The essential documentaries on Akira Kurosawa, including Chris Marker’s AK: Akira Kurosawa (A.K. ドキュメント黒澤明, 1985), Akira Kurosawa: My Life in Cinema (1993), and Kurosawa: The Last Emperor (1999).
Chris Marker’s documentary is an epic — a portrait of Kurosawa during the making of his most ambitious and expensive picture. You see the Sensei director in front of JCBs, great earth-moving machines… You see massive sets, hundreds of extras, the Plains of Gotenba…
In a long dialogue, Nagisa Oshima interviews Akira Kurosawa, leading him to share his thoughts about filmmaking, his life and works, and numerous anecdotes relating to his films and his various film activities (Akira Kurosawa: My Life in Cinema, 1993).
Ours (Kurosawa: The Last Emperor, 1999), though it has a rather grand title, is more about the personal. There’s a selection of directors who talk about Kurosawa’s influence on their work — John Woo, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Coppola, Paul Verhoeven, Arturo Ripstein, Andrei Konchalovsky… plus the inimitable Mike Hodges, who was young Kurosawa’s fencing teacher in turn-of-the-century Japan. And there are sections on TORA TORA TORA, the film he didn’t make; on the making of AME AGARU (one of his last screenplays) by his former collaborators; and on MADADAYO - his last film, the story of an intensely tedious and sentimental old schoolteacher.
Paul Verhoeven does a mini-lecture about RASHOMON, Ms. Nogami shows how they did the final “Arrows” scene in THRONE OF BLOOD, the actors talk about SEVEN SAMURAI and RAN, Nakadai-san discusses the creation of his character in YOJIMBO, there’s IKIRU, KAGEMUSHA, RED BEARD, RAN… I realize there’s a preponderance of samurai and period films, but that’s the way it is. I would have liked to include THE BAD SLEEP WELL and more of the early films, and a scene from SANSHIRO SUGATA. — Alex Cox
Kurosawa on Screenwriting:
‘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.’
‘In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.’
‘A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films. The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for the people of today to understand.’
‘Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into. It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the “hard-boiled” detective novels can also be very instructive.’
‘I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. 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 two other people, you can avoid this danger also.’
‘I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthourgh. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.’
‘A novel and a screenplay are entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.’
‘Characters in a film have their own existence. The filmmaker has no freedom. If he insists on his authority and is allowed to manipulate his characters like puppets, the film loses its vitality.’
‘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.’
‘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 one 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 one 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, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three 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.’