Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

If you ask anyone to name a Japanese film director, the most likely answer will be "Akira Kurosawa." He has directed many classics (like Seven Samauri, Yojimbo, and Hidden Fortress) that have been remade by Western directors (like The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars, and Star Wars) and many classics that were remakes of Shakespeare's plays (Throne of Blood and Ran). One of his early films, Rashomon, won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, putting Japanese cinema on the international stage only five years after World War II. Kurosawa's significance is indisputable.

Kurosawa wrote an autobiography in 1983. The book only covers his early life, up to the international reception of Rashomon. He starts with his earliest memories (being in a bathtub as a toddler) and describes his life in the early decades of 20th century Japan. His home followed the classic samurai model, with traditional clothes and a simple layout to the house and a simple life style. He writes of his school years which both mirror and contrast to western education. He had the usual classes and problems with bullies and friends. He also took special lessons in calligraphy and kendo (weapon fighting), often having to walk several miles in the early hours before school. His love of art and literature started early and was a great help in his later career as a film maker.

His early adulthood was full of adventure. He was interested in being a painter and joined a socialist movement after school. That did not work out well (especially coming from a traditional home) and he wound up applying for an assistant director job at Toho studio. He had a tough time getting in but was soon under the tutelage of Kajiro Yamamoto. His skills as a writer, editor, and director bloomed at Toho, though there were many problems with union strikes and with censors, especially during World War II, when anything that seemed "British-American" was verboten. The book finishes with stories from several of Kurosawa's 1940s films, finishing with Rashomon. He recommends people interested in his later life to just watch his films, since he puts so much of himself into them and they are so central to his life.

Kurosawa's writing style is simple and direct with an unassuming air. He's open about his temper and mistakes he has made. His humility is refreshing and disarming. Occasional insights about film making are sprinkled throughout the book, with the lion's share at the end. I found the book very interesting and insightful about Kurosawa's film making and about him as a person. I want to watch (and rewatch) his early films.

Highly recommended!

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