Akira Kurosawa, 88, the legendary Japanese movie director who combined Japanese history and culture with Western stories and film technique to produce a body of work that is acclaimed worldwide, died Sept. 6 at his home in Tokyo after a stroke.

Mr. Kurosawa, the winner of three Academy Awards, was best known for such masterpieces as "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai" and "Ran."

He gained international fame in 1950 for "Rashomon," which won the 1951 Academy Award for best foreign film as well as the Golden Lion of the Venice International Film Festival for best picture. The film made international celebrities out of both Mr. Kurosawa and his leading actor, Toshiro Mifune.

His 1954 film "The Seven Samurai" received the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion award. He received a second Oscar for the 1975 film "Dersu Uzala," and the 1980 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize for "Kagemusha." In 1985, the Cannes Festival awarded him a special trophy for achievement after the release of "Ran."

In 1990, Mr. Kurosawa received his third Oscar, a special prize for lifetime achievement. He modestly told reporters that he had not yet really earned it.

Others disagreed.

Upon learning of the director's death, American filmmaker Steven Spielberg hailed him as "the pictorial Shakespeare of our time." He added that Mr. Kurosawa "is the only director who right until the end of his life continued to make films that were recognized as or will be recognized as classics."

French President Jacques Chirac, an authority on Japanese culture, called the late director "a master" whose work represented "major milestones in the history of international cinema." In a statement released by his office, Chirac added that Mr. Kurosawa "was enthralled by modern Japan but familiar with its epic poetry. He knew how to denounce injustice and praise self-sacrifice."

Perhaps Mr. Kurosawa's work was accessible to Westerners because of the sources of some his work. His films included stories based on the works of Feodor Dostoevski, Maxim Gorki, William Shakespeare and American crime writer Ed McBain.

He often featured soundtracks of Western symphonic music. The director also made clear his admiration for such Western cinematographers as Jean Renoir and John Ford and was regarded by some critics as showing a kind of love-hate relationship with Japanese culture.

Film historians point out many technical Kurosawa achievements. He was a pioneer in the use of the long lens and quickly moving multiple cameras, as well as the use in Japan of both Panavision and Dolby sound. His insistence on realistic portrayals of violence, including swordplay, is said to have influenced action filmmaking in the United States and in Europe.

Yet his sources also included Kabuki and Noh theater. His stories were all based in Japan and dealt with some of the watersheds of Japanese history as well as such Japanese concerns as honor and integrity.

Perhaps combining east and west, many of his films included the proverbial "cast of thousands" while featuring the unique and rugged beauty of Japan as well as historically authentic sets and costumes.

But whatever his influences or techniques, he always insisted that he was simply trying to tell a story as best he knew how.

Mr. Kurosawa directed his first film, "Sugata Sanshiro," during World War II. It was the story of a judo champion and was a hit, despite criticism by Japanese military officials.

There may be lesson for all artists in his 1945 film, "They Who Step on the Tiger's Tail." A parody of samurai ideology, it immediately ran afoul of Japanese Army censors, who were outraged at his satiric look at what was then a near-religion. After the war, American military occupation officials missed the satire completely, viewing it as militaristic propaganda, and also forbade its release.

In 1947, he tried a love story, "Subarshiki Nichiyobi" (One Wonderful Sunday), which was inspired by a D.W. Griffith film. It resulted in his winning a Japanese "director of the year" award. Then, in 1948, he made "Yoidore Tenshi" (Drunken Angel), which made a national star out of Mifune.

"Rashomon," which resulted in international acclaim for the director, was a psychological study of the complexity and faults of the human mind. Set in feudal Japan, it told the story of a murder and rape through the eyes of several witnesses. It was the first Japanese film to be widely released in the United States.

He made "Ikiru" (To Live!) in 1952. Hailed by some critics as a masterpiece, it was the tale of a lowly Japanese bureaucrat who learns he is to die shortly of cancer. His first reaction is to satisfy all his fleshly desires, but then he finds that a kind of exhilaration comes to him when he devotes himself to helping others by sublimating himself in the government work he had largely ignored until then.

Mr. Kurosawa's 1954 "Seven Samurai," an affecting tale of seven unemployed samurai warriors who defend a group of peasants in 16th-century Japan, was released in this country as "The Magnificent Seven." It was remade by United Artists as a Western in 1960, under the same name.

Mr. Kurosawa's later films ranged from "Komuniosujo" (The Throne of Blood), a Japanese telling of "Macbeth," to "Tengoku to Jigoku" (High and Low), based on a detective novel by McBain.

The director ran into troubles in his native country just as the rest of the world was hailing his genius. A Japanese film industry that was making money on soft porn and simple romantic features had less use for Mr. Kurosawa. In addition to falling out of style, the director also had become known for his semi-dictatorial ways (he was known as "Emperor Kurosawa"), his insistence on artistic freedom and his disdain for budgetary restraints.

In 1980, it took financial help from 20th Century Fox, after pleading by Spielberg and fellow filmmaker George Lucas, to make "Kagemusha" (Shadow Warrior). Then, in 1985, he made "Ran," the film he once described as his life's work. He obtained French backing for the film, a Japanese retelling of "King Lear," which ended up costing more than $10 million. It was the most expensive Japanese film to that time and was a critical and popular hit.

In 1991, he made the controversial film "Rhapsody in August," which starred American actor Richard Gere and centered on the American atomic bombing of Nagasaki in World War II. Critics attacked it as simplistic and lacking any mention of Japanese war guilt. The last of the director's more than 30 films, "Madadayo," the story of a Japanese professor looking back on his life, appeared in 1993. Mr. Kurosawa was born in Tokyo into a former samurai family and attended the Tokyo Academy of Fine Arts. A struggling painter, he entered the film world on something of a lark and found himself studying under the Japanese film master Kajiro Yamamoto. The master is said to have drilled Mr. Kurosawa on the importance of mastering the technical aspects of filmmaking and on the paramount importance of screenwriting.

Mr. Kurosawa went on to become a single-minded perfectionist who once attempted suicide after the failure of a film. "I don't regret anything. I found the perfect job," he once told a reporter. "All this time I've thought of nothing but movies."

He once wrote, "Take myself, subtract films, and the remainder is zero."

His wife of 35 years, the actress Yoko Yaguchi, died in 1985. Survivors include a son and a daughter. CAPTION: AKIRA KUROSAWA ec