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Blogged: Kurosawa’s vision, from painting to screen

Madadayo paintingThere is an absolutely fascinating website called This Must Be The Place, where the author has posted a series of pictures of Akira Kurosawa’s paintings side by side with screenshots of relevants scenes from his films. It’s nothing short of brilliant, if you ask me.

As some may remember, this is something that also I wanted to do years ago, but was quickly (in a matter of hours after posting!) sent a cease and desist letter by a company that back then held the license to all reproductions of Kurosawa’s paintings and drawings. They argued that my 300 pixels wide jpg images were hurting their business, so I had to remove the images and forget about a page dealing with Kurosawa’s paintings.

To be honest, I can perfectly well understand and accept their reasoning, and they were nice enough to discuss it with me and allow me to post some reproductions, albeit with an ugly “sample” text over them. Yet, I still remain a little bitter about the whole thing after all these years. I’d love to discuss Kurosawa’s paintings in more detail, and their relationship with the films, but this one experience showed me that there be dragons in that direction.

Which makes This Must Be The Place all the more lovely. I hope that s/he gets to keep the scans online, but in case that won’t be the case, hurry up to see the pictures!




Vili Maunula

Actually, those of you formally trained in visual arts (yes Coco, I’m looking at you), I would love to hear your opinion about Kurosawa as a painter. In terms of technique and skill, how was he?

Of course, most of the paintings and drawings that we have from Kurosawa are to a very large extent preparatory exercises for his films, so I’m not sure how fair it is to judge him as a painter based solely on those works. But at least Kurosawa seemed to have a fairly strong personal style, and it is one that I quite like myself.

Based on the works that we have available to us, do you think that Kurosawa could have made it as a painter, had he not become a filmmaker? This is of course not just a question for Coco — as always, I’d love to hear everyone’s opinions.



Wow , that’s pretty amazing to see the images paired up .
Do you know how long in advance of each film he made the paintings ?
maybe that’s a fact I should know or have read about … but my memory these days …


Vili Maunula

I think that for Ran and Kagemusha Kurosawa did most of the paintings around mid-to-late 1970s, so in Ran‘s case they were done almost a decade before filming. At that point, he thought that he would never be able to get these projects off the ground, and therefore chose to paint the stories to have at least some kind of a visual account of what he had in mind for them.

For the later films, I think that concept art was similarly done around the time of writing the screenplays, but in those cases it would mean closer to the time of filming as well.



It’s a pity that the company holding the rights argues like that.
I would first answer that their way of thinking their business is hurting culture and Kurosawa’s œuvre, then, that more people would be looking after a buyable paper compilation of paintings and drawings if they knew their existence and interests. (Sending cease and desist letters to web designers is not a good way to achieve this.)
I don’t know about Japan copyright law, but it could have the same exception as in french law: allowing reproduction for teaching or studying purposes (excluding ludic purposes).

Before giving way to those formally trained, a little reminder about another topic (which lacks the paintings tag, I believe) with four other reproductions and the names of various techniques used by Kurosawa.
I don’t remember the guide of this exhibition talking about the delay between painting and filming.

The comparison blog is really interesting.



Wonderful website, I’d love to see more than that. I’m fascinated at how similar the shots of the hut in the forest are – I wonder if he insisted that it looked like his painting, or whether the art director just followed the painting faithfully as the Masters wishes?

I don’t have a visual art background, and I’m not particularly knowledgeable about it either, but I find the paintings striking and lovely, with great vigour and zest to them. Not what you’d expect from an old man.



Dear Vili, I’m quite honored that you would care to hear my opinion, but confess my thoughts are worth less than the rest of the folks in this forum…exactly because I have a head full of ideas and values hammered in over long years in accademia. It’s like looking through felt sunglasses…a muffled, blinded sort of thing…

If I try to remove the blinders and see with fresh eyes, (and I am doubtful that this could be an experiment with much success) I still doubt my ability to view Kurosawa as a painter without the context of his “other” little hobby intruding.

