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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

An Interview with Akira




“Akira-san”, I said, “ I must convess that your movies Throne of Blood and Ran introduced me to Shekespeare. The stories are compelling, tragic and dark but you masterfully expressed it in the cinemas, in black and white and in color. In Ran, which is an adaption of King Lear, the dark , cruel world is expressed in cinematic beauty, highlighted by the colors of the tradistional costumes and the color of blood. Is this more or less how you see the world?”

Akira-san:
“Tragedy is part of Japanese life which has been frequented by by earthquakes, tsunamies and wars. The Kanto earthquake was a terrifying experience for me, and also an extremely important one. Through it I learned not only of the extraordinary powers of nature, but extraordinary things that lie in human hearts. The Edogawa river had raised its bottom and showed new islands of mud.  The whole district was veiled in a dancing, swirling dust whose grayness gave the sun a pallor like that during an eclipse. The people who stood to the left and right of me in this scene looked for all the world like fugitives from hell, and the whole landscape took on a bizarre and eerie aspect. I stood holding on to one of the young cherry trees planted along the banks of the river, and I was still shaking as I gazed out over the scene, thinking, "This must be the end of the world."

I said:
“ In the Throne of Blood, which is an adaption of Macbeth, there is a scene with the piles of human skeletons forming little mountains. Is this how it looks like in the aftermath of the Kanto earthquake?”

Akira-san:
“When the erathquake had died down, my brother Heigo brought me to look at the ruins. The burned landscape for as far as the eye could see had a brownish red color. It looked like a red desert. In the conflagration everything made of wood had been turned to ashes, which now occasionally drifted upward in the breeze. Amid this expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable.  When I involuntarily looked away, Heigo scolded me, "Akira, look carefully now." I failed to understand my brother's intentions and could only resent his forcing me to look at these awful sights. The worst was when we stood on the bank of the red-dyed Sumidagawa River and gazed at the throngs of corpses pressed against its shores. I felt my knees give way as I started to faint, but my brother grabbed me by the collar and propped me up again. He repeated, "Look carefully, Akira." I resigned myself to gritting my teeth and looking.
Later he said "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at every-thing straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of." Looking back on that excursion now, I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.  “

I said:
“You once said that your brother Heigo has a great influence in your interest in cinemas. How did he influence you? “

Akira-san:
“Heigo was a professional silent-film narrator. The narrators not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen— much like the narrators of the Bunraku puppet theater. The most popular narrators were stars in their own right, solely responsible for the patronage of a particular theater. Under the leadership of the famous narrator Tokugawa Musei, a completely new movement was under way. He and a group of like-minded narrators stressed high-quality narration of well-directed foreign films.
In matters of both film and literature I owe much to my brother's discernment. He was addicted to Russian literature. But at the same time he wrote under various pen names for film programs. He wrote in particular about the art of the foreign cinema, which was much promoted following the First World War. I took special care to see every film my brother recommended. As far back as elementary school I walked all the way to Asakusa to see a movie he had said was good.”

I said:
“What happened then when the cinema transitioned silent movies into sound movies?”

Akira-san:
“As the silent films went out, so did the need for the narrators, and Heigo's livelihood was struck a terrible blow. At first all seemed well because by this time my brother was chief narrator at a first-run movie house, the Taikatsukan in Asakusa, where he had his own following.
Then it had now become clear that all foreign movies would henceforth be sound movies, and theaters that showed them decided as a universal policy that they no longer needed narrators. The narrators were to be fired en masse, and, hearing this, they went on strike. My brother, as leader of the strikers, had a very difficult time.”

I said:
“As what has happened, the transformation of cinema is inevitable, from silent to sound, from black and white to colors, and from celluloid to digital.”

Akira-san:
“In the midst of this, one day we heard of my brother's attempted suicide. I believe the cause was his painful position as leader of the narrators' strike, which had failed. My brother seemed to be resigned to the fact that narrators would no longer be needed when film technology progressed to the point of including sound. Since he knew it was a losing battle, the fact that he had to accept the leadership of the strike must have been indescribably painful for him.”

I said:
“ Didn’t he told your mother that he would die before he reached the age of thirty?”

Akira-san:
“My brother had always said that. He claimed that when human beings lived past thirty, all they did was come uglier and meaner, so he had no intention of doing so. I had made light of my brother's words, but a few months after I had assuaged my mother's fears in this way, my brother was dead. Just as he had promised, he died without reaching the age of thirty. At twenty-seven he committed suicide.”

I said:
“Some people said you're just like your brother. But he was negative and you're positive. You have made good black and white as well as good color movies, you are the first Japanese movie director receiving international acclaim.”

Akira-san:
“That time Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice. I watched a woman read a book throughout the Japan home-grown movie. Japanese films have lost their youth, vigor and high aspiration. Movies . . . look like the work of tired, old men,who make petty judgments, have dried-up feelings, and whose hearts are clogged.”

I said:
“Your first international acclaim is Rashomon which received Golden Lion in Venice Film Festival in 1951. Set in 11th century Japan, a time of fire, earthquake, pestilence, banditry, war. A period when the country’s central government were being undermined by the growth of political and military powers. There were rebellions, fires, earthquakes and violent crime in the capital city. It was a period where it appeared to be the end of the law, and the country is on the brink of disaster.
The movie opens at the Rashomon Gate, the main gate to the city of Kyoto. The gate is in ruins, and so is the city as well.  The rain in black and white gashing down the Rashomon Gate paints a bleak picture of the world. The destroyed gate, its apparent grand scale and strong foundation reduced to utter ruins. The clothing of the men is ragged, dark, dirty  and wet.”

Akira-san:
“The film goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeons scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. Light and shadow, represents not only good and evil, but also rationality and impulsiveness. The introductory section in particular, which leads the viewer through the light and shadow of the forest into a world where the human heart loses its way, was truly magnificent camera work by Miyagawa Kazuo.”

I said:
“The story and the characters are interesting, involving various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same murder incident. Through an ingenious use of camera and flashbacks, you reveals the complexities of human nature as four people recount different versions of the story of a  samurai's murder and the rape of his wife.”

Akira-san:
“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better than they really are. The characters deceive even themselves; they refuse to face or acknowledge the truth because they fear it. The commoners standpoint is that all men and women are like this, and it is a property of mankind to lie and embellish reality even to itself.  As the priest said, if men dont trust each other, this earth might as well be hell.”

I said:
“ At the end there is the scene of an abandoned baby whom was crying loudly.  At first we did not understand how did this baby arrive at Rashomon gate, out of the blue.  Later I found from readings that other than being a place to abandoned corpses the Rashomon gate also became known as a place where people abandoned unwanted babies.  Then I can appreciate that this scene is not as out of place as some people thought.”

Akira-san:
 “We see the Woodcutter accept the abandoned infant to take the child home to be cared for, although he is poor and already has 6 children. This symbolizes the man choosing to do what’s good. This is important because the Woodcutter for the entire film to this point has merely stood by, choosing not to be a participant in what he sees, “I didn’t want to get involved”, he says. By choosing to take the child he gives hope to the priest that man is good and that the world does not belong to the selfish.”

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Akira Kurosawa.

Source: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa