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The 10 Most Essential Akira Kurosawa Films

In a new series of more or less monthly articles, I will be using various lists to look at Akira Kurosawa, his works, influences, working methods and collaborators. Everyone loves lists, right? If nothing else, at least they are typically good conversation starters.

We will kick off the series with the most obvious list: the ten most essential Kurosawa films which, frankly, everyone who loves cinema should watch. So, light up your torches, sharpen your pitchforks and read on!

High and Low (1963)

High and Low

Although this list isn’t meant to be in any particular order, High and Low is the film that I would and do recommend for newcomers as the introduction to Kurosawa. Not only is it one of Kurosawa’s best films, but it is also an excellent example of the kind of synthesis of art and entertainment that his films are made of. It is incredibly engaging, artistically satisfying, and comes with brilliant performances from a star-studded cast. If held at gunpoint, I would probably name it Kurosawa’s best film.

High and Low is based on American crime writer Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom. In the fairly noiresque atmosphere, Toshiro Mifune plays the wealthy shoe industrialist Kingo Gondo who is at the verge of launching a takeover of his company when his plans are thwarted by a kidnapping and ransom demand. As Gondo’s fortunes begin to crumble, the police launch an investigation with goal of capturing the kidnapper. Kurosawa’s documentary-like camera takes us around Yokohama and shows us glimpses of both its high society and the underworld.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo

Although the majority of Kurosawa’s films were contemporary dramas, he tends to be best known for his samurai works. Yojimbo may well be Kurosawa’s most influential work, and it certainly is among his best. A masterless super samurai played by Toshiro Mifune wanders into a town inhabited by criminals, gangsters and other forms of lowlife, and sets out to clean the corruption by wiping out the disease. It is bloody, it is funny, it is brilliant, beautiful and unforgiving.

The film has influenced countless others, including Sergio Leone’s unauthorised near shot-by-shot remake A Fistful of Dollars, as well as the later Walter Hill film The Last Man Standing.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai

A group of masterless samurai answer the call of help from a tiny rural village who are under an impending attack by bandits. Seven Samurai is the film that people usually think about when they hear the name Akira Kurosawa, and there certainly is a reason for that. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking action film which showcases much of Kurosawa’s technical brilliance while serving a story that is both touching and engaging. The ensemble cast gives stellar performances while the three and a half hour running time flashes by.

Seven Samurai has consistently featured in the top three of the Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s list of top Japanese films of all time, and is also a constant feature in most western film critics’ lists of favourites. To not have seen Seven Samurai is to be deprived of one of the major cultural events of the previous century.

Ikiru (1952)

Ikiru

When a Tokyo bureaucrat learns that he will soon die of stomach cancer, he wakes up from his 30-year-long zombie like existence and sets out to make a difference before he dies.

Kurosawa was known and often criticised for his deep humanism, and Ikiru is perhaps his most humanist and existentialist statement on film. It features a career defining leading performance by the magnificent Takashi Shimura and raises questions about our purpose in life. The film is beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting and easily one of the best films of the 20th century.

Rashomon (1950)

10-rashomon

A man is dead. A woman raped. There are four eye witnesses and five conflicting accounts of what really happened.

Based on short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon is the film that launched Kurosawa’s career internationally and in the process also put Japanese film on the map of World Cinema. The importance of its victory at the Venice Film Festival was considerable, but it is by no means a mere historical curiosity. Although many films have since tried to copy its examination of the notion of objective truth, the often minimalistic Rashomon remains the finest and richest example of the genre that it created.

Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog

One of the most important achievements of Kurosawa’s career was the exploration and commentary of the immediate post-war Japanese society. Stray Dog is a stellar example of this, combining a gripping storyline with deep societal concerns.

Stray Dog is crime film which follows a young detective played by Toshiro Mifune who one hot summer becomes obsessed with a quest to find his stolen gun. The film looks at individual responsibility and serves its noir police procedural with technical brilliance and an impeccable rhythm and pacing.

Drunken Angel (1948)

Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel is another brilliant example of Kurosawa’s concerns about the directions taken by post-war Japanese society. It stars Takashi Shimura as the titular alcoholic doctor who treats a young gangster suffering from tuberculosis. The gangster is played by young Toshiro Mifune who is appearing in his first role under Kurosawa, and very much stealing the show in the process.

Kurosawa considered Drunken Angel something of a personal breakthrough, and its depiction of a dark and muddy postwar Tokyo is well worth watching for the film’s ingeniously staged violent climax alone.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood

Perhaps the most technically perfect of Kurosawa’s films, Throne of Blood is the first of the director’s two Shakespeare adaptations. Based on Macbeth, the film transports the Scottish king’s tragedy into medieval Japan and takes its cues from Japanese noh theatre, rather than western traditions. So good it is that many Shakespeare scholars consider it the best adaptation of the bard’s works, on or off screen.

