Akira Kurosawa: Debating the Way of the Samurai

Akira Kurosawa Seven SamuraiThe second of a two-part debate between CURNBLOG’s Simon Butler and Jonathan Eig on the films of Kurosawa. The question: Are Kurosawa’s Samurai films superior to his contemporary films? See Part One here.

I’m no Miniver Cheevy. That is to say, I don’t wish I was born in another century when knights achieved feats of derring-do and dressed up in armour and beat up on peasants.

But I do love Akira Kurosawa’s period films quite a bit more than his contemporary ones, and there’s a reason for that.

It’s not that I adore Japanese jidai-geki or chambara films as a rule. Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-56) always struck me as overly melodramatic and Hollywoody, while later flicks such as Haruki Kadokawa’s Heaven and Earth (1990) left me cold.

Put Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) or Sanjuro (1962) in front of me, however, and I melt.

Atmosphere is one of this great director’s strong points. Consider the dusty urban landscapes of Yojimbo. Or the otherworldly, mist-filled scenes in his Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood (1957). He envelops you in the story. Brings you in. Makes you want to see it again.

I don’t feel that way about his modern films, however good they may be.

Oh, sure, High and Low (1963) and Stray Dog (1949) are fine detective stories. And the Bad Sleep Well (1960) is a strong indictment of contemporary culture. But they don’t have the resonance or the immediacy of Kurosawa’s period pictures, which primarily stay away from the superficial exoticism offered by flicks such as Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953). Instead, they supplement their entertainment value with critical commentary, which often deals with the subject of class differences, especially in masterpieces such as The Seven Samurai (1954) and The Hidden Fortress (1958). No vacuous material here. You get your swords flashing with a dose of humanity.

Akira Kurosawa YojimboFor some reason, I’ve always felt that the direction is tighter and the scripts leaner in Akira’s jidai-geki and chambara pictures. Even the films that straddle the chasm separating the modern and the old-fashioned, such as Sanshiro Sugata (1943), get me more involved than the ones set in today’s world. In the period pieces, Kurosawa is in his element. The pacing is brisker, the editing more forceful, the cinematography more carefully composed. Shots such as the peasant picking up the grains of rice his comrade spilt, one by one, in The Seven Samurai, or Lord Hidetora Ichimonji walking away, dazed, from his burning castle, as well as his son Jiro in Ran (1985) are seared into my mind. True, there are powerful images in the contemporary canon: the cake being wheeled out with the mark of the death-leap on it in The Bad Sleep Well or Takashi Shimura’s mournful face in Ikiru (1952). Yet they don’t haunt me like the others, indelible as they are.

For some reason, Kurosawa was at his best when making samurai movies. He knew how to direct them well.

This is not to say that Kurosawa, as a Japanese director, should’ve stuck with such films and avoided ones dealing with characters in modern dress. I find that argument has racist connotations, suggesting that one must stay within the realm of a culture to provide a high-quality product. It’s wrong and can be extended to fallacious assumptions that Japanese chefs can only cook Japanese food and not French cuisine, or that Japanese artists must stay away from contemporary painting and just do screens and scrolls. The fact that Kurosawa’s best movies are immersed in Japanese history is a product of his facility with the genre, not an innate predilection toward a cultural look and feel. It goes the other way around, too: Kurosawa is often seen as the most “American” of the great Japanese directors owing in part to the quick editing found in pictures such as The Seven Samurai, as well as the accessible nature of his movies. In reality, the director has a mixture of Japanese and Western sensibilities – the former most apparent in the group-comes-first attitude of The Seven Samurai and the Noh-inspired movements in Throne of Blood; the Americanisation prevalent in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, whose protagonist is an individual opposed to group thinking. This is part of what makes Kurosawa’s movies so complex and intriguing. You can’t pack them into any one barrel. They occupy multiple holes at once.

Akira Kurosawa SanjuroNone of Kurosawa’s films is perfect. I believe that goes for any flick, as great as it may be. Even The Seven Samurai has flaws: Toshiro Mifune’s histrionics as the warrior wannabe Kikuchiyo go on a bit much, in my opinion, though I’ve grown more accepting of them over the years. Yet to crib a bit from Orwell, some of his pictures are more perfect than others. And I’d rather watch Throne of Blood any day over High and Low.

