Trevor Hogg profiles the internationally renowned filmmaker Akira Kurosawa in the fourth of a four part feature… read parts one, two and three.
Venturing into a different medium of storytelling, Akira Kurosawa published serially Something Like an Autobiography (1978) in his homeland of Japan which covered his life up until the release of Rashomon (1950). In the epilogue of the memoir, the director writes, “There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.”
Two moviemakers, who were admirers of Kurosawa’s pictures since their days as film students, paved the way for their idol to return to the world of cinema. “I was in America for the Oscars ceremonies when I met George Lucas [American Graffiti] and Francis Coppola [The Conversation],” remembered the Tokyo native. “They approached me, and said that they’d learned a lot from my films. Lucas, in particular, said that he would like to assist me in any way he could. At the time, I was trying to negotiate terms for the Kagemusha project with Toho, and we had reached a virtual standstill. Since it was the first time I had met them, I couldn’t tell them I was lacking money for a project. But someone must have mentioned my problem to them because they went to 20th Century-Fox and persuaded Alan Ladd Jr. to invest in the film in return for the rights outside Japan.” Akira Kurosawa was grateful for the support. “Fox’s participation was extremely helpful in bringing this film about, not so much because of the amount of money involved, but the volition provided impetus in Japan. I had been negotiating for a long time with Toho and the figures they were willing to put in didn’t coincide with what I needed. I was about to believe the whole thing would never happen, but this show of interest from abroad is what finally convinced them to go ahead.”
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior, 1980) was a movie born out of curiosity. “In the course of my studies on that period of Japanese history – the late sixteenth century – I found that there was a battle [that appears in the end of the film], in which an entire army was destroyed. There’s no other incident like that in Japanese history. This event fascinated me for its peculiarity; on one side no one died, on the other all the generals died. I wanted to understand how that could have happened.” Kurosawa continued, “I wondered how I could make a film about it, which led me to the character who was behind the destroyed army – Shingen Takeda, who is really the hero of the film. Everyone else is moving under his shadow. I deduced that it must have been the power of his personality that influenced the behavior of these people. I then found that he was know to have many doubles and it occurred to me that maybe the way to make this into a film – since it is such a broad subject and obviously very expensive to do – was to take the viewpoint of one of these doubles.”
A thief is taught to impersonate a dying warlord so to prevent the vulnerable clan from being attacked. “What happened with Kagemusha happens always when I write,” explained the director. “I begin with a blank piece of paper and I have an idea who the characters are; later, their personalities take over anything I might want to do. I end up writing not from my own will, but from theirs.” Kurosawa went on to say, “You could even say that in the final scene of Kagemusha, when the main character falls into the river and floats down the stream, I’m going with him. He has made me reach that point.” For the filmmaker the idea of becoming one with one’s characters is indicative to effective storytelling. “If you write a script with a set structure to create a certain kind of feeling with the audience, the audience isn’t stupid enough to be taken in by that. If your characters are to be real, you have to let them take over.” Making the tale more believable and authentic is the historical setting. “The warrior class had much more freedom [during the sixteenth century],” remarked the moviemaker. “A peasant could still become a warrior then. In the seventeenth century, the restrictions imposed [by the Tokugawa Shogunate] didn’t allow the crossing over from one class to another. It’s the strong, colourful personalities of the earlier period that fascinate me.”
Controversy erupted when a month into principle photography, Akira Kurosawa fired box office star Shintaro Katsu and replaced him with Tatsuya Nakadi. When it came to portraying the warring groups, the director took an unorthodox approach. “There isn’t any need to show all the battles – the audience would get very bored seeing nothing but battles, said the Japanese filmmaker. “What’s important is the response that the generals of the Takeda clan have when they hear that a certain fort has been attacked. I try to show what they feel – are going to do – about it.” Kurosawa added, “For Kagemusha, in order to explain why the battle happened, it was necessary to show the individual’s motivations and interactions. The entire clan is destroyed because of Katsuyor’s feelings about his father, which made him go against the advice of the generals.”
