Akira Kurosawa on climbing the ladder from AD to Director
As promised, here is part 2 of (alternative title) ‘What I gathered while watching My Life in Cinema‘, the 2h interview of Akira Kurosawa shot in 1993, 5 years before the filmmaker’s death. Part 1 was about the three advice Kurosawa gave to aspiring filmmakers, Part 2 is a series of highlights from the video.
I wasn’t familiar with Kurosawa’s life when I watched My Life in Cinema, and even less so with the context in Japan’s film industry. Kurosawa, who made his first film in the middle of WW2 at the age of 33 and witnessed a big chunk of the filmmaking evolution.
My Life in Cinema is a priceless video that you can watch at the end of this article, and I recommend you to do so as many anecdotes Kurosawa tells simply can’t be transcribed. Until you do so, below is a synthesized version of the conversation that went on between Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Ôshima.
FROM WANTED TO BECOME A PAINTER TO ENTERING THE FILM INDUSTRY
- Back when Kurosawa was a kid, going to the movie was deemed unrespectable in Japanese society. Despite that, Kurosawa’s father, who was in the military, encouraged his kids to go watch movies.
- Kurosawa’s brother, who was a narrator, would frequently advice him to watch X or Y film
- Kurosawa read a lot of novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky when he was young and suspect it influenced the way he tried to depict human relationships.
- The first movies Kurosawa remembers watching were Cuore and Zigomar, in the early 1910s.
- Kurosawa was planning to become a painter and studied painting, but with time felt he couldn’t express everything through pictures only.
- Kurosawa also started doubting his talent as a painter after his first exposition. He felt he was painting too fast compared to the ‘masters’ (the Impressionists).
- Back when he wanted to become a painter, Kurosawa dreamed of showing his work in Paris. Later, when he became a famous filmmaker, his storyboards were exhibited in Paris,
- Kurosawa estimated that his drawings received approval and appreciation when he stopped worrying about drawing and painting well. ‘My illustrations are to convey images in my mind to my crew.”
- On storyboarding: “Drawing illustrations helps me visualize concrete images, which you need to direct a film”. ‘When my crew and I return to a hotel from scouting locations […] I sit and draw some illustrations. And then I show them to my crew over dinner. I’m not good at explaining things, illustrations make it easier to convey what I want.
- Kurosawa entered the filmmaking industry by accident more than by inner desire. After Kurosawa’s brother committed suicide, Akira became the one responsible to ensure the Kurosawa lineage would continue. Because he felt he had to find a job, he stopped painting and entered the film industry as a director assistant when he was 26 years-old, which was considered quite old back then as.
KUROSAWA’S YEARS AS AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
- Famous Japanese film director Kajiro Yamamoto interviewed Akira Kurosawa for his entry job as an A.D. The two men immediately got along and Yamamoto later became Kurosawa’s mentor.
- Although he knew next to nothing about the Japanese film industry when he started as an A.D., many films had made a great impressions on Kurosawa. La Roue by Abel Gance, was the one that made the greatest impression.
- Kurosawa was so bored during his first job as an A.D. that he wanted to quit but his friends convinced him otherwise. His next assignment was under Yamamoto and he kept working for him after that, rarely working for other directors.
- Photo Chemical Laboratory was a Japanese start-up that was first processing talkies for other Studios and then started producing its own films. They used to borrow ADs from other Studios until they recognized the need to have their owns and hired around 30ADs that were trained in ‘a sort of cadet system, like a military schools‘. As an AD, Kurosawa had to train in every department for a few months each time, that’s how he learned everything he needed to and gained a global understanding of the filmmaking process.
- Kurosawa knew he wanted to become a director, and such was the inspiration of all the ADs. After a trip to Hollywood, the Japanese Studio executives realized AD was a career on its own in America. They offered to give a raise to any AD who wanted to make AD as a career, and all the newcomers, Kurosawa included, decided to accept the raise. The old-comers disagreed and for a while a feud ensued between the two groups. Eventually the old-timers left the studio and the newcomers took over.
- The only way to become a first A.D. was to learn every aspect of filmmaking. Kurosawa became first AD after three years.
- Kurosawa worked as an A.D. for seven years before directing his first feature.
- Kajiro Yamamoto told Kurosawa that he couldn’t become a director unless he knew how to write and edit, so he had Kurosawa write scripts and gave him editing assignments.
- Kurosawa started making good money on writing assignments. He was mostly writing scripts for other studios.
- When asked how he could find time to write while working full time as a first A.D, Kurosawa replied: “Even if you think you’re too busy, you can write one page a day. At that rate, you’ll have 365 pages a year. It can be done if you have the will.”
- Kurosawa wanted to make his directorial debut with a screenplay he had written named Advance Patrol, but producer Nobuyoshi Morita didn’t agree to let a first-time director tackle such a big project. Later, Morita confessed to Kurosawa that he considered it a prudent decision but, one of his biggest mistake.
