A Japanese director’s lasting influence on American cinema [video]

America’s greatest living filmmakers speak with a common theme when talking about Japan’s legendary screenwriter and director Akira Kurosawa. They revere him.

Star Wars creator George Lucas said Kurosawa has “had a tremendous influence on my life and work.” Steven Spielberg admires his “amazing body of work that continues to inspire us all.” Martin Scorsese says “Kurosawa was my master and so many others.”

“You can see his influence everywhere in their work,” film scholar Michael Jeck said of Kurosawa, whose career spanned six decades.

David Desser, who teaches film at Chapman University, said when you watch Kurosawa’s films, “you see moments that get quoted and get picked up [in later movies]: how you handle crowds, slow motion in action scenes.”

The 1950 film Rashomon, in which a crime is recounted from four very different points of view, made Kurosawa’s name in international cinema. It won the highest honor at the prestigious Venice Film Festival and introduced Japanese cinema to the West.

But it’s Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that casts the longest shadow. Desser says Seven Samurai has influenced more films than almost any other.

The story of a samurai hired to put together a small team to protect a town against an onslaught of bandits was remade in America as The Magnificent Seven, but its story elements have echoes in movies as diverse as The AvengersOcean’s Eleven and A Bug’s Life.

George Lucas acknowledges that the plot of his original Star Wars movie was adapted from another Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress.

“He doesn’t make little stories about little people,” said Jeck. “All his people are big.”

Desser points to one of Kurosawa’s recurrent themes to explain his continued influence. “He’s interested in what makes men into heroes.”

Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, summed up Kurosawa’s remarkable career by saying, “One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn’t make a masterpiece or two masterpieces; he made, you know, eight masterpieces.”

“This is the Shakespeare of the cinema,” said Jeck. “It’s as simple as that.”


Kurosawa highlights

Rashomon (1950)

A dead samurai, his traumatized wife, their attacker and a witness tell four very different versions of what happened in a forest.

Seven Samurai (1954)

A village threatened by bandits hires a team of samurai to protect it.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

A lighter, funnier Kurosawa movie. A soldier and two peasants escort a princess through enemy lines to safety. Replace the peasants with droids, and you have Star Wars.

Yojimbo (1961)

A samurai without a master comes to a town run by two violent gangs and tricks them into destroying each other.

High and Low (1963)

An executive becomes tangled up in the kidnapping of a child. “One of the greatest detective pictures ever,” said Michael Jeck.

Ran (1985)

Adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ran tells the story of a warlord who banishes one son, only to be betrayed by the other two.


U.S. movies inspired by Kurosawa

Star Wars
(The Hidden Fortress)
The Magnificent Seven
(Seven Samurai)
A Fistful of Dollars
(Yojimbo)
A Bug’s Life
(Seven Samurai)