Ran (1985)

Ran

Ran is the other film that Kurosawa based on a Shakespeare play, being a mixture of King Lear and Japanese history. The story is again transported to medieval Japan and features noh inspired performances, but in many other ways the film differs considerably from Throne of Blood. Ran is more epic, more grandiose, and more pessimistic than the earlier adaptation (which itself is quite pessimistic). It is arguably also the most refined example of Kurosawa’s use of colour.

If the above doesn’t convince you to watch it, let me add that Ran is the film that Kurosawa at the time of its release declared he had been working his entire career to make, and also the one that he pointed to as a personal favourite from his oeuvre.

Red Beard (1965)

Red Beard

Red Beard is the film that competes with Ikiru when it comes to selecting Kurosawa’s most passionately humanist statement. It is a massive and extremely important film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, summing up and marking something of an end point to his entire career up until that point. It is also the last film that Kurosawa worked on with Toshiro Mifune and the last one that he shot in black-and-white.

Technically brilliant, Red Beard is also the most divisive of Kurosawa’s major works. While many praise it for its dostoevskyan qualities, others have felt more suffocated by its message and have in less favourably terms chosen to compare it to works such as the American soap opera General Hospital.

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Information about the availability of Kurosawa’s films on home video can be found in the Blu-ray and DVD sections of this website.

What do you think of the above selection? How would yours differ?


Discussion

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Sam Rasnake

I would have to include Kagemusha on my list of 10 most essential films by AK.

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Vili Maunula

I thought so too, but when I compiled the list, Kagemusha just didn’t make the cut. So many great films to choose from!

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Ugetsu

Thanks Vili, I think my list would be very close to yours. High and Low is, I think, superb and if anything quite underrated – far superior to many thrillers and procedurals that are often listed among ‘the greatest’ films made. I often wish that he made more in the 1960’s, but I’ve always suspected that he felt that he had done all he could with the genre with High and Low.

Yojimbo and Seven Samurai are, of course, supreme masterpieces, its hard not to put them at the top of the list. I could watch them endlessly. And Ikiru has to rank very highly. Rashomon is great of course and even if the film can be problematic in some ways, its importance in film history can’t be denied. I think the only one on your list I’d not have in my top ten is Drunken Angel – I think as a ‘post war’ film, No Regrets for our Youth is a little more important. But I also have a soft spot for both Scandal and One Wonderful Sunday.

I think the problem with Kagemusha is that it would be regarded as a truly great film, if it hadn’t been followed by Ran – it was clearly something of a ‘dry run’ for Ran, and the latter is, I think, a much superior film.

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Longstone

A difficult choice indeed. Clearly we are all Kurosawa fans and as luckily he’s one of the few Japanese directors from the classic era where it’s possible to see or own all of his films in good condition with English subtitles, we are spoiled for choice in making a top ten. Some of the films have really had a new lease of life with HD restorations too , with Ran and Kagemusha really showing the use of colour spectacularly in the latest editions. I would also pretty much agree with your choices Vili.
If I’m introducing new people to Kurosawa I would almost always suggest they start with Seven Samurai, or if I think ( or they think ) they would not like a samurai film , I usually suggest Ikiru.
However , on recently re-watching High and Low I realised it’s also one of my favourites and really was amazed all over again at what a cinematic spectacle it is so I may have to agree, it’s a great film to recommend for others to start with Kurosawa.
For me each time I re-watch one of his films I find more to like , so the latest one I’ve seen is often my favourite, I picked up the new BFI Blu-ray set recently and watched Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo fairly close together , I really enjoyed Hidden Fortress but on watching Yojimbo a few days later it seemed obvious that it was the better film.

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lawless

I saw this via social media (forget which one) and then promptly forgot to follow up by commenting. At any rate, my list would be the same, with one exception: I’d drop Red Beard and include The Lower Depths instead. Great ensemble piece, great adaptation, good example of how Kurosawa injected realism into his movies, with his month of on-set rehearsals. I also considered Sanjuro and Kagemusha, but felt they each had drawbacks.

Drunken Angel would make my list because it’s not only the first movie he made that was all his and exhibited his mature style, but it’s a perfect little commercially viable movie that is nevertheless artistic and highly satisfying. It may not be as unique as the other films on the list, but I prefer it to the more heralded Stray Dog. I might even argue for it, and not the more genre-laden (and occasionally consciously stagy/static) High and Low, as the best introduction to Kurosawa for someone who’s not interested in samurai and period movies. Stray Dog could also serve this purpose.

The plot of Kagemusha is distinct enough from Ran that I don’t see it as a rehearsal for Ran in any capacity other than logistics (including the use of extensive storyboards) and visual effects/cinematography, such as the use of color and the effect of the massed banners.

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JD

Great list, and helpful since I still haven’t seen Drunken Angel, Ran, Red Beard or Stray Dog. I think I’ll check out Stray Dog on Hulu tonight.

Ikiru, Seven Samurai and High and Low (the latter I just saw a few weeks ago) are my top three favorite films, ever. Kurosawa’s style just speaks on so many levels: the methodical, slow pacing that leads to epic payoffs; the moral complexity; the attention to detail; the technical excellence in all aspects of the filmmaking; and of course the deep humanism explored so thoroughly in his best films.

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zachariah91

I know that this may be an unpopular opinion but my favourite Kurosawa film which I reckon is a top watch is Yumi. It has its critics, but it got me into Kurosawa films and it felt enchanting to me. It even inspired me with my own direction in life in certain ways.

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chomei

What follows is chomei’s rather idiosyncratic list of the 10 essential Kurosawa films, in order of production.

The Most Beautiful
In his autobiography Kurosaiwa calls this film “the one dearest to me.” It is a propaganda film, of course, but a great one, and represents the first phase in his career. He also met his wife during the filming.

Drunken Angel
Mifune’s first Kurosawa film.

Stray Dog
A brilliant police flic. Compared to the film which inspired it, The Naked City, it is a much deeper movie.

Rashomon
Enough said.

Ikuru
The greatest religious movie ever made?

Record of a Living Being
Two Japanese movies of the mid-50’s deal with the atom bomb, this movie was Kurosawa’s first flop, and one of Mifune’s greatest performances I think. Godzilla was a Godzilla sized hit! Go figure.

The Throne of Blood
The blackest black and white film.

Yojimbo/Sanjuro
Take your pick, they are great fun, but Sanjuro is the more profound.

Dersu Uzala
His only non-Japanese film, and one of the greatest Nature films ever made, even more important today than it was in 1975

Dreams
Uneven, but the first 2 “dreams” are brilliant, especially the memorial to his sister, which contains the only freeze frame in all his movies. And let’s not forget “Mommie Dearest”.

Madadayo
His last film, the culmination of a lifetime of work, and perhaps his most personal.

More than 10, but who’s counting?

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Vili Maunula

zachariah91: I know that this may be an unpopular opinion but my favourite Kurosawa film which I reckon is a top watch is Yumi.

Back in the 90s this would actually have been a very popular opinion. Not because the film was particularly enthusiastically reviewed, but rather since it was often the only Kurosawa title that one could find at many video rentals, in Europe at least. I think for a lot of people who grew up in the 90s and identified themselves as film buffs, Dreams was their first contact with Kurosawa.

chomei: More than 10, but who’s counting?

The more the merrier! 🙂 Thanks for your list, chomei!

Just a very small and friendly correction, though: I notice that you often spell the film’s title as “Ikuru”, but it’s actually “Ikiru”. I’m a little anal retentive about it perhaps. In fact, I have sometimes considered writing up a twitter bot to reply to people who misspell “Rashomon”, although some versions like “Rasha-man” do actually sound like really cool films.

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Magicslim

What a great discussion. I am always wary of lists as not sure that you can rank art – good art means different things to different folks at different times – my own list changes constantly;-) The reason we are all here I guess is that Kurosawa has something for everyone whatever their mood, that you can keep going back to. Endlessly watchable. I actually own High and Low but have still to screen it – special occasion!

If I were forced to chose the one that resonates (until High and Low of course) over time and whatever I am looking for it would be Ikiru. The eternal human search for meaning in life. Its a bit like analysing movies eh?

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Ugetsu

I find chomei’s description of Ikiru as a religious movie really interesting. I think (as in quite a few Kurosawa films, especially Red Beard) there are scenes with religious (specifically christian) overtones. But I find it interesting that Watanabes initial search for reason was entirely secular – it never seemed to occur to him to find solace in religion, as no doubt it would have in many other cultures.

Since in later films Kurosawa seemed more overtly interested in Buddhism, I assume this was quite deliberate on his part. I would have interpreted this as being an indication that the film was meant as an entirely secular examination of the philosophy of finding ‘the meaning of life’, as magicslim suggests. But perhaps there is a subtlety there that I’ve missed.

