Unseen Japan

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Japanese film maestro Akira Kurosawa's enduring love of Russian literature may have saved his life when the Soviet Union stepped in to save his career. (Picture: scaliger / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Akira Kurosawa and the Kremlin - Part 1: Rise and Fall

Essay   Posted on October 25, 2018 in film, movies, akira kurosawa, Russia, culture • By Noah Oskow • Read Related Articles


Akira Kurosawa is a mysterious entity. This is because he is the only filmmaker since the age of the talkies to combine the elements of both “internationality” and “local spirit.”

-Shinhiko Kobayashi


They may not know the name of the Japanese prime minister, but I doubt there are many Russians who do not know the name “Kurosawa.”

-Vladimir Nikolaevich Vasiliev, co-director of Dersu Uzlala

It perhaps goes without saying that Akira Kurosawa is one of the most famous and well-regarded filmmakers of the past seventy years. Despite having passed away two decades ago, he may well still be considered one of the most famous Japanese citizens on the world stage. Though plenty of other Japanese filmmakers are beloved and well know by their international audiences, even now only one other Japanese director has even come close to the same level of pure worldwide name recognition and repute (Hayao Miyazaki, 31 years Kurosawa’s junior).

Of course, even a great creator doesn’t just influence others - they first need to receive inspiration themselves. For Kurosawa, often considered the most “westernized” of Japan’s great directors, one might point to Shakespeare as a source. After all, two of Kurosawa’s most artistically successful films, Throne of Blood and Ran, respectively based on Shakespeare's MacBeth and King Lear, merely transpose the action of both plays from Scotland and England to war-torn feudal Japan. Another of his films, The Bad Sleep Well (1960), uses Hamlet as the base of a story criticizing contemporary corporate culture.

But while Kurosawa did love and respect the Bard, his western literary influence did not end with the Anglosphere. From a young age, Kurosawa obsessed over the works of the Russian literary giants - Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, and many others. This love of Russian literature lead him to create three notable films, to direct plays, and had a perceivable influence on many of the director’s signature themes.

But Kurosawa and his relationship with Russia was not to serve merely as a source of creativity for the maestro. When Kurosawa had hit his lowest depths, it was an offer from the Soviet Union that saved his career - and perhaps even his life.

Origins of Inspiration

Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev
Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, an early influence on Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the youngest of eight children, to Isamu Kurosawa and his wife Shima. Isamu was of Akita Prefecture samurai stock and was a successful military and athletic trainer who nevertheless believed in the elucidating effects of foreign cinema, often taking his children to see American movies.

Akira gained a love of narrative from an early age thanks to his father’s interest in these films and in rakugo (a traditional Japanese comedic performance), but was perhaps just as influenced by his literarily-inclined older brother, Heigo. Four years Akira’s senior, Heigo was a source of great admiration for his younger brother, and was by his brother’s admission “addicted to Russian literature.” Heigo and his sisters would lend Akira their books, which the young boy would read vociferously on the walk to and from school. The usual local greats of the time were included - Natsume Soseki, Ichiyō Higuchi (recognized now as the face on the 5000 yen note), Kunikida Doppo. But Kurosawa also read Ivan Turgenev - a Russian novelist known for popularizing his home country’s literature. As Kurosawa noted in his autobiography:

At that stage of my life I didn't understand very much about people, but I did understand descriptions of nature. There's one passage of Turgenev I read over and over again, from the beginning of The Rendezvous, where the scenery is described thus: "The seasons could be determined from nothing more than the sound of the leaves on the trees in the forest."

Considering that one of Kurosawa's most well-known filmmaking trademarks is a use of weather as a representation of emotions and themes, the linkage here is clear.

Akira wanted to become a painter, and ended up living with his beloved brother Heigo when that chosen career (and later work on an illegal underground left-wing newspaper) dried up. The two of them occupied a tiny flophouse room in a crowded tenement alleyway, with Akira spending his extra time reading and going to the movies. Heigo’s obsession with Russian literature continued, and he made his living as a popular benshi, a narrator for silent films.

But the emergence of talkie films from abroad spelt doom for Heigo’s profession, leading to one of the great tragedies of Akira’s life: his brother’s suicide.

