OF THE 200-odd directors adrift on Japan’s celluloid torrents, about nine confine themselves to one film a year and among them divide up more than half of the industry's annual Oscar-type awards. Of the nine, only one is known as Tenno—the Emperor—and is addressed by his underlings at the Toho Studios in formal language only one inflection removed from that reserved for Hirohito himself. So awesome, in fact, is the reverence accorded Akira Kurosawa that on one occasion, when he was seeing rushes in a screening room, studio guides forced female visitors on the lot to remove their jewelry lest the tinkle of bracelets and earrings distract the master.
The man commanding such imperial dignities is tall and lean, with thinning hair, reflective, yet a rapid talker when his thoughts have taken shape. Kurosawa, whose films (beginning with Rashomon in 1950) were the first to make Western audiences aware of Japanese movies, came to his profession almost by accident. “In 1937,” he told Show Business Illustrated in the course of a rare interview, “I was a struggling young painter. I saw a newspaper advertisement. PCL, which later became Toho Studios, wanted an assistant director. They asked applicants to write essays on the basic weaknesses of Japanese films and what should be done to overcome them. In my answer I suggested, humorously, that if 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.”
The medium was then dominated by Kajiro Yamamoto, a director with whom Kurosawa served as assistant while he studied the work of other moviemakers. In Japan a first-class director is expected, through his apprenticeship, to have mastered the technical angles of his business and, above all, to be able to devise his own scripts. Yamamoto laid it down as a rule that “to understand motion pictures fully, one must be able to write a script.” Disciple Kurosawa now even has principals selected when starting a screenplay. “Unless I have a specific actor in mind,” he says, “I can’t write the script. For the supporting roles I look for individuals who both fit their parts and complement the lead characters.”
Other top Japanese directors have followed much the same method—but their results, far more parochial than Kurosawa’s, have seldom been seen in America or the West. How do they differ from the Emperor? The greatest of the “traditional” or socalled “purely Japanese” directors, Yasujiro Ozu, will sit up all night with writer Kogo Noda and a bottle of sake, meticulously pondering each emotional or visual shading. Ozu has won six Kinema Jumpo prizes, but remains unknown beyond his own country. This lack of appreciation abroad of Ozu’s austere, economic, subtle and almost entirely plotless films confirms a belief of many Japanese that no foreigner can comprehend their civilization, isolated for such long centuries, much less penetrate their “purely Japanese” movies. Concentrating almost wholly on the inner core of Japanese family life, Ozu has refused to make concessions to alien tastes. “The ends of the world,” he has said of his quietly intimate vignettes, “are no farther than the outside of the house.”
Well outside these limits are the films of the late Kenji Mizoguchi, who ranks between the traditional Ozu and Kurosawa in his approach and is best known in America for Ugetsu, the medieval story of a potter, his wife and a beautiful enchantress. “Now that Mizoguchi is gone,” Kurosawa observed, “there are very few directors left who can really see the past clearly and realistically.”
One of those few, of course, is Kurosawa himself, although he is called the “least Japanese” of modern directors. Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and recently Throne of Blood (Macbeth in feudal Japan) have, among other films, amply demonstrated Kurosawa’s mastery of the period story. “But still,” he says, “Japanese critics go on and on about how Western I am—mainly just because I am interested in people. They love ‘artless simplicity’ and a ‘terribly Japanese quality.’ Well, that certainly is not my way of working.” In at least two historical films, Kurosawa’s way has strayed not only westward but toward the “Western”—the horse opera. The Japanese equivalent of the romantic cowboy is the samurai, the hard-fighting swordsman of a knightly, bloody epoch surrounded with legend and abounding in villainy and heroism. Instead of gunfights, the Japanese relish chanbara, or swordplay. In Yojimbo (also released as The Bodyguard), Kurosawa places his chanbara antagonists at opposite ends of a street and has them stalk menacingly toward each other. In the more recent Sanshiro Tsubaki, leading-man Toshiro Mifune waits for the heavy to reach for his sword, then outdraws him. Kurosawa acknowledges his enjoyment of American Westerns—especially John Ford’s—but pleads innocent to any conscious influences. “Actually,” he says, “the chanbara had greater dramatic impact in former days, when it was done with almost no swordplay. It was weakened when a lot of melodramatic cut-and-thrust was injected. Traditionally, the sword was quickly drawn, the stroke was made in one lightning movement and the blade was sheathed with equal speed. I’m trying to return to this, and it may be a coincidence that this technique appears similar to the quick draw in Westerns.”
A much more potent influence than the old frontier has been the Old World. “The educational background of my generation” according to Kurosawa, “is colored in part by the literature of Russia, France and Germany. The world today is an interplay of Eastern and Western cultures.” For Kurosawa, the chief Western colorist has been Dostoievsky. In 1951 Kurosawa directed a Japanese version of The Idiot, set in Hokkaido. “I worked very hard and put everything I had into this picture. It ran into trouble as soon as it was shown in Japan. It was cut, it caused friction with Shochiku, the studio for which it was made, and it was attacked by the critics. It may not have been the best film Tve made. But we have a saying that parents love best the child that is lame.”
Six years later Kurosawa chose another Russian novel, Gorki’s The Lower Depths, to film in a Tokyo setting (reviewed in Show Business Illustrated, March 1962). Powerful, dark and, by Western measure, uncinematic, it exemplifies Kurosawa’s theatrical method of writing and rehearsing—the action as if on a stage, the camera as the audience. It is almost certain to find the acclaim abroad that has won its director the Silver Lion of St. Mark (at Venice for The Seven Samurai), two Silver Bears at Berlin (for The Hidden Fortress and Ikiru) in addition to the earlier festival triumphs of Rashomon. Kurosawa is grateful for the “kindness” shown him by foreign reviewers. “I feel that they have more time to think about a film and about what they are going to write—more than Japanese reviewers. I believe that many Japanese critics feel they must find something to criticize every day, or they might lose their jobs. I try not to let them influence anything I do.”
It is unlikely that any critic, or anyone else, will bend the iron will of Kurosawa, an inflexible and thoroughly Japanese perfectionist. His films, regardless of prizes or the second-guessing of intellectual commentators, are made in Japan for domestic consumption. “I would never,” he vows, “make a picture especially for foreign audiences. If a work can’t have a 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 customs, then he might be able to make some kind of film.” (Needless to say, Kurosawa is not lost in admiration for those American directors who spend a few months in the Orient for such “Easterns” as Flower Drum Song.)
Preferring to remain at home in Tokyo with his wife and two children, close to the Toho Studios and shunning outside distractions, Tenno Kurosawa seems destined to ride out the storms of television and the mounting popularity of spectacle films. “But,” he says, “it is going to become increasingly difficult for Japan’s film-makers to produce good work. Too many of our younger directors are extremely commercial. They lack the enthusiasm for experiment that older directors had. You know how I work? Talk, talk, talk—that’s all I do. Get the writers together and talk the script. Get the actors together and talk acting. Get the camera crew together and talk production. I spend my life talking.”
From Show Business Illustrated, April 1962.