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Film world mourns loss of 'giant' Akira Kurosawa

Web posted on: Monday, September 07, 1998 2:53:27 PM

TOKYO (CNN) -- The international film community on Monday mourned the loss of Akira Kurosawa, hailing him as a cinematic "giant" and one of the most influential directors in the history of the industry.

Kurosawa, who won three Academy Awards during a 30-film career that melded art and cinema and earned him acclaim as one of Japan's most famous cultural exports, died of a stroke on Sunday at his Tokyo home at the age of 88.

"We are not going to see that kind of filmmaking again," said Stephen Prince, author of a 1991 book about Kurosawa called "The Warrior's Camera."

Soldiers rush a medieval castle on the set of Kurosawa's "Ran"

Kurosawa a 'giant'

"The term 'giant' is used too often to describe artists. But in the case of Akira Kurosawa, we have one of the rare instances where the term fits," said director Martin Scorsese, just one American auteur who was influenced by Kurosawa's lyricism, technical mastery, and blending of traditional Japanese theatrical forms with epic presentation.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two of the most commercially successful directors of all time, have also claimed Kurosawa's style in their work.

His resume of films includes his 1950 breakthrough "Rashomon," which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1951 and launched a decade of landmark films that included "Seven Samurai" (1954) and "Throne of Blood" (1957).

Kurosawa also earned an Oscar for "Dersu Uzala" (1975), and was given an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1990.

The Venice Film Festival on Monday scheduled a commemorative showing of "Rashomon."

Kurosawa with Mikhail Gorbachev (left)

'A prophet without honor'

As international praise and grief poured in, Kurosawa's homeland of Japan reacted with special sections dedicated to him in newspapers, and the announcement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka on Monday that Kurosawa would be named a winner of the People's Honor Award, a widely respected prize for cultural achievement.

It was a warm response, coming from Japan. Some of Kurosawa's toughest critics over the years came from his homeland, where the media often criticized his big budget films and what has been described as an excruciating attention to detail.

Kurosawa was also shunned by Japan's studios and often had to look elsewhere to fund his movies. Among his "costly" films was his "Ran," or "Chaos," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear" which earned him a special trophy at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. With a price tag topping $10 million, "Ran" was the most expensive movie in Japanese film history. (By comparison, 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" had a $100 million price tag.)

"Japan does not understand very well that one of its proudest cultural achievements is in film," the Mainichi newspaper said in an editorial detailing the problems Kurosawa faced at home.

"He's been a prophet without honor in his own country for a number of years," said Donald Richie, a writer, cultural critic and author of "The Films of Akira Kurosawa."

Directors 'can never be satisfied'

Analysts say Kurosawa's greatest achievement was in opening up the world of Japanese film to the west.

"What he did in the artistic field is what a lot of Japan's top name manufacturers did in their field," says James Bailey, film critic with Asiaweek.

Born in Tokyo in 1910, Kurosawa was the youngest of eight children. He turned to the cinema after failing to get into art school as a painter.

Beginning his filmmaking career as an assistant to director Kajiro Yamamoto, by 1941 he was writing scripts and directing whole sequences for Yamamoto's films. At 33, he directed his first film, "Sugata Sanshiro." Three years later, he made "Yoidore Tenshi" ("Drunken Angel"), his first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, who would become a frequent protagonist in his films. And in 1950, he created his first Oscar-winning work in "Rashomon."

Despite the international acclaim, Kurosawa faced emotional turmoil. After a period of aborted projects and inactivity in the late 1960s, his first film in five years, "Dodeska-den" (1970) failed at the box office. In despair, he attempted suicide in 1971. But his psychological wounds healed nearly as quickly as the multiple slashes he inflicted upon himself, and led to the award-winning "Derzu Uzala."

Art was in the work

In the years leading up to his death, Kurosawa's films came under greater scrutiny, failing to win over box office fans and critics. Still, Kurosawa planned more work. At his death, he had two scripts ready for production.

To him, the art was in the work.

"Movie directors, or should I say people who create things, are very greedy and they can never be satisfied," Kurosawa once said. "That's why they can keep on working. I've been able to work for so long because I think next time, I'll make something good."

Kurosawa's wife, actress Yoko Yaguchi, died in 1985 after 35 years of marriage. Besides son Hisao, they had a daughter, Kazuko.

Tokyo Bureau Chief Marina Kamimura and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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