A Dreamer Walking

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Innovator

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 18, 2014

Kurosawa #1Akira Kurosawa is one of the most highly acclaimed filmmakers of all time. He put Japanese cinema on the map with Rashomon (1950). He created a movie many consider the greatest of all time with Seven Samurai (1954). And at a time most directors are long washed up he made a masterpiece in Ran (1985). These movies are great because he constantly worked to innovate the medium of film. Kurosawa was an innovator from the very beginning of his career to the very end. His crew attested to his willingness to go against the grain and try new things even on a movie like Kagemusha (1980); where he had gone five years without making a film and was in danger of his career ending if the movie was not a success.

I am interested in understanding how Kurosawa became one of the great innovators in medium of film. What makes one so great? Is it natural talent, luck, or strength of will? I think most would agree it takes all these things. Kurosawa was truly lucky to be in the right place at the right time when he first got into the film business. He had a natural eye for composition and a strong intuition for story structure. And I do not think there was a man with a stronger will to put his vision onto the screen then Kurosawa. However, what made Kurosawa able to be confident in taking the risks needed to be one of history’s greatest filmmakers was something more then talent, luck, and strength of will. What gave Kurosawa the confidence to do things never done before was an unbelievable understanding of all the aspects of filmmaking. In his book, Something like an Audiobiography, Kurosawa defined exactly what he felt made a great film director,

Unless you know every aspect and phase of the film-production process, you can’t be a movie director. A movie director is like a front-line commanding officer. He needs a thorough knowledge of every branch of service, and if he doesn’t command each division, he cannot command the whole.

This vast knowledge of the medium of film did not come to Kurosawa overnight. In the mid 1930’s Kurosawa was hired by P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory) Studios to be an assistant director. In Japan during this time the assistant director’s job was to help in any aspect of the production that was running behind or overwhelmed with work. Kurosawa needed to have a thorough understanding of location scouting, costume design, set dressing, editing, and camera operation. He also needed to understand how to communicate with the people who worked in these areas so he could get them to do precisely what the director needed.

The man most responsible for training Kurosawa in all the details of filmmaking was Yamamoto Kajirô, but more on him in another post. Suffice to say Kurosawa hit the ground running when it came to being a assistant director. He quickly climbed ranks from third assistant to chief assistant behind Yamamoto. And even with his overloaded schedule Kurosawa somehow found a way to write. He studied the emotional beats of the literature he read. He kept journals on the big and little things that emotionally resonated with him. Kurosawa claimed those who say they don’t have time to write “are just cowards”. No matter how long the day was Kurosawa made himself write at least a page of a script before he went to bed. As Kurosawa said, this might not sound like much but at the end of the year he found he had a 365 page script written.

Yamamoto also allowed Kurosawa into the editing room where the young pupil truly flourished. Many film historians today consider Kurosawa the greatest editor to ever live. If you study his movies you can tell Kurosawa had a deep knowledge of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory; where the edit wasn’t about matching action to obtain the seamless cut as much as it was about triggering emotional responses through the cut. He learned to cut film like a poet. And like any poet Kurosawa developed a fundamental understanding of his film’s language in order to master it.

During his career Kurosawa broke many established rules of filmmaking. Pointing the lens directly into the sun, using multiple cameras to capture a piece of drama, and shooting pieces of action in slow motion are just a few of the countless ways he revolutionized the language of film. What sticks out the most to me however is his stories and how fearless he was at saying exactly what he wanted to say with them no matter how politically incorrect or noncommercial the ideas were. This confidence came because of Kurosawa’s deep understanding of each aspect of the film medium. He was a prime example of someone who knew the rules so well he could break them at will. And through the breaking of many of these rules he made some of the most innovative movies in the history of cinema.