There are moments in the history of film when the world suddenly grows larger. It is hard to think of one more dramatic than the Venice Film Festival of 1951 when Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon took the top prize.
Foreign-ness had seldom been so startling or spectacular. Why hadn't anyone told us that the Japanese made movies? That they were so sophisticated? This was six years after a war in which Japan's unique devastation had been meant as a warning to the world, and easier to order because few people in the West knew enough about Japan or regarded its people as other than treacherous, cruel, yellow demons.
Ironically, Japan in the Thirties had produced 400 films a year, with a studio system close to that of Hollywood. It also followed a genre pattern narrower than any prevalent in America. There were two main kinds of film – the period epic, or Samurai movie; and the modern family story. Working in the latter genre, Japan proved the home of at least two of the great masters of film – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
Those two were recognised shortly after Kurosawa, as Japanese movies became the most eagerly sought product at film festivals. So there was a further irony in the way Kurosawa was quickly regarded as "the most Japanese". Yes, his samurai films were exotic (and Rashomon is set in the samurai period and costume), and the exhilarating camera movements Kurosawa delighted in as well as his eye for wild (especially rain-swept) nature were quickly identified by film authorities as elements of a Japanese style.
Whereas, Akira Kurosawa was the Japanese director most familiar with the West and with American movies, and the most anxious to find an international audience. He knew what sank in gradually in the West: that Seven Samurai (1954), his big hit on the art-house circuit, was a homage to John Ford westerns. No wonder it worked so well, a few years later, remade in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven.
Just as it should, the National Film Theatre is launching a grand season of Kurosawa films – and even 50 years after Rashomon, this may introduce many young viewers to Japanese film. So watch for the stylised ferocity of actor Toshiro Mifune as well as the frozen-faced restraint of actress Machiko Kyo. Those may be Japanese traits – and Japanese cinema did not permit actresses until the early Twenties (it had male actors impersonating women). But notice, too, that Rashomon's pondering over "What is truth?" is as European as Pirandello, or as American as Citizen Kane.
The success of Rashomon prompted Kurosawa's richest period. In the following years, he made a fascinating version of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (1951); Ikiru, or Living (1952), his best picture, I think – a wonderfully touching story of a humdrum civil servant who learns he is dying; Seven Samurai – which deserves to be regarded as among the greatest of action films, and which pioneered a use of slow motion that directors such as Sam Peckinpah ate up; Throne of Blood (1957), a rendering of Macbeth that is always listed among the most imaginative movie translations of Shakespeare; The Lower Depths (1957) – adapted from Maxim Gorky; The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a study of business corruption modelled on Hamlet; and Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), sardonic lone samurai films, and a big influence on Clint Eastwood.
Kurosawa was a strange man in person – rather vain, difficult, and inclined to depression. All of these things were aggravated by what happened next. From being a Japanese hero (and a significant earner of foreign currency), Kurosawa mounted ever more ambitious projects, many of which flopped with his home audience. Dodesukaden, made in 1970, after a pause of five years, was a panoramic view of urban life – but the Japanese seemed disappointed that Kurosawa had deserted the samurai. In reaction, the director attempted suicide. Another five years passed before Dersu Uzala, filmed largely in Siberia. That film won the Oscar for best foreign picture, but it confirmed Japanese disapproval of where Kurosawa was going.
There is argument about his later films – historical epics, rather slow and much given to décor and ritual. Some liked Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) – a version of King Lear – others thought they showed signs of the grandiose. The energy of Seven Samurai had been replaced with a kind of self-reverence. At the same time, Kurosawa found it harder getting finance from Japan. Ran was only made possible by the support of Francis Coppola and George Lucas, both of whom had grown up on Japanese action pictures.
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He died in 1998, and this is a proper moment for a career retrospective. He doesn't have to be a great director to be important and instructive. Newcomers are urged to try half a dozen of the Kurosawas, at least. Then get ready for Ozu and Mizoguchi.
Kurosawa season: National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 28 Feb
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