Recommends: Top 15 Akira Kurosawa Films
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Today I want to do a countdown of my top fifteen Akira Kurosawa films, a favourite director of mine who was one of the greatest writers cinema ever knew. With a career spanning almost fifty years and filmography so influential you'd be hard pressed not to recognise at least one of his plots, shots or characters from somewhere else, Kurosawa is an entity all his own. Along with his explosive collaborations with acting legend Toshiro Mifune, the pair immortalised Japanese Cinema as a force to be reckoned with.
My previous list of Japanese Cinema (Click the link and check it out) I chose not to include him as too many of his works would have dictated the whole list. So here it is, a countdown of my favourite and most influential Kurosawa films. This is my own personal list, from having watched almost all of his filmography, this is the stuff that really floats my boat. Enjoy.
15. One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
The best of what is considered Early Kurosawa is One Wonderful Sunday. A story of a couple in a war-ravaged Tokyo searching work and things to do that they can afford to. It’s socially conscious, it’s bitter-sweet with quaint performances. With a very likeable female lead in Chieko Nakakita, ever the optimist to Isao Numaksaki’s realist, it reflected the state of Japan during the American Occupation. With remnants of war all around but unable to produce criticism of the state of the country, filmmakers and artists found a way of telling their stories under censorship.
Its execution is off. But it attempts positivity in hard times. With a finale that fell flat in Japan, now it can be appreciated for what it tried to achieve and although one of his weaker films, its one step closer and significant to the evolving director. It all feels smaller than what one would be used to with a Kurosawa film, and not quite a story he is as comfortable telling than one would expect. But it is still early days for the director, before he found his secret weapon.
14. The Silent Duel (1949)
When I thought of this list, I thought of what I liked, what I enjoyed. Because no matter what the critics say, the professional, you have to go by your gut and my gut says The Silent Duel (The Quiet Duel in other regions – which is strange because quiet and silent mean different things really, right? Silent is no noise, the absence of sound whilst quiet isn’t quite as silent, if you’re quiet I imagine you still hear the scuff of shoes, the hushed whispers, it’s the attempt at no noise...) is better than its given credit for. A story of a doctor accidentally infected with syphilis during an operation on a patient in which he accidentally cuts himself. He decides to treat himself in secret (In those days it could take years of treatment to clear), ending things with his fiancée and putting all his time into his work whilst battling his conscience.
The third collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa, an attempt to allow the former to break the typecast he was quickly falling into of gangsters, crime and hard men. Kurosawa believed he was capable of playing a gentle soul even after casting him for the first time as a brash Yakuza man. But these characters both have similarities, sick men who must face their diagnosis to live.
Mifune brings his all to this role, a heartrending portrayal of a kind man sacrificing his desire as a man and his love. His moment of weakness is considered one of his best performances, as finally the composed exterior begins to crumble. Of course it’s not Kurosawa best, but it’s unusual in his filmography. Although melodramatic, borderline soap-opera, it has its touching moments made all the more powerful by one of Mifune’s most understated performance.
13. Ran (1985)
The Kurosawa renaissance was a significant shift for cinema from a director no one thought would be capable of the success he had in the Japanese Golden Age of cinema. His return, in big screen Colour epics, reminded everyone of the force of his works. A retelling of Shakespeare King Lear, an ageing warlord, played by the excellent Tatsuya Nakadai, wishes to divide his lands between his three sons, but the greedy brothers are unable to respect their father’s wishes.
Kurosawa in colour. Kurosawa in colour. KUROSAWA IN COLOUR. it makes one wonder what his films in the 1950’s would have looked like and it shows his artist roots. Not the first of his colour films but one of the most spectacular next to Dreams, he exploits the vast wide’s and the warring factions colours to make beautiful battle scenes that will be seared in your memory long after the credits roll. Another generation of film lovers was also allowed the privileged of seeing his work on the big screen again.
12. Sanjuro (1962)
The sequel to Yojimbo, often considered equal to its predecessor, follows our Wandering Ronin who we know as Yojimbo (Bodgyguard), going by the name of Sanjuro although not his real name, helps a group of young warriors as they attempt to eradicate the evil members of their clan. Toshiro Mifune reprises his role (which he would later go on to play multiple times under different directors as a sort of franchise), swaggering about arrogantly and fighting bad guys for his own selfish reasons.
