Samurai Warrior: The Director Akira Kurosawa Influenced Many of the West's Most Famous Film-Makers. Philip Kerr Sizes Up Japan's Original Action Man

By Kerr, Philip | New Statesman (1996), January 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

Samurai Warrior: The Director Akira Kurosawa Influenced Many of the West's Most Famous Film-Makers. Philip Kerr Sizes Up Japan's Original Action Man


Kerr, Philip, New Statesman (1996)


This year marks the 50th anniversary,of the National Film Theatre. The present building s main auditorium is located underneath Waterloo Bridge and, the next time you go there indeed, the next time you cross Waterloo Bridge-you might like to bear in mind that, in 1930, two explosive chambers were built into the bridge, to blow it up in case of an enemy invasion. So far as I know, only one of these chambers has ever been discovered and the explosives removed.

History does not tell us if, in 1957, any of the VIPs attending the opening of the NFT building were informed of this, only that the guests of honour included John Ford and, making his first trip outside Japan, Akira Kurosawa. So it is perhaps fitting that the NFT should kick off a season of major retrospectives, running throughout 2002, with a Kurosawa season.

As it happens, Kurosawa was a great admirer of the Irish American director. In his autobiography, first published in 1978, Kurosawa wrote that if there was one person he would like to resemble as he grew old, it was John Ford. Cineastes have stressed Ford's influence on Kurosawa's 1954 epic, Seven Samurai. While it is possible to make too much of Ford's impact, at the expense of Kurosawa, I don't think there is any doubt that the Japanese director appreciated the masculinity of Ford's movies - especially in his cavalry trilogy starring John Wayne, with its strong military ethos and its unashamedly sentimental view of what Shakespeare calls, in Henry V, a "band of brothers" as much as he enjoyed hard-boiled American detective stories.

Kurosawa directed his first film, Sugata Sanshiro, in 1942, but because this and several other projects were subject to the Japanese military government censor, his film career did not get going in earnest until after the Second World War; it was not until 1951, when Rashomon won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, that his name reached a world audience. That film, set in 12th-century Kyoto, although distinctly in the style of Kurosawa, with its energetic performances and muscular editing, looks rather sentimental today. The subject matter a rape and murder told from four different and contradictory perspectives is typically Japanese; but it is worth remembering that it was not just period films that Kurosawa made. Several of his works were very noirish, American-looking crime stories - for instance, Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and The Ransom (1963), which was based on a novel by Ed McBain.

Even so, outside Japan, it is the samurai period films for which Kurosawa remains best known, and which have influenced the west as much, if not more than, he was ever influenced by the likes of John Ford and Ed McBain.

There can be few people interested in film who do not know that John Sturges based his 1960 western The Magnificent Seven on Kurosawa's great epic; but two slightly later films, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), had a much greater influence on movie-making in the west and, in particular, on the way in which all action heroes are portrayed today. Both films starred the great Toshiro Mifune (who died in 1997) as "the man with no name" a scruffy, flea-bitten, unshaven, toothpick-chewing but utterly lethal samurai for hire.

In Yojimbo ("The Bodyguard"), a stranger wanders into a small, lawless town and finds himself caught between two warring, gangsterish clans. He makes an immediate impression on the local population with his Zen-like, teasing rudeness, his unshakable self-confidence, the contempt he shows tot his opponents-no matter how many of them there are-and, most of all, with his consummate skill with a sword. …

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