So, then, what I see when I look at the illustrations posted above:

1. Wonderful expressions of a visual thinker. That absolutely charming vignette of the professor in his shed as first worked out in the drawings-Kurosawa is thinking about the man, studying, what does he need for the life of the mind…? Very little! His scholar’s treasures, and the time to think. His dear wife nearby. (There is something deeply, humanly satisfying in this idea of essential living). Simple, central composition, basic near-symmetrical balance. Even when you know the story of the HOW they ended up there, the WHAT of THERE is still stunningly right. This is a deeply satisfying image in concept.

But, honestly, it works better in the film shot, don’t you think? Why? Because the film has the further magic of “making REAL that which is imagined” (that is-according to the conventions of two dimensional imagery (and of course photography that “moves” has the advantages of motion and there’s sound, yes, but also)… the smooth transition of value within and between objects that we associate with unaided vision and “visual reality”. The easy perspectives, the sorrect diminution of objects in space-it’s all automatic in film. We always discount a painting and give the artist his “artistic license” but we see photography as more “truthful”-as wack as that may sound-and be!!!). I think Kurosawa was right to choose film-film is the medium of the 20th century (just as digital arts are the 21st). He was right and smart and must have felt in his bones the need for what film was, and for the expressive possibilites of it!

Also, look at the details of the film composition and its refinements: the curve of the tree trunk caresses and protects the shed. The wife’s white glows in the warm autumnal color scheme. And the shift from one to two-point perspectiveof the cottage relieves the image of any static quality of composition in the drawing. This may be the art director’s contribution-finding ways of making Kurosawa’s vision loveable.

Not that the painting isn’t loveable. I love Kurosawa’s painting/drawing…for seeing the artist’s hand, his mind at work, and the restless energy of the articulated surface action and color intensities. I feel that he is investing the small figure of the professor with a special gravity…I may say a gravitas-that hails to all the long past of accumulated aesthetic knowledge in Japanese culture. The notion of the scholar/artist that traces its way all the way back to ancient China…one can mention the Forbidden City’s pavilion of the Qianlong Emperor, open to the seasons, with its drinking course graved in the floor-meant to be used as a timing device for extemporaneous poetry! (I always forget if the winner or the loser had to drink the wine if it beat the poem’s conclusion on its way to the end of the water course)… This image of the scholar/artist is iconic…warmed by Kurosawa’s musings on the life lived. Is this stuff that would be as compelling without the film? I wonder…!

The images, placed in a gallery. Well, how would they live, apart from the films? They have such a wealth of information and so many ideas that cannot be shown in a static single image…wouldn’t it be necessary to have some supplementary catalogue of ideas? Is there enough in the image itself, alone, without the films?

No, I think the only truth I can utter is that I see these as something more than preparatory storyboards-they display an exceptionally rich and interesting illustrative quality-but not as standalone things without the films.

Just cannot get those blinders to stay off!


Vili Maunula

Thanks, Coco! However obstructed your view, I think that you are still able to see these things with a better eye than I am. I love painting (both the act of doing it and the act of appreciating it), but its technical side has always been a mystery to me.

Yet, I’m bold enough to say that I don’t necessarily agree that the film compositions are always superior to the paintings. Especially with Ran, a film I absolutely adore, I am always shocked by the rawness and intensity of many of Kurosawa’s preparatory paintings. While the world of that film is gloomy and depressing, I feel that the paintings and drawings are doubly so. The paintings for Kagemusha are also quite emotionally loaded, and I’m really glad he went as far as to incorporate them into the dream sequence in the film itself.

All this reminds me that I don’t think that I have ever seen drawings for The Masque of Black Death, one of the scripts Kurosawa was working on in the 1970s and which has so far not been filmed. I don’t know if he ever drew anything for it, but they are supposedly turning it into an animated film (although the last I heard of it was sometime in 2008), and now I’m thinking how appropriate it would be if the film used Kurosawa’s painting style as the stylistic starting point. Well, one can dream, huh?

In any case, inspired by this thread, I spent some time today going through the reproductions that I have of Kurosawa’s paintings. I was actually surprised to notice that I own a copy of the French exhibition catalogue from the 2008 Petit Palais exhibition in Paris, which Fabien reminded us about. I think I picked up the book last year when in France, and then completely forgot about it. It has some nice reprints.

