Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) is currently playing in a new 35mm print, making the rounds of the nation's top art house screens this summer, in conjunction with the film's 25th anniversary and with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurosawa himself. Ran is a great film, and a very good choice if you're going to try and represent Kurosawa's career in one single stroke. It has the epic sweep and impressive battle sequences of his famed samurai films, but it also has a measure of dignity and reflection that mark many of Kurosawa's other, lesser-known films. (It is based on Shakespeare.) Ran was very well received and resulted in Kurosawa's one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director (he lost -- believe it or not -- to Sydney Pollack). But it was also the last hurrah of his career.
He went on to make three more films. Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991) received small, art-house releases but met with mixed responses. They're both lovely little films, but they do lack a sense of confidence and cohesion. After that he made the great Madadayo (1993), which, for some reason, could not find a distributor. Gene Siskel included it on his Chicago Tribune top ten list for 1998, but did not show up here in San Francisco until the fall of 2000. The film is about an elderly and beloved ex-teacher who celebrates his birthday with his former students. They perform a ritual together, in which the students ask the teacher if he is ready to die. His response is a joyous, "madadayo" (or "not yet!"). Perhaps Kurosawa, too, was not ready to go, but his financiers never again ponied up for a new film. Kurosawa died on September 6, 1998, with Madadayo as his final film.