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.

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Kindling my Nook, bungling my book

It’s very unlikely I’ll buy a ebook reader – Amazon’s Kindle or the new Nook, from Barnes and Noble. Even if I ever do, out of curiosity more than anything else, to me they they will always remain a poor surrogate, something of a novelty that I might tinker with or even carry on a flight, but never take seriously. It cannot replace the feel of paper between my fingers, the crisp smell of new print or the seductive mustiness of a crumpling paperback. Most bibliophiles would scarcely trade that romanticism for an electronic screen and scroll bars(or buttons and what have you). So – no. I do not fear Kindle replacing the book stores, or even coming anywhere close. Yet, the PBS News Hour segment on the recent price war in the publishing industry, and on the rise of such devices was intriguing.

Dang! WordPress won’t let me embed the video, so here’s the link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec09/books_11-02.html (from where you can launch the actual news segment video).

In summary, an ebook reader to me is cool, it’s nice, but it’s just that. The real magic is still in the words.

Funniest Tintin snippet, ever?

My three year old son has realized the quite American way of emphasizing his speech with a trailing “ever” –

I don’t like this food ever…

I don’t want to take a nap ever..

and so on. Along the “ever” line, I decided, while re-reading several of the Tintin comic books this summer, to choose my favorite funny sequence from the lot. Somehow, it was easier than I imagined. There’s a particular scene from Seven Crystal Balls, the bumbling Captain Haddock running amok backstage, that has never failed to amuse me, often to laughter, and this time too was no exception. The pièce de résistance is Haddock’s bewildered expression staring at the tongue wagging cow mask after crashing into a timpani. Hergé’s artistic ingenuity accomplished so much without sparing a lot of words!

Ah, a late lunch on a warm, lazy afternoon (no harm pining for it amidst the drab Pacific Northwest fall), then curling up unmindful with a Tintin – one of the small pleasures of life I have enjoyed this summer.

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks – 

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

MarriageBureauforRichPeople

I read Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy over two years ago. Yet many of the characters, even lesser ones – like Mahesh Kapoor, remain vivid in my memory. I can almost see the man when I close my eyes and try to imagine a scene from the story. One could argue that it’s unfair to compare with “A Suitable Boy”, where Seth left no stone unturned in developing the characters, where even lesser ones are given meticulous attention and volume to help the reader eke out in their minds, the flesh and blood aliases. The point I’m trying to make is this: without interesting characters, or even apparently ordinary characters cast extraordinarily by the author, a book – a work of fiction that is – will not leave a mark in the reader’s imagination. Mr.Zama’s debut novel is such a book.

There’s no need to brace yourself – I am not going to flay the author. Even today, with the plethora of publishers and writers, it remains quite hard to get one’s work published (and I don’t mean on the Internet). That, in itself, is quite an achievement. One needs persistence (let’s forsake talent for while, we’ll get to that in a bit), and some luck. Sometimes luck alone works. Zama probably has both. At least, this book is not as cheesy as Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (source of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire). What it is is a mixture of excoticism (with an overdose of spices), avuncular wisdom, a paean to secularism, a jumble of none too memorable characters (except perhaps Aruna) all afloat in a drama devoid of any significant conflict, a probable cause being Mr. Zama’s over inclination to resolve all problems, and resolve them fairly easily. There, I’ve violated my promise, but it was unavoidable.

At times, the book reads like a manual for Indian cooking:

“Aruna’s mother lit the second ring of the gas burner and put an aluminum pan on it. She poured a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil was hot enough, she took out an old round wooden container. She slid the lid open on its hinge. Inside, there were eight compartments, each holding a different spice. She took a pinch of mustard seeds and put them in the oil. When they started popping, Aruna’s mother dropped cloves, cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick into the hot oil. She added a small plate of chopped onions to the pan. The lovely smell of frying onions filtered through the kitchen and into the rest of the house”

…and this goes on for another paragraph. I mean, come on! Almost any major city of any consequence has an Indian restaurant, and with YouTube and the zillions of recipe websites, one no longer is in awe of popping mustard seeds and the smell of fried onions in spices. These so called tactile mechanisms are a bane and detract the reader, but perhaps there’s a selling point that I’m missing. Through such deviations, mediocre writing, and failing to latch on to the potential latent in the Aruna character, Zama’s work never really picks up, stuttering on through its three hundred odd pages, letting in too many inconsequential people walk in through Marriage Bureau’s doors. Mr. Ali, Mrs. Ali – why not just use their names? And their son, Irshad – I was hoping to see some real conflict when he was arrested in a protest against farmland acquisition. But Zama fritters away that chance too, and with the bloody battle of Singur still fresh in many a mind, what a miss it is.

Now, talking of talent, one doesn’t expect every Indian author to bear the promise of a Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh. We have become, are becoming, a more and more egalitarian society, with most of us finding it easier to accomplish one’s heart’s desire – be it launching a startup company, scuba diving or writing. This is a good thing. Seriously, I mean no irony or cynicism even if there’s a whiff from my take on the book. There’s a playing field for everyone, and that’s how things should be. Now as far a reading goes, it is fair to say that one needs to be choosy in this avalanche of media, and finding a good book to read (and that of course, as many might quickly point out, is purely subjective) remains difficult, for talent, unlike opportunity, is less common. Read the jackets carefully, sometimes they help. The “About the Auhor” section at the end of this one says –

“…He works for an investment bank and writes on his commute and sitting in front of the TV after dinner.”

I wish I had read it prior to my venture. Now that I have, I am not surprised of the outcome. Quite an achievement, Mr. Zama! (See, I didn’t use his first name at all in the essay, barring the title. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?)

Rating: 2/5

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

Booker longlist announced

The Booker longlist is out: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1252

Their website says that the long list was chosen from a total of 132 books. Curious, and and unable to find it on the internet, I’ve emailed them a query for the list of all the 132 books – part of the reason is to find out which (if any) Indian (or diaspora) authors were considered. Wonder if I’ll hear back.

The only author whose work I’ve read (that too a single, but singular, book) is Coetzee. Amazon says that the book is not yet available, and not a blip on my library either. Yet.