Another sort of pop culture prophet, Akira Kurosawa was more than the first Japanese director—or, indeed, the first Asian director—to achieve an international reputation.
Kurosawa’s remarkable Global Village synthesis of disparate cinematic and literary traditions was itself instrumental in revitalizing the Hollywood genre film, and not just in Hollywood. Kurosawa fused Sergei Eisenstein’s graphic sweep and rhythmic montage with John Ford’s nostalgic esprit de corps, and his own disciples are legion: Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, George Lucas, Walter Hill, John Woo, and just about anyone who has ever used the widescreen format with a modicum of pizzazz. Kurosawa’s sources included Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon, as well as classic and modern Japanese literature. At his post- World War II peak, he turned out a movie a year. Between Stray Dog (1948) and Sanjuro (1962), Kurosawa made 15 features—mixing gangster thrillers, domestic melodramas, sword movies, topical exposés, and literary adaptations, sometimes within the same film. Most were commercial hits, and all but one starred the great Toshiro Mifune, who died last December, but three (repeatedly remade by other directors) stand out. The prismatic Rashomon (1950), which added a necessary word to the world’s vocabulary, invented Japanese cinema for westerners even as the epic Seven Samurai (1954) effectively reinvented the western for Hollywood. The black comedy Yojimbo (1961), an action flick as sardonic and stylized as a cartoon, is the attitudinous masterpiece that, for good or evil, remains at the very root of contemporary movies. Kurosawa lives.