- As an AD, Kurosawa felt Japanese cinema needed to be more dynamic. “When I compared foreign films with Japanese films, Japanese films were extremely tame”. There was a trend to open movies with static scenes that Kurosawa wanted to break.
- Many A-List directors were working at the Toho Studio so, when he was done with his day as an AD, Kurosawa would visit one of the director’s soundstage
- Kurosawa considered that a good Studio should nurture their ADs and see them at the directors of the future. He couldn’t help noticing that ADs had become submissive and rarely voiced any opinions, which worried him for the future generation of directors.
ON DIRECTING & DEALING WITH CENSORSHIP
- The Interior Department’s censors rejected three scripts from Kurosawa before he could make his first directorial debut. Kurosawa hold a deep grudge toward censors after that.
- Kurosawa was forced to insert the line: “Loyalty and filial piety are the ways of man” by censors in hist first feature film: Sanshiro Sugata
- Directors had to face censors before shooting a film, and after they completed a film. Censors reproached Kurosawa to be influenced by Western culture and he felt like a criminal held in court during the review. Kurosawa was about to storm out of the meeting when director Yasujirō Ozu intervened in Kurosawa’s favor, and the film got approved.
- Kurosawa always had a hard time when faced with critics and censored and was advised by the head of the Studio to learn how to control himself.
- What should have been Kurosawa’s second film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, didn’t receive approval to get released from neither the Japanese nor the American censors, which Kurosawa only discovered while already in production. The Studio let him complete the shooting nonetheless, and the movie was finally released 7 years later.
- Because back then in Japan, it was very unclear who owned the films, Kurosawa decided early on that he would pitch, write, shoot and edit all his films, so no doubt would be possible for his films.
- Kurosawa felt the American Censors were of great help and worked hard at rebuilding Japan. “Their attitude was so different. They respected cinema and film professionals”
WRITING FOR HIMSELF VS. WRITING FOR OTHERS
- Writing and Directing were the same thing for Kurosawa as long as he wrote a script for him to direct.
- Kurosawa’s scripts started with an idea that he found interesting: “If you try to present some sort of theory in your film, you’ll fail to depict anything. It’s very difficult to find the right balance.“
- When he wrote for other directors, Kurosawa noticed unexpected things would happen as some directors would misinterpret his script. “When you give you script over to another person, it seems a gap exists between the writer and the director, in understanding the script’s true intention.”
- For a period, Kurosawa also directed scripts co-written with other screenwriters, ‘Because when I write by myself, my biases tend to show strongly‘.
ON FINDING SUCCESS AND KEEPING AN HONEST VOICE
- “I didn’t know why, but people responded well to my films.” Kurosawa was always surprised people overseas enjoyed his films as much as they did, and much more than in Japan.
- “If you try to add appeal by playing up Japanese qualities and depict a story that Westerners will find exotic, they react very negatively. But if you, as a Japanese person, just tells a story about the concerns of Japanese people, it will appeal to people worldwide as every country has similar concerns. I guess that’s what people find most appealing in my films.“
- In his first films, Kurosawa felt he put everything he had learned as an A.D. He felt liberated on Drunken Angel and got bolder from that point on.
- What concerned Kurosawa the most was to stay natural and follow his instinct when he worked.
IN THE TRENCHES
- Kurosawa spent a lot of time in pre-production, making sure everything was ready so his shooting day would go from 9am to 3 pm
- Kurosawa didn’t estimate that he spent a great deal of time rehearsing, but he did give precise instructions on what he wanted to the actors as to the type of acting he expected from them.
- Kurosawa first used the three camera set-up he became famous for on Seven Samurai for the rain scene, because it was the only way to keep continuity.
- After the Seven Samurai, Kurosawa took the habit to shoot each scene with a single take with the three camera set-up. Not only did it forced the actor to stay natural, but it also turned the energy up on set.
- The three camera set-up forced the actors to stop playing for the camera and be natural on all angles at all time. Actors would never know what camera was on them, so they were forced to act naturally and not play to a camera.
- After unexpectedly going over schedule by 90 days during the last scene to shoot on The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa got kicked out by his Studio and ended up opening his own production company in 1960.
- Interestingly enough, 33 years after, it seemed like what Kurosawa did was still the action of one against a system that considered directors as employees of the Studios.
- Kurosawa was a big advocate of filmmakers having contracts (!) and owning their films. There were no copyright law in Japan (at least until 1993) and Kurosawa made it a point to own his films but also to make sure his collaborators would receive their fair share of credits (and the royalties that would go along with them).
I hope you enjoyed the ride! Thanks to Camera Obscura for sharing this great video that you can watch in its entirety below (turn the English Subtitles ON!)
check the archives for a taste of it.