“At long last,” said Akira Kurosawa to the audience at the 62nd Academy Awards, as he picked up his Life Achievement Award, “I am beginning to understand what it is I've been trying to do all this time. I am finally ready to make my first film.” The year was 1990, and the master's remarks – which I'm recalling from memory, one day after Kurosawa's death – fetched a warm response. Those present knew he wasn't being clever; the applause accorded his words expressed a recognition that he was speaking the plain truth. Rashomon, Throne of Blood, The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, High and Low, Dersu Uzala and Ran (to name just a few) may be among the greatest films ever made, but for the man who made them they could amount to preparation for a still greater unknown.
Kurosawa was nothing if not the bard of renewal. Born in 1910 into a samurai family, schooled as a visual artist, thrust by a propitious career twist into the Toho film studios of the 1930s, he worked his way up from horse handler to film editor to screenwriter. He emerged as a director after World War II, when Japan itself was in need of renewal. His samurai pictures, blending feudal Japanese codes of honor with the racing pulse of American Westerns, popularly redefined his homeland to international audiences, and as a happy byproduct of his genius, revitalized western movies. George Lucas has admitted that Star Wars was directly inspired by The Hidden Fortress. The shrewd, wandering hero of Yojimbo has been reborn as Mad Max and as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. By the time John Belushi began slicing and dicing on Saturday Night Live, it was inescapably clear that Kurosawa had transformed the samurai into an icon every bit as internationally beloved as the cowboy.
At the moment of his death of a stroke in Tokyo on September 5, Kurosawa was arguably the world's greatest living filmmaker. That word arguably is a tribute to Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick – but doubtless even these titans would agree that Kurosawa was the most prolific and versatile, equally at home with Shakespeare, film noir, swashbuckling action epics, post-Hiroshima polemics and intimate psychological dramas. He was the most international of the great Japanese directors, and like many true prophets was, at times, without honor in his own homeland. The bad reviews at home of Dodesukaden caused him to slash his wrists, and it was five years before he made another film. Antonioni, Bergman and Godard essay women characters more deeply, but Kurosawa was extending his reach in this regard right up to the end of his life. Rhapsody in August (1991), his most underrated masterpiece, has a female protagonist – his first. (Is this what he meant in his Life Achievement speech, saying that he was ready to begin?)
In celebrating Kurosawa's life, one remembers not film, but moments, so indelibly stamped that they're not “cinematic” at all but have the character of memories: The droplets of rain, flying from the feathered arrows of The Seven Samurai as they battle thieves in the middle of a monsoon. Toshiro Mifune as the father of a kidnapped boy in High and Low, fighting to keep the instructions clear in his head as he must toss a briefcase containing a million dollars from the window of one speeding train into another – a superb action sequence set in five minutes of real time. The dying clerk in Ikiru, mouth dropping open as he watches a veiled stripper gyrate (a pleasure he never permitted himself when healthy) as his drunken buddy whispers: “See that? That woman is more truthful, more beautiful, than any work of art.” The retarded boy in Dodesukaden, imitating the sound of the trolley. The three schoolchildren in Rhapsody in August, gazing in solemn wonder at the melted monkey bars, stretched and frozen as if in a glassblower's ball, in a Nagasaki schoolyard.
You can insert your favorite here, but when I try to recall the quintessential Kurosawa moment, I see the climactic chase from a relatively obscure crime film called Stray Dog, released in 1949. The Mifune hero has spent the whole movie chasing a scurvy thug who stole his pistol in the first scene. The villain has used it to commit a murder, and Mifune finally catches him just after sunrise in a remote city park. This is one of the simplest, most physically commanding chase scenes you could ever hope to see. The park is quiet, exquisite. The tall trees and undergrowth are filled with traces of morning fog. Larks are chirping; somewhere, somebody is playing Mozart near an open window. When the villain is caught, he surrenders, lies in the mud and blubbers like a child. He has suddenly realized that if he lives to be a hundred, it will be in prison – and this is the last moment of outdoor beauty he will ever know.
Mifune, covered head to foot with mud, recognizes the emotion with a disturbed gaze, but completes his arrest. This moment crystallizes for me everything that made Kurosawa great, and will commend his work to the ages. There is technical brilliance, of course – compositions so right you can't see the form, only the content; cuts so right the scene floats over them – but within this ingenuity, a consciousness of human life revealed at its core. The Mifune hero and the pathetic villain are both finding the courage, even in this moment, to begin again – to somehow become new creatures. That is Kurosawa's great legacy. His work either brings each of us in contact with our own beginnings, or invites us to find the new points of departure that are always there, in ourselves and others, even those we think we despise.