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Akira Kurosawa Biography

Anirban Ray Choudhury
A brief biography of Akira Kurosawa, the legendary Japanese filmmaker.
Born on 23rd March 1910 in Shinagawa, Tokyo in the family of a direct descendant of the Samurai (a fact that probably influenced many of his films in the later years), Kurosawa had an early introduction to the world of art through his teacher Tachikawa, and brother Heigo.
Desiring to pursue a career as a painter, Kurosawa took an exam for entering an art school at the age of 18, but failed to qualify although the same year his painting 'Seibutsu' was accepted for the Nika Exhibition.
As Kurosawa began to dream in greater earnest, dabbling in art and frequenting artists' groups, destiny smiled a mischievous smile in the garb of an advertisement in a newspaper seeking an assistant director for the PCL studio. Kurosawa applied, and was selected. The year was 1936.
At PCL studio Kurosawa had the opportunity to work under Kajiro Yamamoto, who would, in the coming years, turn out to be his mentor. Under Yamamoto's guidance, Kurosawa was soon writing entire scripts for films under the PCL banner, and by 1937 he had moved up the ladder as Chief Assistant Director.
Continuing to work under Yamamoto till 1943, Kurosawa's maiden venture "Sanshiro Sugata" was released in Japan on 25 March of the same year. A martial arts masterpiece, the film was widely acclaimed by the audiences, and Kurosawa was in the reckoning as a fresh director with a bright future.
Between 1944 - 48 he directed some lesser-hailed films which quickly went into obscurity. Cramped in style because of the concessions he was called upon to make to be politically correct in the war era (WWII), Kurosawa chose this period to experiment with form.
And it was during this period that directed "The Most Beautiful" starring Yoko Yaguchi whom he married on May 21, 1945. The result of this union was their first son Hisao, who was born on Dec 20th the same year.
In 1948, "Drunken Angel" was released. Deeply passionate about the film, Kurosawa later went on to remark "In this film I finally discovered myself". The audiences discovered him once more as well - portraying the struggle of a Doctor to mosquito infested pool in a Tokyo slum cleaned, this film cemented Kurosawa's reputation as a filmmaker.
"Drunken Angel" was quickly followed by "The Quiet Duel (1949)", "Stray Dog (1949)" and "Scandal (1950)". In 1951 he won an Academy Award for the best foreign film with "Rashomon", a brilliantly portrayed tale about the subjectivity of truth. "Rashomon" won Kurosawa several other awards, notably the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In spite of his major successes, the Japanese producers still looked upon Kurosawa as a risk, primarily due the heavy experimentation that underlined all of his films. It was only after "Rashomon" that their perception changed.
In 1958, "The Hidden Fortress" was released. A tale of justice and adventure, the audiences in the west scooped up the film - so much so that George Lucas lifted the plot while making his "Star Wars".
In fact, a number of his films served as "inspirations" for successful Hollywood tales, the more notable ones being "A Fistful of Dollars" (an adaptation of "Yojimbo") and "Magnificent Seven" (the western version of "The Seven Samurai").
However, in spite of the successes of his films, Kurosawa was yet to see the darkest period of his career. Between 1965-75, his films failed to make a mark in the box office (though some of these such as "Dodes'ka-Den (1970)" were later regarded as classics!). Depressed by the fate of his works, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slashing his wrists.
Managing to survive, however, he went on to make "Dersu Uzala", a Soviet-Japanese joint venture, in 1975. This film somewhat restored his sagging fortunes, and brought home his second academy award and the gold medal in Moscow.
After another long hiatus, "Dersu Uzala" was followed by another film of epic proportions (the characteristic Kurosawa!) "Kagemusha" in 1980. Funded by the legendary American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the deeply humanistic film walked home with a Golden Lion at the Cannes Festival.
After "Kagemusha", Kurosawa made only one more film, which was able to captivate audiences- "Ran" in 1986 which became a blockbuster and went to achieve four Oscar nominations. An adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear", "Ran" carried the feudalistic flavor of many Kurosawa films, and was especially noted for the sparing but effective use of music.
In recognition of his genius, Kurosawa was awarded an Academy Award for his Lifetime Achievement in 1989. The films subsequent to "Ran" namely "Rhapsody in August", "Madadayo" and "Dreams" were contemplative and reflected the master in a more tempered form.
While almost all of his films dealt with humanism in some form or the other, these three films carried a deeply personal air with them. Then again, Kurosawa was in his eighties when he filmed these; probably it was only fitting that he sit back and relax, reflecting on the past.
For there was more to Akira Kurosawa than just a legendary filmmaker - he was the voice of Japan at a time when the nation was reeling under the devastation carried by a World War; a rebellious socialist who wove the tale of the loner in his struggle against a detached, disjointed civilization - Kurosawa was a reformer in his own, artistic way.
The master storyteller died on September 6, 1998 at the age of 88.