Akira Kurosawa’s films shy from neither death nor violence. Kurosawa is best known for his portrayals of samurai inflicting violence with impossible skill, and even his light-hearted samurai films have high body counts. It was Kurosawa’s ability to make violence kinetically fun that would go on to profoundly influence Spaghetti Westerns and action films in general. Yet how death is treated in Kurosawa’s films varies markedly. Hyper-competence, comic ineptitude, and subdued realism form the three essential approaches to violence in Kurosawa’s films. These are fluid categories, however, and there exist significant differences in how Kurosawa portrays violence both within and among his films.
The thematic issues that exist in Kurosawa’s samurai films, and the action movies they influenced, were present from their inception, and, possibly, are inherent to the genre. In many of Kurosawa’s films, the main character is portrayed as both morally and physically superior to his enemies. The plot’s victims have some moral ground, but cede all agency to the central character, becoming passive hostages in a struggle in which they have no control. Furthermore, because many Kurosawa films have samurai as the main characters and peasants as the victims and antagonists, there exists an implicit and uneasy association between class and moral worth. There are few instances in Kurosawa’s filmography where violence is effectively wielded by someone who was not born a samurai. Kikuchiyo, played by Toshiro Mifune, in Seven Samurai, provides a rare exception, but one of severely limited impact. While Kikuchiyo is an effective warrior and not a samurai, he is also a comic relief character, ashamed of his lack of noble birth, and never fully able to transcend his class. Kikuchiyo’s importance is also minimized because Seven Samurai is one of Kurosawa’s most blatantly classist films. Both the peasants and the samurai explicitly endorse the inequality of the social order. This disparity between classes sometimes even surfaces in the violence of Kurosawa’s more serious films. In 1965’s Red Beard, the protagonist effortlessly beats up a crowd of ne’er-do-wells. The scene is out of place in the otherwise thoughtful film, and Mifune, playing a respected doctor, is clearly of a higher class than the thugs he easily dispatches. While Red Beard is a serious film, almost all of Kurosawa's movies with hyper-competent displays of violence are light-hearted. Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro are all more stylistic than substantial. Kurosawa seemed to have some reservations about the positive portrayal of violence in these films. Seven Samurai ends with the surviving characters reflecting on their losses and Sanjuro ends with the unnamed ronin chiding a young admirer for his enthusiasm for violence.
While violence is portrayed comically as well as heroically in many of Kurosawa’s films, in his more serious films, violence is often depicted as exclusively pathetic. Though Mifune’s character kills effortlessly in Yojimbo, most of the hired thugs make threats freely but are reticent to actually engage in combat for fear of their own lives. In Rashomon, famously told through multiple points of view, the bandit tells a self-aggrandizing story of a heroic and skilful sword fight with the samurai, but the more reliable narrative of the woodcutter reveals the two fought fearfully and in a pathetic fashion. In Drunken Angel, the doctor repeatedly chastises his patient for his gang affiliations, and the climactic knife fight is claustrophobic, long, and without honor.
In Kurosawa’s contemporary dramas, violence is often portrayed in a subdued and even chilling manner. Stray Dog sees a rookie homicide detective try to recover his gun after it’s stolen from him. The violence in Stray Dog doesn’t make its way on screen until the film’s final minutes. Instead, the characters are oppressed by the unrelenting heat and the everyday miseries of poverty in postwar Japan. In Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, the themes of corporate corruption, hypocrisy, and duplicity are heightened by the lack of witness to the violence. Stray Dog and The Bad Sleep Well, unlike Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and Seven Samurai, are films of suspense. High and Low, set and filmed in 1960s Japan, is one of Kurosawa’s best and most suspenseful films. There is fear and death, but no redemptive violence, or even the possibility of it. Visible violence, however graphic, can seldom be as frightening as that which can’t be seen. In addition, these contemporary films each display a form of class commentary. The wealthy family at the center of High and Low lives in a mansion on a hill. Their view shields them from the sight of poverty and violence, but they cannot live in a separate world from their neighbors. This contrast between the presentation of violence in Kurosawa’s period pieces and his contemporary dramas is part of a large divide between the two, not just in style, but in theme and purpose as well.
Kurosawa’s more serious films also take a more critical view of violence. When Kurosawa started filming in color in the 1970s, he used the opportunity to create arresting images of bright red blood and consuming fire. Kagemusha and Ran, two of Kurosawa’s last films, have an undiminished intensity of violence and a haunting despair that’s present in many of his films, but that rises to the forefront especially in his later works. Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's adaptation of Macbeth, has an even bleaker view of killing than the Shakespearean original. Both Macbeth and Kurosawa’s adaptation are bloody stories, and in both the ambitious central character’s violence is self-defeating. Macbeth’s violence, however, is an aberration. Macduff kills Macbeth and uses violence to restore order. With the advent of hereditary monarchy, Shakespeare draws a line from the past to the present of increasing stability. There is no such consolation in Throne of Blood. While the violence in Macbeth can be good or evil, in Throne of Blood, it brings only ruin. In the beginning and end of the film, fog drifts across the screen and a chant is heard:
Look upon the ruins / Of the castle of delusion / Haunted only now by the spirits / Of those who perished / A scene of carnage / Born of consuming desire / Never changing / Now and throughout eternity.
Washizu is killed by his own men, and no one arrives to restore order. In the end, there is no vision of a long line of kings, only the ruins of a castle. The violence stems not from an antiquated political system with unclear rules of succession, but from human nature. Kurosawa explicitly intones that this dangerous element in ourselves is present now, and that it always will be.