In 1951, when knowledge of Japanese for many people was still limited to "sayonara" and "hara-kiri," a movie from the country won top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and two more Japanese words entered the common language: Kurosawa and Rashomon.
For nearly a half-century, Akira Kurosawa reigned supreme as the emperor of Japanese, indeed Asian, cinema. He was also a prime mover in explaining his country to a world in which Japan's wartime cruelty was still very much a fresh memory. Rashomon, in which four people (one of them a ghost) tell conflicting versions of an encounter between a married couple and an outlaw, counseled against making snap judgments about any individuals (or, for that matter, nationalities). A philosophical debate in the guise of a melodrama, the film argued that everyone has their motives some venal, some fearful, all complex. And behind them was one cardinal sin: what Kurosawa called "the pathetic self-defense of the ego."
While films by other Japanese masters, like Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, emphasized the quiet, quotidian aspects of life, Kurosawa's had a greater vigor, a faster pulse and a shorter fuse, embodied by his wonderfully feral star, Toshiro Mifune. They were also the first by a major director to aestheticize the subject of violence witness the trotting dog with a severed hand in its mouth in Yojimbo, or the deadly arrows that turn Mifune into a human piñata in Throne of Blood. The West took appreciative note of Kurosawa's potent mix of machismo and storytelling, giving him three Oscars (one for lifetime achievement) and remaking four of his films Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress (which George Lucas said was an inspiration for Star Wars). That was a fitting tribute to the Tokyo boy who grew up avidly watching American Westerns, and who, on a film set, would proudly sport the sunglasses and the cloth hat that were given to him by sagebrush director John Ford.
Japanese audiences, on the other hand, considered Kurosawa's work entirely too Western. Studios grew tired of financing his big-budget spectacles, and Kurosawa's career may well have ended in the '70s if Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg had not stepped in to sponsor Kagemusha and Dreams. Granted, the great director, who died at the age of 88 in 1998, might have considered making himself more understandable to audiences in his own country, but to Kurosawa life and action were nothing if not complex.