It might feel like I'm starting from a tangent to tackle the subject of Japanese cinema from the point of view of it's importance to Western filmmaking. Then again, I'm an outsider looking in. From this perspective the question of 'Japanese cinema - where to start?' becomes easy to answer. Akira Kurosawa. The great director whose shadow arguably lingers over modern Western cinema, more so than any other non-American filmmaker.
For many, Akira Kurosawa IS Japanese cinema. His influence over Hollywood is that encompassing. Even if you haven't seen one of his films, you've probably seen one under a hidden guise; The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, A Fistful of Dollars and even Pixar's A Bug's Life are all basic conceptual re-tellings of Kurosawa films. His appreciation in the Western world, coincided with a wider acknowledgement of Post-War Japanese cinema in the development of the medium as a serious modern art form. It was Kurosawa who opened the doors though. Where as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi or Miko Naruse exist within a category of filmmakers who can be described as quintessentially Japanese. Kurosawa was certainly the most thematically 'Western' of his contemporaries and the most easily accessible for the non-Japanese audience. Hollywood latched onto his seemingly effortless, grand filmmaking and never let go. Here's a video of the great man receiving an honorary Oscar from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Like all his contemporaries, Kurosawa's talent was nurtured within the structured studio system of Japanese film production. He trained through Japan's often bureaucratic and hierarchical filmmaking system to establish himself as one of it's leading directors. He lived and worked through the country's most seminal moments of destruction, surrender, and rebirth - reshaping his style as the world dramatically changed around him. Forget about where to start with Japanese cinema - where do you start with Akira Kurosawa?
For this post I'm not going to look at any single film or even any film at all. In his pre-production process, Kurosawa would often hand-paint his own storyboards in full colour. He saw them only as visual tools to understand his film. Viewed in retrospect, there's something painfully obsessive about these images. He was clearly someone who knew his film's from the point of inception in his own mind. They demonstrate him as a filmmaker born from instinct as much as technical expertise. Colour, shot composition and dynamic movement are all expressed with vivid clarity by a strikingly expressionistic hand. They are remarkable works of art in their own right. Flavorwire.com have put together a small comparison of the storyboards and corresponding film shots. With cinematography by the great Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito (Oscar nominated for their work on Ran.) you can see just how well the final film matches up to his initial vision. His early expressions become the stuff of cinematic magic.
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