Impressions of a Career:
Peter Cowie on Kurosawa

Mar 12, 2010

The monthlong Akira Kurosawa centennial celebrations continue with the release this week of Rizzoli’s gorgeously illustrated hardcover book Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema, written by frequent Criterion contributor Peter Cowie. Combining biography and analyses of the individual films, and containing more than two hundred images, this impressive tome is a fitting tribute to one of the defining film artists of the twentieth century. In anticipation of the book’s release, we asked Cowie to share his thoughts on the project and Kurosawa, whose imprint on international filmmaking remains indelible.

Why Kurosawa today? What makes him relevant on his hundredth anniversary?

Unlike Bergman, unlike Fellini, Kurosawa’s influence is perceptible in so much of contemporary cinema. For example, he pioneered those racing tracking shots that are now a staple of Hollywood and Asian cinema. Where would Ang Lee, John Woo, or Zhang Yimou be without the heritage of Kurosawa? Just as, in earlier decades, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone learned from this master. Perhaps the most precious gift bestowed on the movies by Kurosawa, however, is his profound humanism—his understanding of human frailty, his compassion for that frailty. His work has a nobility, a heartfelt humility at man’s inability to live happily with his fellows, that’s sorely lacking in most new-millennium cinema.

What sets him apart from other Japanese directors is, I think, this dialectic between kinetic energy on the one hand and absolute stillness and contemplation on the other. I do not believe it’s fair to dismiss Kurosawa, as do certain Japanese, as “the most Western of Japanese directors.” Like the greatest directors, he was loyal to his cultural and historical roots.

Does Kurosawa continue to be as influential on Japanese filmmakers as he seems to have on Western directors?

I would say that Kurosawa has had no more direct an influence on the “new Japanese cinema” than Bergman has had on any director in Sweden since 1970. What remains is his shadow; he’s there in the background as a legend, and an icon. His is a name that continues to excite awe in any Japanese, as I discovered when researching my book and talking to taxi drivers, innkeepers, and university professors alike. But I can think of at least one contemporary Japanese director who has expressed his admiration for Kurosawa on numerous occasions, and that’s Takeshi Kitano. Much of his visual style has been inspired, one feels, by the likes of Seijun Suzuki and Koji Wakamatsu, but Kitano’s own personality owes much to Mifune in Kurosawa’s films, and to Kurosawa’s mischievous sense of humor.

When did your relationship with the films of Kurosawa begin?

Like many of my generation, I discovered Kurosawa through Seven Samurai, which was screened at the Cambridge Film Society in my first term at the university. I was haunted by that relentless thundering of the bandits’ pressing attack on the peasants’ village, and by the sheer vigor of Kurosawa’s editing. Then I gobbled up the other classics, and little by little caught up with his earlier work, and especially with his films set in the contemporary world (The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low, and, of course, Ikiru). For some years, he seemed to go off the boil, as one’s favorite football team tends to do, and then he roared back with Kagemusha and Ran, a prodigious double achievement in his seventies.

You say he went “off the boil,” but some of his most interesting films were made in this dark period of his life, such as Dodes’ka-den.

While I do not share Donald Richie’s dislike of the films that Kurosawa made after Red Beard, I do think that the period 1965 to 1980 was a very frustrating one in the director’s life. Dodes’ka-den was brought to fruition with enormous difficulties, on a tight budget, and with a shoot of just twenty-eight days. Dersu Uzala, which I much prefer, proved just as exasperating, and took ages to finish in Siberia, with Kurosawa unable to understand the language in which his actors were speaking.

Dodes’ka-den did show that Kurosawa was constantly experimenting with both form and content. Here at last his boyhood dreams of being a painter could be realized, and through the character of young Rokkuchan, he was able to express his obsession with movies, and his defiance in the face of those critics and industry folk who wanted to bury him. I think Dodes’ka-den has a place in the Kurosawa canon similar to From the Life of the Marionettes’ in Bergman’s. Both films were made at unhappy moments in their directors’ lives. Both have some memorable scenes. But both do not really work as a whole, like a TV program watched in some remote cottage where the reception is poor and one has to keep banging the set to restore the image.

In the massive undertaking of this book, did you discover anything about Kurosawa that you never knew before?

It seems clear that he was a hard taskmaster, that he could berate members of his crew, and also actors, if things were not just right when he came on set. This is a little at odds with the benign, almost Olympian image we have of him as the quintessence of Zen. I also discovered that he was quite domineering in scriptwriting sessions, tearing up a page written by one of his fellow screenwriters and flinging it to the ground impatiently. It’s almost as though he craved to write his films entirely by himself, but knew that the Japanese tradition was to work in consensus with other writers. His capacity for liquor also impressed me, on a par with Orson Welles, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Winston Churchill.

In addition to your extensive history, a major component of the book is its beautiful pictures, including film stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and Kurosawa’s own sketches and paintings—I especially loved the autumnal water color from Madadayo on page 101. Tell us about the process of selecting those.

Right from the start, I wanted this book to celebrate Kurosawa’s visual power, and so reproducing his paintings and storyboards became essential. The reproduction rights are, however, costly, which explains why there are only ten of his paintings. In addition, his assistant, Teruyo Nogami, had kept shooting scripts from Rashomon onward, and kindly allowed me to use some of these pages. Though “illegible” to non-Japanese speakers, they still convey an impression of Kurosawa’s precision and fantasy. I also commissioned two original paintings from Nogami-san, which open and close the book, and with the help of Marty Gross, was able to reproduce a page from Fumio Hayasaka’s score for Seven Samurai. Added to which I was keen to include some of the original Toho posters for the individual films, as they indicate how Kurosawa’s work was promoted in his own country and some off-set pictures that give him a human dimension, as it were.

And are there many that have never been available in print or to the public before?

One or two of the family pictures have certainly not been reproduced in the West, and I don’t think that Nogami-san’s script pages have seen the light of day prior to now.

There are also many hand-drawn sketches and diagrams that convey the meticulousness and precision of Kurosawa’s narratives and visual ideas. It would seem as though any filmmaker working today could learn a lot from this rare insight into his process.

Kurosawa was so obsessed with storyboarding later in his career that he went ahead and “created” Kagemusha on paper, as it were, months before the financing was in place. So, when he could eventually begin shooting, he knew what each shot would look like. To this extent, he resembles Stanley Kubrick more than any other filmmaker. Of course, all this was before the electronic era, and today every major American director is able to work out his storyboard on a computer.