Times Staff Writer

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa turned a cold shoulder to the organizers of the inaugural Tokyo International Film Festival earlier this year, refusing to attend the opening night presentation of “Ran,” which many critics have since called the 75-year-old master’s best film.

Last week, the Japanese film industry returned the chill, ignoring “Ran” (Chaos) in favor of something called “Hana Ichimonme” (The Little Petal) as the official entry in the best foreign-language film category of the Academy Awards.

Are the two events related?

“Absolutely. He snubbed them and now they’re paying him back,” says David Owens, assistant director of the film department of the Japan Society in New York. “Kurosawa has been outspoken in his criticism of the Japanese film industry and they haven’t liked it.”


Owens and others familiar with the Japanese film industry can come up with a lot of reasons why the Japanese are not happy with “Ran” and Kurosawa:

--Kurosawa’s long-running feud with the industry and his frequent criticism of it.

--The fact that the film was financed largely with French capital, earning it an “outsider” label in Japan.

--Resentment over its disproportionately big budget (at $12 million, it is the most expensive Japanese-language film ever made).

--Kurosawa’s continuing fascination with Japan’s samurai past, and his penchant for Shakespeare (“Ran” is “King Lear” with a guest appearance by Lady Macbeth), is out of step with modern Japan’s high-tech, fast-forward culture.

But what rankles in this case, says Owens, is the appearance of a monumental conflict of interest. Shigeru Okada, who was the head of the film festival that Kurosawa snubbed, is a member of Japan’s Oscar-selection committee and also the head of Toei, the studio whose film was ultimately selected.

“Okada is a very powerful guy,” says film producer Tom Luddy, who says he resigned his spot on the Tokyo film festival organizing committee when Okada led a right-wing move to drop Luddy’s “Mishima” from the festival lineup. “He can pretty much get what he wants there.”


“Ran” opened the New York Film Festival in September (Kurosawa attended that one), earning rave reviews, and has since opened to both critical and box-office success in France and England where Kurosawa’s reputation as one of the world’s great film makers is intact.

“Ran” opens in New York Dec. 20 and in Los Angeles on Christmas Day in order to qualify for the Academy Awards. With a foreign-language Oscar now out, “Ran’s” American distributor--Orion Classics--has its eye on other categories. Technically, it will be eligible for everything but best foreign-language film.

“We’d like to see Kurosawa get a nomination as best director,” says Orion’s Mike Barker. “We think there is a very good chance of that.”

Film director Sidney Lumet, who says he believes “Ran” will take its place as a masterpiece among the likes of D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon,” says he intends to campaign for a Kurosawa nomination when the Directors Guild begins its awards deliberations.

Kurosawa’s films have been nominated for Oscars three times (“Rashomon” was given a special award in 1951 and “Dersu Uzala,” submitted by the Soviet Union, won in 1977), but he has never been nominated as best director.

“ ‘Masterpiece’ is an overused term,” says Lumet, who co-hosted a tribute for Kurosawa following “Ran’s” New York Film Festival premiere. “But I don’t think it’s overused here. There are some directors whose films can be justified solely on their sense of beauty, and there are some whose films can be justified solely on their depth of profundity. Kurosawa is the only one who puts the two together.”

Arthur Penn, who also spoke at the Kurosawa tribute, says he is dumbfounded by the “Ran” snub.

“To overlook the work of a man who is at the very peak of his career seems gravely unjust,” Penn says. “They (the Japanese) are marvelous about honoring artists in their own time. That respect is conspicuously missing in this case.”

“Ran” producer Serge Silberman reportedly tried to get France to consider submitting the film after the Japanese telexed their decision to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences last week, but the French had already made their selection too.

Controversy seems to plague the foreign-language category of the Oscars every year. Each country that wants to submit a film makes the selection itself, working with guidelines established by the academy. So the films selected are subject to the politics and whims of the individuals on each national committee.

The academy’s foreign-language film committee then views all of the entries and pares them down to five nominees, which are then voted on by academy members who have seen all five.

Last year, the shocker came from France, which many people believed had a lock on the foreign-language award for Bertrand Tavernier’s celebrated “A Sunday in the Country.” But the French selection committee decided to submit “Tchao Pantin” instead. That entry didn’t even make it to the final five.

LEMMON TWIST: “Hana Ichimonme” isn’t the only surprise among the foreign-language entrants. Italy’s official selection is “Macaroni,” a Paramount picture that starred Jack Lemmon as a depressed American businessman who returns to Italy to visit World War II buddy Marcello Mastroianni.

All of Lemmon’s dialogue and most of the dialogue spoken during his scenes was in English in the version released in the United States. The percentage of Italian dialogue was far less than the 51% required to qualify it for the foreign-language category.

But in Italy, there were two versions, the one we had and a second one that is 100% Italian.

Aurelio De Laurentiis, the film’s producer, says the scenes involving Lemmon were actually shot twice, once in English and once in Italian; thus, two negatives of the film were created. It’s the one with the Italian Lemmon (his voice was dubbed by an Italian actor) that is up for the Oscar.

DOUBLES MATCH: This is a lame Oscar year by any standards, but the acting branch of the motion picture academy will have one dilemma to sort out on this year’s ballot. Do members nominate Meryl Streep for “Plenty” or “Out of Africa”?

Two studios--20th Century Fox released “Plenty,” Universal will release “Out of Africa” Dec. 20--are planning Oscar campaigns for Streep, and few people who’ve seen both films would deny that both performances are worth nominations.

But there are rules. Actors now are not allowed to compete with themselves, a situation that happened twice in the best-actress category (Janet Gaynor had three nominations in 1927, Greta Garbo had two in 1930), even if their work rates it.

Streep’s performance as author Isak Dinesen in “Out of Africa” may have the edge, since that $30-million picture figures to be seen by more people.