Akira Kurosawa, whose Throne of Blood played the first San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957, finally arrived at the SFIFF twenty-three years later. Hot off his Palme d'Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, Kurosawa was joined by some local filmmakers in his on-stage appearance. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Photo: Akira Kurosawa at the 1986 San Francisco International Film Festival, where he was the inaugural recipient of the Akira Kurosawa Award. Photo by Pamela Gentile.
By Miguel Pendás
Eight taiko drummers pounded out a welcome, and Akira Kurosawa stepped up on the stage, tall, slim, elegant and, as always, hidden behind dark glasses. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who had helped him finance his latest film, Kagemusha, joined him on stage. A full house at the Palace of Fine Arts theater rose to its feet and gave the threesome a lengthy standing ovation.
It was October 1980 at the 24th San Francisco International Film Festival, and an important moment in the career of this great filmmaker. “He seemed genuinely surprised and touched by the solid enthusiasm of the Saturday audience,” wrote John McClintock in the Peninsula Times. And no wonder; with the Japanese film industry in a long decline, Kurosawa had not made a film in Japan in ten years (Dersu Uzala was made in the Soviet Union), and had despaired of ever making another one. Now he was back on the scene.
Kagemusha, an epic drama of feudal conflict in 16th-century Japan, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.
The story of the making of Kagemusha became familiar that year. Kurosawa’s $6.5 million budget fell short of funding by $1.5 million. He needed to call in a favor. Coppola and Lucas had expressed admiration and told him, “If there is something we can do to help you on a project, let us know.” The Kurosawa admirers (“Two Hollywood samurai who came galloping to the rescue,” Tom Buckley called them in the New York Times) persuaded 20th Century Fox to buy the international distribution rights up front for $1.5 million, and that made the epic production possible. With the making of Kagemusha, Kurosawa entered into a final phase of his career which included Ran and Madadayo (SFIFF 1995). He died in 1998.
On another day, another packed house watched the tribute (two hours of clips) and an in-depth Q&A. In the audience was Lester Cole, the San Francisco–based screenwriter that had been one of the Hollywood Ten in the days of McCarthyism. Cole asked about the importance of the screenwriter to his films. Kurosawa replied, “If you have a first-rate script and give it to a third-rate director, you will get a very good film out of it. If you have a third-rate script and a first-rate director, you’ll get a mess.”
That was the voice of experience speaking. Kurosawa made his first film at 32 in Tokyo and for years worked with lukewarm support from the studio, which felt his films showed too much American influence. He overcame these obstacles after the war and went on to make a string of international classics including Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood (SFIFF 1957). Yet despite these brilliant successes, in the late 1970s Kurosawa found himself himself struggling to find adequate financing.
In an interview with Barbara Bladen of the San Mateo Times, he said that he had learned from John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian, King Vidor and William Wyler. “But I am not in my work directly influenced by anyone,” he added. What may seem like an immodest statement however, seems entirely factual when the totality of his work is considered. Kurosawa develops all his own projects, and closely supervises collaborators on everything: writing the script, casting, location scouting, shooting and editing.
His influence on other filmmakers has been cited numerous times. Rashomon was remade as The Outrage by Martin Ritt, Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven by John Sturges and Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone. Sam Peckinpah and George Lucas have acknowledged their debt to Kurosawa. The Hidden Fortress (SFIFF 1959) is often cited as an inspiration for Star Wars. The samurai adventure film genre is called jedai geki in Japan and was the source of the concept and name of the Jedi knights in Star Wars.
“Films are made up of many elements—literary, theatrical, painterly and musical. But there is something in film that is purely cinematic,” he told the New York Times. “When I make films or go to see the films of others, I go in hopes of experiencing this. I’m at a loss to express the quality in words. I hope one day to make a film in which every moment has that power. Until I do I am still only a student.”
Kurosawa returned in 1986 when the Festival’s directing award was named after him.
Meeting with reporters at his hotel during the 1980 Festival, Kurosawa closed by saying, “I would like all of you to consider film as the tie that binds the world together. When you see films from all over the world, you see how film brings people together, and lets us understand each other.” It would be hard to find a more succinct espousal of the importance of an international film festival.