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Kurosawa Brought Japan--and Inspiration--to West

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the time of his death Sunday of a stroke at his Tokyo home, Akira Kurosawa, who was 88, was widely regarded as the greatest director still living and one of the most influential filmmakers of any era.

His 1950 “Rashomon,” a period tale in which a bandit’s assault on an aristocratic woman traveling through a forest is told from four different viewpoints, is one of the key films in the history of Japanese cinema and spawned many imitators. When it took the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Japanese films were virtually unknown in the West, but it went on to win a special Oscar as the best foreign film of the year. A Hong Kong broadcast today declared that “Kurosawa was one of the few Asians to whom Hollywood paid attention.”

Director Steven Spielberg, in France to promote “Saving Private Ryan,” described Kurosawa on Sunday as “the visual Shakespeare of our time.”

“I am deeply saddened by Kurosawa’s death,” Spielberg told reporters. “But what encourages me is that he . . . is the only director who right until the end of his life continued to make films that were recognized as, or will be recognized as, classics.”

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In Japan, Kurosawa’s death was front-page news in every paper today. Tokyo film critic Yoshio Shirai said: “Before ‘Rashomon,’ the outside world’s image of Japan was Mt. Fuji, geisha and cherry blossoms. After the movie, it changed to Kurosawa, Sony and Honda, in that order.”

Kurosawa thus became a source of national pride to a people who had only recently suffered a devastating defeat in World War II, director Yoji Yamada said.

“When ‘Rashomon’ won the grand prize [in Venice], Japanese, who were still living in the aftermath of the war, were greatly encouraged that Japanese art was recognized by the world,” Yamada said.

Often described as the “most Western” of Japanese directors, Kurosawa--a bold, innovative stylist and master storyteller--admired the films of John Ford and other Hollywood directors. It’s not hard to see the impact of the Western on one of his most celebrated films, “Seven Samurai” (1954), in which a small village, regularly attacked by bandits, hires a group of swordsmen to defend it. So popular was this saga that Hollywood remade it in 1960 as “The Magnificent Seven.”

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The late Sergio Leone freely admitted pirating one of Kurosawa’s most popular, and amusing, films, “Yojimbo” (1960). Leone called his version “A Fistful of Dollars,” and it gave rise to the spaghetti western and established Clint Eastwood as a major star. George Lucas has acknowledged “The Hidden Fortress” (1958), one of Kurosawa’s liveliest samurai epics, as a key inspiration for “Star Wars.” Fay and Michael Kanin turned “Rashomon” into a successful Broadway play, and Martin Ritt turned it into “The Outrage,” starring Paul Newman.

Unforgettable Images

For 50 years, Kurosawa created images that stick permanently in the memory--the swift tracking shots through the forest in “Rashomon”; the shot in “Ikiru” (“To Live,” 1952) of the great character actor Takashi Shimura as a petty bureaucrat sitting in a swing under softly falling snow, dying but content in his belief that he has succeeded in giving his life meaning; the shocked expression of Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth-like monarch in “Throne of Blood” (1957) as he realizes that he has been fatally impaled by a flurry of arrows.

Although his films were routinely described by critics and scholars alike as being profoundly humanistic, Kurosawa remained modest about his work.

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“I just make up stories and film them,” he said in 1985 after he introduced “Ran,” his period epic version of “King Lear.” “When I am lucky, the stories have a lifelike quality that makes them appealing to people, and the film is successful.”

Born in Tokyo, Kurosawa was the youngest of seven children of an army officer turned athletic instructor. Young Akira first showed talent in art and at 17 enrolled in the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. Unsuccessful as a commercial artist, he answered an advertisement for assistant directors in 1936 and joined what was to become Toho Film Co., one of Japan’s major studios.

To his surprise, Kurosawa not only got the job but soon found that film was his true art form. He made his directing debut in 1943 with “Judo Saga,” stressing the spiritual side of martial arts at the very moment Japanese filmmakers were expected to be at their most militaristic. Chafing at wartime censorship, he made only two more films during World War II--"The Most Beautiful” (1944), about women’s everyday lives on the home front, and “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail,” parodying samurai ideology in 1945.

The refreshingly natural actress who starred in “The Most Beautiful,” Yoko Yaguchi, retired from acting and married Kurosawa, becoming his personal support system until her death in 1985. The couple had a son, Hisao, and a daughter, Kazuko. She and her son were with him at his death.

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After the war, Kurosawa won recognition as the best Japanese director of the year in 1947 for his love story “One Wonderful Sunday.” His next film, “Drunken Angel,” began his long association with actor Mifune, who played a tuberculosis-stricken gangster aided by a slum doctor in postwar Tokyo. “In this picture,” Kurosawa later said, “I finally discovered myself.”

Mifune, who died in December at 77, was the star of many of Kurosawa’s finest films, including “Rashomon.” During their 17-year collaboration, Kurosawa transformed the fledgling film actor into Japan’s most internationally renowned star.

As the ‘60s and ‘70s wore on, Kurosawa made fewer and fewer films. “Kagemusha” (1980) would most likely never have been made at all had not two of his fans, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, stepped in as executive producers, persuading 20th Century Fox to buy the international distribution rights. Lucas later commented that for Kurosawa not to have been able to make “Kagemusha” would have been “like telling Michelangelo, ‘All right, you’re 70, and we’re not letting you paint anymore.’ ”

In person, the 6-foot Kurosawa was a commanding figure. Sometimes he would be in a mood for an interview, sometimes not, but he was always cordial, speaking through his U.S. interpreter, film historian Audie Bock. In a 1980 interview, he said, “I have never made a film someone has ordered me to make.”

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80th Birthday in L.A.

Kurosawa was in a jovial mood while in Los Angeles on his 80th birthday, March 23, 1990--three days before he was to receive another honorary Oscar, this one for lifetime achievement. “I sure don’t feel like I’m 80,” he said in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. “To be honest, I feel like behaving like a total fool, but I can’t do it because my producers are here!” he exclaimed, indicating his son and his nephew Mike Y. Inoue.

Kurosawa had rarely been seen in public in recent years. Three years ago, he broke his leg and spine in a fall at an inn in Kyoto, and afterward he spent most of his time in bed, but he was still doing rehabilitation exercises at the time of his death, his son said at a news conference Sunday.

His condition worsened two weeks ago, however--although he was able to have conversations until the end, Hisao said.

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A private funeral for the family will be held Tuesday, and there will be a public farewell service Sunday at the Kurosawa Film Studio in Yokohama, which is headed by his son.

His children reported that Kurosawa’s passing was “as peaceful as if he were going to sleep.”

“He did not utter any last words,” Hisao said. “But his films were his testament.”

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Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Sonni Efron, staff writer Myrna Oliver and Reuters news service contributed to this report.


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