Connect with us


Peter Tasker's 'On Kurosawa': A Journey Through the Director's Enduring Influence

The legacy, global appeal, and profound impact of Akira Kurosawa on cinematic storytelling were the focus of author and analyst Peter Tasker on April 11.



Front cover of the book by Peter Tasker, "On Kurosawa".

In an April 11 press conference, writer and financial expert Peter Tasker promoted his acclaimed book, On Kurosawa (Zen Foto Gallery, 2018). A tribute to Japanese cinematic titan Akira Kurosawa and his oeuvre, the book employs various media in a multifaceted analysis of his films. With his characteristic repartee, Tasker engaged in an expansive discussion of the director's enduring legacy. Exploring Kurosawa's literary sensibility and supreme representation of moral complexity, Tasker illuminated the director's profound influence on cinema and culture. 

Universal Appeal

Despite Kurosawa's accolades, there exists an intriguing divergence of opinions on his greatness. Tasker pointedly noted Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's reevaluation of Kurosawa's standing within the Japanese directors' pantheon. Hamaguchi, Tasker said, places Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiru Ozu, and Mikio Naruse at the zenith of Japan's cinematic hierarchy.

However, the global resonance of Kurosawa's work is undeniable. "A few years ago, the BBC did a poll of great films," Tasker recounts. These were the 100 best non-English language films. "They had quite an interesting methodology for this," he notes. "Half the critics polled were women, and many were from countries that aren't usually consulted in these matters. Africa, the Middle East, Central America, South America, China, and the Indian subcontinent. So it wasn't just the Europeans and the Americans." 

The poll's results were resoundingly clear. Seven Samurai emerged as the top non-English language film, while Rashomon placed fourth. 

Scene from "Seven Samurai" (Courtesy of Peter Tasker)

Tasker's insight into this widespread appeal of Kurosawa's films, spanning regions as distant as Africa and Central America, was enlightening. He suggested their international acclaim was rooted in the thematic resonance of their narratives. "In some of these countries, life is hard and often dangerous," he explained. Similarly, in the world of Kurosawa's films "there's a lot at stake, and people may die for their principles. That kind of world is still with us, but perhaps not so much in rich countries."

High and Low (Brow)

Kurosawa's popularity encompasses a rich tapestry of intricacies and nuances. In particular, Tasker cited the intricate balance between entertainment and profundity in his cinema. "It's not that easy to be both entertaining, powerful, and profound," he stated. 

"Drive My Car, is possibly profound philosophically, but entertaining? Not really. What about the Tom Cruise film, Top Gun Maverick? Well, that was very entertaining, but it would be hard to say that it was profound." Tasker highlighted Kurosawa's unique ability to seamlessly blend these elements. "Whereas the protagonist of Drive My Car quotes Chekhov all the time, he couldn't be in a punch-them-out brawl in a roadhouse. But (with ) Kurosawa, many of these things can happen." 

Scene from Sanjuro (Courtesy of Peter Tasker)

In Red Beard, Kurosawa smoothly integrates diverse influences to create a cohesive cinematic experience. As Tasker explains, "The original story of Red Beard is by a writer called Yamamoto Shugoro. But that wasn't enough for Kurosawa, so he spliced in a story from Dostoevsky, which is called The Humiliated and Insulted. Then he interpolated a little bit of Bruce Lee action as well." Despite the seemingly disparate elements, "there's no sense of it being unfitting," Tasker opines. "You can have things that are exciting and also profound in these films." 

Literary Influences

Dostoevsky figured prominently throughout Kurosawa's films. In delving into Akira Kurosawa's cinematic prowess, Tasker emphasized Kurosawa's "extraordinary literary sensibility." Although Kurosawa didn't go to university, "he was extremely well-read. He once said, 'In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world.'" 


So, what notable works left an indelible mark on the director's creative psyche? "One book he loved was War and Peace," Tasker remarked, "which he said he'd read 30 times. It's amazing he had any time left to direct films." 

Dostoevsky's The Idiot was another favorite. As Tasker relates, "He said the scene after (Parfyon) Rogozhin has killed Nastassya is perhaps the greatest scene in world literature." The director even adapted The Idiot into a film that Tasker describes as one of Kurosawa's "few failed films." 

A World of Words

Indeed, Kurosawa had an affinity for Russian literature. Tasker highlighted its profound impact on Japanese intellectual circles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "From 1850 to 1950, five of the top ten translated foreign authors were Russian. Tolstoy was the most translated with 2,600 (translated works)." 

Additionally, Kurosawa found inspiration in Japanese literature. Works like The Tale of the Heike and Natsume Soseki's Sanshiro resonated deeply with him. "I think he had a soft spot for Soseki," Tasker suggests. "He used Soseki's Ten Nights of Dream as a template for his own film, Dreams."  

"The point," Tasker concludes, "is that Kurosawa inhabited a world where literature was very important. People might go to the cinema once a week. They might go to kabuki or something like that for a treat, but they wouldn't have a huge amount of money." Instead, "They would be reading a lot. Maybe that's how you could perhaps read War and Peace 30 times."

The Bad Sleep Well

Yet, it is in Kurosawa's adaptations of Shakespearean works where his mastery of intricate moral portrayals shines most brilliantly. Rather than simply adopting the same moral perspectives as the original plays, "Kurosawa changed these masterpieces in quite significant ways. Macbeth, as seen by Kurosawa in Throne of Blood, is totally different from Shakespeare's Macbeth."

In Shakespeare's play, the king whom Macbeth murders is a noble, wise, old, gentle person, and murdering him is a heinous crime. However, as Tasker explains, "In Kurosawa's version, the king is actually also a psycho and has killed many people himself." 

Ran, Kurosawa's interpretation of King Lear, portrays Hidetora as a ruthless figure. "It's a totally different thinking from Shakespeare, who was actually an extremely conservative person," Tasker says. "He witnessed the Wars of the Roses and all the chaos and murder that happened in those years. Despite this, he still wanted to see kingship established in England." 


Moral landscapes shift dramatically in Kurosawa's Shakespearean adaptations, unveiling a world where traditional notions of virtue and villainy are redefined.

Citing comments from Kurosawa collaborators Andrei Konchalevsky and Shinobu Hashimoto, Tasker elucidates Kurosawa's perspective on human nature. "[Kurosawa] knew how low the human animal can go, how many flaws and shortcomings it has. He accepted this human animal without idealizing it. The consistent theme (throughout his work) is that there are no good people in this world, but no evil people, either. Everyone lives burdened by good and evil."

Front cover of the book, "On Kurosawa"

The Shadow of a Man

In his closing remarks, Tasker pondered whether contemporary cinema has upheld or fallen short of Kurosawa's towering legacy. Illustrating his point, he referenced a recent adaptation of Kurosawa's work. "There was an attempt to do Ikiru in Britain," he says. "Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the script, and it starred Bill Nighy. I thought it was very flat."

Tasker contended that modern films often fail to address existential questions or possess the transformative impact seen in Kurosawa's adaptations of literature. While he acknowledged Ishiguro's skillful character study, Tasker noted, "It's not telling us what we should do with our lives. What are we doing on this planet? What are we here for?" 

To learn more about the book or to purchase it, check the publisher's website.


Author: Daniel Manning