Akira Kurosawa was a cultural Commodore Perry. His 1950 Rashômon opened the West to Japanese movies. From there, he became one of the giants of ’50s art-house importing, mentionable only with Bergman and Fellini. His style was a watershed of international influences, borrowing from Soviet kino-punch cutting, Russian novels, and John Ford Westerns. The cross-cultural formula he created isn’t relegated to film history; you can draw a direct line between the battle panoramas of The Seven Samurai to The Wild Bunch to Michael Bay. Approaching 100 if he were still alive, Kurosawa is less towering Shogun and more a sometimes inspired, sometimes lousy filmmaker.
Criterion marked Kurosawa’s upcoming birthday with a box set, and now Film Forum offers a 28-film retrospective. The series begins with an unorthodox choice, a week-long run for his lesser-known ninth film, the 1949 policier Stray Dog. Toshirô Mifune plays a rookie detective whose revolver is picked from his holster on a bus ride. Learning that it’s being used to kill, he dives into a guilt-driven undercover mission, posing as a homeless veteran and submerging himself in the slums of postwar Tokyo.
Stray Dog is emotionally full-contact, stylish, and profound in its details—the slatternly pickpocket who stops and buys her pursuer a beer, then kicks back to suddenly notice the stars above—but Kurosawa’s thin-line-between-cop-and-killer story has more on-the-nose symbolism and significantly less psychological insight than the mature “hard” novels of his model, Georges Simenon. Still, it’s extraordinary genre work—topped only by Kurosawa’s other great pulper, 1963’s Ed McBain adaptation High and Low, set in a now-booming Japan, driven by the tension between the new oligarchs and those left behind. It’s a film in masterful movements—the perfectly orchestrated wide-screen chamber drama; a bullet-train ransom drop caught in 8mm; a sting operation in the go-gos of Ginza.
Though fine with noir and Western-inflected samurai “chanbara,” Kurosawa’s relationship with ideas rarely surpassed anxiously telegraphed importance. His 1955 film on H-bomb paranoia, I Live in Fear, is less primally affecting than the previous year’s rubber-monster flick, Godzilla, by former assistant Ishirô Honda. Kurosawa’s pampered theme was the individual effort to be good in a fallen world, reiterated in liberal humanist tracts populated with Chekhovian slum doctors (Drunken Angel, Red Beard) or Dostoevskian Holy Fools (The Idiot, Gorki’s The Lower Depths) and Underground Men (Stray Dog, High and Low). High-flown flatus isn’t the only barrier. Mifune, Kurosawa’s collaborator for 16 films, is very often a somersaulting, strained, horrible ham (Guy Maddin’s ironic appreciation of Seven Samurai: “I had no idea John Belushi had been so dead-on”). Kurosawa’s films are chronically overlong. His comic relief, often involving itchy yokels, is stultifying—no one should ever attempt his adaptation of Gorki’s doss house drama.
Rashômon is the most overrated film ever made—innovative and influential cinematography at the service of the common-sense concept that “truth” is subjective. Otherwise, Kurosawa’s best-known films—Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Ran—are generally his best. A rare surprise in this comprehensive retro is No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), the history of wartime Japan seen through a single girl’s feelings. The director rarely dallied with women, but Setsuko Hara’s lead performance suggests he should have. And then there’s Ikiru (1952), his grand existentialist weepie, with earnest-ugly favorite Takashi Shimura playing a sick bureaucrat who wants a reason to live before dying. Were it the only film Kurosawa ever made, his name would be rightfully engraved on film history.