206. AKIRA KUROSAWA: The note taker
Reading and writing. These are the two most important activities an aspiring director needs to do according to Akira Kurosawa, widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Seems pretty simple right? But it took Kurosawa many years to learn how he could use his vast knowledge of literature to develop his ability as a director. He had a love for reading at a young age, devouring everything from classic Japanese samurai tales, American pulp stories to advanced Russian literature. As he put it “Whether I understood it or not, I read everything I could get my hands on.” As an 18-year old Kurosawa wanted to be a painter but failed to get into Art School. Unsure what to do next and with lots of time on his hands, he spent most of it reading, watching movies and going to art galleries. “I read classics and contemporary, foreign and Japanese literature without discrimination. I read under the covers in bed at night, I read as I walked along the street.”
However it was only when Kurosawa was a young Assistant Director, working under his mentor, the director Yamamoto Kajiro, did he approach reading in a new way. Kajiro told him “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” Kurosawa agreed, and after he had finished writing his first screenplay showed it to his mentor for feedback. Kajiro proceeded to quickly rewrite a scene in front of Kurosawa’s eyes that was vastly better. The young Kurosawa was “awed”. Inspired by his teacher’s ability, Kurosawa decided to re-educate himself: “From this point on, my approach to literature changed. I made a deliberate effort to change it. I began to read carefully, asking myself what the author was trying to say and how he was trying to express it. I thought while I read, and at the same time I kept notes on the passages that struck some emotional chord in me. When I reread in this new way things I had read in the past, I realised how superficial my initial reading had been.”
Kurosawa was determined to become a better screenwriter and set about writing one page a day, despite how busy he was as an AD, “There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages.” Writing didn’t come easy, but over time the daily struggle became a habit and Kurosawa found that like most creative endeavours, just showing up was the key, “At some point in the writing of every script I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way until his legs became useless, a path will open up.”
This complete dedication to reading and writing would be the seeds from which all of Kurosawa’s films would grow. He wrote or co-wrote every film he directed. Sometimes he would make a straight adaptation of a work, like of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1951), but mostly he would use another story/novel/play as a starting off point and expand it or change it for his own original film. For instance, Rashomon (1950), which launched Kurosawa to international fame and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, was based off two different short stories by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Throne of Blood (1957) was a Japanese version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Ran (1985) was a retelling of King Lear. Yojimbo (1961), Kurosawa’s classic tale of a nonchalant badass samurai walking into a new town and playing the two rival gangs against each other was inspired by the hard boiled noir of Dashiell Hammett, in particular the novel Red Harvest. Kurosawa got the idea for his most famous film, Seven Samurai (1954) after reading a story about a group of samurai defending a farming village.
Now Kurosawa didn’t just steal other people’s ideas and use them for his films. He added his own experiences, his own ideas and his own culture to the story to make it his own. And just like Kurosawa would reintepret the work of others, the next generation of filmmakers would borrow heavily from Kurosawa’s own filmography. Yojimbo was remade into A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by Sergio Leone (although he borrowed a bit too heavily and was sued for copyright infringement), Seven Samurai was turned into The Magnificent Seven (1960) and perhaps most famously, The Hidden Fortress (1958) would form the genesis of a small little film you might have heard of called Star Wars (1977).
It’s easy to look at your favourite books, films or TV shows and think to yourself “How the hell do they come up with that?” or “There’s no way I could create something out of thin air like they did”, but then you discover that it’s OK to recycle and reinterpret old ideas. Suddenly creating your own art doesn’t seem as daunting when you realise even a master like Kurosawa needed help to get his stories off the ground.
– Kurosawa’s philosophy on how important reading and writing is to a beginner filmmaker is summed up nicely in this video.
– Here’s George Lucas and Steven Speilberg giving their hero an Academy Award in 1990.
– I didn’t even touch on the brilliance of Kurosawa’s filmmaking techniques. Here’s a video by the fantastic Every Frame a Painting showing how the master used movement in cinema better than anyone else.
– All of the info and quotes used in the comic and article are taken from Kurosawa’s memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, First Vintage Books, 1983. Translated by Audie E. Bock.