Two films show the master of samurai at work

No filmmaker in or out of Hollywood is having a more active late summer than Akira Kurosawa, who died two years ago but remains a favorite of moviegoers worldwide.

His last completed picture, the 1993 drama "Madadayo," will have its United States premire next week. And as an appetizer, his epic "Ran" is returning to American screens today for its first major reissue since 1985, when it earned four Academy Award nominations and film-critic awards from coast to coast, not to mention a healthy take at the box office.

Kurosawa's name calls up visions of the samurai genre, which he mastered early in his career, filling the screen with medieval swordsmen whose action-packed adventures are linked with questions about loyalty, commitment, and the challenges of creating a just society.

"Rashomon," his legendary drama about crime and punishment - focusing on a trial where a savage rape and murder are differently perceived by the participants - made history when it earned the Venice filmfest's top prize in 1951, bringing Japan's film industry to new prominence in Western eyes.

"The Seven Samurai," released in 1954, won more international applause and inspired "The Magnificent Seven," a Hollywood remake with its own high reputation. Audience-pleasing romps like "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro" followed, and Kurosawa kept up a connection with the genre through his '80s epics "Kagemusha" and "Ran."

It's a mistake to associate Kurosawa exclusively with flashing blades and galloping swordsmen, though. He was also fond of contemporary tales, as different as the 1952 drama "Ikiru," about a gravely ill man who devotes the remainder of his life to a community project, and the 1963 thriller "High and Low," a high-intensity kidnapping yarn. Like his best samurai pictures, these modern-day tales reveal the keen social conscience that motivated Kurosawa's career as strongly as his love of storytelling, image-making, and entertainment for its own sake.

"Ran" is an ideal Kurosawa film to revive at the start of the new century, partly because it's among his most popular works, and also because it illustrates his lifelong ambition to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western aesthetics. Kurosawa studied European painting as a young man, and never lost his taste for Western imagery.

In many ways, "Ran" is Japanese to its bones, spinning the traditionally flavored tale of a 16th-century lord who decides to divide his territory among his three sons, bringing disaster to all concerned. Yet the picture also has a European pedigree, since its basic plot is a thinly veiled variation on William Shakespeare's tragedy "King Lear," with borrowings from "Macbeth" thrown in. Kurosawa had profound affection for Shakespeare, and tackled "Macbeth" directly in his 1957 epic "Throne of Blood," a masterpiece that's arguably his greatest historical film. "Ran" brings his exploration of European drama to a climax, earning praise from Shakespeare enthusiasts and Japanese-history buffs alike.

As luminous as Kurosawa's career was, any honest evaluation must acknowledge that it declined in quality during its later years. Opinions of critics vary, but it seems to me that his unusual '70s dramas, "Dodeska-Den" and "Dersu Uzala," are more impressive for their ambitions than their actual achievements.

Loud applause greeted the 1980 epic "Kagemusha," about a look-alike hired to impersonate an endangered king, but I find its fascinating ideas hampered by a static and constricted style, perhaps because Kurosawa conceived it in painterly rather than cinematic terms - he planned the picture in a series of paintings when production was delayed by funding problems. "Dreams" and "Rhapsody in August," both made in the early '90s, are often wan and stilted.

It's no pleasure to report that "Madadayo" is the weakest of the bunch, an uninspired story about an aging teacher whose former students organize a tribute to him through wordy speeches and forgettable comic-dramatic scenes. Its belated American premire will be welcomed by Kurosawa fans eager to form their own opinions on his last completed film, but others will do better to seek out "Ran," a more successful work on every level.

Kurosawa was not Japan's only world-class contribution to 20th-century cinema. Many critics would give an even higher ranking to Kenji Mizoguchi, who also explored both historical and contemporary subjects (often focusing on the special burdens of Japanese women) in films as different as "Street of Shame," about Tokyo prostitutes, "Ugetsu Monogatari," a timeless ghost story, and "The 47 Ronin," a sweeping samurai drama. My own vote would go to Yasujiro Ozu, whose exquisitely pared-down style in films like "Tokyo Story" and "Early Summer" and "The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice" is unique in the annals of cinema. Others might give first place to Mikio Naruse or Nagisa Oshima.

Still, Kurosawa occupies a high position by virtue of the long reach of his talent, which has enticed both Eastern and Western audiences by blending vigorous artistic traditions from each hemisphere. Many of his pictures are available on home video, allowing them to excite new viewers just as they influenced some of the most successful talents in Hollywood today. It's no accident that funding for "Kagemusha" came from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, and "The Seven Samurai" gave Lucas his idea for "light sabers" a quarter-century ago!

Kurosawa's films live on, and their current high profile is among the year's most welcome developments.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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