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chomei

Thanks Vili for the heads up. Since Ikiru is one of my favorite films, along with Kubrick’s 2002, Uzo’s The Toyota Story, and The 48 Ronin, I wonder how that could have happened?

As Buddha teaches “A fool who thinks he is a fool is for that reason a wise man. The fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed.”

I think that describes Watanabe. He realizes he is a fool, and has been his entire life. Thus, gaining wisdom, he seeks a way to redeem his life, and does so by the simple act of achieving the impossible.

Buddhism is a religion of karma, deliberate actions we take, which can be good or bad or neutral. Watanabe completely forgets himself in the actions he takes to realize the goal he is seeking. I believe that from a Buddhist perspective he achieves Enlightenment, Nirvana, he becomes a Buddha himself and is freed from the cycle of life and death, which all people are trapped in until they can escape from this cycle through their own actions. Watanabe does this, he is freed from all attachments to this life and his only goal in life becomes doing a noble action to help people.

There is a scene toward the end of the film where Kurosawa has a closeup of Watanabe’s picture and holds it for a few seconds. I believe that at Japanese Buddhist funerals the deceased is given a new name and it is believed they have become a Buddha, as with Christian funerals where it is always assumed the decedent has gone to Heaven, regardless of their piety or true goodness and decency. I think Kurosawa is telling us, by that closeup, that Watanabe truly is a Buddha.

I also want to be very clear. I only know that I am a fool. I ain’t Watanabe and I ain’t wise. And thanks Vili for running this website because I find it difficult where I live to find anyone who knows who Kurosawa is, much less someone familiar with his films.

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sleiman

A top ten of anything will always be bound to the personal interpretation of the listmaker. I mean, one could argue that the most successful Kurosawa film is actually Star Wars…. 🙂

Throne of Blood is one of my favourite films. I’m particularly fond of its Noh influences but perhaps even more than that, I love the fact that it is in black & white. It seems such a simple thing but that form is one of the reasons why Kurosawa’s films appeal to me so much.

Such a simple thing, I know.

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Vili Maunula

Magicslim: I am always wary of lists as not sure that you can rank art – good art means different things to different folks at different times

Absolutely! If I recall correctly, my intention was to come up with a list of the ten films which are most essential viewing when you are starting to get into Kurosawa. As such, it’s not really a list of personal favourites, which I perhaps should have pointed out in the text. It doesn’t actually include my personal favourite Kurosawa film, One Wonderful Sunday.

chomei: And thanks Vili for running this website because I find it difficult where I live to find anyone who knows who Kurosawa is, much less someone familiar with his films.

I built this website because I was in a very similar situation, so thanks to all of you for being here!

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Yingzhe

This is an excellent list, and a good introductory overview of some of the Master’s most significant works. I particularly liked all of your descriptions, and that you included Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. With a directorial career spanning 30 productions over 50 years, it’s always going to be easy to problematise any “top 10” or “x most essential” list, and as such I will avoid trying to do that. As such here would be my ten favourites (although it has changed in the past and may will again in the future). Red Beard just barely misses the cut.

10. Stray Dog
9. Drunken Angel
8. Dreams
7. Ran
6. The Hidden Fortress
5. Ikiru
4. Yojimbo
3. High and Low
2. Rashomon
1. Seven Samurai

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yjmbobllns

Great lists from everybody. I find the discussion of religious overtones in AK’s work particularly interesting as I think of Kurosawa as cinema’s greatest humanist. For the sake of diversity, here’s the top 10 Kurosawa films I think would make the backbone of a great ethics course.

Drunken Angel
The Quiet Duel
High & Low
The Lower Depths
Dodes’ka-den
Dersu Uzala
Rhapsody in August
Sanjuro
Seven Samurai
Ikiru

and then I’d throw in the Kurosawa-scripted Snow Trail in for good measure.

Cheers.

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Ugetsu

yjmbobllns:

For the sake of diversity, here’s the top 10 Kurosawa films I think would make the backbone of a great ethics course.

That would be a fascinating course! I’ve often been slightly annoyed by the regular use of the word ‘humanist’ to describe AK’s ethical baseline beliefs. He obviously changed his views over his long career, but I think his ethical and moral viewpoint was always more subtle and interesting than the term implies.

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lawless

yjmbobllns:

For the sake of diversity, here’s the top 10 Kurosawa films I think would make the backbone of a great ethics course.

I’d like to add The Bad Sleep Well, which I like more than most people seem to, but the ethical dilemmas posited in the films you list are distinct enough that it should be an addition, not a substitute.

