Akira Kurosawa is respected as one of the greatest film directors who ever lived and a master of the Samurai genre of Japanese cinema. Films such as “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai,” Ran,” “Throne of Blood,” “Yojimbo,” and others revolutionized cinema and introduced Japanese film to Western audiences. He always said he didn’t like talking about particular films after he had finished them. He wanted them to do the talking for him. “If what I have said in my film is true,” he explained, “someone will understand.” But he loved talking about the process of making films. When he wrote his autobiography, he said he worried that it would just end up being a bunch of talk about movies. Still it is through his writings and interviews that we can learn much about this genius of twentieth century film. Films were everything for Kurosawa, his one and only medium, and how he defined himself. As he put it, if you took him and removed films and film-making from the equation you would have nothing left.
This all-encompassing obsession translated into great skill and success in his chosen profession. Kurosawa was a careful and caring craftsman when it came to his movies. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making from the beginning of the process to the end. No part of production was not under his direct supervision. For instance, he believed that being a good screenwriter was essential to being a good filmmaker. While many other directors had scriptwriters and didn’t write scripts themselves, Kursosawa had a hand in all the scripts for his films.
As he put it, “with a good script, a good director can make a masterpiece. With the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script, even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.” Without the ability to come up with a good story, the director would have no way of telling it in a convincing or interesting way. He thought that a director must know everything there was to know about movies and the processes and ideas of the great directors. The script was essential in the process because it was the seed from which the tree of the film would grow and bloom. This is what distinguished the great directors from the mediocre ones.
Kurosawa felt that he needed to constantly be gathering from the world around him. He always had a notebook with him while reading and would be constantly jotting down ideas. He decided early on in his career that he needed to be writing whenever possible. When he was an assistant director, for instance, he figured that at least he could manage a page a day. Most of the time he was able to manage two to three. He looked at the rhythm of scripts as being similar to composing a symphony. The story necessitated three to four movements with different tempos.
He wasn’t a big fan of writing tons of dialogue because he believed he would be able to express more through camera, lighting, editing, and through the facial expressions and movement of the actors. He had been deeply affected by silent film as a young man and thought that since film was a visual medium, his best bet was to limit dialogue to its essential aspects and let the other parts do the work. He didn’t want it to be a crutch in order to advance plot. At the same time, he began thinking about all aspects of the final film, including the music and sound effects, when he was still in the script-writing and planning phases.
It was around 1940 that Kurosawa began the process of writing with two other people. He had decided that he needed partners to bounce ideas off and that working by himself made the writing process very one-sided. In the later years, he would leave Tokyo after completing a film, either going to relax in his country home or to an inn in Kyoto where he would not be disturbed so he could recover and write for several weeks. He would awaken in the morning, have breakfast, and then go back to his room and write until six in the evening. He had a hard time slowing down between projects. As Japanese film historian and director Donald Richie puts it, “his favorite film was always the next one.”
The shooting of the film itself was another matter. While writing scripts sometimes took some forcing, directing came very naturally to him. When difficulties did occur, Kurosawa would just work twice as hard and that made him feel like he was getting more done. This mindset of hard work and persistence extended to rehearsing all elements of filming, not only to the actors but also to camera movement and lighting. His approach to directing scenes was less hands on, however. He didn’t usually look at the actors while filming scenes, but instead focused on something else. If he felt something was wrong or out of place he would notice it more naturally. In this way he saw himself as detached, almost Zen-like, watching as if from a place of objectivity.
He shot with multiple cameras, a technique he developed for action scenes, because this way he had a choice of which shot to use and could cut between different points of view. He went on to also use it for all of his scenes because it broadened out his choices and allowed him lots of flexibility in the editing room while limiting the amount of takes he had to shoot. It also provided for certain happy accidents that normally would not be caught by one camera to be captured by one of the others.
This sense of covering his bases in all aspects extended to other elements of the film-making as well. Authenticity was essential to Kurosawa. He needed all his sets, costumes, and props to be as realistic as possible. This also was true of the stories he wanted to tell. Before “Seven Samurai,” Kurosawa had another project in mind about a Samurai’s day which ends in his dishonoring over some incidental mistake and his ritual suicide as a result. When one of the writers, after months of research, told him it could not be done and that the research didn’t support the project, he scrapped it. The same due diligence extended to post-production. While editing, Kurosawa wanted to be as objective as possible. He did not want affection for a certain shot or performance to get in the way of the story he was trying to tell. He also began edited during filming instead of waiting until the end. This way he could continue to figure out the final film while he was in the process of making it. He even edited dailies before he showed them to cast and crew.
All these well thought out aspects of the procedure of film-making meant that Kurosawa had a great technical and artistic understanding of them. As a result he had much success as a film director early on in his career. Later, he also had to contend with periods of failure and difficulty financing his huge and expensive projects. As a man too, his reputation was not always so amiable. The Japanese press called him “Emperor” for his tendency to be a disciplinarian with a nasty temper on set and to battle with all aspects of the process of making his movies and seemingly everyone involved in production. He consistently fought for total artistic control with his studio, Toho Films.
While creating undeniable masterpieces, Kurosawa’s ambition for such control did not come without negative side effects. “Seven Samurai,” for instance, took over a year to film, went four times over schedule, and almost bankrupted Toho. Kurosawa saw himself as a kind of general, commanding the army of his film crew and actors and leading them through the action of making the project. This process may have been efficient but it did mean a reputation for difficulty and unpleasantness.
Kurosawa’s trouble in making films really came to a head around 1965 when he had the combined commercial, critical, and arguably artistic failure in the film, “Dodeskaden.” Kurosawa had just lost the friendship of Toshiro Mifune, who starred in nearly every one of his films from the late 1940’s on and who had been a valued partner and companion to Kurosawa throughout that time. The two had been seen as an inseparable duo, but Mifune had finally had enough of Kurosawa’s difficult personality and rigidness.
“Dodeskaden” was Kurosawa’s first film in color and the first film without Mifune in a long time. It was a flop. Every film was a struggle to make after it. Kurosawa also had to contend with the proliferation of television in Japan during the 1960’s, a drinking problem, and bouts of depression. He moved slowly inward and began to surround himself only with a group of trusted associates. After he left a joint project with Hollywood because of personal and artistic differences, he attempted suicide. He survived this ordeal and went on to make some of his best films including “Derzsu Uzala,” which won an Oscar for best foreign language film, and “Ran,” which many have cited as one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare (“King Lear”) every filmed. Many of his later films had a darker tone which reflected his increasingly sour view of life. Because of the new difficulty he had in getting financing for his projects, he made many fewer films between “Dodeskaden” and his death in 1998 than he did before the 1965 debacle.
Nonetheless, besides an occasional bad film here and there, Kurosawa’s output is pretty thoroughly praised by critics and audiences alike. His extremely tireless work ethic, love, and skill in making movies translated into more than a few masterpieces in his over a half-century career as a director. His creative methods are very inspiring and it is no wonder he had the success he did. Films were everything to Akira Kurosawa and the fact that, for him, it was impossible not to talk about himself without talking about movies is very telling. He was a man who’s art was his life and without it, it was hard for him to go on living.