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What to Read if You Love Akira Kurosawa

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Aram Mrjoian

Staff Writer

Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His reviews and essays have also appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Adroit Journal blog, and The Awesome Mitten. His stories are published or forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Limestone, The Great Lakes Book Project, and others. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Twitter: @AMrjoian575

Let me start by saying Akira Kurosawa is a huge deal in the world of film. If you haven’t checked out his work, I recommend starting with Rashomon, Seven Samurai , and The Hidden Fortress (the film that inspired Star Wars, ya’ll). He wrote and directed masterful films with esoteric and clever characters, eerie landscapes, and what I would call literary insight. There’s something ineffably bookish about his films. If you’re already a Kurosawa fanatic, here are some book recommendations that will only increase your adoration.

The IdiotMuch of Kurosawa’s work has been influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky, notably one of his favorite authors. In 1951, a year after the release of his first international success with the film Rashomon (which won top prize at the Venice Film Festival) Kurosawa adapted Dostoevsky’s work, The Idiot. This is the only work Kurosawa has directly adapted from Dostoevsky, but motifs from the Russian’s work are evident throughout Kurosawa’s films. Specifically, Kurosawa consistently deals with issues of class, a theme ubiquitous in Dostoevsky’s work. A year later, Kurosawa filmed Ikiru, a critically-acclaimed film about a contemplative bureaucrat with cancer. This film also has Russian influences, though from Leo Tolstoy rather than Dostoevsky. Ikiru is inspired by Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.


King LearWilliam Shakespeare was another favorite author of this great director. During the middle of his career, Kurosawa wrote and directed Throne of Blood, a retelling of Macbeth that takes place in medieval Japan. Almost thirty years later, Kurosawa returned to Shakespeare with his infamous film Ran, which is an adaptation of King Lear. This is one of Kurosawa’s epic films, with a run time sneaking towards three hours. King Lear is my personal favorite work by The Bard.




The Lower Depths

Another Russian to heavily touch the work of Kurosawa was Maxim Gorky. In the same year he directed Throne of Blood, Kurosawa also directed The Lower Depths, an adaptation of Gorky’s play by the same name.






King's RansomFinally, Kurosawa also found inspiration from Salvatore Lombino/Evan Hunter/Ed McBain. (The man was keen of pseudonyms) Ed McBain was a successful crime fiction writer that also wrote for film and television, notably penning the screenplays for a couple of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, particularly the grizzly, iconic adaptation of The Birds. If you include all of his pseudonyms, McBain has a large enough biography to keep most readers occupied for a year. (Then again for a lot of you Riot Readers maybe it’s safer to say six months) Kurosawa adapted McBain’s novel King’s Ransom, transporting it to the silver screen under the name High and Low.

Akira Kurosawa continued to make films up until he was an octogenarian, but he suffered an accident three years before his death that limited him to a wheelchair and prevented him from being able to work. He is remarkably one of the few filmmakers to edit their films, along with writing, shooting, and directing them. He developed a loyal following of industry colleagues that continued to work on his films for years, including infamous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in sixteen Kurosawa films. This incredible and tremendous Japanese director dedicated a lifetime to making movies, and in doing so re-enlivened classic plays and novels, pushed the boundaries of character development, and found imaginative ways to edit and shoot films.

However, the main (and important) criticism made of his work is that it is generally devoid of strong female characters, and his reading selection seems unbalanced as well. Japanese audiences also found him to be elitist and self-indulgent, at times misrepresenting their culture. Many critics speculate that Kurosawa did this somewhat intentionally to cater to Western audiences, though the director himself denies this claim. Yet, this brings up the important question of what does that say about the film industry in the United States? What we can definitively say is that Kurosawa transformed the world of film, but did so with elitist and chauvinistic tendencies. Overall, he is still a brilliant artist, but as a disclaimer, his films should be viewed with an awareness of their misappropriated representation of women and class structure, and the reading recommendations that accompany them should be noted as monochromatic.