Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Akira Kurosawa

by HELEN GEIB and NIR SHALEV

An occasional feature where Helen and Nir compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema. Today’s inaugural “Two Lists, Ten Favorites” is dedicated to the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

HELEN’S TOP FIVE

5) Sanjuro (1962)

The continuing adventures of Toshiro Mifune’s ronin from Yojimbo. The sequel has a standalone plot, but while you don’t have to, it’s much better to watch the films in order. The crusty, redoubtable loner we know and love as the focal point of a lively and gentle comedy is the film’s best joke.

4) Ikiru (1952)

The pinnacle of life-affirming dramas. Ikiru is both completely grounded in its time, place, and culture and completely universal in its message. Takashi Shimura as the dying bureaucrat determined to accomplish something before he goes gives one of the great performances of world cinema. I have a friend who watches this movie every year around New Year’s. I can’t imagine a better movie- or message- to start the year.

3) Stray Dog (1949)

Simultaneously a terrifically entertaining policier and a social-realist document of post-war Tokyo. It’s no coincidence that Toshiro Mifune stars in four of my top five, and his talent, charisma, and raw sex appeal are all turned on full in Stray Dog. Takashi Shimura’s typically understated work as mentor to Mifune’s rookie cop is the perfect foil.

2) Yojimbo (1961)

I’ve probably watched Yojimbo upwards of a dozen times and every time I see something new, or see something in a new way. The blend of sardonic humor, samurai action, and incisive social commentary is inexhaustibly entertaining, the cinematography is superb, and the music will stay with you for days.

1) High and Low (1963)

This is a favorites list, not a best-of, but I have to call out High and Low as Kurosawa’s best film because the fact it’s his best is the reason it’s my favorite. This movie leaves me awestruck every time I watch it. It can be enjoyed simply as a top-notch police procedural with vivid characters, but scratch the surface and you discover a work of tremendous subtlety, depth, and emotional power.

NIR’S TOP FIVE

5) Throne of Blood (1957)

I love this film because of Kurosawa’s samurai take on the tragic tale of Macbeth, especially its ending which is different from the original source material, to say the least; the imagery of thick fog that’s used in the forests when the samurai lords are looking for the witches; and the theme of matricide that takes place within the samurai realm.

4) Red Beard (1965)

Red Beard tells the tale of young versus old, which is never out of fashion. It also focuses on doctors, instead of the usual sword and sorcery or heroic samurai tales and makes the doctors into true heroes.

3) Drunken Angel (1948)

This film is an artsy, gutsy move from Kurosawa that focuses on a Yakuza infestation that takes place in a small Japanese town right after the end of WWII. It focuses on an awkward yet special relationship that develops between a young Yakuza punk (Toshiro Mifune) and a much older doctor (Takashi Shimura), the drunk in the title, and how sometimes saving face would be the worst thing a man could do to his health.

2) Ran (1985)

Ran is Akira Kurosawa’s undisputed greatest masterpiece. A majestic, color-coded, sweeping samurai version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, but one that replaces the three sisters with three brothers. We witness as the royal family tears itself apart due to every individual’s struggle for ultimate power and we witness the insanity inflicted upon the patriarch, who becomes nothing more than a crazy fool; worse off than his jester. A haunting masterpiece, indeed.

1) Rashomon (1950)

Rashomon is my favorite Akira Kurosawa film because of its overall message of hopelessness; because everybody lies; its flashback story structure that’s been imitated to death and is even borrowed nowadays; and because it’s also an expertly shot and beautifully acted film. Also, I love the song in the middle of the film that is reminiscent of Bolero- it’s very snake-like and memorable.

What are your favorite Kurosawa films?

8 responses to “Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Akira Kurosawa

  1. Richard Winters

    I really liked ‘The Bad Sleep Well’ I found it highly riveting from beginning to end and I just loved that cake in the opening scene. I’m surprised neither one of you mentioned it. I personally would put it in his top 5.

  2. Sheesh! The only one I’ve seen is Ran, but I do have Sanjuro and Yojimbo coming up on my list soon. How do you say philistine in Japanese?

    • lol
      Before anything, you nee to watch Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. Then you need to watch his Shakespeare adaptations: Throne of Blood (Macbeth), The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet), and Ran (King Lear). Then you can watch anything else of his that you like.
      The same goes for Yasujiro Ozu: you need to watch Floating Weeds, Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Early Summer and then anything else that he’s directed that you may want to watch. :O)

      @Richard, I love The Bad Sleep Well but this is a favourites list. It would place it on my “best of” list for sure. 0_<

    • @Ken: That just means you have a lot to look forward to. :-) You can’t go wrong starting anywhere on this list.

  3. Ran, Stray Dogs, and Throne of Blood are my favorites with Yojimbo bringing up the rear. Cant go wrong with any of these films.

  4. Red Beard is a movie of tremendous humanity. It marks a dividing line in Kurosawa’s career in a number of ways and for its great heart, I’ll name it my favorite.

    • Two strong recommendations tells me I need to watch “Red Beard” again soon (it’s been years). I remember being very touched by the subplot about the young girl.

      • And who can forget the scene where Red Beard breaks and disconnects the limbs of a many enemies only to have his protege mend them all back together. :O)

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