Perhaps best known for his action-packed samurai classics, Akira Kurosawa began his career by delving into the state of his nation immediately following World War II, with visual poetry and direct emotion. Amid Japan’s economic collapse, moral waywardness, and American occupation, Kurosawa managed to find humor and redemption existing alongside despair and anxiety. In these five films, which range from the whimsically Capraesque to the icily Dostoyevskian, from political epics to courtroom potboilers, Kurosawa established both the artistic range and social acuity that would inform his entire career.
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
In Akira Kurosawa's first film after the end of World War II, Japanese film star (and eventual Ozu regular) Setsuko Hara gives an astonishing performance as Yukie, Kurosawa's only female protagonist and one of his strongest heroes. Transforming herself from genteel bourgeois daughter to independent social activist, Yukie journeys across a decade of tumultuous Japanese history.
One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
Akira Kurosawa examined the harsh economic truths of postwar Japan with this affectionate tribute to young love. Trying to make their meager thirty-five yen last during a Sunday trip into a war-ravaged Tokyo, Yuzo and Masako look for work and lodging, as well as affordable entertainments to pass the time. Reminiscent of Frank Capra’s social realist comedies as well as contemporaneous Italian neorealist films, One Wonderful Sunday touchingly offers a bit of hope amidst misery.
A handsome, suave Toshiro Mifune lights up the screen as painter Ichiro, whose circumstantial meeting with a famous singer (Yoshiko Yamaguchi) is construed by the tabloid press as a torrid affair. When Ichiro files a lawsuit against the incriminating gossip magazine, he hires the ethically dubious lawyer Hiruta (Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura)—who's playing both sides. A portrait of moral decline during Japan’s postwar reparations, Scandal is also a compelling courtroom drama and a tale of human redemption.
The Idiot (1951)
After finishing what would become his international phenomenon Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa immediately turned to one of the most daring—and problem-plagued—productions of his career. The Idiot, adapted faithfully from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's nineteenth-century masterpiece about a wayward, pure soul's reintegration into society, yet updated to capture Japan’s postwar aimlessness, was a victim of studio interference and, finally, public indifference. Today, Kurosawa's onetime "folly" looks ever more fascinating, a stylish, otherworldly evocation of one man’s wintry mindscape.
I Live in Fear (1955)
Both the final film in which Kurosawa would so directly wrestle with the demons of the second world war and his most literal representation of living in an atomic age, Akira Kurosawa’s galvanizing I Live in Fear presents Toshiro Mifune as an elderly, stubborn businessman so fearful of a nuclear attack that he vows to move his reluctant family to South America. With this mournful film, the director depicts a society emerging from the shadows but still terrorized by memories of the past and anxieties of the future.