Trevor Hogg profiles the internationally renowned filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in the first of a four part feature…
“I was a struggling young painter,” recalled legendary moviemaker Akira Kurosawa, “I saw a newspaper advertisement, PCL [Photo Chemical Laboratories], which later became Toho Studios, wanted an assistant director. They asked applicants to write essays on the basic weakness of Japanese films and what should be done to overcome them. In my answer I suggested humoursly, that if the weaknesses were basic, there could be no cure. I also said that films could always be made better. To my surprise, I was offered a job, which I took, planning to return to painting after one or two months. But I found films were my medium, and I stayed.”
A veteran of the cinematic craft became a willing mentor to the novice. “[Kajiro] Yamamoto [Hawai Mare oki kaisen] never made a film without actively involving all of his assistants in it,” remarked the Tokyo-born director. “He roused in me a passion for my job. He taught me the ABC’s of directing, how to write a script, and all kinds of useful knowledge about every phase of production. He gave every one of us opportunities to substitute for him as director and permitted us to try our theories in practice.” Kurosawa made the most out of his six year apprenticeship. “When he [Yamamoto] was shooting Uma [Horses, 1941], I took over much of the production. I advanced so quickly that, while Yamamoto was working with the Unit A and shooting a musical comedy in Tokyo, I was allowed to take responsibility for Unit B and shoot Uma on location in northeast Japan. When we both got back, he found me much tougher, much more exacting than he. I would order retakes for a scene he thought acceptable. At first the production crew was amazed, but they soon realized that I was right and obeyed my instructions. People began talking about my prospects, and everyone regarded me as a full-fledge director.”
To complete his transformation into a reputable moviemaker, Akira Kurosawa devoted himself to the art of screenwriting. “The best thing is to write screenplays,” stated Kurosawa. “This is basic to filmmaking, because an excellent screenplay can become an excellent film even in the hands of a third-rate director; a bad screenplay, however, could never become an excellent film even if made by a first-rate director.” As for his writing advice, the Japanese cinema icon remarked, “In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, and what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things.”
There are also perils to be avoided when composing a story. “Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into,” warned Kurosawa. “It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue.” Emphasizing the importance of scriptwriting further, the director offered this poetic observation, “The root of any film project for me is the inner need to express something. What nurtures this root and makes it grow into a tree is the script. What makes the tree bear flowers and fruit is the directing.” Practicing what he preached, Akira published his first screenplay A German at the Daruma Temple in 1941. A year later the script All Is Quiet won the Nihon Eiga contest for best scenario while another one entitled Snow was awarded first prize from the Japanese Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, none of the tales were filmed due to war-time production constraints.
At the age of thirty-three, Akira Kurosawa’s scripted his directorial debut Sugata Sanshiro (Judo Saga, 1943) which was an adaptation of the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. “When you are directing from your own script, you understand the script better than anyone else possibly can,” said the creator of the story. “Making this film seemed not like ascending a steep precipice, but more like clambering around the gentle slopes at the base of the mountain.”
The title character played by Susumu Fujita travels to the city to learn Jujutsu only to find himself drawn to the self-defensive art of Judo. “Among the characters in Sugata Sanshiro, the one who most strongly draws my interest and affection is of course Sanshiro himself,” reflected Kurosawa. “But, looking back now, I realize that my feelings for the villain, Higaki Gennosuke [RyunosukeTsukigata], are no less strong.” Asked if he resembled his cinematic personas, the director responded, “Personally, I feel that my own temperament is like Sanshiro’s, but I am strangely attracted by Higaki’s character. For this reason I portrayed Higaki’s demise with a great deal of affection.” Mother Nature inadvertently aided the principal photography for the movie by providing a dramatic strong wind. “On the hill where we had planned to shoot [the climatic fight scene], the pampas grass should have gone to seed already, but a field of the fluffy stalks still waved like a typhoon-ripped sea. Above our heads, tatters of clouds fairly raced across the sky. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect set design.”
When the picture was released, Kurosawa remarked, “The general public, perhaps because they were starved for entertainment during the war, reacted to my film with feverish warmth.” The enthusiasm for the filmmaker’s screenplay spawned two remakes in 1955 and 1965 (the 1966, 1970, and 1977 versions were based on the book).
Ichiban Utsukushikiu (The Most Beautiful, 1944) became the budding moviemaker’s sophomore effort. “The setting is a military-lens factory belonging to the Nippon Kogaku company in the town of Haratsuka, and the [volunteer corps of teenage] girls are engaged in the manufacturing of precision lenses.” Akira Kurosawa had a particular vision in mind for the tale. “When I received this project to direct, I decided I wanted to try doing it in a semi-documentary style. I began with the task of ridding the young actresses of everything they had physically and emotionally acquired that smacked of theatricality. The odor of makeup, the snobbery, the affectations of the stage, that special self-consciousness that only actors have – all of this had to go. I wanted to return them to their original status of ordinary young girls.”