Bear in mind, I do think Kurosawa made a seminal impression with modern films such as Drunken Angel (1948), which helped introduce the world to the greatness of Mifune. Still, jidai-geki such as Rashomon (1950) provided the envelope surrounding the structure, reinforcing the impact this iconic actor made. In my opinion, Kurosawa’s period films are more important than his contemporary ones. They bolstered the legend.

I think my colleague Jonathan Eig provides some strong arguments in favour of the films set in today’s world. I can’t agree with them, but I do see where he’s coming from. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to savour the period pieces Kurosawa so masterfully composed. They will always be in my heart, if not in my mind as knights in shining armour.


Check out Jonathan Eig’s argument in favour of Kurosawa’s contemporary films here.


Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

14 thoughts on “Akira Kurosawa: Debating the Way of the Samurai

  1. Well argued, Simon. Can you think of an analogous American director who seemed to master multiple disparate genres like this? Howard Hawks is the only one that comes immediately to mind. John Ford did westerns and war pictures which were pretty closely related, and lots of film makers have dabbled, but I can’t think of anyone beyond Hawks. My sense is that it isn’t as uncommon in Japan, though maybe I’m wrong about that. I think Aki Kaurismaki is an example of an international director who has shown this kind of versatility, but it is certainly a rare gift.

    • Thanks, Jon. That’s a good question — Hawks is a good choice; what do you think about Kubrick? I don’t love Spartacus, but he certainly has a facility with different genres, including period drama/adventure. For non-American directors, I’d nominate Peter Jackson, who is able to steer the massive battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies with aplomb, but who is also at home with intimate dramas.

    • It’s definitely more common outside the US. Kaurismaki’s a great choice. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is equally adept at horror (Pulse), drama (Tokyo Sonata), absurdism (Charisma), and even softcore (The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl). Pen-ek Ratanaruang is another who comes to mind; the Rabelaisian comedy of A Funny Story About 6 and 9 seems like it couldn’t have come from the same guy who did the slow, depressing The Last Man in the World, but there you go.

      While I don’t think he is as equally adept at everything he lays his hand to, my immediate thought where American directors are concerned is Spielberg–the gritty thriller atmosphere of Duel (still my favorite Spielberg flick), the sci-fi-lite of Close Encounters, historical dramas like Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, 1941 (which may be the only real screwball comedy made after 1964), etc. He’s at least willing to experiment with just about anything.

      I’d also throw Friedkin into the ring if he’d ever managed a successful (and intentional) comedy.

      I keep trying to come up with someone who’s aggressively indie that fits, since that tends to be my bailiwick, but dammit, I’m dry.

      • Interesting suggestions, Robert. I’ll agree with you about Spielberg, particularly when it comes to his early- to mid-career films. Friedkin’s an intriguing suggestion, too. I was also thinking of Truffaut and de Broca as international directors who had a facility with both period pieces and contemporary ones.

  2. To Jonathan and Simon, this was a great 2-parter that gave me ideas for checking out Kurosawa entries on both sides of the divided that I missed before. You are worthy adversaries!

    • Thanks, Rick. This has been a very enjoyable debate, and I think Jon has a lot of good points to make. The fact is, you really can’t go wrong with a Kurosawa movie, no matter when it’s set.

  3. As I commented yesterday Simon, I think that you are both right, (for a change) as for me, Kurosawa cannot really make a bad film, whatever era it might be set in. Some are better than others, naturally. Some of his epics are truly memorable, as with the burning castles you mention, and some of the imagery in his modern productions can be equally haunting.
    Personally, I would say that much of the success of his work comes from casting the right actors for the roles; often the same actors, in similar roles. It just works.

    You also fail to mention ‘Dersu Uzala’. Just me then, as far as that film is concerned.
    Great work from both of you, and convincing debate, unnecessary in my case.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. I agree with you–Kurosawa probably doesn’t have a bad film under his belt, though I feel Redbeard and Dreams leave a lot to be desired. And you’re right: the casting from his stable of actors and actresses is generally on-point. Great director–one of my favorites.

  4. Pingback: Akira Kurosawa: Debating the Highs and Lows - CURNBLOG

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