Akira Kurosawa/John Ford: EAST MEETS WEST

15 Best John Ford Movies You Need To Watch | Taste Of Cinema ...
Akira Kurosawa Great Director profile • Senses of Cinema

Akira Kurosawa. John Ford. Two directors considered to be the quintessential

filmmakers of their respective countries surprisingly have much in common. While

most of the similarities stem from Kurosawa’s admiration of his elder, Kurosawa

definitely shared and expanded on Ford’s legendary style. There are, I believe, three

major aspects that connect these two giants of cinema.

The first and most obvious connection between Kurosawa and Ford is their

focus on specific time periods as the setting for their films. John Ford is

synonymous with the Hollywood “Western” film. In his career as a Director, Ford

directed twenty five Western feature films and a number of Western TV episodes.

Not only did Ford favor the Western genre, he made it his own with classics such as

Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A John Ford

Western became an epic presentation of not only the dramatic endeavors of the

characters but also a sweeping and mesmerizing view of the American landscape.

For Kurosawa, his “Samurai” epics were no different. From the aptly titled Seven

Samurai to Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa gave the audience, through

costume and action, an authentic adaptation of Japan’s medieval history. In the ten

Samurai films that Kurosawa made he also employed the same style of Ford’s

Westerns by showcasing the Japanese landscape in epic proportions. The

composition and shooting style is another tactic that brings the two directors closer

together.

In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as “Ethan Edwards” rides

toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long

tracking shot or a pan but it is classic Ford: having his subjects move from

background to foreground or vice versa in an attempt to convey the depth of the

image on screen. Almost twenty years earlier, Ford debuted this shot several times

in his classic Stagecoach. From the moment the coach rolls away from the camera

into Monument Valley on its way from Tonto to Lordsburg, the audience can see

that the road ahead stretches all the way to the horizon. In Kurosawa’s classic

Throne of Blood one cannot deny the similarity of the Samurai riding his horse

frantically from background to foreground as he approaches Spider’s Web castle.

Moments later, when we are introduced to “Washizu” and “Miki”, we see them lost

in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts

from background to foreground through the fog is magical. Like Ford, Kurosawa

used the depth of the image to convey that Washizu and Miki were lost and riding

back and forth in the same direction. Keeping them inside the frame rather than

panning with them from side to side gives the viewer the sense that the two soldiers

are trapped inside this location.

As well as Throne of Blood, there is also a similarity to Ford’s style in the

opening scene of Yojimbo. The “Ronin” played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune,

is introduced in a medium shot walking among the tall grass with large mountain

peaks on the horizon. After throwing a stick in the air and letting it decide which

direction he will go, Mifune starts off down the road, straight down the center of the

frame. The shot is meant to grab the audience as if we are following the Ronin down

that long path.

When most people hear the name John Ford only one thing comes to mind:

John Wayne. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who starred in My

Darling Clementine. As Wyatt Earp, Henry Fonda finds himself entering the town of

Tombstone, Arizona at the start of the film and finding it’s inhabitants terrorized by

criminals. The same can be said for “The Ringo Kid” in Stagecoach and “Ransom

Stoddard” and “Tom Donophin” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Watching

Yojimbo, and seeing the Ronin as he arrives in town to find people hiding indoors

and then, when he is accosted by a gang of thugs, I immediately thought of Henry

Fonda’s Wyatt Earp or John Wayne as The Ringo Kid or any other hero from a John

Ford Western. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero as an outlaw

with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous bad

guys. I also believe that just as Wayne and Ford went hand in hand so did Kurosawa

and Mifune. These two legendary actors were both groomed by their respective

directors and arguably gave the best performances of their careers because of it.

Whether it is the red majesty of Monument Valley or the grassy plains and

mountain peaks of medieval Japan, with Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, it is always

the same result. A masterpiece of cinema that takes the audience on a ride into the

depths of history and into the depths of the landscape on the silver screen before

them.

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