Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, one who is responsible for some of the most beautiful and sumptuous Edo Period samurai movies ever put to celluloid. He did things in those movies that revolutionized both that subgenre and film itself. But let’s not talk about those today. There’ll be another time to talk about the great filmmaker’s swordplay epics; today let’s talk about the many movies he mad that WEREN’T about samurai and were almost all set in modern day, or close to it. It’s easy to forget that the bulk of the movies he made were actually regular dramas or thrillers with no samurai elements at all. But forgetting would be silly, my friends. So these now are my 7 favorite non-samurai films by Akira Kurosawa.
7) Red Beard (1965)
The only film on this list that’s set during a period of time (the 19th Century) that typically does feature a lot of samurai. But I couldn’t call this movie a samurai movie simply because it’s just a straight-up drama. It could be set in any period, really. This movie features a young, brash, and arrogant medical student, trained at the Dutch medical school in Nagasaki, and his residency in the country working with a rural doctor affectionately called Akahige, or “Red Beard.” The elder doctor is tough on his new apprentice but only does so through a desire to make him better, helping people as best he can. It’s a really nice (though quite long) character study. This idea of mentor and mentored will not go away from this list, so just be warned. This was the final film Kurosawa made in black-and-white, as well as his last with longtime collaborator actor Toshiro Mifune who’d gotten tired (and went slightly broke) from not being able to appear in other movies during Kurosawa’s long production schedule. That stroppiness certainly helped his performance.
6) I Live in Fear (1955)
What I love about Kurosawa and Mifune is that the actor could play anything the director threw at him, no matter the age or type of character. Right in between Seven Samurai, which had Mifune playing a wild untrained “samurai,” and Throne of Blood wherein Mifune played a feudal lord haunted by the ghosts of those he’d killed, Mifune played a paranoid old man who just wants his family to be safe. He’s terrified of another nuclear bomb strike and he thinks it will destroy everything he has and everyone he knows. He wants to uproot and move to Brazil, where he feels they’ll all be safe, but his family all think he’s overreacting and after a time they attempt to have him committed. Dr. Hanada (another Kurosawa staple Takashi Shimura) is assigned to evaluate the case, and even sympathizes with the old man, but the courts still think his emotional state is unsafe. Mifune actually plays older than Shimura, which was a real departure, and turns in a truly unique performance, both to his own and to Kurosawa’s canon.
5) High and Low (1963)
This is a really compelling morality play and a good police procedural as well. Here, Mifune plays a very wealthy executive who is planning in secret to buy out a company and has put all of his life savings in to do it. Just as he’s about to pull the metaphorical trigger, he receives a call claiming to have kidnapped his son and demanding a substantial ransom. He agrees to pay, but then learns it must be a hoax when his son trots in, nothing the matter. It’s then learned that the kidnapper actually abducted the son of Mifune’s chauffeur by mistake but they still demand a ransom. Mifune then has to decide whether to pay the ransom, effectively ruining his financial plans, or secure the future of his wife and son at the cost of an employee’s totally innocent son. That’s quite the decision. The tension in this is very high.
4) The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
One of Kurosawa’s very loose adaptation of a William Shakespeare play (in this case Hamlet), this is a movie about revenge in the corporate world. Mifune plays a young businessman betrothed to the daughter of the head of a huge land development firm. Because of this union, Mifune is given a place in the company, which is exactly where he wants to be. He is in fact trying to get revenge on the higher-ups at the company after the death of his father, who was said to have committed suicide but who actually was murdered. An elaborate scheme commences but, true to form with Japanese revenge movies, not everything ends the way you think it should. This is one of the best thrillers of its kind and exposes the many problems inherent in corporate corruption, including the near impossibility for underlings who discover malfeasance to be able to do anything about it. It’s way more interesting than that last sentence sounded, I swear.
3) Drunken Angel (1948)
Mifune’s been all over this list, and this film marks the first collaboration between he and Kurosawa. It’s also one of the only Yakuza pictures he made, a rarity for a lot of filmmakers of the time. Mifune is an alcoholic, small-time criminal who is wounded in a gunfight with a rival syndicate. He goes to see a local doctor (played by Shimura) who fixes him up but diagnoses the young hood with tuberculosis. He tells him he needs to give up drinking and whoring and begin treatment, which he does. However, he gives up his clean-living when a higher up in the yakuza takes Mifune under his wing. However, Mifune’s friendship with Shimura leads to him having to choose sides and perhaps lose more than his standing in the underworld. This is a pretty no-frills Kurosawa movie, but it embodies the director’s skills as a writer as well as his ability to direct actors, specifically the young Mifune who is truly electric. He and Shimura would have so much chemistry, Kurosawa would pair them together again several times, including another film the following year.
2) Stray Dog (1949)
Never before has a movie so effectively made you feel every degree of a sweltering summer than this police drama, which was the next pairing of Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. Mifune plays a rookie police detective who has his Colt .45 stolen off his person on the trolley and while he’s looking for it, it ends up being used in a crime. He’s then forced to partner with a veteran detective, played by Shimura, to track it down before it’s used again. The investigation leads to a disenfranchised war veteran who has turned to crime. The two cops follow leads all over Tokyo in an attempt to find the criminal, who continues to use the cop’s gun, even in a murder. This is a very tense thriller and is considered one of the earliest police procedural dramas and a precursor to the buddy cop genre. I think it’s just dynamite.
1) Ikiru (1952)
While every film on this list so far has had Toshiro Mifune in a lead role, my very favorite non-Samurai Kurosawa film doesn’t feature him at all; instead, the spotlight falls on Takashi Shimura, who gives easily his best performance ever in this quiet, melancholic drama. He plays Watanabe, a middle-aged man who has been working the same tedious mid-level bureaucratic job for 30 years, thinking it will pay off when he can retire. His wife is not alive and he lives with his son and daughter-in-law. This life is thrown into disarray, though, when he learns he has stomach cancer and has less than a year to live. He tries to tell his son, but the son rarely pays attention and so Watanabe is forced to drown his sorrows in the Tokyo nightlife, but soon realizes that’s not helping. A glimmer of hope comes when he meets a young female subordinate who wants to quit to work in a toy factory. He’s attracted to her lust for life and wants to spend as much time with her as possible, even though she grows a bit tired of him. He has to find something to make his life meaningful, no matter how small it is. This is a very sad but bittersweet film about dealing with the end of a life, or the end of anything. It’s easily one of Kurosawa’s best films, even beating a lot of the samurai films with which he is more closely tied. I’m sort of welling up just thinking about it now.