There’s always been a latent interest in Akira Kurosawa
, but the director’s body of work can be daunting. His filmography is dense and, on the face of it, few of his works are immediately appealing. I watched my first Kurosawa film when I was eleven years old. That film was Ran
. That’s five types of funny for me, because it’s really not the right Kurosawa film to start on, and it’s really not an appropriate film for an eleven year old. Nevertheless, as far as I can recall I understood most of it. I must have understood it, because it instilled in me an interest in the director’s work and I’ve not looked back since.
I think I like Kurosawa because he shows how good movies can be. I’m aware that sounds (and is) broad and vague and rather unsubstantial, but the seemingly simple way he directs the camera and establishes shots produces amazing results. Kurosawa’s films prove that doing long takes and holding a camera still is feasible. Indeed, Kurosawa proves that still cameras are almost always better than mobile cameras – cameras that are always panning, or being moved by people. Kurosawa has ruined me on modern Hollywood; nothing infuriates me more than a simple scene where two people are sitting and talking and the camera is moving all over the show completely needlessly.
In any case, a common question people ask is “I’ve not seen any Kurosawa before; where should I start?” Opinions naturally differ, and for good reason: it’s a difficult question to answer. But watch the wrong film and you could be put off the director for a long time. There are safe bets, however. So here’s what I would begin with (if I had the choice to start again). The following is obviously personal opinion; others would certainly have different recommendations. I hope that those who have only seen a few Kurosawa pictures, or none at all, might get something out of this.
Just before I pitch out five films, it’s worth noting, as Alex and Matt did in the last podcast, that Kurosawa’s films are widely available. Netflix will help you with most of them, although more would be disc copies as opposed to streaming. The best bets for physical copies are the fantastic Criterion Collection
Drunken Angel is a very good place to start. It’s one of Kurosawa’s earlier pictures, and it ended up being his first masterpiece. I would rate it in his Top Five; put a gun to my head and you may even push that to Top Three. Best of all, it’s exceedingly simple. A tubercular gangster walks into an alcoholic doctor’s practice and demands treatment. A battle between the two follows as the doctor tries to quell the gangster’s vice-laced ways. It’s brilliantly filmed; it’s also very well paced and surprisingly short, just under a hundred minutes. It’s one of my favorite films, and it’s an excellent beginner’s entry because it’s easy to absorb, and at the same time it serves as a showcase for what’s to come from the director.
If you liked Drunken Angel, then the following should appeal.
The fact that I Live in Fear is endlessly overlooked and gets the shaft in the face of the director’s other works from that decade saddens me to no end, but that’s just how the story goes, it seems. This is a good film to transition to after Drunken Angel because it’s indicative of the heavier storytelling and slower, freer pace that you’re liable to see in the likes of Kagemusha
and Ran and Throne of Blood
. In contemporary Japan, the owner of a foundry wants to move his entire family to South America because he fears another atomic war will break out. His family resists, and the narrative follows the old man as his fear consumes and cripples him. Again, it’s a great introduction to mainstream Kurosawa, and best of all it’s not a big investment: it’s all of 99 minutes. It’s certainly an honest and compelling picture.
High and Low is one of the best kidnapping films ever made and is a great picture above that. A chauffer’s son gets accidentally kidnapped in place of an executive’s son. The executive must decide whether or not to lose his fortune by paying the ransom for his chauffer’s child. There are some great parallels between executive and kidnapper, none better than in the final scene. Also, Kurosawa uses pink smoke in a black and white film ala Schindler’s List
in one sequence. It’s an impressive and significant sight. It’s a good film to switch to after Drunken Angel.
Madadayo is Kurosawa’s final film. It may surprise some that I’ve added it here, then, because it’s very autumnal in nature, but like I Live in Fear, Madadayo is drastically overlooked, to the detriment of all those who neglect to watch it. It’s another of my Top Five Kurosawa pick. It’s sensitive and somber, brilliantly shot and always beautiful – this was the film that drew me fully into Kurosawa after Ran. The film follows a retired college professor after World War II. His house is destroyed during the bombing runs on Tokyo; he and his wife move into a shack and live in the country just outside the city. It is spectacular and forever wonderful, and it’s very dear to me. Short of that, I think it’s another great film to be drawn into Kurosawa with.
Seven Samurai is the only period piece I’ve added here. Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his period pieces, but it happens, at least for me, that his superior films are often those set in modern times. It also happens that those are the easiest to digest. But Seven Samurai is an absolute classic – easily in the Top Ten movies of all time – and it formed the foundations for film for years to come. It is a brilliantly written and brilliantly shot epic. I would leave this for last of these five, however, because this film is well over three hours long, and it can be a lot to swallow for those still uncertain with Kurosawa. Some may simply not have the patience to stick it out.
I hope those will provide some sort of direction for those unsure. If nothing else, Drunken Angel is best worth viewing; I cannot recommend it more. The great thing is that there’s plenty of material to transition onto.