September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Legacy: Akira Kurosawa

By his count, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had lived 30 lives in addition to the one that ended at age 88 in Tokyo on Sept. 6, 1998, after a stroke. As he wrote in his 1982 memoir Something Like an Autobiography, ”For a director, each work he completes is like a whole lifetime.” In his most vital incarnations, Kurosawa proved himself a master storyteller and technical virtuoso, among the handful of undisputed geniuses in the history of film and an influence on generations of movies from spaghetti Westerns to Star Wars.

A descendant of samurai and son of a military-school instructor, Kurosawa was born in Tokyo on March 23, 1910, the youngest of seven siblings. After high school, he drifted, flirting with commercial art and painting until, in 1935, the nascent giant of cinema landed his first movie job by writing an essay on ”the fundamental deficiencies of Japanese films.”

His directorial debut was 1943’s Sanshiro Sugata, a judo adventure that became a hit. In the course of his next nine films, Kurosawa met wife Yoko Yaguchi (an actress in 1944’s The Most Beautiful), discovered longtime star Toshiro Mifune (in 1948’s Drunken Angel), and revolutionized film with Rashomon, whose title is now shorthand for the subjectivity of truth.

While Rashomon won raves in the West, including the 1951 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, in postwar Japan it earned dubious honor — throughout his career Kurosawa was both lionized and shunned for drawing on Western artists as diverse as John Ford, Dostoyevsky, and Van Gogh. In turn, he inspired such filmmakers as Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas. The beleaguered princess and bumbling duo of 1958’s The Hidden Fortress provided the template for Princess Leia and her loyal droids.

A glorious run of films in the 1950s and early ’60s suggested that Kurosawa was the rare movie perfectionist able to achieve perfection; but he stumbled after 1965’s Red Beard, when Mifune, weary of Kurosawa’s obstinacy, quit working for him. The director rebounded in 1975 with Dersu Uzala, a dreamy Russian-made meditation that won another Oscar and presaged 1985’s Ran, his last masterpiece. ”He was one of the true masters of the art,” George Lucas said last week. ”The world has lost a rich treasure.” — Additional reporting by John Voland

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