February 2020 was a watershed moment for the acceptance of Asian cinema in the West. PARASITE (2019), from contemporary master Bong Joon-ho, deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, it is worth remembering the history of Asian cinema in the West. The very first Asian film to ever garner global acclaim and attention was released 70 years ago this year. That film was RASHOMON (1950). Its director was Akira Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa remains the most influential Asian director of all time. His influence can be noted in STAR WARS (1977), the entire spaghetti western genre, and selected works from titans of cinema like Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. Kurosawa’s career began in the 1940s where he worked rapidly, under instruction from Japan’s imperial government and later the American occupying forces. He received international attention constantly throughout the 1950s and 1960s when he produced unbeaten masterpieces like SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and IKIRU (1952). After a failed diversion to Hollywood, he slowed down but continued making films until his death in 1998. Across this 50 year career, his films earned a Palme d’Or, a Golden Lion, and multiple Academy Awards.
Across the 30 feature films in his filmography, Kurosawa made samurai adventures, feudal epics, crime thrillers, intimate dramas, a yakuza flick, a buddy cop movie, sports films, Shakespeare adaptations, propaganda films, and abstract anthologies. So, to celebrate such a diverse and brilliant filmmaker, here is his entire filmography ranked from worst to best.
30. SANSHIRO SUGATA PART TWO (1945)
Kurosawa’s third film is a derivative sequel to his debut film. It’s mildly propagandistic and has little that Kurosawa seemed to care about. This is most certainly a film for completionists only.
29. SCANDAL (1950)
SCANDAL is a melodramatic tale of fake news, based on the notorious gossip published in the Japanese press at the time. This is a decent enough film, but the structure doesn’t gel the narrative together and it is a little threadbare on substance.
28. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944)
A pure propaganda film, and only Kurosawa’s second directorial effort, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL is heart-warming and well executed. Unfortunately the political requirements constrain the narrative until the point where it seems rather plotless and has no momentum.
27. THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL (1945)
Initially this film was unreleased for 7 years owing to its production coming during a transitional phase as World War Two ended. It’s Kurosawa’s first samurai film and rather slight at only sixty minutes. This is a fun film but fairly unremarkable.
26. SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943)
Kurosawa’s directorial debut is an exciting sports film which instantly displays his humanist tendencies. The film is clearly made by a talented filmmaker and many Kurosawa trademarks appear even here. He perfected his work later on, but this is a very respectable effort.
25. RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991)
RHAPSODY IN AUGUST was Kurosawa’s penultimate film and deals directly with the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. It stands out as being Kurosawa’s only film with a Hollywood actor (Richard Gere) and for being slightly controversial due to its rather one-sided take on the event that ended World War Two. It’s not a great film, but it’s still interesting.
24. NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946)
Flipping his politics instantly once the Japanese Empire fell, Kurosawa’s NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH retells the 1930s and 1940s through the ordinary people who felt out of place amidst fascism. It has gorgeous cinematography and a fantastic central performance by Ozu regular Setsuko Hara, which makes up for the lumpy storytelling.
23. THE QUIET DUEL (1949)
A solid, sturdy drama about a doctor who contracts syphilis and has to deal with social repercussions. Nothing more. Nothing less. A respectable work.
22. I LIVE IN FEAR (1955)
Kurosawa tapped into Japan’s post-war zeitgeist to make another film about nuclear weapons. This one is about a man terrified of such devastation, and the film asks us all if it is more insane to be over-prepared or under-prepared for nuclear war. This may be the weakest film in Kurosawa’s golden era of films (from RASHOMON to RED BEARD) but it’s still a profound piece.
21. MADADAYO (1993)
Kurosawa’s final film is a strong farewell. It tells the story of an elderly teacher and his many pupils, an obvious analogue for the inspirational Kurosawa. The film is slight but a very fitting swan song.
20. DODES’KA-DEN (1970)
Like some of his earlier films, DODES’KA-DEN is a medley of poverty. It deals with various stories unified only by a central location lived in by all the characters. The story is dark at times and light at times, but across its stories comes Kurosawa’s humanist portrayal of people in circumstances they can’t always control.
19. ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY (1947)
A neorealist romantic comedy of sorts, ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY is one of Kurosawa’s most charming films. It covers a poor couple going on a date, and whilst they don’t have much, the film imbues everything with so much heart. A guaranteed tearjerker, this is one of Kurosawa’s greatest early offerings.
18. DREAMS (1990)
Dreams is a collection of short films based on Kurosawa’s literal dreams. It’s beautiful, abstract, strange, and utterly unique. This isn’t a deep film, just one to absorb into as you explore the mind of a great director.
17. THE LOWER DEPTHS (1957)
Inspired by a Russian play, THE LOWER DEPTHS is Kurosawa at his most despairing. Almost made as a counter to his heroic samurai movies, this is a film set in feudal times and filled only with filth and misdeeds. There’s something interesting about watching the master tackle his favourite time period with a different lens, and as always it’s superbly crafted.
