Akira Kurosawa, the iconic Japanese director and screenwriter who firmly sits in the pantheon of filmmakers, staggeringly only won one Oscar in his lifetime. It took a long and arduous road for him to become recognised in the West like he was in Japan, but it was a special moment at the grand age of 80 in 1990 when Kurosawa finally got his hands on an Academy Award.
While most directors enrol straight into an illustrious film school, then slowly work their way up the ladder from shorts and independent films to blockbusters. Kurosawa’s journey is a road less frequented, but 49 years into his film career, his name was, at long last, engraved on to an Oscar, which is one of the most memorable moments in the ceremony’s history as a bona fide legend received overdue recognition.
Having directed over 30 movies throughout his career, but before he made his journey behind the screen, he worked as a painter and had real-life experiences, which only helped his knack for storytelling. In 1936, Kurosawa worked as an assistant director to the famed filmmaker of the time Kajirō Yamamoto who nurtured him like a protégé by passing on his wisdom and knowledge to the hungry young filmmaker.
His directional debut came during World War II by releasing the popular action film Sanshiro Sugata. Following the war, Kurosawa became one of the most recognisable names in Japanese cinema. His most notable moment came following the release of the critically acclaimed 1948 film Drunken Angel, which would make him an internationally revered director that had the world at his fingertips.
Despite many offers and opportunities, Kurosawa stayed operating in Japanese cinema until 1966, when he finally succumbed to Hollywood’s glitz and glamour. However, he struggled to adapt to the American industry’s different workings and mechanisms, with Kurosawa returning to Japan with his tail between his legs.
His career would receive a renaissance following Star Wars’ explosion and George Lucas, citing Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress, as his primary inspiration. This newfound interest in Kurosawa and backing from Hollywood giants like Lucas allowed the filmmaker the freedom and the budget to create Kagemusha and Ran, which were both huge successes both from a commercial and critical perspective.
After the success of these two films, Kurosawa was finally getting the recognition and credit he deserved. In 1990, another milestone occurred when he received the Academy Award for ‘Lifetime Achievement’ and was inducted by two of his biggest fans in George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
In his acceptance speech, a visibly humbled Kurosawa uttered via a translator: “I am very deeply honoured to receive such a wonderful prize, but I have to ask whether I really deserve it. I’m a little worried, because I don’t feel that I understand cinema yet. I really don’t feel that I have yet grasped the essence of cinema.
“Cinema is a marvellous thing, but to grasp its true essence is very, very difficult. But 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 achieve an understanding of the true essence of cinema and earn this award. George [Lucas], Steven [Spielberg]. Thank you.”
The speech is a prime example of who Kurosawa was and how he was bereft of ego despite his career’s rich successes. Kurosawa treated every project with the gusto that it might be his final crack at the whip and his contagious love of cinema helped stoke up a fire in the belly of filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg. They keep his energy alive decades on from his death.