As for depicting the fighting scenes, the director wanted to avoid the usual clichés associated with them. “There’s a tradition in Western films that deals with cavalry battles, whereby one almost invariably fires to hit the rider. In terms of real battle strategy, however, this is entirely unrealistic because the horse is a much bigger target and if you wanted to disable the whole cavalry, you’d get rid of the horses first.” Aside from the battlefield, the main character (played by Tatsuya Nakadi) had to contend with a conflict of a different nature. “In the dream scene we see that what the double is undergoing is as painful as being crucified,” said Akira Kurosawa. “He has to chase after the original, yet feels pursued by him. He is struggling with his own identity.”
At the Tokyo premier of the first Japanese picture to be given worldwide distribution by a Hollywood studio were celebrities Francis Ford Coppola, William Wyler, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Fonda, and James Coburn. Kagemusha won a number of trophies including the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Costume Design and Best Director at the BAFTAs, Best Foreign Film at the César Awards, and Best Foreign Film and Best Director at the David di Donatello Awards. The movie was a contender for Best Art Direction and Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, as well as Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes.
“I had come to Los Angeles and was at the point of going to Syracuse – the setting was going to be the railroad between Syracuse and Rochester,” recounted Akira Kurosawa of his screenplay about two escaped convicts stuck on a brakeless freight train. “But that year it snowed very early, and we had to delay everything. The fact that this delay occurred caused the whole deal to fall apart…If I had been able to make Runaway Train, it would, of course, be entirely different from the film that has now been made.” Released in 1985, the thriller was helmed by Andrei Konchalovsky and starred John Voight (Midnight Cowboy), Eric Roberts (The Pope of Greenwich Village), and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business).
“What has always troubled me about King Lear is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past,” remarked Kurosawa. “We are plunged directly into the agonies of their present dilemmas without knowing how they came to this point.” Another element of the classic story mystified the filmmaker. “I’ve never really understood the ferocity of his daughters’ response to Lear’s feeble attempts to shed his royal power.” These riddles would serve as a basis for Ran (Chaos or Revolt, 1985). “I started out to make a film about Motorani Mori, the sixteenth century warlord whose three sons are admired in Japan as paragons of filial virtue. What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It wasn’t until I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mori clan that the similarities to Lear occurred to me. Since my story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable.”
Hindered by Akira Kurosawa’s reputation for being a perfectionist who tended to go over budget and beyond the planned shooting schedule, the project was a decade in the making. “The role of director encompasses the coaching of the actors, the cinematography, the sound recording, the art direction, the music, the editing and the dubbing and sound-mixing,” declared Kurosawa who was nicknamed “the Emperor” by a journalist because of his dictatorial approach to filmmaking. French producer Serge Silberman, who had financed a number of Luis Bruñel’s pictures, intervened to save the most expensive Japanese movie of the time.
“Early one morning we were getting ready to shoot the scene of the bloody aftermath of a battle,” recollected the director. “It was in our large open set of a castle, which had been built on the slopes of Mount Fuji. There had been a downpour the night before and the lava dust underfoot was soaked. It took a long time to set the scene, with all the dead and dying soldiers needing to be made up and placed in position. By the time we were ready to shoot, the sun had warmed the ground and a mysterious mist began rising. It didn’t blow away, but hung in the air within the enclosed space of the castle courtyard. I had never seen anything like it, even though I’d worked in the area often before. It must be an unusual combination of moisture and wind and temperature. My assistants wanted to hold off shooting until the mist disappeared. But I was fascinated by it and told the cameras to begin rolling. It was tough for them because the light kept changing with the drifting mist; the cameramen had to keep adjusting exposure levels. The mist didn’t last long, but it gives that footage an extraordinary effect, rather sickly or ghostly, that I never could have planned for.”
