In Homage to the Master, George Lucas and Francis Coppola Unleash Their Clout for Kurosawa

James Clavell’s 1975 Sh?gun was already a monster best-seller when Akira Kurosawa was approached to make a movie of it—an offer which indicated more faith than the film industry of Japan had bestowed of late on its acknowledged master. Though widely accepted as one of the world’s finest living directors, Kurosawa, 70, had been written off for nearly a decade in Japan as autocratic, uncommercial and, perhaps most unforgivable, old. He declined Sh?gun, objecting to “many implausible things in the story.” But then came a more meaningful tribute from Hollywood. Just when Tokyo’s Toho studio authorized and then canceled what was to be his 27th film, Kagemusha, because of its high budget, two U.S. admirers, George (Star Wars) Lucas and Francis (Apocalypse Now) Coppola, came to the rescue.

“It was a tragedy,” recalls Lucas. “It was like telling Michelangelo, ‘All right, you’re 70 and we’re not letting you paint anymore.’ ” So after a dinner meeting with Kurosawa in San Francisco two years ago, Lucas and Coppola decided to intervene with Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century-Fox. In the end, Fox put up an extra $1.5 million to relaunch Kagemusha. The film focuses on a condemned thief dragged into a struggle among three warlords to take over the title of shogun. It shared the Gold Palm at the 1980 Cannes festival and this fall opened to great critical acclaim in the U.S.

Hollywood’s help was fitting. Coppola and Lucas consider Kurosawa among the prime influences on their work, and the latter publicly admitted for the first time this month that a pair of comic peasants in Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress inspired R2D2 and C3PO. More significant, no less than three of his Japanese classics have been cloned in the West: The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven; Rashomon became Paul Newman’s The Outrage; and Yojimbo became Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars. Says Kurosawa, who’s seen all three: “Gunslingers are not samurai.” The corollary is that producers are gunslingers—or worse. Kurosawa was at the peak of his powers when he signed to direct the Japanese half of Fox’s Pearl Harbor extravaganza Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1968. He was assured that he would have control of the final cut. When it turned out he didn’t, he resigned. Kurosawa’s next Japanese movie failed dismally—and in 1971 he reportedly attempted suicide.

Kurosawa rarely speaks of his despondency then, though he now reveals his salvation was “an offer from the Soviet Union. Being able to make a film there with complete creative control restored my spirits.” That movie, Dersu Uzala, won the 1975 Oscar for best foreign film (as had Rashomon in 1951). Yet the director’s next two projects were rejected in Japan, and Kagemusha went begging for months before Lucas and Coppola intervened.

Last week Kurosawa ended a grueling three-week U.S. promotion tour—his first ever—for Kagemusha. He undertook it as a point of honor, he says, “for mine is the first Japanese film released worldwide by a major American studio.” The director is currently resting with wife Kiyo in Tokyo. (They have a son, Hisao, a TV producer, actor and folksinger, and a daughter, Kazuko, who, says Father, “has married and given me two grandchildren.”) Though Kurosawa is still discouraged by his rejection in his native land, he is rightfully satisfied with his accomplishments. “We have a Japanese proverb,” he says. “You can fall down seven times in the same place, and if you stand up the eighth time you have won.”

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