16. SANJURO (1962)
Shallow action and simple characters make up most of SANJURO. It’s a simple film but very exciting and contains some iconic moments. It’s a sequel to YOJIMBO and more than holds up to that earlier film.
15. DERSU UZALA (1975)
The only film Kurosawa made outside Japan is DERSU UZALA. It’s a Soviet co-production and follows a Russian explorer at the start of the 20th century. Like many Kurosawa films, it shows the past as something to learn from and remains nostalgic for those simpler times. The visuals here are also some of the most stunning in Kurosawa’s catalogue.
14. DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948)
DRUNKEN ANGEL is an early yakuza flick, detailing the story of a gangster and a doctor in 1940s Japan. This was Kurosawa’s first of sixteen collaborations with legendary actor Toshiro Mifune and they fit together perfectly even here. This is a film of strong performances and deep societal divides, perfect for Kurosawa to explore post-war Japan thoroughly.
13. STRAY DOG (1949)
Kurosawa’s greatest 1940s work is STRAY DOG, a crime film drenched in atmosphere. It has a police veteran and a rookie team up to solve a case, something akin to modern day cop movies. Everything comes together so well to produce a classic of its time.
12. THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960)
THE BAD SLEEP WELL is Kurosawa’s mix of Hamlet and a scathing critique of Japan’s corporate culture. The film opens with one of Kurosawa’s finest set pieces and manages to maintain its quiet tension until the end, even if it never tops the beginning.
11. THE IDIOT (1951)
Kurosawa was always a fan of Russian literature and THE IDIOT was his first and best adaptation of such literature. It’s a profound masterpiece on true love and innocence in a harsh world. Whilst Kurosawa’s preferred cut is lost to time, the existing version is still a beautiful look at the faults of man.
10. THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958)
This is often cited as the film that inspired STAR WARS. The plot similarities are clear, but this feudal tale is so much more. This is a thrilling adventure film and one which enthrals entirely. It’s a slick piece of historical fun and one of Kurosawa’s most watchable efforts.
9. THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)
An adaptation of Macbeth, this is a rich film of power and greed. Kurosawa pairs very well with Shakespeare, digging out the broad themes that both enjoyed and allowing Kurosawa to execute violent medieval set pieces to perfection. It’s a thrilling film built on a foundation of literary greatness.
8. RASHOMON (1950)
RASHOMON is the film that brought Asian cinema to the world. It’s the film that introduced us to Japanese cinema. Yet it hasn’t faded in relevance. It is a fascinating take on our lack of objectivity and holds up as a classic even in spite of the weight of expectation.
7. YOJIMBO (1961)
Toshiro Mifune’s character in YOJIMBO became the archetype for the man-with-no-name and set the stage for decades of cinema to come. This is a simple film, but one made with great tension and consideration for its characters. Everything works incredibly well and this remains one of Kurosawa’s most entertaining pieces.
6. KAGEMUSHA (1980)
Kurosawa’s most epic film nabbed him the Palme d’Or in 1980. KAGEMUSHA is a bitter tale of a duplicates and war, executed as a critique of feudal Japan and a takedown of unearned loyalty. The scale here is mesmeric and the story profound. This is nothing short of a masterpiece.
5. RED BEARD (1965)
RED BEARD is one of the most humanist masterpieces to have ever existed. It tells the story of a young, arrogant doctor who learns from a gruff elder how best to treat his patients’ mental and physical health. This is a touching film of compassion and love, and one of the most kind-hearted entries in all cinema.
4. HIGH AND LOW (1963)
A tense crime thriller, HIGH AND LOW has many of Kurosawa’s greatest moments. Each scene is perfectly executed and the themes are rich in detail. This may not be the sort of film we think of when considering Kurosawa, but it is absolutely one of his best.
3. RAN (1985)
A perfect treatise on chaos and nihilism, RAN is King Lear set in the Japanese mountains. The visuals are spectacular and the characters layered. Nothing is simple in the complicated power struggle depicted, but Kurosawa keeps it all afloat to remind us of human folly when we refuse to work together.
2. IKIRU (1952)
IKIRU is one of the most moving films ever made. Almost no film is more guaranteed to make a person cry. The story asks us to live our lives fully and that message resonates as much now as it did over sixty years ago. Obviously a masterpiece, IKIRU will always last the test of time.
1. SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)
Obviously this had to be number one. SEVEN SAMURAI is a rare perfect movie. It has action, morals, stakes, rounded characters, and amazing acting. The character arcs in this film are some of the best in all cinema. The storytelling similarly is some of the smoothest ever made. The over three hour story feels like only three minutes as every moment is compelling. The list of films influenced by SEVEN SAMURAI is too long to count. This is an inspiring, amazing piece of popular art and cemented Kurosawa as the legend he was. Truly unbeatable.