Playing the patriarch of the once-powerful Ichimonji clan was Tatsuya Nakadai. “Without speaking a word and with few gestures to rely on, he must convey the disintegration of a great mind and a powerful will,” said Akira Kurosawa. “With his castle consumed in flames all around him, his soldiers all dead or dying, he must emerge alone through the billowing clouds of smoke, staring straight ahead, and walk down a long flight of steps, each a foot or so high…Nakadai did it perfectly, without a single misstep, staring sightlessly like a sleep walker or a madman.” To get a stellar big screen performance, Kurosawa stated, “Some directors seem to “pull” performances out of actors, but I’m always pushing them, nudging them to try new or different things. We rehearse a scene or a bit of action over and over again, and with each rehearsal something new jumps forward and they get better and better.”
Modestly successful financially, the picture missed out on being submitted as Japan’s entry for the Academy Awards; however, due to the campaigning of Sidney Lumet (Network), Akira Kurosawa received an Oscar nomination for Best Director. At the BAFTAs, Ran won for Best Foreign Film and Best Make Up; it also contended for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Other honours were bestowed upon Kurosawa; the Directors Guild of America and the San Francisco Film Festival lauded him with lifetime achievement awards (the latter of which was named after the moviemaker).
“The impetus for Yume [Dreams, 1990] was a passage in a novel by Dostoevsky, where he talks about dreams and the fact that they express our deepest fears and greatest hopes, and that this expression takes a shape that is something quite marvelous, unexpected and unimaginable in daily life,” remarked Kurosawa. “So I wrote down on paper a dream from my childhood, and this developed into a “collaboration” with other vivid dreams from various stages of my life. Any description of dreams in mere words cannot capture their expressive power at all; this was the reason I made the film.”
There are eight separate segments featured in the picture, including Sunshine in the Rain, a boy witnesses an sacred event and must make amends; The Peach Orchard, after his family chops down its orchard a boy longs to see the blossoms of the peach trees one more time; The Blizzard, four mountaineers struggle to survive midst a terrible winter storm; The Tunnel, upon returning from the war a Japanese Army officer enters a dark pedestrian passageway; Crows, an art student is transported inside the works of Vincent Van Gogh enabling him to talk to the famous painter played by American filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver); Mount Fuji in Red, a nuclear power plant melts down as millions of Japanese citizens flee into the ocean; The Weeping Demon, a man wandering in the mountain mist encounters a human mutate with one horn, in the post-apocalyptic retelling of a classic Buddhist fable; and Village of the Watermills, a traveler meets a wise old man who is trying to fix a broken watermill wheel.
Honouring a career spanning twenty-eight films, in 1990 Akira Kurosawa received the Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which was presented to him by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan).
Far from retirement, a year later the director was behind the camera to cinematically adapt Nabe no Naka (In the Cauldron) by author Kiyoko Murata. “It’s simply about an old woman from Nagasaki who survived the atomic bomb and whose grandchildren went to visit her,” stated Kurosawa of Hachi-gatsu no kyôshikyoku (Rhapsody in August, 1991). “Over the course of the summer, the children come to understand their grandmother. Even though the old woman tries to conceal her feelings about her husband, who was killed by the atomic bomb, her grandchildren gradually realize how deeply she loved him and how tragic the bombing was. By contrast, her own son and daughter are too practical to notice their mother’s sentiments.”
“The full death toll for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been officially published at 230,000. But in actual fact there were over half a million dead,” stated Kurosawa. “And even now there are still 2,700 patients at the Atomic Bomb Hospital waiting to die from the after-effects of the radiation after forty-five years of agony.” The director went on to observe, “The people who survived Nagasaki don’t want to remember their experience because the majority of them, in order to survive, had to abandon their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters. They can’t stop feeling guilty.”
Even though the story deals with the bombing of Nagasaki, Kurosawa purposely avoided using any graphic newsreel footage. “In my opinion, two of the greatest antiwar films are Johnny Got His Gun  and the Indian film Asani Sanket . Battle scenes don’t figure in either, but both vividly convey the horror of war. In Asani Sanket, for instance, a household with a fast-dwindling food supply is sought out as a refuge by one war victim after another. This simple storyline suffices to get across a strong antiwar message.” Kurosawa was also influenced by his own personal experiences. “When we were in Peace Park hunting for locations,” began the director, “I spotted a young man absorbed in the task of pouring water on the statue, probably in memory of family members killed by the bomb. I was very moved. In the movie, this is the scene where the granddaughter reflects that the bomb will fade from people’s memories and says, ‘Somehow it doesn’t seem fair to grandpa and grandma.’”
