to pursue this particular passion of his. Later, he submitted an essay application in order to work for the Photo Chemical Laboratories film studio in 1936. This application captured Kajiro Yamamoto.

Yamamoto was considered to be one of the most renowned directors of Japan at that time. Kurosawa was hired as an assistant to Yamamoto and he worked on 24 films during his time with the famous director. During his time as an assistant, Kurosawa learnt a lot and particularly gained knowledge about writing a quality script. We can safely assume that this was perhaps the boost he needed to become the director he became.

During the War

The Second World War lasted between 1939 and 1945, a time of great turbulence. However, Kurosawa took his inspiration from these years as well. After the well documented Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a novel named as Sanshiro Sugata was published by Tsuneo Tomita. Kurosawa was enthusiastically bought the novel in its publication day and completed the entire book in a single sitting.

He found the story intriguing enough to call the author immediately to secure film rights. Kurosawa was right to be quick about this because soon other directors were interested as well. However, Kurosawa was successful and the film based on the novel was his debut movie as a director. Although the final film was missing 18 minutes of footage due to problems with the censorship office, it was quite a commercial success.

During the years of war, Kurosawa met Yoko Yaguchi who was one of the actresses in his movie The Most Beautiful. They became close despite arguments and married in 1945. Yaguchi never resumed her acting career but remained married to the Japanese director until her death in 1985.

Going International

After finding much popularity on domestic level, Kurosawa would soon become praised on an international level as well. Rashomon did not only brought international acclaim to the director but is still remembered as one of the best films for its story telling method. Rashomon was a samurai murder story; a murder which was told from the perspective of four different characters.

This method is still considered as one of the most appreciated and innovative devices for telling a story. Following the international success of this movie, Kurosawa would go on to make some great films that strengthened his foundation in the international cinema.


Want to watch more short films by legendary filmmakers?

Our collection has short films by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Chris Nolan, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg & more.

Troubling Grounds

Kurosawa opened his own production company in 1960. Using this new development in his career, he produced Yojimbo in 1961 which also went to become one his most acclaimed works. However, Kurosawa soon fell into bad times. The filmmaking industry was already suffering due to the negative impact of television and things became worse due to the economic depression in Japan.

Being forced by such circumstances, he had to look for work in Hollywood but his projects did not do well. Eventually, Kurosawa became surrounded by financial problems coupled with emotional exhaustion so intense that he attempted suicide. He recovered but was not interested in carrying on his journey as a director.

The Master of Masters

Kurosawa had no intention of moving his career any forward but he was approached by a Russian production company to make the film Dersu Uzala. The production of the movie put a lot of pressure on the director and it made his health worse but he did not give up. Soon, the previous efforts of Kurosawa paid off and his admirer George Lucas who is famous for Star Wars brought him in to produce Kagemusha.

Unknown to some people, Steven Spielberg is also a great admirer of Kurosawa and his works. They brought a movie called Dreams to the screen in 1990. The film itself did not do much wonders with the audience but both got an Oscar from the Academy Awards; especially recognising Kurosawa’s work.

The Final Years

In his final years as a director, Kurosawa did not produce films that were as epic as his earlier projects. He made Rhapsody in August in 1990 and another film Madadayo in 1993. Both films were only successful on an average level not matching the popularity of the films directed by Kurosawa in his peak years. It is unfortunate that an accident that happened during one of his own projects put a damper on his career.Kurosawa had to suffer a broken back when he fell during a project he was handling in 1995. The Japanese director suffered injuries so severe that he had to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Obviously, he could no longer progress his career as a director

In the final three years of his life, Kurosawa’s health did not improve and took a rapid downhill journey. As his health became poor, he suffered a stroke in 1998. Kurosawa could not fight it this time and died at the age of 88.

One can’t deny the fact that Kurosawa had an epic start to his career. He got the chance to work with Yamamoto and did not waste his time as an assistant with him. Whatever skills Kurosawa learnt during that time were applied in his many successful projects and you can feel the influence of those skills clearly in the films.

Kurosawa was able to come up with some amazing projects during his career and films like Rashomon are still considered to be one of the best Japanese films. Despite the troubling times Kurosawa had to experience after he was forced to seek work in the Hollywood, he was considered to be the best directors of the Japanese film industry.

The film industry in Japan can’t deny that directors like him have helped achieve the status it has today in the world. The fact that Kurosawa was able to gain international acclaim for his work and an Oscar® as well speaks of the quality reflected in his work.

Furthermore, the influence of his work can be seen in the current industry as well. Many directors have found the quality of Kurosawa’s work undeniable and reproduced his projects. The existing and coming generation of directors can learn a lot from the works put forward by Kurosawa. The Japanese film industry will always remain thankful for Kurosawa’s work and it is very clear that his influence still remains very prominent in the West as well.

Besides the Oscar award, Kurosawa was awarded with several honors during his life to recognize his efforts including the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

The Kurosawa Framing

Whether he’s framing his characters to look primitive, or simply disobeying the rule of third for added effect, Akira Kurosawa’s vision and masterful directing is what makes Rashômon the flawless film that it is today.

While the subject matter is intriguing, it would fall apart without the various styles of framing that Kurosawa employs throughout the film. In this video essay, I look at how and why he framed scenes the way he did. The aspect ratio is not an error or lack of high quality footage – it’s to best preserve Kurosawa’s framing in the way that he intended that audiences view it.

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement

Can movement tell a story? Sure, if you’re as gifted as Akira Kurosawa. More than any other filmmaker, he had an innate understanding of movement and how to capture it onscreen. Join me today in studying the master, possibly the greatest composer of motion in film history.

Always keep learning, always keep growing no matter what your age. Take at look at both these remarkable video essays below. Be ready to take notes. Love me some Kurosawa!


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