Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

Among Japanese film makers, no one is perhaps as universally known as Akira Kurosawa.

“Something like an Autobiography” is an account of the legendary director’s early life. It is only a partial account, encompassing his childhood, adolescenct years, the early years of his film career, up to the point of Rashomon. Nonetheless, the book benefits anyone keen for understanding the man behind such remarkable films as Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon, and Dersu Uzala among others. Kurosawa’s films were – Stuart Galbraith IV writes in the introduction to his book “The Emperor and the Wolf” – first and foremost, deeply humanist pictures, films which effortlessly transcend cultures and centuries. Something like an Autobiography helps one understand the evolution of the artist Kurosawa, the influences that shaped his vision.

It comes as no surprise that Kurosawa’s family (on the father’s side) was of Samurai descent. It was his father who took the boy Akira (and the rest of the family) to the movies, and was thus instrumental in the director’s early exposure to the medium. Though, he says, that his contact with movies at an early age had nothing to do with his becoming a film director, his father’s progressive outlook helped nurture his interests.

“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think my father’s attitude toward films reinforced my own inclinations and encouraged me to become what I am today. He was a strict man of military background, but a t a time when the idea of watching movies was hardly well received in educator’s circles, he took his whole family to the movies regularly. Later in more reactionary times he steadfastly maintained his conviction that going to the movies has an educational value; he never changed”.

In primary school, after a somewhat reluctant kindergarten and a slow start, AK grew under the influence of Mr. Tachikawa, the teacher in charge. Under him, AK enjoyed his art classes and became really good at drawing. He cherished Mr. Tachikawa’s progressive and innovative approach to education during the conservative Taisho era (1912-1926) as “the rarest of blessings”. During this time, he also befriended Uekusa Keinosuke, perceived, much like himself, as a “crybaby” — who eventually became a famous writer. Their friendship lasted a lifetime and they collaborated in the screen writing of more than one of AK’s films. AK’s brother, Heigo, elder to him by four years, also helped nurture his intelligence in school, with his abrasive diatribe gradually evolving into silent appreciation and brotherly protection. But the talented Heigo, once grown up, developed a rather nihilistic outlook towards life, and eventually committed suicide. He was a narrator in the silent film era, whose job became redundant, along with the rest in his profession, with the onset of sound.

In his school years, Akira Kurosawa excelled in the arts – including Japanese calligraphy, which his father encouraged him to learn – laying a strong foundation for the artistic sensibilities that he would eventually portray on celluloid.

“I had applied myself only in the subjects I liked, such as grammar, history, composition, art and penmanship. In these areas no one could surpass me. But I couldn’t make myself like science and arithmetic, and only very reluctantly put enough energy into these subjects to stay a shade above disgrace.”

Before entering the world of film at twenty six, Akira Kurosawa dabbled in painting, joined the Proletariat Artists’ League and even contributed in the publication of underground communist newspapers. In 1935, he was hired by P.C.L (Photo Chemical Laboratory) film studios after a grueling series of tests. The act of joining the film industry was almost serendipitous, but Kurosawa realized that the course of his life until that juncture had aptly prepared him for it.

“It was chance that led me to walk along the road to P.C.L. and, in so doing, the road to becoming a film director, yet somehow everything that I had done prior to that seemed to point to it as an inevitability. I had dabbled eagerly in painting, literature, theater, music and other arts and stuffed my head full of all the things that come together in the art of the film.”

It was in P.C.L that he met Yamamoto Kajiro, his mentor. AK was deeply grateful for being able to work with Yama-san, whom he called the “best teacher of my entire life”. Yamamoto Kajiro paid a lot of attention to his assistant directors, giving them crucial responsibilities to shoulder, seeking their opinions in serious projects, something that instilled confidence among his assistant directors, made them try their sincere best in order to live up to the directors’ expectations. He encouraged AK to script writing, and from him AK learned the value of being able to objectively edit one’s footage.

“The film that Yama-san had labored painfully to shoot he would cut o pieces as if he were a total masochist.

The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. Among all the teachings of Yama-san on film editing, this was the greatest lesson.”

From Yamamoto Kajiro, AK also picked up vital lessons in handling actors and in sound dubbing.

AK’s short temper was well known. But his frank admission of that trait is also a sign of sincerity. It was something that landed AK in trouble on some occasions, and had Yama-san worried of his protege to the extent that he extracted a promise from AK of not losing his temper while working for other directors.

AK got his first break as a film director in 1942, with Sugata Sanshiro – the story of a “rowdy young judo expert.” It was based on a novel that he himself identified, instinctively, as a great movie potential. He wrote the screenplay himself, seeking Yamamoto Kajiro’s advice with the finished script.

The rest of the book, from thereon, follows his filmography – The Most Beautiful, Sugata Sanshiro Part II, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, No Regrets for our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog, Scandal, and Rashomon.

AK married actress Yaguchi Yoko (real name Kato Kiyo) in 1945, in the month of the release of Sugata Sanshiro Part II..

Kurosawa and Mifune

Drunken Angel (1948) was his first project with Toshiro Mifune, an alliance that eventually produced a tremendously successful repertoire – including Rashomon, Seven Samurai, High and Low, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, and Red Beard among others (a total of sixteen films). Of Mifune, AK says-

“Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express….And yet with all his quickness he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”

Rashomon (1950) was a groundbreaking film, which propelled Kurosawa (and Japanese films) unto the international stage. The experimental narrative added a new dimension to the world of cinema. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Miyagawa Kazuo’s cinematography was flawless, including the much acclaimed scene in the forest with the camera moving between light and shadow of the trees, occasionally pointing directly at the sun (something rarely ever attempted before).

Artistry, in any field,is the search for and expression of truth as revealed to the creator. In the case of Kurosawa, the scrupulous honesty of his films, one becomes aware, is really a trait of the man himself. In fact, the reason for his reluctance to continue his biography beyond Rashomon was to avoid any contradiction between his quest for truth and the human “trait of instinctive self-aggrandizement”. In his own words -

“I think to learn what became of me after Rashomon the most reasonable procedure would be to look for me in the characters in the films I made after Rashomon. Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way. I am certain that I did. There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself.”

This candid closing paragraph from the epilogue I think essentially summarizes the significance of art forms like literary fiction, painting and film making, not only to the artist during the process of creation, but also to the aficionado or connoisseur in the enjoyment of the end product.

4 thoughts on “Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

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