Samurai warrior

The director Akira Kurosawa influenced many of the west's most famous film-makers. Philip Kerr sizes

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Film Theatre. The present building's main auditorium is located underneath Waterloo Bridge and, the next time you go there - indeed, the next time you cross Waterloo Bridge - you might like to bear in mind that, in 1930, two explosive chambers were built into the bridge, to blow it up in case of an enemy invasion. So far as I know, only one of these chambers has ever been discovered and the explosives removed.

History does not tell us if, in 1957, any of the VIPs attending the opening of the NFT building were informed of this, only that the guests of honour included John Ford and, making his first trip outside Japan, Akira Kurosawa. So it is perhaps fitting that the NFT should kick off a season of major retrospectives, running throughout 2002, with a Kurosawa season.

As it happens, Kurosawa was a great admirer of the Irish American director. In his autobiography, first published in 1978, Kurosawa wrote that if there was one person he would like to resemble as he grew old, it was John Ford.

Cineastes have stressed Ford's influence on Kurosawa's 1954 epic, Seven Samurai. While it is possible to make too much of Ford's impact, at the expense of Kurosawa, I don't think there is any doubt that the Japanese director appreciated the masculinity of Ford's movies - especially in his cavalry trilogy starring John Wayne, with its strong military ethos and its unashamedly sentimental view of what Shakespeare calls, in Henry V, a "band of brothers" - as much as he enjoyed hard-boiled American detective stories.

Kurosawa directed his first film, Sugata Sanshiro, in 1942, but because this and several other projects were subject to the Japanese military government censor, his film career did not get going in earnest until after the Second World War; it was not until 1951, when Rashomon won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, that his name reached a world audience. That film, set in 12th-century Kyoto, although distinctly in the style of Kurosawa, with its energetic performances and muscular editing, looks rather sentimental today. The subject matter - a rape and murder told from four different and contradictory perspectives - is typically Japanese; but it is worth remembering that it was not just period films that Kurosawa made. Several of his works were very noirish, American-looking crime stories - for instance, Stray Dog (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and The Ransom (1963), which was based on a novel by Ed McBain.

Even so, outside Japan, it is the samurai period films for which Kurosawa remains best known, and which have influenced the west as much, if not more than, he was ever influenced by the likes of John Ford and Ed McBain.

There can be few people interested in film who do not know that John Sturges based his 1960 western The Magnificent Seven on Kurosawa's great epic; but two slightly later films, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), had a much greater influence on movie-making in the west and, in particular, on the way in which all action heroes are portrayed today. Both films starred the great Toshiro Mifune (who died in 1997) as "the man with no name" - a scruffy, flea-bitten, unshaven, toothpick-chewing but utterly lethal samurai for hire.

In Yojimbo ("The Bodyguard"), a stranger wanders into a small, lawless town and finds himself caught between two warring, gangsterish clans. He makes an immediate impression on the local population with his Zen-like, teasing rudeness, his unshakable self-confidence, the contempt he shows for his opponents - no matter how many of them there are - and, most of all, with his consummate skill with a sword. Having despatched three men in as many seconds, the amoral stranger soon has the town's rival factions bidding for his services.

If this all sounds familiar, it's because Sergio Leone lifted not just the story of Yojimbo for his film A Fistful of Dollars (1964), but the whole cinematic style of Kurosawa's movie, right down to the comic-macho score, the clipped dialogue, the minimal exposition, the long showdown stares between combatants, the grotesque characters, the dramatic switches from long shot to close-up, and the sudden explosions of violence.

Small wonder that Clint Eastwood, who played the man with no name in a whole series of such spaghetti westerns, counts Yojimbo as one of his favourite films. Indeed, he seems to have modelled his entire cinema acting technique on Mifune.

But it's not just Eastwood who seems to have been inspired by Kurosawa's Yojimbo. There is a long list of Hollywood action heroes who seem also to have been influenced by the Japanese. One thinks of Charles Bronson's stoic, sometimes lazy, but always lethal anti-heroes in a whole series of action B-movies for Michael Winner; of Sylvester Stallone, full of sneering menace and chewing a toothpick in Cobra, an otherwise forgettable flick; of Arnold Schwarzenegger walking naked into a bar and, with Eastwood eyes, coolly demanding a biker's leathers in Terminator 2; of Mel Gibson, the reluctant, avenging exile in the Mad Max movies; of Bruce Willis in Walter Hill's Last Man Standing, a film based entirely on Yojimbo; and Bruce Willis again in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. It is no accident that Tarantino chooses a samurai sword for the Willis character to mete out terrible justice to a couple of homosexual rapists; after Kurosawa, what else but a samurai sword could evoke such a strong sense of righteously masculine justice?

Yet until Yojimbo came along, action heroes had been more like Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) - decent men who were kind to women, small boys and horses. Bryan Forbes tells a story about working as a screenwriter on a film with Ladd called The Black Knight (1954). Forbes suggested that, in one particular scene, Ladd should steal a horse, but was informed frostily by the producers that "Alan Ladd does not steal horses". Yojimbo changed all that and made it acceptable to have an amoral anti-hero in an action film, the kind of character who would steal a horse, eat it, slap a priest, kick a dog, strike a match on a hunchback, and who would no sooner show mercy to an enemy than he would refuse money, or walk away from a willing girl. It is hard to imagine Ladd, or any other leading man of the Forties and Fifties - David Niven, Errol Flynn, James Stewart or John Wayne - doing such things.

Eastwood's own remake of Shane, Pale Rider (1985), is a film very much influenced by the ruthless sensibility of the Yojimbo character.

Kurosawa's influence on western cinema seems, to me, to be enormous, perhaps more so than has been realised. But don't take my word for it, check out his work on the British Film Institute's extensive video and DVD catalogue if you do not live in London. Otherwise, you can go along to the NFT and judge for yourself. Just remember what I said about those explosives in Waterloo Bridge . . . and don't strike a match.

The Akira Kurosawa retrospective runs at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), until 28 February 2002