Kurosawa had ‘heart of a boy, mind of a genius’

Acclaimed Japanese film director dies at 88

Akira Kurosawa, the internationally acclaimed Japanese film director, died Sunday in Tokyo of a stroke. He was 88. His landmark films, especially “The Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon” and “Ikiru,” were popular the world over and influenced a generation of filmmakers, including George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

Considered the most Western of Asian directors, Kurosawa was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a lifetime achievement award in 1990, and two of his films, “Rashomon” and “Dersu Uzala,” won Oscars for best foreign film. He was also nominated as best director in 1985 for “Ran” and received the Director’s Guild of America’s Jubilee Award in 1986.

There was an immediate outpouring of grief in Japan and around the world upon the news of his death. French President Jacques Chirac said he was deeply saddened to hear that one of the filmmakers he admired most had died. And officials at the Venice Intl. Film Festival, where “Rashomon” won the Golden Lion in 1951, are planning a special showing of that movie.

Actor Hisashi Igawa, who played supporting roles in several of Kurosawa’s later films, such as “Ran,” said the famed director, an imposing figure who was over six feet tall, came to life when he was on the movie set.

“Kurosawa had the heart of a boy and the mind of a genius,” Igawa said.

Great influence

The director greatly influenced postwar cinema, particularly in the United States, beginning in 1951 with the release of “Rashomon,” a story of the ambiguity of truth and Kurosawa’s first international hit. The term “Rashomon-like” has since entered the vernacular. The film was remade unsuccessfully as “Hombre” by director Martin Ritt.

Other Kurosawa films were also remade. “The Seven Samurai” inspired the American Western “The Magnificent Seven,” which made a star of Steve McQueen. And Sergio Leone reimagined “Yojimbo” as the spaghetti Western “A Fistful of Dollars,” which gained Clint Eastwood stardom.

Kurosawa’s historical spectacle “The Hidden Fortress” was credited by Lucas as an important source for “Star Wars.”

In turn, Kurosawa’s Eastern formalism and stylistic structure were heavily leavened with Western influences. “The Seven Samurai” was shaped by the moral conflicts that dominated the American Westerns of John Ford, to whom Kurosawa frequently paid homage. Frank Capra was another of Kurosawa’s favorite directors.

“Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved,” Kurosawa once said. “I have learned from this grammar of the Western.”

Way with Shakespeare

Kurosawa’s masterful adaptations of Shakespeare include “Throne of Blood” (Macbeth) and “Ran” (King Lear). Both films preserved the integrity of Shakespeare’s tragedy and at the same time honored the tradition of the warrior in Japanese legend.

Kurosawa also transposed Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” to the 17th century Edo era and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” to contemporary Japan. Kurosawa’s “High and Low” was based on the detective novel “King’s Ransom” by American Ed McBain and demonstrates a Hitchcockian flair for suspense.

Kurosawa eventually fell out of favor in his native Japan, partly because of his increasing fascination with expressionism. But he always had critics at home, those who complained that his films were too Western.

New wave filmmakers in Japan shunned him, which Kurosawa regretted. “I would like to be friends with them, but for some reason they avoid me. Some say my style is old-fashioned and others say I’m just an old man and not worth paying attention to.”

Thanks largely to his American filmmaking champions and other foreign revenue sources, Kurosawa was always able to raise financing for his often expensive (by Japanese standards), lavishly produced films. He even agreed to appear in Japanese television commercials in order to have money to help make his movies.

Attempt at suicide

In later years, the director was plagued by illnesses and even attempted suicide. And few of his later films, with the notable exception of “Ran,” received the critical and audience praise he garnered in his golden period, the 1950s and ’60s.

Kurosawa’s colleagues, many of whom worked with him for the better part of his career, referred to him as “sensei,” which means teacher or master in Japanese. He was also a taskmaster, with a reputation for being a perfectionist, which he readily acknowledged. “I am short-tempered and obstinate,” he wrote in his 1982 autobiography, “Something Like an Autobiography.”

Kurosawa was born in Tokyo on March 23, 1910, the son of a solider who took pride in his northern samurai ancestry.

A struggling young painter, Kurosawa happened upon filmmaking by accident. “I saw a newspaper advertisement. PCL, which later became Toho Studios, wanted an assistant director. They asked applicants to write essays on the basic weaknesses of Japanese films and what should be done about them. In my answer I suggested, humorously, that if weaknesses were basic, there could be no cure. I also said that films could always be made better.”

First successes

At Toho, Kurosawa apprenticed under Kajiro Yammamoto, then the most important and influential Japanese director. After five years as an assistant director and script writer, Kurosawa directed “Sugata Sanshiro” about a judo champion. Its popularity spawned a sequel. But censorship restrictions, as well as the rigid traditions of cinema storytelling in Japan, hampered his progress up until the end of World War II. It wasn’t until “Drunken Angel” in 1948, the first of 16 films with actor Toshiro Mifune, that Kurosawa “finally discovered myself,” as he told critic Donald Richie, a Japanese cinema authority and longtime friend.

‘Rashomon’ breakthrough

Kurosawa’s popularity in Japan broadened to the international arena with “Rashomon,” which recounts the murder of a nobleman and the rape of his wife as told by four conflicting witnesses. The film won the Lion D’Or at the Venice Film Festival and became the first Japanese film to achieve art house success in the U.S. His version of “The Idiot,” however, was cut from 165 minutes to 90, causing Kurosawa to break with its financiers, the Shockiku company.

With the end of the American occupation of Japan and the release of “Ikiru” (To Live), Kurosawa embarked on a creatively and commercially fecund period, in which he produced such masterpieces as “The Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Lower Depths,” “The Hidden Fortress,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” “Yojimbo,” “Sanjuro,” “High and Low” and “The Red Beard.”

Studio snubbed

In the late ’60s, 20th Century Fox offered Kurosawa the opportunity to direct the Japanese sequences in “Tora, Tora, Tora,” but he withdrew after nine days of shooting when he realized he did not have say on the final cut.

In a partnership with several other leading Japanese filmmakers, he created a production company called The Four Musketeers but directed only one film, “Dodeskaden” in 1969, under the banner. It was his first film in color and a commercial disappointment. Its failure, health problems and the shift in Japanese cinema to slicker, more commercial fare led him to attempt suicide in 1971.

After a four-year hiatus, Kurosawa returned with the Oscar-winning (and Russian-financed) “Dersu Uzala,” made on location in the Soviet Union. The invitation by Mosofilm, he admits, saved him from “a dark moment.”

Indian summer

At the behest of Coppola and Lucas, Alan Ladd Jr., then head of 20th Century Fox, invested $1.5 million in “Kagemusha,” which in 1980 became one of Japan’s highest-grossing films and won the Palme D’Or in Cannes. It was followed by the enormously successful “Ran,” a $10 million French-Japanese co-production. The film earned Kurosawa his only Academy Award nomination for best director.

“Ran” was followed by a number of increasingly meditative, beautifully studied but dramatically unsatisfying films, such as “Dreams” (in which Martin Scorsese made a cameo appearance as Van Gogh), “Rhapsody in August” (featuring Richard Gere) and “Madadayo.” Though not entirely successful, the spate of films represented the octogenarian’s most productive period since the 1960s.

At the end of his autobiography, Kurosawa confessed, “I am not especially strong. I am not especially gifted. I simply do not like to show my weakness and I hate to lose, so I am a person who tries hard. That’s all there is to me.”

Kurosawa was married to a former movie actress and has a son, Hiroshi, who is a film producer.