"Kagemusha" almost wasn't made. As Akira Kurosawa despaired over his inability to find financing for his medieval samurai film, he painted.
Already famed for his elaborate storyboards, Kurosawa painted dark and bold scenes from his narrative, thinking these canvases might be the only record of the story. "I thought another script of mine would vanish into the void," the aging director recalled years later.
The American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola came to the rescue of their hero, bringing clout and money as executive producers, and "Kagemusha" went into production in 1979.
Some of those glorious paintings now are on display at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences building in Beverly Hills, where the Academy screened a new Fox print of the warlord epic Friday night. Seeing those hand-painted images and that film in one place added up to an amazing experience.
The Fox print, which came from the original transfer negative used for the international version of "Kagemusha," looked quite good, although the grain and deterioration from age were evident. I did miss the smarter subtitles from the DVD restoration. And this was the shorter version, at 163 minutes, rather than the full three-hour Japanese version. Who could complain, though, with those images dancing across that big screen as Kurosawa unfurled his tale of a thief who stands in for a mighty warlord.
The Criterion Collection's "Kagemusha" (two discs, 2005) remains best in market and an outstanding presentation. "Kagemusha" and "Ran" have seen their reputations grow in recent years, thanks to their fine Criterion releases. The films had alienated some Kurosawa purists who basically objected to the master working in color.
Of the two, I slightly prefer "Ran," which the Academy is unspooling Saturday at its Hollywood screening theater as part of the Salute to Kurosawa. (Six of his Oscar-nominated films will screen by the end of the series on Oct. 4.)
The film Academy's Kurosawa exhibition at the Wilshire building is simply remarkable. On the ground floor gallery are a generous collection of his larger paintings, photos and many classic film posters.
On the fourth floor, "Akira Kurosawa: Film Artist" continues with items as important as the original shooting scripts for "Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon," with notes and mini-storyboards penciled in by the master. Costumes, more paintings, props, painting and calligraphy tools, his trademark sunglasses and of all things the Kurosawa house slippers.
Don't miss the Kurosawa exhibition if you're in L.A. -- and if you're a major fan consider flying in.