It’s funny but not as funny as Yojimbo, with a great cast of characters to play around with. Kurosawas action cinematography is great fun to watch, his fight scenes always exciting. Mifune carries the film with ease and excellent comic-timing, even if the plot is not quite as exciting as the original. Not to be missed, especially for possibly one of the greatest slays of all time.
11. Kagemusha (1980)
My favourite of the Kurosawa renaissance, Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior) is a film I had no expectation of liking; it came across a little stiff, it received additional funds from 20th Century Fox under the pleas of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas when Toho couldn’t complete it, three hours long and with no Mifune I just wasn’t feeling it. It follows the story of petty thief who is forced to impersonate a warlord or face execution following the death of the warlord, leaving the clan vulnerable. At first he enjoys the new role but is soon tortured by his responsibilities and nightmares as war approaches.
I was so dumb. This isn’t unusual. With its sickly, eerie colour palette like that of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaiden (1964), haunting dream-sequences, exhilarating battle scenes and nail-biting drama all make Kagemusha legendary. Tetsuya Nakadai, in another of his collaborations with Kurosawa, plays the lead role and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders beautifully. His scenes of tenderness, as he interacts with the dead warlord’s family are made more tragic by his very performance. The film won Palm d’or at Cannes only to share it with All the Jazz (Fosse, 1979) and although I get it, Kurosawa’s return to form is so epic in scale, so impressive, so dark and so beautiful it’s a shame it couldn’t enjoy its glory on its own, only receiving nominations at the academy awards losing out to Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (Menshov, 1980).
10. Red Beard (1965)
Something of Red Beard has become legendary. The last of an incredibly successful collaboration between cinemas best director/actor duo, it feels like an ending to that period bittersweet in knowing that these two will not work together again. The circumstances around it are hazy, with rumour and gossip clouding any attempt at a true understanding of the nature of their falling out, but Mifune and Kurosawa parted ways after this film (They seemed to make up in the latter years of their life… but did they ever really fall out?) and what a film to go out on.
The story of village doctor known as Red Beard who takes on a spoiled apprentice unused to the poverty and the hard conditions of a poor surgery; however it is his mentor deep compassion and care beneath his gruff exterior, which helps him become a better doctor. Despite the behind the scenes, its Mifune’s most tender role, a bright light in a world of misery and darkness. More than anything a film of kindness and hope, in a filmography filled with heroes, Red Beard is the truest to the form, finding the heroism in the everyday miracles.
9. Ikiru (1952)
To Live – that’s the translation of Ikiru. A Japanese It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) made in the only way the Japanese can, tragically. Following the final days of a terminally ill pencil pushing government worker as he searches for meaning in life, we see the fabulous Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura seek happiness. Unable to tell those around him his predicament, he decides to bring joy by building a playground in a poor neighbourhood.
Bittersweet, touching and gentle. Kurosawa takes the average salary man and gives him a voice, a change from his historical samurais and seedy crime films – he makes us all question what’s important. The monotony and dreariness of his everyday contrasts beautifully with the iconic image of Shimura on the swing, enjoying his last moments, and freedom as the snow falls down around him. Another story of kindness in a bleak world, Kurosawa allows the underdog to come out on top after all.
8. Throne of Blood (1957)
Shakespeare and Kurosawa again. Known in Japan as Spider Web Castle but in the west as Throne of Blood, this time, he does Macbeth in possibly the greatest adaptation of all time, using none of the original dialogue and setting it in feudal Japan. The closest Kurosawa ever came to a horror story; he retells the greatest tragedy with more style and atmosphere than any of his western contemporaries. Toshiro Mifune again (Side note: in this final countdown, he’s in all of them), playing warrior Washizu who is told his future by a spirit; that he will rule. When part of the prophecy comes true, his scheming wife urges him to complete the rest of it by killing his Lord, usurping his throne.
