Akira Kurosawa

updated 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the world of show business, 1985 may be justly celebrated as the year the old folks showed them how. Golden Girls proved the smash new TV series. Barbara Stanwyck, 78, taught a lesson in class to the younger cast of The Colbys. The veteran stars of Cocoon charmed movie audiences. And a 79-year-old codger named John Huston directed the year's most vigorous film, Prizzi's Honor.

Across the Pacific, another filmmaker, less known in the U.S., stands as the indomitable Huston's match. He wears dark glasses, loves T-bone steaks, plays golf, stands almost six feet tall and has directed more battles than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is Akira Kurosawa, 75, a director western in his appetites yet distinctly eastern in his moods. In 1971, finding himself without prospects, he attempted suicide, a most Japanese means of confronting despair.

His return to eminence was painstaking but triumphant. This year he directed the beautiful, bloody Ran (Japanese for chaos), hailed by many—sometimes by Kurosawa himself—as the culmination of his 42-year career. "I called Ran my 'life work.' Some people seem to think that phrase means my 'last work.' But I'm not at all ready to retire," he says.

For Kurosawa, whose wife of 40 years died during the filming, Ran was more than a film; it was an obsession that began nearly a decade ago. "It had been boiling in my mind," he says. He had written a script by 1976, but the project was delayed for years while he searched for a producer. Ultimately, with the help and backing of French producer Serge Silberman, he raised $11.5 million, modest by Hollywood standards but the most ever spent on a movie in Japan.

"There's a mixed message about him in Japan," says Peter Grilli, director of the Japan Society's film center. While Kurosawa is acknowledged as a great director, he is at the same time criticized for his expensive perfectionism and his fixation on historical themes. Kurosawa routinely worsens matters by chastising the government for "a nearly complete absence of interest in films." The first comprehensive retrospective of Kurosawa's films (there are now 27) was held not in Japan but in the United States in 1981.

To American audiences, Japanese films are an acquired taste. Watching small people in heavy makeup do almost nothing for several hours is not everyone's idea of entertainment. It isn't Kurosawa's either. His movies are filled with tempered swords, rolling thunderclaps and blood spurting as high as a Buddha's eye.

Ran is samurai Shakespeare, an adaptation of King Lear to Japan's feudal days. The villains are sons instead of daughters—which tends to reinforce Kurosawa's reputation as a director more comfortable working with men than with women. On the other hand, the most memorable performance in the film is by Mieko Harada, who plays the girl you wouldn't want your son to marry. Astonishing, too, is Kurosawa's mastery of vivid color photography, even though this is only his fourth color film.

As a director, his work combines elements of David Lean's beauty, Sam Peckinpah's brutality and Sergio Leone's tension, although it is more likely that they learned from him rather than the other way around. Two of Kurosawa's most famous films inspired western directors to make even more famous films: Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. Now and then he may borrow from Shakespeare but, like the Bard, Kurosawa is an original.

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