Helping with the authentic tone of the picture was the real setting. “The girls in each section of the factory of course spoke the lines of the drama that were set down in the script, but rather than paying attention to the camera they were totally absorbed in carrying out the factory job they were learning and monitoring the workings of the machinery. In their concentrated expressions and movements there was almost no trace of the self-consciousness actors have, only the vitality and beauty of people at work.”
Working on the movie became a life-altering experience for Kurosawa. “I married the girl who played the leader of the girls’ volunteer group, Yaguchi Yoko. At that time she represented the actresses and frequently came to argue with me on their behalf. She was a terribly stubborn and uncompromising person, and since I am very much the same, we often clashed head on.”
Revisiting his first picture, Akira Kurosawa produced Zoku Sugata Sanshiro (Judo Saga, Part Two, 1945). “Sugata Sanshiro had been a hit, so the studio asked me to make a sequel. This is one of the bad points about commercialism. It seems the entertainment sections of Japan’s film production companies haven’t heard the proverb about the fish under the willow tree that hangs over the stream – the fact that you hooked one there once doesn’t mean you always will.” Battling his reservations about doing the project initially, the filmmaker said, “I had to force myself to arouse the desire to go back to it and continue it. But one aspect of the story of Higaki Gennosuke’s younger brothers seeking a revenge battle with Sanshiro [Susumu Fujita] interested me…the fact that Gennosuke [RyunosukeTsukigata] is forced to see himself in his younger days through the similarly impetuous actions of his younger brother Tesshin [also played by Tsukigata], and the recollection causes him to suffer.”
Reflecting on the movie, Kurosawa wrote in his autobiography, “Sugata Sanshiro, Part Two was not a very good film. Among the reviews was one that said, ‘Kurosawa seems to be somewhat full of himself.’ On the contrary, I feel I was unable to put my full strength into it.”
There was another film directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1945. “[Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi] The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail came about as result of the cancelled Lifted Spear project, and it was thrown together in great haste. The idea was to base it on the Kabuki play Kanjincho (The Subscription List), about the escape of the early feudal lord Yoshitsune across a heavily-guarded barrier with his generals disguised as priests collecting temple subscriptions.” The picture was released at the conclusion of WWII which caused serious complications for the moviemaker. “The first American-appointed censor who came to supervise the company after the war was a very mean-spirited leftist,” recalled Kurosawa. “I was working on The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, and he didn’t report properly to the Occupational Forces, and so they took that I was shooting something dubious. The finished film was banned from public showing because it was considered “feudalistic.” The next inspector was a more moderate man: he looked at the film, and couldn’t understand why it had been suppressed. Finally it was shown.”
Joining forces with fellow Japanese co-directors Kajiro Yamamoto and Hideo Sekikawa, Akira Kurosawa worked on Asu o tsukuru hitobito (Those Who Make Tomorrow, 1946). To appease the Toho labour union a number of scenes were changed without the permission of the filmmakers, resulting in Kurosawa removing the project from his list of credited productions.
“The Japanese see self-assertion as immoral and self-sacrifice as the sensible course to take in life,” stated Akira Kurosawa of his countrymen. “We were accustomed to this teaching and had never thought to question it. I felt without the establishment of the self as a positive value there could be no freedom and no democracy. Waga seishun ni kuinashi (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946), takes the problem of the self as its theme.”
Yukie (Setsuko Hara), the daughter of Professor Yagihara (Denjiro Okochi) who was fired from his university position because of his leftist views against fascism, is wooed by two of her father’s pupils, Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and Itokawa (Akitake Kôno). The film was made between two union strikes at Toho which had a significant impact on the production. “The second draft of the script for No Regrets was a forced rewrite of the story, so it became somewhat distorted. This shows in the last twenty minutes of the film. But my intention was to gamble everything on the last twenty minutes. I poured a feverish energy into those two thousand feet and close to two hundred shots of film. All of the rage I felt toward the Scenario Review Committee went into those final images.”
