Nothing sounds quite like a samurai sword: it unsheathes with a zing and slices through kimono and flesh with a razor-sharp burr. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was so determined to get it right that he told his sound engineer Ichiro Minawa to stab slabs of beef and pork until he perfected the audio of cold steel slicing through viscera. It turned out chicken gave the best slice ‘n’ dice.
As this BFI collection proves, such perfection was typical of Kurosawa – known to his crew as ‘Tonno’, The Emperor. It was also the key to his popularity in the west. Before Kurosawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai (1954) few gaijin had heard of katanas or wandering ronin. With its battle scenes and broad humour, Samurai’s international influence was huge, a blueprint for The Magnificent Seven and the standard bearer for Japanese cinema abroad.
It helped that Kurosawa had a flair for the popular. Ozu and Mizoguchi are Japanese masters but their domestic dramas didn’t translate as easily as Kurosawa’s eye for comedy. The Hidden Fortress (1958) mixes comedy with combat, Toshiro Mifune’s defeated general escorting a princess to safety with the help of two ne’er-do-well peasants (Lucas lifted the plot device for C-3PO and R2-D2, as he admits in the disc’s intro). Other times, though, Kurosawa was less willing to underscore the humour, preferring unrelenting darkness in his Noh take on Shakespeare in Throne Of Blood (1957).
Not everyone back home appreciated Kurosawa’s international success. Few of Japan’s conservative critics were pleased when he returned to the samurai genre with Yojimbo (1961), which stars Mifune as a scruffy ronin who plays two sides of a village against each other. Along with sequel Sanjuro (1962), the film’s brutal violence and a distinctly amoral bent painted Japan’s warrior class in a less than favourable light.
Yojimbo would also inspire Sergio Leone’s equally amoral A Fistful Of Dollars. Kurosawa sued Leone for plagiarism but in many ways the evolution was a natural one: the Japanese director had long been a devotee of John Ford’s westerns. As Yojimbo would argue, what goes around comes around... Extras include a Throne Of Blood chat-track from Total Film contributor Philip Kemp.