The themes, symbolism, and aesthetic forms of Akira Kurosawa’s films owe their origins to the ideas and sensibilities that captured his imagination as a young man. These include Marxism, which caught the attention of the Japanese intelligentsia in the twenties and thirties; classical Russian novels, which mesmerized the country’s cultural elite; impressionist painting, which rocked the contemporary art world; and the sport of kendo, which Kurosawa practiced as a young boy.
In 1928, when Kurosawa was eighteen years old, Japan attacked Manchuria and assassinated the warlord Zhang Zuolin. Society was in turmoil. A year later, the Great Depression struck, and as Marxist thinking carried the day, Kurosawa joined the Proletariat Artists’ League. Though he later renounced his belief in political organizations and actions as effective means to correct social ills, Kurosawa never denied the populist slant of his films. He said it was youthful passion that brought him to join a left-wing organization, but his compassion for the plight of the lower classes and his practice of engaging class differences as dramatic structure are readily discernible in Seven Samurai (1954), Ikiru (1952), High and Low (1963), and Dodes’ka-den (1970).
Another major influence on Kurosawa was his elder brother, Heigo, who was addicted to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Maksim Gorky. Additionally, he introduced Akira to Western art and the auteur cinema of Fritz Lang, John Ford, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Sergei Eisenstein. Heigo, however, was to commit suicide when Akira was twenty-three years old. In his memoir Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa wrote about his brother’s profound influence on his development in art and literature, and especially in nurturing his passion for Dostoyevsky. Their only difference, he wrote, was that “my brother was pessimistic and negative, and I was optimistic and positive.” One time, Kurosawa met an actor who knew his brother, and the actor told him, “You are exactly like your brother, only he’s the negative, and you’re the positive print.”
From Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa inherited the concept of redemption. As had Dostoyevsky’s czarist Russia, Kurosawa’s Japan was going through momentous economic changes and had to brace itself against an impending catastrophe. The tortures of historical change produced in the artist a humanitarian ideal, to seek redemption through acts of self-sacrifice. In Seven Samurai, the samurai display great perseverance in protecting the farmers, their social inferiors. In the closing sequence, as the farmers joyously plant rice seedlings and sing, the surviving samurai stand by their comrades’ grave, on a mound, and sigh, “The victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.”
Besides Dostoyevsky (whose novel The Idiot Kurosawa adapted to the screen in 1951), Gorky was also a significant influence. Kurosawa penned an adaptation of his The Lower Depths, bringing to the screen Gorky’s insights into lowly human behavior born out of evil, cruelty, and poverty. The warmth and moderation in human nature so celebrated in Yasujiro Ozu’s films have no place in Kurosawa’s works. There is instead much affinity with Gorky in matters concerning the contradictions and innate antagonism in human nature, as well as the fierce struggle for survival. This also explains why Kurosawa was fond of the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, particularly those of the 1930s.
Kurosawa’s early training in Western painting and kendo, both under his father’s supervision, was also instrumental in his creative life. Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s dense, layered brushstrokes and sensitivities find their glorious way into Kurosawa’s screen images, evident in their composition, outline, and emotional vibrancy. His is a strong and robust emotion that favors the seasons of winter and summer and the plain flavor of daily life.
Meanwhile, the sport of kendo endowed Kurosawa with a high-spirited heroism, complete with an unbending faith in the pursuit of perfection. An individual hero, powerful and carrying within him a humanitarian ideal bequeathed by literature and politics, goes on a quest to put society on a just path: such is the philosophical backbone of Kurosawa’s Bushido—or “way of the warrior”—cinema.