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by Carl Plantinga


An Emperor of Art

The life and films of Akira Kurosawa.

When Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa died in 1999, at the age of 88, he left behind a remarkable body of work, the fruit of a lifetime devoted to the art of film. As he said of his life, "take 'myself,' subtract 'movies,' and the result is 'zero.'" Kurosawa directed more than 30 painstakingly crafted films in various genres and on diverse subjects, among them serious period and contemporary dramas, adaptations of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, rousing fantasy-adventures, and epics designed as nothing less than meditations on the plight of the human race.1

Along the way, Kurosawa earned countless awards (including two Academy Awards for best foreign language film and a special Academy Award for lifetime achievement) and won the respect and admiration of international audiences and the world's premiere filmmakers. It is often said that movies were Japan's most important cultural export of the 1950s and '60s, and among the several notable Japanese filmmakers of the time, Kurosawa was by far the best known.

Kurosawa always had a hand in writing his films' screenplays, and took an active role in all aspects of his films. He was influenced by diverse sources, ranging from Shakespeare to 19th-century Russian novels, from Hollywood Westerns to the Noh play. In turn, he had a marked impact on a generation of filmmakers, especially in the United States. Martin Scorsese noted that Kurosawa's "influence is so profound as to be almost incomparable. There is no one else like him."

As a director of films, Kurosawa was among the best. He left behind a rich storehouse of fascinating characters, engaging tales, and dense, compelling fictional worlds. Western filmmakers had rarely looked to the Japanese for inspiration before Kurosawa. If imitation is the highest complement, then Kurosawa has been highly praised indeed. For example, George Lucas drew heavily on Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) for both characters and storyline in Star Wars (1976); Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone fashioned ...

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