Looking now at the drawings and paintings that I have at my disposal, I seem to notice a change in Kurosawa’s style from the 1970s to the 1990s. The works done in the 1970s and early 80s seem to my untrained eye to be in many places something like a combination of Van Gogh or Munch and traditional Japanese scroll painting. But the further you go, the more Van Gogh and Munch begin to dominate, as Kurosawa’s lines become stronger and his use of black as an outline colour for his figures increases.

Having said that, this may be simply because of the techniques used. While almost all of his works appear to be a combination of water colours, crayons and pastels, the proportion of water colours seems to decrease the further I go, giving the later works less of a scroll painting kind of an identity.

Yet, I would argue (again as a total layman) that one aspect of scroll painting that seems to remain is the composition, or rather the lack of depth or natural perspective. In his paintings, perhaps just like in his films, Kurosawa appears to be aiming to flatten the three dimensions into two.




.Yet, I’m bold enough to say that I don’t necessarily agree that the film compositions are always superior to the paintings.

That’s where I wish I could be…! That’s where the form and content relationship analysis, and art historical perspective forms a bias …all that stuff that keeps me from seeing with fresh eyes! It doesn’t mean the drawings and paintings aren’t wonderful…and you have done a great job of identifying particular points of expressive quality-it means that I have to place Kurosawa’s graphic work in a spot on a shelf of second rather than first importance in an art historical evaluative setting, whereas the films get the top shelf.

Sucks. I mean it!

I also think you are right about the progression of his graphic output…did you also notice his very early work had a quality not unlike some social realists of the period in the US…such as Thomas Hart Benton (I think he is terribly under-rated, especially now)…? I think that aspect is fascinating. But you know, I think Kurosawa himself thought of painting and drawing from the time he entered film to be supportive rather than primary expressions.

I am always interested in the cross-pollination of cultures…did you know that in the period of Kiki de Montparnasse, Picasso and Mondrian in the bateau lavoir days of Paris there was a Japanese artist who lived and worked beside them? Tsuguharu Fujita. His work breathes in that milieu and shows stylistic qualities similar to that of the time in the West-yet is informed as well, by Japanese culture.

And, again, the Japanese print had a decisive influence in the compositions of Impressionists, then van Gogh and the Post-Impressionists…so the circle comes ’round to Fujita!



Oh God, I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open, but was skimming this thread for a moment (I am saving the last half of it for tomorrow) but had to mention Coco that your brilliant “felt sunglasses” imagery reminded me instantly of Duchamp’s fur tea cup and spoon…and the immediate sensory feeling one has when visualizing those images…(can ‘t you just feel your lips drinking tea out of a fur lined cup?). The felt sunglasses…an image I can feel all around my eye sockets! Great!!

I must be delirious. Time for bed. More tomorrow.



I love his sense of color and composition, but I’m not sure he’d be able to make it as an artist. Like Coco, I think film was his true medium.



Sorry to display my ignorance here of his paintings and drawings, but were his working paintings for the early B&W films also so colourful? Do we know the exact purpose of those paintings? What I mean is, were they intended as a guide for his cinematographers/set designers, or were they his own way of working through the film in his own mind, the equivalent of cartoons or working notes?



Ugetsu – I’ve always understood them to be storyboards similar to what animators (or comic artists) use as rough drafts to plot out the story. With movies like Kagemusha and Ran, which he despaired of ever making, they were a way to remember how the scenes should look and an independent source for them if the movies never got made. I imagine they were also used as a guide for his set designers and cinematographers.

I have no idea whether he did them all in color or not, but my guess is he did. For one thing, it would be easier than doing them in pen and ink and graywash, and for another, everything in his films was in color; it just wasn’t filmed that way.


Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: Sorry to display my ignorance here of his paintings and drawings, but were his working paintings for the early B&W films also so colourful?

My understanding is that it was only in the mid-70s with Kagemusha and Ran that Kurosawa began painting his films as, like lawless mentioned, he believed that those films would never get made. For the films after that, he kept painting.

For earlier films, he made extensive storyboards and other drawings (some of which are available at the Akira Kurosawa digital archive), but he didn’t do full-scale colour paintings/drawings for them.



Vili – Thanks for the information on which storyboards he painted and which ones he sketched.

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