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Kurosawa, samurai of world cinema, dies at 88

HE WAS the biggest name in Japanese cinema. But as the tributes following the death of Akira Kurosawa yesterday showed, his influence on Western culture was also significant.

Actors and directors were joined by the French president Jacques Chirac in honouring the 88-year-old Kurosawa, whose innovative work inspired the classic western The Magnificent Seven and helped the Hollywood directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Spielberg called him "the pictorial Shakespeare of our time".

A film director for over 50 years, Kurosawa was known as the emperor of Japanese cinema. He was best known for Rashomon and his 1954 movie The Seven Samurai, about villagers terrorised by a gang of bandits who hire seven sword fighters for protection. It won widespread acclaim and became the model for Hollywood's The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

The only director to have won two Oscars for best foreign film, Kurosawa, rarely seen without his trademark sunglasses and beret, received a lifetime achievement award in 1990 from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but said he had not yet earned it. "What I promise you is that from now on I will work as hard as I can at making movies, and maybe by following this path I will receive an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award," he said.

President Chirac, a lover of Japanese culture, said the filmmaker's work represented "milestones in the history of international cinema. Kurosawa was enthralled by modern Japan but familiar with its epic poetry. He knew how to denounce injustice and praise self-sacrifice".

Kurosawa was known as "The Emperor" for his perfectionism and extravagance. The perfectionism could manifest itself in bizarre ways. In the late 1960s, he became the centre of controversy when he joined the American producer Elmo Williams to work on Tora, Tora, Tora, about the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

He left when the film was only half complete after a row over different approaches to it. Kurosawa had insisted that actors salute, even when off-camera, the actor playing Admiral Yamamoto, to gain a feel of what it was like to live under a militarist government.

Critics have found his innovative style - celebrated for its elaborate detail and sweeping camera movements - influencing foreign films from George Lucas' Star Wars to Brian DePalma's Scarface.

"He had a god-like vision that translated well to American movies," said Naoko Kimura, a film critic in Tokyo.

At the age of 61, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slashing his wrist after the company that produced Rashomon went bankrupt, reflecting the decline of the Japanese film industry from its heyday in the late 1950s.

Obituary, Review, page 6