Heigo had hailed The Last Line (У Последней Черты) by Russian naturalist writer Mikhail Artsybashev as the greatest book in the world, keeping a copy with him at all times. He had sworn by the hero of that book, Naumov's, assertion of seeking a “weird death,” and Akira later blamed himself for not taking his brother’s interest in this idea seriously - he began to see his brother’s descent into despair as latching on to this book’s worldview of life being “a dance upon the grave.” Heigo’s death continued to haunt Akira for the rest of his life, but the mutual love of Russian literature he shared with his brother did not dissipate.

Now the sole surviving male child in his family, Akira felt responsible for providing for his mother and father, and began desperately searching for work. It was here, with a chancing glance at a classified section of his father’s newspaper, that he was sent down the path that would make him into the household name he is. Akira applied to be an assistant-director at the nascent Toho Films (then called Photo Chemical Laboratories), managing to pass the essay-writing portion of the selection process by employing his love of film and literature - things passed down to him by his father and brother. In 1936 and at the age of 25, Kurosawa had stumbled into being a filmmaker.

Kurosawa worked steadfastly as an assistant director for the next seven years, finally landing his first full-directorial job with his judo film Sanshiro Sugata (1943). Despite heavy editing by the Japanese wartime censors, the film was quite successful. Kurosawa’s star had begun to shine. He made three more films while the Second World War raged on, and then continued his work under a different (but according to Kurosawa, more relaxed) form of censorship during the American occupation that followed.

Another landmark came when Kurosawa first worked with the actor whose name is most synonymous with his films: Toshiro Mifune. Their work in 1948’s successful Drunken Angel was the first of a legendary 16 films the two made together.

"The Idiot" and Other Films

Poster for Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot
A poster for The Idiot (白痴), a passion project ok Kurosawa's that ended in failure when the director and the studio battled over the ensuing film's length.

It was after this film that Kurosawa first turned to a Russian story as a professional outing. Toho Cinemas was experiencing a strike, and Kurosawa, still wanting to put food on his family’s table, decided to direct some plays in the meantime - one of which was Chekhov’s one-act farce, The Proposal (Предложение). The income from this must have tided him over until his next film, The Quiet Duel (1949). It wouldn’t be long before Kurosawa would return to the Russian well.

Three years later, Kurosawa had experienced some major domestic success with a string of popular movies. Unknown to Kurosawa himself, Rashomon was even being screened at the Venice Film Festival. There it picked up the coveted Golden Lion award and open the floodgates, allowing for Japanese film to finally reach an audience in the West and marking the beginning of Kurosawa’s rise to true international fame.

But all this was in Kurosawa’s future. After Rashomon, Akira decided he wanted to work on a true passion project, bringing one of his favorite Russian novels to the silver screen. He began work on an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Dostoevsky’s original novel, first published in 1868, has as its protagonist and “idiot” in question Prince Myshkin, a young, epileptic man who embodies the author’s belief in an unlimited and unquestioning Christian love. Returning to his native St. Petersburg, he enters a complicated web of illicit romance and high-class society. Kurosawa replaced St. Petersburg with snowy Hokkaido (the closest one can get to Russia in Japan, especially after Karafuto Prefecture on northern Sakhalin Island was ceded to Russia following the end of WWII - it officially ceased to be part of Japan two years before The Idiot was released). He cast Toshiro Mifune as the film’s version of the roguish Rogozhin. Setsuko Hara, known in Japan as “the eternal virgin” (永遠の処女) and made legendary for her roles in Yasujirō Ozu’s films, was cast as the Japanese version of the bewitching and tortured Natasha Filippovna.

Kurosawa wanted to do justice to Dostoevsky’s work, striving to remain loyal to the original. In fact, according to the film’s co-author Eijiro Hisata, Kurosawa had already read Dostoyevsky’s novel seven times before filming began, and Kurosawa himself said he felt the weight of Dostoyevsky bearing down upon him like a “sumo wrestler.” But he may have gotten too close to the source material, may have dreamed too big - in the end, he delivered a massive 225 minutes film. At nearly four hours, this movie was longer than the infamously lengthy Gone with the Wind.

