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100 years of Akira Kurosawa.

100 years of Akira Kurosawa. (photo)

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Today is the 100th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s birth, a centennial that’s already been celebrated with a good deal of pomp (retrospectives, articles, a very expensive Criterion box set).

As part of the small group of foreign auteurs recognizable by last name alone — alongside Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and, honestly, not many others — Kurosawa made films that became de rigeur viewing. And, as Christopher Campbell points out at MTV, his legacy lives on in a mutated way, with sturdily archetypal plots that can be shorn of cultural context and reused — the “what is truth?” film, the men-on-a-mission and so on.

It’s a curious fact that Kurosawa’s popularity has waned — as, indeed, has the stock of most of the international directors who briefly made foreign film viewing a mandatory part of many people’s college experience. Bergman’s death prompted a bilious Jonathan Rosenbaum obit, and most Fellini (“8 1/2” aside) seems to have been downgraded in importance. Antonioni’s particular brand of ennui seems more prescient than ever about the rhythms of the contemporary arthouse/festival film, even as his movies (undeservingly!) seem to be less-watched than ever.

In Kurosawa’s case, pretty much everyone I know under 30 who cares about such things has almost no use for him. Any day now, it seems he may be downgraded to the ranks of some old-school Hollywood triumph no one watches anymore. This despite the fact that his career is anything but a 50-year march of self-recycling. My personal favorites are from the ’40s — a weird and exploratory time in his career — and the magisterial one-two ’80s punch of “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” which pull off the rare trick of combining epic spectacle and a crawling pace that draws attention to the pleasures of its slow groove.

03232010_kagemusha.jpgIn between comes a lot of mixed work, including — and where I think the problem lies — the landmarks perpetually paid lip service: “Yojimbo,” “Ikiru” and the rest of the gang, showcasing the manic scenery-chewing of Toshiro Mifune, whose particularly voracious brand of masculinity was extensively (and accurately) parodied by the late John Belushi. There are issues of cultural specificity as well — try unpacking the argument of a relative bagatelle like “The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail” and you’ll see what I mean. Kurosawa’s standard reputation as the most “Western” of Japanese directors is a total crock.

When it comes to Kurosawa, what it comes down to, I suppose, is this: Kurosawa’s films often veer erratically between the “well-made” (in a way that anyone can recognize) and very specific ideas about acting and cultural traditions — an unstable, heady mix that, now that the initial shock of discovery has worn off, can often seem unresolved. Or maybe the cultural tides are just arbitrarily shifting again.

Here’s Belushi’s spot-on Mifune. That’s Buck Henry (writer of “The Graduate”) as the hapless customer:

[Photos: “Seven Samurai,” Criterion Collection, 1954; “Kagemusha,” Criterion Collection, 1980]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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