Mention Kurosawa to your average film geek and they'll bow their head reverentially before whispering a quick "thank you" to the movie gods. He stands on the short list of the greatest filmmakers ever born and the more you read about him (and more importantly, who he influenced), it's not hard to see why.
Early Days and the War
Kurosawa was born in 1910 to a family descended from samurai nobility. As the youngest of eight kids, he had to find ways to amuse himself. So naturally he gravitated towards the movies. Japan was a very insular culture when he was growing up, but he found movies from the West a source of endless fascination, and got his share of cowboy flicks thanks to a teacher who encouraged his love. (Though he also learned traditional Japanese skills like Kendo and calligraphy.)
For a while, that came back to bite him in the rear. He joined PCL, the studio that ultimately become Toho, in 1936 and produced his first movie in 1943. The problem? Japanese censors thought it was "too American," and with Japan locked in a life-or-death struggle with the United States (we were kind of cranky about that whole Pearl Harbor thing). His "pro-Western" sensibilities just weren't going to fly. The next two years were pretty tough for him, as his pro-West feelings conflicted with a nation interested in pounding the West senseless, and he churned out a lot of pro-Japanese propaganda that he didn't much believe.
Then the war ended and Douglas MacArthur's boys started calling the shots in Japan. Suddenly, Kurosawa's ideas looked a heck of a lot sexier, and his movies started getting a whole lot better. He took ideas that readily matched a culture in transition. Ancient Japanese ideals of honor, duty and self-sacrifice ran smack-dab into newfound notions of the individual and characters whose wants and needs often flew in the face of What Was Expected. For a defeated country slowly embracing a new way of living, it proved perfect, and Kurosawa's movies, dosed with heavy influence from fabulous Hollywood, started earning some buzz.
Ready for the Big Time
It took another five years to really hit the big-time, however. 1950's Rashomon, which some people might argue is the greatest movie of all time, launched him into international superstardom. The film told the story of a samurai murdered by a bandit, who now stands trial for the crime. It covers the events from four different characters' perspectives: the bandit, the samurai's wife, the ghost of the dead samurai, and a simple woodcutter who saw the whole thing, with each one delivering a radically different version of the story. It took the world by storm, grabbing the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice International Film festival and reminding everybody that this war-torn country had a whole lot to say on the movie screen.
From there, Kurosawa kept merging Western stories with Eastern sensibilities, covering everything from Dostoyevsky's The Idiot to Shakespeare's Macbeth (in a magnificently creepy samurai version called Throne of Blood). He never strayed far from the Western, however, and developed new Japanese "Easterns" like Yojimbo and Sanjuro as well as epics like Red Beard and The Hidden Fortress. And he never slowed down. He was directing movies well into his 80s and scoring a late-inning masterpiece with 1986's Ran (another Shakespearean adaptation, this one based on King Lear).
How'd He Do It?
Kurosawa's sensibilities and technical flourishes are one-of-a-kind. As a child of the East fascinated by the West, he constantly looked for new ways to examine age-old Japanese ideas. In a country where honor, duty and the greater good trumped all, his characters were remarkably individualistic. They had their own ideas about how to do things, and their methods often ran them straight against the larger culture which didn't much like their square-peg-in-a-round-hole routine. It often ended badly for them, but the films themselves were always on their side.
Japan had never seen anything like it, and for audiences in North America and Europe, it provided an amazing insight into how Japanese culture worked. Western filmmakers made heavy use of his ideas, but something always got lost in the translation, and none of them held the same fascination as his did.
He was Japan's cinematic ambassador to the world: the guy who looked at two completely different cultures and found amazing common points of reference between them. He changed cowboy movies, science fiction movies and even gangster movies forever. No director could look at what he had done and come away unchanged. And just as he looked up to American and European movies before him, so did the next generation of America and European filmmakers return the compliment with films and filming techniques borrowed liberally from what he had to say.
No one in the West could quite copy what he did, and no one in the East understood how all those cowboy movies could be applied to their own history. His was a one-of-a-kind joining of two different worlds; Asian fusion elevated to the highest levels before anyone had even heard of the term.
Not bad for the child of aristocracy who once got told not to pay attention to what those silly Americans were doing.