March 25, 2009

Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography

1978 book
written by Akira Kurosawa

On September 1, 1923, sections of Japan were torn to shreds by the Great Kanto Earthquake. Akira Kurosawa was 12-years-old at the time, outside with a friend, throwing rocks at a cow. When the 8.3 Richter tremors hit, they clung to a telephone pole and watched as buildings crumbled around them. After everything had settled and the fires began to spread, Kurosawa raced home to check on his family. Though damage was done to the house, everyone was alive.

After the fires had burned down and everyone took stock of their homes, Akira and his older brother went out to observe the wreckage. 100,000 people died in the incident and the boys saw their share of crushed, burned, and bloated corpses that day. Akira wanted to look away, but his brother told him, "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of."

No truer explanation can be given to Kurosawa's attention to detail, a vision he displayed through all 30 of his directorial features. Every sight, from joy, to horror, to laughter and hate, are presented to us from a straight on view that allows us to see humanity in all its glory and despair. In this book, Kurosawa decides to recount for us the journey he took to become a filmmaker.

The writing style is clean and brisk, jumping from memory to memory as they trickle from the director's mind. A friendship made as he struggled through school, which would pay off down the road as they collaborated on several future screenplays. A haunting stretch of time in a ghetto apartment, with nightmarish sights rivalling those of his beloved Dostoevsky. A chance encounter that led to work as an assistant director in a profession he never before thought about trying.

As he says in a passage:

I can't help thinking how very strange it all was. It was chance that led me to walk along 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. Yet I had never noticed that cinema was the one field where I would be required to make use of all I had learned. I can't help wondering what fate had prepared me so well for this road I was to take in life.

It's at the halfway point of the book that Kurosawa moves into his film career. Despite his infamous temperament, he quickly became attached to a mentor in the form of director Kajiro Yamamoto, who was open and eager with young Akira and exposed him to every area of filmmaking. Though the book breezes through Kurosawa's own directorial efforts (he'd rather let the films speak for themselves), and comes to an abrupt close with 1950's RASHOMON, it's a wonderful, candid look at the passion of a man committed to excellence in a single art and the encounters he had along the way.

Do I recommend this? Absolutely. Kurosawa fans who haven't read it yet will find a wonderful window into the master's thoughts and development. People unfamiliar with his works will still find a glorious depiction of a man who represented, questioned, and inspired the rapidly changing homeland to which he never entirely fit. And for any aspiring filmmakers out there, there's an appendix in the back filled with little bits of advice on what is needed to make a good film. Study it.


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