Akira Kurosawa is Japan’s oldest-living and most internationally respected film director. When his film Rashomon won the top prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival a whole generation of critics and audiences developed an awareness of Oriental cinema. In 1954 The Seven Samurai began a cycle of samurai epics that spawned Hollywood remakes and Italian imitations. From Throne of Blood in 1957 to Red Beard in 1965 he enjoyed an unprecedented run of artistic freedom and commercial success. Then his career faltered; undermined by the increasing problem of finding adequate funding and the attitude of a younger generation of filmmakers who seemed to feel that Western acclaim inevitably diminished his stature.

In the past twenty years the 76 year-old Kurosawa has made only four films, relying on disparate foreign finance to subsidise his undoubted talents. Consequently, each new film has become an event in itself to be praised almost for its mere existence. Recently, Kurosawa visited London to unveil the long-awaited Ran, his expansive meditation on the themes of Shakepeare’s King Lear.

Born in Tokyo in 1910 Kurosawa received a classical education before studying painting at the Proletarian Art Research Institute. His entry into the film world came purely by chance when, in 1936, he answered a newspaper advertisement seeking an assistant-director for the PCL studios. Chosen from some 500 applicants he found himself working for Kajiro Yamamoto who became his guide and mentor. ‘He had a _ strong belief that good film directors should be able to write scenarios, that they should be able to do editing and dubbing so I did all that. That period was really the Springtime of Japanese cinema, full of Optimism and new talents. The top management were film lovers and they didn’t attempt to restrict directors in any commercial way. You could pursue your own interests, freely using your individuality to a great extent. The studios were dream factories and the atmosphere was so fantastic in that kind of climate.’ . K

Kurosawa made his directorial ; debut in 1943 with Judy Saga. Over,

the years there are certain .' f~ 3? mi “Veterinarians: geisha - at ~::’. «is. 3; fagii‘


Allan Hunter meets Kurosawa. director of Ran.

distinguish a Kurosawa film; a painstaking attention to historical authenticity and detail, a persistent portrayal of individuals compelled to address moral issues and a sense of grandeur that is quintessentially cinematic.

The scale of his work has often necessitated a considerable financial outlay and his films are traditionally among the most expensive Japanese productions ever made. The worldwide interest in his career after Rashomon helped to make this level of ambition economically viable. ‘After Rashomon I had made The Idiot which was received so badly that I thought that I would have to become an outcast. Then the news came that Rashomon had won the Grand Prize at Venice and it was like a help suddenly rendered from Heaven. I didn‘t even know the film was being exhibited there. Before then I didn‘t think that my films could be seen or understood by western audiences. Even after that I made Living and the company said that the film wouldn’t be understood in the West. They thought Rashomon won because of its exoticism so a story of modern-day Japan like Living could hold no interest. They wouldn‘t even try to sell it abroad for quite a while afterwards but I insisted because I really wanted the film to be seen. We managed to take it to Berlin where it won the best director award and attitudes changed after that.’

Throughout the 28 features that he has directed Kurosawa has constantly sought inspiration in an eclectic range of foreign literature. Apart from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,

_ he has filmed Gorky’s The Lower . Depths (1957), Shakespeare’s

Macbeth as Throne of Blood (1957)

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adaptation ofan Ed McBain detective novel. ‘During my adolescence we absorbed Western culture at a tremendous pace.‘ he explains. ‘Japan had a policy of closing itself to outsiders and then it opened up and everything rushed in at a terrible speed. 50. I was influenced by Balzac and Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. The period ofthc Shakespeare plays shares many similarities with the Japan ofthc 16th'and 17th centuries. a time of Civil Wars. Ran began when I thought of a Japanese warlord Mori who had three great sons. Then the similarities with Shakespeare‘s King Lear hit me. I never allow the original works to lead me into a film until I have totally assimilated the original and then allow it to emerge from myselfjust like my own writing.‘

Ran has been an obsession of Kurosawa‘s for the past decade and it was only with the injection of French finance that the 11.5 million dollar production became viable. Whilst seeking investors for the film Kurosawa kept the project alive for himselfthrough hundreds ot‘vivid paintings and detailed storyboardings. Filming finally began in 1984. ‘Writing is the hardest part of film-making,’ he claims. ‘The work of creating something from nothing is always the hardest part and the loneliest. Once you are at work there are staff and people and it’s an enjoyable experience. I use a lot of location shooting; real buildings, real places. Of course I have an exact image of a particular scene but there are a lot of items you cannot dictate like nature and the elements. You need an image but you cannot be stubborn about it. If I can make a comparison - a film director is like a war commander. A

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lot ofunexpected things will happen and the commander‘s role is to make use of these and steer the film towards the course expected.‘

Kurosawa‘s working methods are best described as a diligent and dedicated seeking after perfection. ‘I like to have as much time as possible for rehearsals. There is a sequence in Ran where Lady Kaedc threatens Jiro with a knife and we worked on that for 21/: months. rehearsing every day. If you rehearse for one day it won‘t make much difference, the degree of improvement is equivalent to one sheet ofpaper. With perseverance even single sheets of paper can build up and the result is quite surprising. However. no matter how much you rehearse you can never reach the target point, that only comes with the tension of actual filming in full make-up and costumes.‘

Any actors fortunate enough to be selected for a Kurosawa film are fully aware ofthe commitment they are making in terms of time. energy and application. The director aims to secure their services for one year. ‘Most actors‘ livelihoods are secured by television appearances so it is very difficult to book them fora year and impossible to keep the whole cast together for one year but. on Ran. the main actors did make that sacrifice.‘

Ran has been seen by many as an attempt by Kurosawa to sum up the concerns of his career in one vast

canvas that finds various individuals

tested as to the strength of their

moral fibre. However. the success of

the film has once again eased the availability ofJapanese finance and such is the man‘s undiminished vigour that he is keen to contemplate the possibility of a further film. ‘To

make a new film you have to get over

the last one completely so whilst touring and doing press conferences

I won’t move on to anything else,’ he

states. ‘Each film I make is something I want to say at that time. It’s like a flower that suddenly opens and grows. I read the original novel of Dersu Uzala in my twenties and was always attracted by the main character then, thirty years later.

when the Soviets asked me to make a ;

film I suggested that. There are lots of themes and characters in my head. Suddenly one will come out and flower.’ With acknowledgement to Kurosawa ’3 excellent interpreter? g