The man widely regarded as the world's greatest living film director was in a jovial mood as he sat in his Beverly Hills hotel suite Friday morning. Akira Kurosawa, who tonight receives an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement, didn't seem to mind that he had a full day of work ahead on what happened to be his 80th birthday.
"I was here in 1986 on my birthday when 'Ran' was nominated, and that was no big deal," said a smiling Kurosawa through his interpreter, film historian Audie Bock and translator of Kurosawa's 1981 "Something Like an Autobiography." "I sure don't feel like I'm 80. Nothing special is planned, we'll just go out to dinner.
"To be honest, I feel like behaving like a total fool, but I can't do it because my producers are here," exclaimed Kurosawa, indicating his son Hisao and his nephew Mike Y. Inoue, who retorted, "You've been doing that all along."
What Kurosawa has in fact been doing for half a century is to tell stories on the screen superlatively well, creating images that stick permanently in the memory--the swift tracking shots through the forest in "Rashomon"; the shot in "Ikiru" of Takashi Shimura, as a petty bureaucrat sitting in a swing under a softly falling snow, dying but content in his belief that he has succeeded in giving his life meaning; the comical swagger of Toshiro Mifune's itching, scratching samurai in "Yojimbo" and "Sanjiro," or the shocked expression of Mifune's Macbeth in "Throne of Blood" as he realizes that he has been fatally impaled by a flurry of arrows. The list of unforgettable moments goes on and on.
There will be no resting on laurels for Kurosawa--tall, vigorous and dapper as ever. Right now he's busy helping promote his latest picture, "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams," an eight-episode film based on actual dreams he experienced throughout his lifetime, which Warners is releasing worldwide. Currently being subtitled, it's slated to launch the Cannes Festival in May. The screenplay for his next picture is already written, he says, but is not ready to be discussed.
Although his impact upon other directors is undeniable, Kurosawa professes not to see it himself. (No, the squabbling of RTD2 and C-3PO in "Star Wars" didn't remind him of his quarreling peasants in "The Hidden Fortress," even though George Lucas told him that they were a direct inspiration). He would rather savor the memories of meetings with men such as King Vidor, Frank Capra and John Ford--men whose work he has admired all his life.
His admiration of other directors is by no means restricted to the old masters. "For example, I think Coppola's 'Godfather, Part II,' is a very good picture," he said. "It has the feeling of being a really professional job of filmmaking. The thing that surprises me most about it is that sequels are almost invariably of lesser quality--and that is definitely not the case here.
"I just wish I could see all that Francis left out of 'Apocalypse Now.' I heard from the Japanese distributor, Nippon Herald, that the various longer cuts were really spectacular."
Sitting in his hotel room armchair, Kurosawa wondered aloud whether he really deserves his Oscar. "I have the feeling that I'm getting it partly because I've turned 80 and that it is an expression of warm feeling toward me."
The truth, of course, is that it is long overdue.