I haven’t seen The Quiet Duel, so I don’t know how convincingly its ethical dilemma is handled. I don’t have a very high opinion of the artistic merit of Dersu Uzala – it’s not very nuanced – but the cultural clash it presents is important, and maybe even its didacticism is a useful jumping off point.

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yjmbobllns

I agree with lawless in the sense that I view DERSU as an incomplete film due to the nature of its current DVD presentation. However, despite a terrible version and some clunky storytelling right at the beginning I find it to be a compelling fable with an environmentalist thread.

As far as it being didactic I also agree, though I don’t find it particularly heavy-handed compared to the rest of Kurosawa’s films. THE QUIET DUEL is even more so, as it’s threaded throughout with finger-wagging towards promiscuity and paints its lead as quite the Christ-like martyr. In a way, Mifune’s young doctor in TQD is as much a paragon of unreachable virtue as Dersu is portrayed in the much later film. I feel DERSU is a nice combination of the social critique of a STRAY DOG or THE BAD SLEEP WELL with the romantic fatalism of DODES’KA-DEN. Plus, the sequence where they are racing to cut the grass before the blizzard hits is tense-as-hell, even if you can only see about 60% of it.

I apologize if my general characterization of AK’s filmography as humanist misses the mark. I do admit that I use the term generically and flippantly.

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Yingzhe

I second the view of Dersu Uzala not being a complete work at the moment (although I heard rumours somewhere that Criterion has been working on acquiring the rights…), in terms of what is available to view.

I disagree with yjmbobllns regarding the nature of the doctor in The Quiet Duel: he’s not a paragon of unreachable virtue, nor should he be viewed as a Christ-like figure. Quite frankly, he behaves horribly immorally regarding his fiance, who is treated in the entire film as less than human; less than a person. There is nothing particularly virtuous about his behaviour in this regard (and I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it), even though he does the right thing in other situations.

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lawless

My problem with Dersu Uzala is with the simplistic storytelling, not the technical deficiencies of the film transfer.

I guess I’m the only one bothered by the fact that the movie amounts to a use of the Magical Negro/Indian trope as applied to an Indigenous person living in Russia, with Arseniev as the enlightened white/modern man who appreciates him. To me, the points the film makes are obvious. It’s also unbalanced; I do not see any argument in the film in favor of Arseniev or urban living.

Kurosawa’s other films are more complicated than that. Even in The Bad Sleep Well, the corrupt businessman is presented as a loving father.

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Yingzhe

Lawless – You’re not the only one, I’m definitely with you on that. At least partially anyway. Dersu Uzala is, contrary to what I had initially expected, a lesser Kurosawa for me. That being said, I don’t think he intended the tropes so strongly, or meant to conceive of the project along ethnic lines. Dersu Uzala isn’t entirely the magical trope, but rather just someone whose traditional way of life is no longer possible with the influx of modern growth (a common Kurosawa topic). Additionally, toward the end of Kurosawa’s life he seems to have gravitated more and more toward stories revolving around harmony with nature (see Dreams as well).

I think he also expects the audience to assume certain benefits of modernity already–he’s trying to show what has been lost, not the benefits of the replacement.

That’s my take at least, but admittedly I’m not an expert on the film and its sources.

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lawless

Yingzhe – I agree that Kurosawa didn’t conceive of the project along ethnic lines or intend to rely so heavily on tropes. However, to ignore that this is what the final product does is to, in effect, give him a pass.

I can’t do that. As a piece of storytelling, the movie is not up to his standards. Where the technical defects come in is that they make it harder to enjoy the technical prowess that the film does display, which in turn might offset some of the storytelling problems.

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yjmbobllns

Yingzhe, I appreciate your comments regarding the immorality in the doctor’s treatment of his fiance in THE QUIET DUEL, and I agree. I do think the doctor sees himself as a Christ-like figure, complete with his own moment of temptation. However, it would be a mistake for me to suggest the character’s POV is also the POV of the film.

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Yingzhe

yjmbobllns – you make a good point about how he views himself, I wouldn’t disagree with anything you’ve said on that front. In fact, you could make a strong case to use it for an ethics course for that very reason–someone’s self-perception of being a paragon, but how that might reveal other flaws.

lawless – I won’t argue with what you’ve said regarding the trope, I certainly think it is there in the final film. What’s interesting for me, however, is to what extent this is coming out of Kurosawa as opposed to the source material–the story is told from the perspective of Vladimir Arsenyev (who wrote the original source text). Not that that gives Kurosawa a pass, necessarily, but just an interesting question (for me).

Also, upon a rewatch of Kagemusha the other day I think it would have to bump Drunken Angel out of the top 10 (I’d probably put it at #8, so just ahead of Dreams).

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