September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Akira Kurosawa?s seven magnificent films

Unsparing and vivid, humane and elegant, Akira Kurosawa’s films are hard to overpraise and more difficult to choose among. Moving from strength to strength, he made 30 indelible films. These may be the best.

RASHOMON (1950, New Line) Kurosawa’s first great film put Japan on the map of world cinema. A 12th-century bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is accused of rape and murder. But what really happened? Four versions of the story emerge in mesmerizing flashbacks, mulled by three strangers waiting out a torrential storm. As each flashback uncovers a disturbing new angle of evil, the unrelenting rain seems to portend a flood of biblical proportions. A profound film that percolates like a potboiler.

IKIRU (1952, Home Vision) Kurosawa’s contemporary dramas were keenly observed slices of postwar Japanese life. The greatest of them is Ikiru, about a civil servant (Takashi Shimura) who, after learning that he has cancer, tries to make something of his final days. There is fear and pain and loneliness here, but as this Everyman helps to build a playground in a slum, he finds his closure. His fade-out scene, sitting on a swing, singing to himself, is proof that you can go gentle into that good night.

THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954, Home Vision) As John Ford did with Westerns, the director invested his genre outings with grandeur and emotional depth. The Seven Samurai is arguably his masterpiece: a tale of professional warriors who hire on to protect poor farmers from marauding brigands. After two hours building suspense and character, Kurosawa delivers an hour-long siege and rain-drenched final battle. The climax has a bit of the OK Corral in it — but Hollywood would later borrow back the theme for The Magnificent Seven.

THRONE OF BLOOD (1957, Home Vision) Shakespeare’s Macbeth, adapted to medieval Japan. Mifune is the fatally ambitious hero, a trusted general who listens to his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada) and agrees to murder his lord. As in most Kurosawa films, nature plays a major role, from the deathly mists that descend upon the fields of battle to the shadowy forest that seems to swallow men whole.

YOJIMBO (1961, Video Yesteryear) Mifune gets iconic as a lone samurai who rents himself out to both sides of an outlaw gang war. He brandishes his sword with dancerly precision; still, he resembles nothing so much as a Hollywood gunslinger. Small wonder that Sergio Leone would later remake Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars.

KAGEMUSHA (1980, Fox) An autumnal masterwork about a common thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) recruited to serve as the look-alike double for a feared warlord. As he fakes his way through the role, fate carries the impostor toward his own tragic end. Kurosawa fills the screen with unforgettable images: a desperate messenger descending endless stairs; a horse dying horribly on a muddy field; the fallen ”hero” floating lifelessly downriver, a faceless casualty in someone else’s war. Kurosawa’s camera views it all from a godlike distance, the better to see the full scope of human folly.

RAN (1985, Fox Lorber) Though this wasn’t Kurosawa’s last film, it was his grand finale, a King Lear adaptation set in feudal Japan that allowed the director to refine his filmmaking into pure, awesome spectacle. As the three sons of an aging warlord (Nakadai) fight for control of their father’s domain, Kurosawa films the conflict in a series of stunning set pieces: Color-coded armies do battle on a verdant meadow; the siege of the warlord’s sanctuary plays like a silent film, propelled by a mournful musical score. It is all Olympian pageantry, all piercingly human.

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