8. Yojimbo (1961)
The classic story of a ronin (classless samurai) caught between two warring factors in a small town, this story and film is one of the most iconic in cinema. Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful Of Dollars” was almost a shot for shot unsanctioned remake, which saw that film subject to a lawsuit from the producers of “Yojimbo” that held up the American release of “Fistful” for three years.
It has also been subject to much homage in cinema, such as Walter Hill’s ‘Last Man Standing” and Joel & Ethan Cohen’s “Miller’s Crossing”. This is a story with a particular walk and attitude to it that never seems to go out of style.
9. Sanjuro (1962)
Such was the popularity of “Yojimbo” that the producers immediately called upon Kurosawa for a sequel. “Sanjuro” was the result. Again, Toshiro Mifune plays a ronin, this time charged with overthrowing a corrupt lord chamberlain.
While lacking the originality and power of “Yojimbo”, “Sanjuro” still has a certain swagger and attitude to it. Featuring some stunning action sequences displaying the martial arts style known as ‘kendo’, along with it’s predecessor, it is a strong entry in the Kurosawa canon.
10. High and Low (1963)
Showing a hitherto unknown flair for crime drama, Kurosawa addresses the ideas of crime, violence and kidnapping in a haunting and highly impactful way.
It addresses, in an unflinching way, the avarice and greed that flow through the concept of business and the workplace, being something of a precursor to the insidious way that, over time, bullying and harassment have made their way into the fabric of working life. This has proven to be a big central thematic concept in the work of latter day Japanese director Takashi Miike.
This film is like a modern-day set companion piece to the director’s earlier “Throne Of Blood’ which was, in turn, based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.
11. Red Beard (1965)
“Red Beard” is a film that has first and foremost one of the main themes and concepts that would course it’s way through many of Kurosawa’s films. Namely, the relationship between master and disciple. The film is set in a hospital and looks at the relationship between tyrannical but, at heart, deeply compassionate hospital director Niide ( a brilliant performance from Toshiro Mifune) and his arrogant young charge, Dr Yasumoto.
Like “Ikiru”, “Red Beard” shows Kurosawa at his most compassionate and empathetic for his fellow man, looking at the concept of life and what it is all about. For a film that runs over three hours, it has a very deliberate but never slow pace and feel to it.
It was also both the final film Kurosawa shot in black and white, and the final film where he worked with Mifune, with whom he had a falling out due to the fact that “Red Beard” took two years to make and, due to the fact that he had to maintain the ‘beard’ of the title, Mifune was unable to get work in other films as a result.
12. Dersu Uzala (1975)
A Soviet-Japanese co-production, winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the only film Kurowsawa shot in 70mm, this is a haunting, humanist work about the friendship that develops between a Russian soldier and a sherpa, set in the unforgiving terrain of Russia’s far East.
A warm, humanist work, it illustrates the physical changing face of the world and its effect upon the individual. It also shows one of Kurosawa’s thematic concerns that runs throughout all of his work, namely the elements (earth, air, fire, water) and their relation to the world of man. An underrated gem in the Kurowsawa canon.
13. Kagemusha (1980)
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (a tie with Bob Fosse’s electrifying “All That Jazz”), “Kagumesha” was one of the last of the Kurosawa ‘epics’. A film that looks at warfare and honour in times where that is in short supply, its masterstroke is how it addresses the idea of ‘the doppelganger’ or ‘the double’.
Rumours have abounded for years of world leaders, such as Hitler and Hussein, having ‘doubles’ to reduce their chances of assassination in public. Kurosawa takes a highly philosophical and thought provoking attitude and approach to this in the film.
It also features one of the finest battle sequences ever committed to film, involving over five thousand extras. Both George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola came on board as executive producers, allowing Twentieth Century Fox the distribution rights. This was to primarily to make up the budget shortfall from Toho Studios in Japan. A magnificent film, this was latter period Kurosawa at the height of his powers.
14. Ran (1985)
Another work adapted from a Shakespeare play, this time “King Lear”, with failing health and steadily less prolific cinematic output, this is considered to be the last of Kurosawa’s big epic films.
A king exiles the ‘good son’, while the other two sons plunge what was once a peaceful kingdom into war, “Ran” is best known for its incredibly striking use of colour and landscape, as well as the cinemascope frame. Epic in every sense, this one is right up there with the best of Kurosawa’s work.
15. Dreams (1990)
A major left turn in regards to Kurosawa’s style and approach to film making, this is a compendium, split into eight chapters, based on actual dreams that Kurosawa had. It taps into a ‘magic realism’ train of cinematic thought only hinted at in previous works by the director.
“Dreams” is a film that divided Kurosawa fans and lovers of cinema wildly. It really is a ‘love it or hate it’ proposition. Visually, it sees the director at his most playful and adventurous.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.