JUNE 17-AUGUST 10
Film institutes and film lovers around the world have been commemorating this year’s centennial of the birth of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Born March 23, 1910, in Tokyo, Kurosawa made 30 feature films in a long and distinguished directorial career that spanned the half-century from 1943’s Sanshiro Sugata to 1993’s Madadayo. Kurosawa died in 1998 at the age of 88.
Beginning in mid June and running to mid August, Pacific Cinémathèque presents a comprehensive retrospective of Kurosawa’s films. The exhibition includes rare prints (courtesy The Japan Foundation) of Kurosawa’s early works and a number of newly struck 35mm prints and recent restorations (from Janus Films in New York) of his major masterpieces and mature films.
A virtuoso visual stylist, Kurosawa is popularly associated with the jidai-geki (period film), and in particular the chanbara (sword-fight film) or samurai drama. Although Kurosawa was, indisputably, a master of action cinema — his films elevate the sword-swinging samurai genre formula into the highest cinematic art — he was very much a master as well of the gendai-geki, the contemporary drama. Kurosawa’s works, across all genres, reveal him as a concerned social critic and great humanist, albeit with a decidedly tragic, fatalistic bent. Drawing on a surprising array of European and American influences and sources — Dostoevsky, Gorky, Shakespeare, Georges Simenon, Ed McBain, John Ford — they also reveal Kurosawa, from the very start of his career, and in both his jidai-geki and gendai-geki films, as the most Western-oriented of the great classical Japanese directors. Kurosawa’s films, in turn, were not only hugely popular but also hugely influential in the West: Rashomon (1950) spawned Broadway, Hollywood, and American TV versions; Seven Samurai (1954) was remade as The Magnificent Seven; Yojimbo (1961) was reconfigured by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars; and George Lucas has cited Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress (1958) as chief inspirations for his Star Wars saga.
The great creative peak of Kurosawa’s career is widely considered to extend from Drunken Angel (1948) to Red Beard (1965). Of the 17 films Kurosawa made in that fertile period, 16 showcase the forceful screen presence of Toshiro Mifune, the actor most associated with the director’s cinema (Takashi Shimura, who actually appeared in a greater number of Kurosawa’s films, would be a close second). Kurosawa and Mifune have been called “the greatest actor-director team in film history” (David Shipman).
In 2002, in the most recent instalment of leading British film magazine Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade survey of international filmmakers, Kurosawa was voted one of the top three directors of all time, outpolled only by Orson Welles and Federico Fellini. Fellini himself, when he and his Japanese counterpart were still alive, called Kurosawa “the greatest living example of what an author of the cinema should be.” “The term ‘giant,’” Martin Scorsese has said, “is used too often to describe artists. But in the case of Akira Kurosawa, we have one of the rare instances where the term fits.”
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