I mean, you know the rest right? But it doesn’t matter, it’s how Kurosawa chooses to allow the events to unfold; the eerie spirit spinning wheel, the trees that creep through the fog, the wife desperately trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood, the final scene of Washizu up on the ramparts as arrows fly from the mist below (They actually shot arrows at Mifune, I don’t think he’s acting in that scene…). The imagery is so iconic; it transcends the source material, an entity all of its own. It’s creepy, it’s powerful with Mifune’s mania perfectly balanced with his obedient husband – you believe it all with every inch of your being. Throne of Blood is Macbeth.
7. Stray Dog (1949)
The story is simple. Mifune plays a police officer who, during a heat wave, gets on a tram and has his gun stolen. What follows is a series of murders committed with his lost weapon. It becomes a race against time for the police officer and his partner to find the culprit. Mifune and Shimura join as the cop duo, the teacher and student as many of their on screen collaborations tended to be, trying to come to terms with such a fatal mistake.
The atmosphere, the sweltering heat, the ticking clock – Kurosawa is mastering the thriller here and turning his lead into a nervous wreck whose only trying to do his job. This was the first attempt at breaking Mifune’s typecast, turning him from criminal to police officer and although more noble, suffers severe guilt, seeming to see his firearm an extension of himself. It begs the question of whose responsibility did it fall on, the one who pulled the trigger or the one who carried such a dangerous weapon but allowed for it to be stolen so easily.
6. Yojimbo (1961)
The first time we meet the nameless Ronin. So influential was this film it was remade by Sergio Leone as the Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with Clint Eastwood in the lead role. The film that made the character widely loved, Mifune plays the samurai as he wanders into a town warring at odds with one another. He convinces the two opposing businessmen of the town to hire him as their bodyguards and incites a gang war.
It’s funny and clever, with sharp dialogue and a great cast of characters playing against Mifune – excellent, resourceful blocking plays up the tension whilst beautiful cinematography, inspired by American westerns, takes full advantage of its awesome sets. To think that a film inspired by westerns would go on to inspire westerns is an achievement in itself, yet it’s not the only occasion of Kurosawa and his influence over cinema.
5. Drunken Angel (1948)
The first collaboration of Mifune and Kurosawa. The concoction that worked so well it sparked sixteen further projects together, the greatest pairing known to cinema. This time Mifune plays a Yakuza with Tuberculosis and, once again Shimura, plays the doctor who must look after him against his better judgement.
Pride, a war-ravaged city in the slums, sickness and decay all play their part in the dark but surprisingly tender story. Mifune plays the yakuza member with arrogance, abrasiveness and also with a sense of ill-disguised fear and vulnerability. Meanwhile, Shimura allows the doctor to me brutish and volatile. But when these two actors spark on screen, the cinema goes up in flames. And to think this is only the first time these three great talents came together. As the story plays out, we come to love that characters and feel only pity for the miserable world they live in.
4. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Kurosawa and Shakespeare. Again. This time, it’s Hamlet. This time, it’s phenomenal. A young executive goes on a revenge spree, marrying the daughter the evil industrialist who he believes was behind the death of his father, concealing the murder as suicide. It’s obvious that Shakespeare is accessible to the world and so are tales of vengeance.
Mifune leads again as the deceptively quiet and reserved executive, choosing a cool and calculating performance far different form his other roles. The blocking of scenes, the tension and the tone make this film an absolute must-see although often forgotten in discussions of Kurosawa’s great achievements. It was my favourite surprise as I worked my way through his filmography and I couldn’t’ recommend it enough. Check out the link to a great video essay on how Kurosawa composed the scenes - I could never do it justice.
Embarrassing confession: because I’m a moron, who still can’t read to this day, I thought this film had something to do with a well, where all the drama unfolded, called Bad Sleep – like Bad Day at Black Rock or something – so when I watched it, I was pleasantly surprised and realised that Bad Sleep is a terrible name for a well.
3. Seven Samurai (1954)
“Third?” I hear you cry! Yes, but only for one reason. I love it so very much, but it’s not something I could put on of an evening. Its dedication, it’s an afternoon, its toilet breaks, its giving myself over to Kurosawa in a way I have to make time for. But the runtime can’t put anyone off, it shouldn’t. Set aside time for it, because it will be the best decision of your life.