Considered to be too melodramatic and therefore his weakest film, Subarashiki Nickiyôbi (One Wonderful Sunday, 1947) is, in the words of Akira Kurosawa, about “impoverished lovers struggling along in defeated Japan.” Going against the wishes of his co-screenwriter Keinosuke Uekusa, the director tried an innovative approach to the climatic scene in the picture. “The poor couple are in an empty concert amphitheatre and in their minds they hear Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony,” explained Kurosawa. “Naturally, the movie’s soundtrack should have no music on it for this scene. The girl [Chieko Nakatita] breaks the rules of filmmaking and turns to the screen audience to address them. ‘Please, everyone, if you feel sorry for us, please clap your hands. If you clap for us, I’m sure we’ll be able to hear the music.’ The audience applauds, and the boy [Isao Numasaki] in the film picks up a conductor’s baton. As soon as he starts to wave it, the Unfinished comes in on the soundtrack.” Uekusa reservations to the idea turned out to be well-founded. “The Japanese audience sat stock still, and because they couldn’t bring themselves to applaud, the whole thing was a failure,” admitted the filmmaker. “But in Paris it succeeded. Because the French audience responded with wild applause, the sound of the orchestra tuning up at the tail end of the clapping gave rise to the powerful and unusual emotion I had hoped for.” The movie did not go entirely unappreciated by his native homeland; at the Mainichi Film Concours, Kurosawa won for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948) was a creative breakthrough for Kurosawa. “In this picture I finally discovered myself,” declared the director. “It was my picture; I was doing it and no one else. Part of this was thanks to [Toshiro] Mifune. [Though Toshiro Mifune had been in several films this was his first starring role and it resulted in almost instant fame.] [Takashi] Shimura played the doctor beautifully but I found that I could not control Mifune. When I saw this, I let him do what he wanted, let him play the part freely. At the same time I was worried because, if I did not control him, the picture would be quite different from what I had wanted. It was a real dilemma. Still, I did not want to smother that vitality. In the end, although the title refers to the doctor, it is Mifune that everyone remembers.”
Complications arose when writing the screenplay. “We had a difficulty with one of the characters, the doctor himself,” revealed Kurosawa. “[Keinosuke] Uekusa and I rewrote his part over and over again. Still, he wasn’t interesting. We had almost given up when it occurred to me that he was just too good to be true, he needed a defect, a vice. This is why we made him an alcoholic. At the time, most film characters were shining white or blackest black. We made the doctor grey.” An issue that needed to be resolved was how to bring conflict into the story. “Uekusa and I made the gangster and the doctor collide head on in the very first scene of the film. The gangster [Mifune] is injured in a gang war and goes to see the alcoholic doctor to have the bullet removed. As he takes care of the bullet hole, the doctor finds that the gangster has a hole in his lung, resulting from tuberculosis. It is the tuberculosis germ that provides a binding tie for the two men. From that point on, all that was necessary to set the drama in motion was for the two of them to disagree and oppose each other on what should be done about it.”
Along with establishing the master-disciple relationship between Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune (which would last until the mid-1950s), the film welcomed another member into Akira Kurosawa’s inner creative circle. “This was the first picture on which [Fumio] Hayaska worked with me; and from the first we agreed on everything. Like using that vapid Cuckoo Waltz for the saddest part of the film.” The movie was a commercial success in Japan. “One of the reasons for the extreme popularity of this film at the time was that there was no competition – no other films showed an equal interest in people.”
Leaving Toho Studios, Kurosawa established a new work base by co-founding with colleagues Kajiro Yamamoto, Mikio Naruse, and Senkichi Taniguchi, the Eiga Geijutsu Kyokai (Film Art Association) in 1948. The first picture produced under this new arrangement was Shizukanaru Ketto (The Quiet Duel, 1949). “Since his debut, Mifune had been playing almost nothing but gangster roles,” stated the Japanese filmmaker, “and I wanted to give him a chance to broaden his artistic horizons. Turning his type-cast image around, I conceived a role for him as an intellectual with sharp reasoning powers.” Akira Kurosawa was rewarded for his unconventional casting decision. “Mifune turned in a magnificent performance as the young physician who refuses to marry the woman he loves for fear of infecting her with virtually incurable syphilis, which he contracted from a diseased patient during the Pacific War. Even his posture and movements underwent a complete change, and he succeeded so well in conveying the anguish of this pathetic hero that I, too, was surprised.”
A second film produced by Akira Kurosawa in 1949 was the crime-detective tale Nora inu (Stray Dog). “I first wrote the screenplay in the form of a novel,” remarked the director. “I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime. This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I’d be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so. Far from it. It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.”
“The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective [Toshiro Mifune] on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range,” began Kurosawa. “He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen.” The structure of the screenplay caused a flurry of activity when it came to the principle photography. “Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed. On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we’d shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.” Good fortune visited the set of the film. “No shooting ever went as smoothly for me as Stray Dog. Even the weather seemed to cooperate. There was a scene when we needed an evening shower. We got out the fire truck and prepared for the rolling of the camera. I had them start the hoses and called for action and camera, and just at that instant a terrific real thunderstorm began. We got a great scene.”
Even after winning the Mainichi Film Concours awards for Best Actor (Takashi Shimura), Best Film Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction, Kurosawa was not pleased with his ninth cinematic effort, “It is just too technical. All that technique and not one real thought in it.”
With the dawn of the 1950s, Akira Kurosawa was on the verge of becoming the first Japanese director to be known in the West.
Continue to part two.
For more on the filmmaker visit AkiraKurosawa.info, the Akira Kurosawa Foundation or the British Film Institute.
Also be sure to read Trevor’s article marking 100 years since the director’s birth – Akira Kurosawa: A Cinematic Artist.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.