The producers believed such a film to be unmarketable, and ordered Kurosawa to perform massive cuts to his passion project. Despite protestations that it would be better “to cut the film lengthwise” - that is, vertically in half - the director still managed to whittle away 45 minutes, and presented a 180-minute version for the premier - but following negative reactions, the studio cut this down even further. All this left us with the 166-minute version that remains today, strikingly incomplete, the first part of which features multiple intertitles explaining integral plot progress in lieu of the original scenes. According to Kurosawa, the film was panned, and he likened the reviews to “...a mirror reflection of the studio's attitude toward me.”

However, Kurosawa still felt the experience worthwhile, and later reflected that:

of all my films, people wrote to me most about this one...I had wanted to make The Idiot long before Rashomon. Since I was little I’ve liked Russian literature, but I find that I like Dostoevsky the best, and had long thought that this book would make a wonderful film. He is still my favorite author, and he is the one — I still think — who writes most honestly about human existence.

Success and Despair

Above: The 1950 trailer for Rashomon (羅生門). Kurosawa's interpretation of Ryounosokue Akutagawa's Into a Grove established the director's reputation internationally.

If The Idiot was a failure, it did nothing to slow Kurosawa down. In fact, his very next film, Ikiru (生きる, 1952) was also based in part on another Russian classic - Tolstoy’s late-stage novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Смерть Ивана Ильича). This tale of a middle-aged bureaucratic mediocrity dealing with a terminal illness found great critical success, and remains one of Kurosawa’s most enduring films.

What followed became Kurosawa’s golden age, as the director pumped out critical and financial darlings consistently for the next 15 years. Kurosawa was at the height of his powers, finding incredible success in both Japan and abroad, with Rashomon (and then Seven Samurai, and then Yojimbo) having transformed him into Japan’s first international film icon.

At the height of this golden age, Kurosawa returned once again to his favored Russian literary stable, this time choosing a play by the early 20th century playwright Maxim Gorky. The Lower Depths (1957) came directly after another adaptation of a foreign play, Throne of Blood (1957), itself based on MacBeth. But whereas Throne of Blood was a dreamlike, fairly loose retelling of Shakespeare’s play, The Lower Depths once again showed Kurosawa’s quasi-literalist respect for his Russian sources. Like he did with The Idiot, Kurosawa strove to maintain a close connection to the original, only transposing the action (taking place in an impoverished alleyway slum - possibly as meaningful as it was to Kurosawa because of his experience living in a similar situation with his brother) to Japan’s Edo Era. But unlike The Idiot, The Lower Depths went on to box office success and at least some critical acclaim - although the dark and depressing subject matter met with some criticism.

Kurosawa's golden age continued for eight years, during which his steady output left us such classics as The Hidden Fortress (1958, famous as the major inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), and Redbeard (1965). The filming of the latter saw the final time Kurosawa and Mifune would work together, but by now Kurosawa was so well known abroad that American producers were begging to take the director on.

Kurosawa’s journey to Hollywood, however, was a disaster.

Dodesu-Kaden (どですかでん)
A poster for Dodesu-Kaden (どですかでん)、Kurosawa's attempt at a domestic comeback after his failed tenure in America. The film was a flop, and Kurosawa fell further into despair.

One film (Runaway Train) Kurosawa was working on was never produced, and the famed director was booted from the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! within weeks of the start of filming under rumors that he was suffering a mental breakdown. Returning to Japan after two fruitless and frustrating years abroad, Kurosawa’s attempt at a rebound film, Dodesu kaden (1970), was a box office failure. With rumors swirling about the director’s mental health, and facing a Japanese film industry that no longer wanted to finance his films, Kurosawa had reached his darkest hour. He attempted suicide.

Thankfully, Akira Kurosawa survived the attempt, and even recovered fairly quickly - at least physically speaking. And yet, he was sure his days as a filmmaker were over.

It was here that Russia stepped in.

(Continued in Akira Kurosawa and the Kremlin - Part 2: Saved by the Soviets)

Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at Leipzig University in Germany.


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