A Dreamer Walking

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.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Past

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on December 30, 2013

Akira 1One of the filmmakers I have been most reluctant to study is Akira Kurosawa. Not because he isn’t worth looking into, rather because he is considered such a legend in the great history of filmmaking. He is also the first foreign language director I have studied. The culture of Japan is much different then that of the United States. As a dyslexic who can’t read very fast it has been hard for me to watch some of his films. I hate reading subtitles because I need to pause at times and am hardly able to look up and cherish the visuals unless I do repeat viewings. However, with all these problems studying him has been completely worthwhile. Every movie I have seen is interesting. Three of his films, Ran, Red Beard and Ikiru, are among the greatest films I have ever watched.

Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He is hailed as a master of the craft of cinema. Many filmmakers have said he is a film school in himself. They say if you want to know about film study Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa would tell you to study the world. He studied the great artists– the filmmakers, poets, and musicians– and allowed them to inform his stories and the way he told them. He also used his personal life to push his storytelling.

As with many of the filmmakers I have studied, school was not Kurosawa’s strong suite. In his biography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa described himself as too honest and rebellious in school. He said when he did something bad and the teacher asked who did it he would always raise his hand. He talked about giving snarky answers on his exams, forging papers so he could get out of activities, and messing around with dynamite in school. He never got the best grades. He never really cared enough to apply himself in school. When it came to art Akira said the teachers gave the best grade to the student who could copy something the best. He found this incredibly dull. The more I read about his childhood the more I can resonate with it. Kurosawa wasn’t the greatest athlete. He was even sent away after his third year of middle school to his older cousin’s to, as his father put it, “be cured of his physical weakness”.

Cinema was chosen by Kurosawa out of an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. His movies for the longest time concentrated on the outsider, people breaking away from the system. In Japan movies were considered extremely questionable when Kurosawa was a child in the 1910’s and 20’s. Yet, his military father took him to see many films. This was one of the few things his farther broke from tradition to do. I believe there was a tremendous strain between Akira and his father. The strain was great because Akira so badly wanted to be like him and earn his respect. Kurosawa had three sisters. He said he could relate with them way more than his older brother. He played games with them and was much more emotionally vulnerable with them then his brother and father.  Akira lost one of his sisters to illness when he was in fourth grade. His autobiography reveals he had great feelings for this sister and it was a deeply painful loss.

In middle school Kurosawa began to grow up quickly. He observed the great earthquake of 1923. Though nobody close to him was killed his brother took him out to the city and both of them observed the mass damages. He said they went one place where as far as you could see there was, “every type of corpse imaginable”. Akira’s brother ended up committing suicide when Akira was in his early twenties. These things along with the great destruction of the atomic bombs in the 1940’s gives great insight to why Kurosawa’s stories so often revolve around destruction and war. Kurosawa needed to grow up quickly and he began to apply himself physically and built up an appreciation for athletics, military, and discipline.

Through the midst of all the destruction and war Kurosawa has been able to retain a powerful grip on his films emotions and the inner journey of his characters. The plots of his films are only used to dig deeper into his characters emotional conflict. This is what separates his work. Though Akira Kurosawa was forced go grow up at a very early age, he never lost touch with his emotions. This might be due to the fact he developed a relationship with his sisters. It might be due to wanting to reach out to his father. Akira said in his autobiography he believed his father was an sentimentalist at heart. One of the places where his father seemed to be willing to open himself up was in the movie theater. I can see Akira trying to reach that sentimental side of his father with his movies. I can easily say he did it with me.

The Films of Kurosawa touch on powerful inner conflicts. I am constantly stricken by how universal the themes in these conflicts are. Yet they originated from personal memories. It was Kurosawa who said, “Creation is memory”. He believed as artists we must hold on to the present and the past in order to inform our future. As with the great John Ford, in Kurosawa’s later films you see a tremendous desire to hold on to what once was. The great filmmakers have this desire because the past is where their great memories rest and where their greatest creations originate.