“When I read the ending [of the book], where the children are running after their grandmother, I immediately visualized it as the final shot of the movie,” said Kurosawa who worked with a Hollywood actor on the project. “I took special pains to make [Richard] Gere’s [An Officer and a Gentleman] first appearance, in the airport scene, very low-key and natural, not like the big star’s grand entrance. Gere’s own attitude helped a lot. At his own request the contract stipulated that his name not be played in the credits or on publicity posters.”
Upon its release, the picture proved to be internationally controversial. A Japanese cultural critic stated, “Many critics, myself included, thought Kurosawa was chauvinistic in his portrayal of the Japanese as victims of the war, while ignoring the brutal actions of the Japanese and whitewashing them with cheap humanist sentiment.” Responding to the accusations of having an anti-American agenda, the filmmaker declared that wars are between governments not people.
Referencing a collection of posthumously published essays as well as some autobiographical works by Hyakken Uchida, Akira Kurosawa produced his final movie Madadayo (No, Not Yet!, 1993); it is about a beloved teacher who has been retired for seventeen years and whose favourite expression serves as the title of the story. “Madadayo is a film that describes a heartwarming and pleasant relationship between Professor Hyakken Uchida [Tatsuo Matsumura] and his former students,” explained the director who himself had been referred to as “sensei” which translates into English as “teacher”. “This is something very precious that has all but been forgotten; the enviable world of human hearts as they express themselves in relationship to one another. I hope that everyone who sees this motion picture will leave the theatre feeling refreshed, with a broad smile on their face.”
Plagued by accusations that he was too Western with his storytelling sensibilities, Kurosawa remarked, “I would never make a picture especially for foreign audiences. If a work can’t have meaning to Japanese audiences, I as a Japanese artist am simply not interested. How can a man make a film for another culture without a keen feeling for the people, their likes and dislikes, the way they think and act? If a director could live in a country for perhaps two or three years, could learn the language and the customs, then he might be able to make some kind of film.”
After directing thirty films which alternated and combined the “gendai mono” (drama of modern life) and the “jidaigeki” (historical drama), Akira Kurosawa died from a stroke in his Tokyo home on September 6, 1998. Even in death, the life and works of the filmmaker continued to have a global impact. Kurosawa’s last script After the Rain (2000) was directed by Takashi Koizumi (Amida-do dayori), a memorial museum was built in the Japanese city of Imari which was the setting of Ran and Kagemusha, and to mark the centennial anniversary of his birth, Hisao Kurosawa completed a documentary left unfinished by his legendary father entitled Gendai no noh (Modern Noh, 2010).
“There is no rest for this kind of life. But I am happy with it,” reflected Akira Kurosawa. “I work for months on a script before I feel that it is ready for a film. And this is the case for all my films. I think of them again and again in my dreams. Sometimes while shooting a film, I am still bothered by a film I had finished months earlier.” Kurosawa added, “Only through further work in cinema will I ever be able to come to a full understanding of this wonderful art form.” Contemplating further his career choice, the moviemaker remarked, “My only hope lies in making films and having as many people as possible see them; this is my only chance to communicate and at the same time bring enjoyment.”
Asked to select his favourite picture, Akira Kurosawa answered, “Each one is to me like a child of my own that I gave birth and raised. I have a special affection for them all.” Pressured to comment as to whether there is a universal meaning in his works, the director replied, “I suppose all my films have a common theme. If I thought about it though, the only theme I can think of is the question, ‘Why can’t people be happier together?’” Calling himself an “ordinary man”, Kurosawa observed, “The characters in my films try to live honestly and make the most of the lives they’ve been given. I believe you must live honestly and develop your abilities to the fullest. People who do this are the real heroes.”
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.