Each holiday season, friends of Akira Kurosawa would look forward to receiving his Christmas card, which would feature a festive painting by the man himself.
“It is a reflection on life, and life does not always have clear meanings.” —Akira Kurosawa
“People say [my eyes] are expressive but I’ve never tried to use them that way. They are just the gateway to my internal feelings. Kurosawa used to tell me, ‘Wherever you are, there is light coming from your eyes.’ And that’s a very good thing for an actor, I say.”
Born December 13, 1932
March 25, 1943 — Akira Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata, is released in Japan.
People often ask me how I felt directing my maiden work, but, as I have said, I simply enjoyed it. I went to sleep each night looking forward eagerly to the next day’s shooting, and there was absolutely nothing painful about the experience. My crew to a man gave me their utmost. My set designers and wardrobe people ignored the small size of our budget and responded with, ‘O.K. Leave it to us!’ I was deeply touched by their insistence on making everything exactly what I wanted it to be. And all the doubts I had had about my ability to direct before I was give the opportunity vanished after the first shot was completed, like clouds and mist after a rain. The whole task was carried out with a feeling of ease.
This feeling may be a little hard to understand, so let me try to explain. When I was an assistant director, I watched very carefully how Yama-san (Kajiro Yamamoto) directed, and I couldn’t help but be amazed at the way his attention reached every nook and cranny of the production. Feeling that my own eyes could not see that far, I necessarily harbored doubts about my directing talent.
Once I looked at the production from the director’s viewpoint, however, I saw everything I had been unable to see as an assistant director, or even as a second-unit director. I understood the subtle difference between positions. When you are creating your own work, it is entirely different from when you are helping with someone else’s. Moreover, when you are directing your own script, you understand the script better than anyone else possibly can. When I finally became a director, I at last understood all the implications of Yama-san’s order to write scripts first if I wanted to direct. It was because of this that, although Sanshiro Sugata was my very first film, it went exactly the way I wanted it to. Making this film seemed not like ascending a steep precipice, but more like clambering around the gentle slopes at the base of the mountain. My overall impression of it was that of a very pleasant excursion, like a picnic.
— Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography
Once into production, work on Ran progressed so smoothly that even Mr. Kurosawa was surprised. In the summer of 1984, just when he was preparing to shoot the great storm scene in which Hidetora (his Lear) rushes deranged into the wilderness, a typhoon struck the shooting location in Kyushu perfectly on schedule. Later Mr. Kurosawa joked, “In Japan, journalists often call me ‘Emperor’ because they think I’m so tyrannical. Well, I guess I can now command even the elements!
While we were in the Soviet Union filming Dersu Uzala, the hotel restaurant was continually filled with the haunting strains of the theme music from The Godfather. Vodka glass in hand, Kurosawa would say, “That Coppola—what a director! I thought Part One of his Godfather series was perfect, and then he amazed me by surpassing it in Part Two. Usually the sequel is a poor imitation.” Seated in a restaurant in a foreign land, we spoke Coppola’s name with much admiration.
Coppola has said that before starting to shoot a movie, he often looks at Kurosawa’s movies for inspiration. Although he has many favorites, one that he singles out for admiration is The Bad Sleep Well, where he marvels at the directorial technique of letting the audience in on the entire setup right away, in the opening wedding scene.
While Coppola was editing Apocalypse Now, Kurosawa called at his Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco and was treated to a special screening of a small part of the film. An unassuming man, Coppola showed him the opening scene, remarking how intimidating it was to have Kurosawa view his work. To the sublime music of Wagner, helicopters flew in formation, filling the screen.
“Wonderful,” said Kurosawa. “You captured the scene well. It must not have been easy.”
Coppola got up and went over to the screen, pointing to the space beside it: “Actually there were a lot more helicopters in the air, here, and here, too. They didn’t get in the range of the camera.” He sounded rueful. Today, of course, with computer graphics the number of helicopters could be increased ad infinitum.
Coppola often traveled to Japan with his family, and always made a point of having dinner with Kurosawa. They remained close for a long time.
[ Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies With Akira Kurosawa ]