By Anthony Vincente-Pereira
As Canadians attempt to make sense of the current pandemic, Contagion is currently one of the most popular films on Netflix in the country. The 2011 thriller is a film about a deadly worldwide pandemic and the race against time to defeat it, but you probably already knew that. In an uncertain time where distractions (and proper social distancing practices!) are needed more than ever, we’re falling prey to the self-destructive desire to consume media that reflects the world’s current problems.
Here is a less anxiety-inducing alternative for jaded couch surfers who are tired of rewatching Harry Potter or The Office for the umpteenth time: the classic films of Akira Kurosawa.
Kurosawa is a Japanese director whose films have received acclaim both from critics and audiences around the world. Having directed 30 films in his lifetime, Kurosawa left behind a film for every type of audience member, from Samurai epics to meditative character studies to everything in between.
His influence can be seen all across the cinematic landscape; upon watching Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, George Lucas decided he wanted to adapt that story in a space setting, and Star Wars was born. A Bug’s Life and The Magnificent Seven are a complete retelling of Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s most acclaimed masterpiece.
Sure, influence isn’t everything, and the movies themselves need to be good for you to dedicate time to watching them. Despite their age - most of his films being made in the 50s and 60s - none of them feel dated. The storylines are fresh and engaging, largely thanks to characters that are so well developed that you can’t help but get invested. The actual filmmaking is filled with beautifully composed shots and sound design that immerses you in different worlds.
There is a Kurosawa film for everyone; if you’re in the mood for an exciting film noir, there’s Drunken Angel, the story of a gangster with tuberculosis who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a doctor who hates the world of crime. Fans of police procedurals and mysteries can feel at home with High and Low, in which a wealthy shoe company executive is faced with tough decisions after his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and held for ransom.
The aforementioned The Hidden Fortress will appeal to those looking for a fun action romp and Star Wars fans.
Even those looking for a film to make them cry can with Ikiru, the story of a middle-aged bureaucrat who begins looking for the meaning of his life after being diagnosed with cancer.
No Kurosawa recommendation is complete without the countless samurai epics and period pieces that made him famous around the world. Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran, and the list goes on. These tales of heroism, obsession, power and war have stood the test of time as films that continue to be watched and enjoyed. There’s a perfect mix of action, intrigue and drama that would appeal to any film lover, and this mix is grounded in characters and plots that stick with you long after the credits have rolled.
At the core of the countless themes Kurosawa explores in all his films is a simple but fundamental question: why can’t human beings be better to one another? Underneath all the blood, katanas, warfare and crime lies a reflection on how conflict between humans can arise from the most mundane places. As contradictory as it may sound, his films are lessons in being kinder to each other.
You can find the majority of Kurosawa’s films on the Criterion Channel.