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. Of the many aspects that connect the two, there are I believe, three major ones that stand out.
The first and most obvious connection between the Kurosawa and Ford is their focus on specific time periods as the settings for their films. John Ford is synonymous with the Hollywood “Western.” In his career as a director, Ford made twenty five Western feature films as well as 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 two directors shared a very similar composition and shooting style. In the opening scene of The Searchers, John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran returning home, rides on horseback toward his brother’s ranch. The shot is breathtaking in the sense that it is not a long tracking shot or a pan across the wide open landscape, but that 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 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, an adaptation of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, one cannot deny the similarity to The Searchers as the Samurai rides his horse frantically toward “Spider’s Web” castle. Moments later, when we are introduced to Wahizu and Miki, the two main characters, we see them on horseback, lost in a foggy forest. Kurosawa’s use of the two men on horseback appearing like ghosts on the landscape, riding 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 the wind 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 the long path.
When most people hear the name John Ford, only one thing comes to mind: John Wayne. “The Duke” made his career starring in many of Ford’s classics but he wasn’t John Ford’s only favorite. Another of Ford’s favorites was Henry Fonda who portrayed Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln, and Tom Joad, certainly a wide array of hero’s and anti-hero’s of American history. 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 its inhabitant’s 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. Kurosawa repeated this in Yojimbo when the Ronin arrives in town and finds people hiding indoors and peering out windows. He is then accosted by thugs which he dispatches with the toughness and calm of Ringo or Wyatt Earp. Both Ford and Kurosawa liked to portray their hero with a toughness and swagger that could withstand even the most dangerous villains. And almost always, the tough hero of their films were the same person. For Ford it was John Wayne and for Kurosawa it was 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.