Next Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Japanese film director, producer, writer and editor Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa died in 1998 at the age of 88, but his legacy endures. Arguably one of history's most important filmmakers, his influence can be seen in the most unexpected places. Kurosawa was first introduced to the world of motion pictures by his father, Isamu, who took his children to the cinema because he felt that it was a positive educational experience.
In his mid-twenties, Kurosawa started his career (which spanned more than five decades) as an assistant director before directing his breakout hit, the period drama Rashomon, in 1950. The movie remains one of his most admired and studied. It earned him a Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and spawned the "rashomon effect", which would provide the basis for dozens of Hollywood movies and television programmes. The term is used to describe a scene or story in which several different but entirely plausible interpretations of an event can be seen through the eyes of the people involved. The effect has been employed in movies such as the cult classic The Usual Suspects, Courage Under Fire, Hero, Hoodwinked and Vantage Point.
Kurosawa was also responsible for heavily influencing the style and story of the sci-fi epic Star Wars. George Lucas was a great fan of the director's work, and it's widely known that he modelled Star Wars: A New Hope on Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, in which two lowly peasants who have just escaped a battle happen upon a general on his way to deliver a princess and her treasures to a hidden location. In fact, it has been said that Lucas relied so heavily on the plot of Fortress while writing his script that he even considered buying the rights to it. Instead, he turned Fortress's bickering peasants into bickering robots - C-3PO and R2-D2 - and used several scenes and plot lines from the Japanese movie in his vision. Lucas also took inspiration from another Kurosawa classic, Yojimbo (in which a masterless samurai brings peace to a small village overrun with corruption), when forming the character of Han Solo.
The list of big-name directors who have admired or been heavily influenced by the Japanese director reads like a who's who of the movie industry. The Russian revolutionist Andrei Tarkovsky, the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman and the modern cinema luminaries Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are just some of them. In addition, several other Kurosawa pictures were remade into films that themselves became classics. Among the most famous of his works to have been given a do-over is Seven Samurai (1954), in which a small village employs the services of seven unruly samurai warriors to help them ward off bandits. Sounds familiar? Then you've probably seen the epic western The Magnificent Seven (1960), which starred Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner as part of a group of rough-around-the-edges gunslingers.
Despite the director's successes, in later years Kurosawa's career struggled, in part because of his decision to sever all ties with his lifelong collaborator and friend, the actor Toshiro Mifune. A string of commercial and critical failures followed. A suicide attempt during this depressive period eventually helped to motivate the director back to greatness. Dersu Uzala, his only film set outside Japan and not in the Japanese language, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1975. Despite his reputation, however, Kurosawa found it increasingly hard to obtain domestic funding for his projects, and his long-time admirers Lucas and Coppola helped to finance his next picture, Kagemusha, in 1980.
Shortly after, Kurosawa was to complete what he - and many others - saw as his last and greatest masterpiece. Based on King Lear, Ran earned the auteur his only Best Director nomination at the Oscars, and although he was did not win, it cemented Kurosawa's legacy as one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. Three movies and 13 years later, the director died of a stroke at his home in Setagaya, Tokyo, leaving behind a body of work the quality and breadth of which few filmmakers have managed to approach since.