You know the story; you’ve seen it in TV shows, other films; A Bugs Life (Lasseter, 1998), The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960 & Fuqua, 2016) (Whatever version you decided to go with but I probably will judge a little bit) and the anime Samurai 7 (2004). Villages invaded by raiders seek out the help of Samurai to protect their village. What follows is four hours of one cinema’s greatest triumphs. Epic action scenes, amazing choreography, powerful messages, powerhouse performances and Mifune – everything in this film allows it to transcend the realm of cinema. Innovative techniques, multi-camera set-ups makes the fight scenes all the more exhilarating, capturing the drama as it unfolded in one take, Kurosawa even knew that what he was attempting was risky and it all paid off. Go watch it!
2. Rashomon (1950)
My first Kurosawa film. Also, this is where it all began. The film that opened the worlds eyes to Kurosawa, to Mifune, to The Golden Age of Japanese Cinema. Winning an honorary Academy Awards, this tale of the egotism of man is also just as influential as the previous work with regard to its reach over storytelling, even coining a term for an imitation of its story – The Rashomon Effect. Three men take shelter from the rain beneath the ruin of the Rashomon Gate. A woodcutter who was witness to a murder recounts a trial. Following an incident in the forest involving a Samurai, his wife, a bandit and a woodcutter, the story must be assessed piece by piece, as each retelling varies dramatically.
Who is telling the truth? What truly happened? With each retelling the story gets messier but one thing is clear; everyone is trying to save face. Mifune oozes raw sexuality in this film, the sweltering heat of the forest (it really was that hot where they were filming) as his rags cling to him, the scenes between him and the bride as she holds him close, the nail-biting fights between him and the samurai. Storytelling at its best. A particular favourite scene of mine, the first time the bandit spies the woman as they pass as he lounges under the tree, like some idle lion spying its prey. There’s not much more I can say about this film except check it out, there’s a reason it’s one of the greatest films of all time.
1. High and Low (1963)
My number one is the best thriller I have ever seen. Hands down. No exaggeration. Toshiro Mifune plays a business tycoon is in the middle of huge deal when his son is abducted and held to ransom. He is about to pay it when he discovers the kidnapper took the wrong child and in fact has the chauffeurs son. Now he must decide to pay the millions in ransom and allow his business and his life to come crashing down around him or save the child of an employee.
The literal translation of the original Japanese title is Heaven and Hell, a reflection of the film which is separated in parts. The first part plays out in the heavens, in the world Mifune exists and Hell is the slums, the seedy nightlife where the kidnapper resides. It explores morality, good vs. evil, circumstance and humanity; that the businessman must put his family at risk to save a life and the repercussions of every decision he makes. The pulse-annihilating middle-section of the film on the train, contrasting with what became before and what comes after, is a self-contained masterpiece.
The intense man-hunt in the second half contrasts so vividly, with multiple shots of the businessman’s ‘castle’ shot from below – the rich and the poor. Kurosawa’s vision is so beautifully recognised in the film, so poignant and powerful, every choice suits the scene and the characters, he’s resourceful, and he fills every scene with tension, with his exceptional blocking, holding the strings for his characters and their relationships to one another from one scene to the next. It’s master storytelling, it’s empowering storytelling, it’s how you tell a story. I love it to pieces and I hope you do too.
Well, there you have it. My top fifteen Kurosawa movies; go check them out or tell me what you think. What’s your favourite and why? I want hear from you.
The Bad Sleep Well. (1960). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Drunken Angel. (1948). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
High & Low. (1963). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI.
Ikiru. (1952). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Kagemusha. (1980). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: 20th Century Fox
One Wonderful Sunday. (1947). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Ran. (1985). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: Studio Canal
Rashomon. (1950). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI.
Red Beard. (1965). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Sanjuro. (1962). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
The Silent Duel. (1949). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: Yume Pictures.
Seven Samurai. (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Stray Dog. (1949). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Throne of Blood. (1957). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI
Yojimbo. (1961). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. [DVD]. UK: BFI