Monday, 1 July 2019

On reading Kurosawa’s autobiography

Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography is a terrific book—he writes about his childhood, his life, and his path to become a film director, and the major events that shaped him. 
As a director’s autobiography, it’s more captivating and enjoyable than Bergman’s The Magic Lantern, not because Bergman’s book is tedious, but because a Japanese man’s life is most likely more interesting than a Swede’s. After all, Kurosawa was born in 1910 and lived through WW2, and he’s part of a samurai family! 

This is an essential read if you’re interested in Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general. I myself have seen Stray Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Ran, and Dreams—9 films. My only regret about the book is that Kurosawa only writes up to Rashomon (released in 1950), so we don’t get to read about the inspiration for, ideas behind, and circumstances of, the later films. 
Having said that, I have learnt quite a bit from the book. 
1/ He quotes Yamamoto Kajiro as saying “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” 
Then he goes on to say: 
“… Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only 1 page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of 1 page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, every after crawling into bed I would turn out 2 or 3 pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.” 
Look at this quote from the addendum: 
“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.” 
2/ About editing: 
“When I reached a certain level of achievement in scriptwriting, Yama-san told me to start editing. I already knew that you can’t be a film director if you can’t edit. Film editing involves putting on the finishing touches. More than this, it is a process of breathing life into the work.”  
This is something I already know. Among the directors I’ve been reading recently, Kieslowski seems to think of filming as collecting raw material to be formed and created on the editing table, whereas Tarkovsky doesn’t seem to think much of editing (which you can tell from his films), and Sidney Lumet says a film is not created on an editing table, you can’t put together things that have not been filmed. I don’t disagree with Sidney Lumet—because I can edit, I think of the edit when writing scripts and planning the shots, and have myself experienced not getting enough shots/ cutaways as well as losing footage. But at the same time, editing is a very powerful tool. With editing, you can improve on an actor’s performance, improve on a scene, shift the focus/ change perspective, juxtapose images to create a new idea/ meaning, manipulate time, restructure the story, and so on. 
In my previous post, I shared Kurosawa’s story of editing Uma
Here he writes about editing Stray Dog
“For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chronological time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer. 
Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Headquarters, First Division’, I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.” 
3/ Life experience is extremely important. 
I think when people criticise student films, people often talk about performances and technical mistakes, which are understandable. But I think most of the time the greater issue is in the story, in the script, and that is mainly because of lack of life experience. 
4/ It’s better to write a script with someone else. Writing alone, you may suffer from one-sidedness; writing with someone else, you have 2 perspectives on a character. 
“Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about 2 other people, you can avoid this danger also.” 
5/ In writing a script, avoid explanatory passages. This is called exposition. 
6/ Kurosawa also says: 
“The camera should follow the actor as he moves; it should stop when he stops.” 
7/ Filming with multiple cameras is efficient, but not easy as it may sound—how do you move them? 
“As a general system, I put the A camera for the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerrilla unit.” 
8/ Kurosawa demands authenticity for sets and props, even if they don’t appear on camera. 
“The 1st Japanese director to demand authentic sets and props was Mizoguchi Kenji, and the sets in his films are truly superb. I learned a great deal about filmmaking from him, and the making of sets is among the most important. The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor ‘Don’t think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house’, that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting, but encourages that feeling of authenticity.” 
In a way, this view is extreme. We all know that in films, for convenience and for freedom with camera angles, filmmakers can have moving walls or use a set without ceiling, or film at multiple locations and make them look like different parts of the same location. For example, for Dekalog 6/ A Short Film About Love, Kieslowski used 17 locations because he couldn’t find 2 apartments in 2 blocks opposite each other. 
Nevertheless, Kurosawa’s right that the quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. This is why I strongly dislike Hollywood’s excessive use of green screen and CGI. People excitedly share behind-the-scenes videos of Hollywood blockbusters, especially fantasy and sci-fi films, and I just think, what’s the fun of filming amidst all that green? 
9/ The last point is interesting—when choosing music for films, try counterpoint. Sometimes it can work a lot better.


  1. amazingly complicated... a talent for multi-tasking would seem to be imperative... we saw Stray Dog and liked it quite a bit... at least i did; mrs. m not so much...

    1. Oh not multitasking. A director has to know everything.
      I think "Stray Dog" is all right, a minor work. Which films by Kurosawa have you seen?

  2. Rashomon, 7 samurai, yojimbo, dersu uzala, and ran... i liked dersu a lot; probably better than any of the others: the excerpt where they're trying to save their lives by building a straw shelter was terrific i thought...

    1. Oh. I've never heard of Dersu Uzala.
      Did you not like Yojimbo and Ran? I love them.

    2. they're interesting, yes, but not having any filmic expertise, i just liked the feeling of vast space with a river of air and unimaginable cold in Dersu...

    3. Oh okay. I have to read more about that film then.