Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa
by Tom Mes
As more than a few e-mails from readers have pointed out, Akira Kurosawa is perhaps the most conspicuous absentee from the pages of Midnight Eye. This is certainly not due to any dislike on our parts for the man who is arguably one of Japan's greatest directors, quite the opposite. To me, personally, there is no one greater. Kurosawa was my introduction to Japanese film, before I had even reached my teens, and it's probably because I discovered him so early on that I find it very hard to put my admiration into words that don't sound trite, insufficient, misplaced even.
At the same time, Kurosawa is one of those filmmakers that have been written about again and again. Like Alfred Hitchcock, there always seems to be a steady supply of books on him in print. With such heavyweights as Stephen Prince and Donald Richie, to name but two, having written quite magnificently about his life and work, I feel there simply isn't much for me to add.
If his lifetime and artistic output have been generously chronicled, his legacy, however, is something that could certainly do with more critical attention. The efforts of his collaborators, relatives, and former employers to keep his memory alive don't always smell of noble intent. From Toho twisting and turning its interpretations of copyright law and public domain in order to keep making a buck out of the director's early work, via the production of some of the scripts the great man never got around to filming in his lifetime - rendered dull and pedestrian by overly reverential former assistants, to the failure to get a Kurosawa Film Academy off the ground - a misconceived venture apparently based on idea that one can turn any young filmmaker into a little Kurosawa by infusing him or her with a certain reading of the director's "humanist" ideals as if these were some kind of ideology.
Then there are those who think that that they can infuse their own films with a bit of the Kurosawa spirit through a form of association, like Hirokazu Kore-eda working with his costume designer daughter Kazuko on his first jidai geki Hana, or Yoji Yamada getting his mitts on a property penned by one of Kurosawa's closest collaborators, his script supervisor and personal assistant Teruyo Nogami - so desperate is the Twilight Samurai director's ongoing quest for master status that he believes he can acquire it at two degrees of separation from a geniune genius.
A far more valuable attempt to keep Kurosawa's memory very much alive is Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, the personal memoirs of that same Teruyo Nogami and her days alongside the master. An eclectic and pleasantly jumbled recollection that jumps back and forth in time seemingly at whim, Nogami tells her story with great self-effacement. As we know from earlier writings, Kurosawa's life was fraught with setbacks, especially once he found it harder to get his projects financed as the film industry began to wane at the close of the 1960s, eventually leading to a failed suicide attempt. Tellingly, more than once Nogami (of whom Donald Richie says in his foreword that she was the sole person with whom Kurosawa never lost his temper and who he never criticised) blames herself for not supporting Kurosawa enough at critical moments. And this is the woman who, to again quote Richie, "stood behind him all the way from Rashomon to Madadayo and beyond."
Her story is peppered with revealing anecdotes and entertaining asides that give rare glimpses into life on a movie set: ants that won't obey, a fire in a storage room that could have robbed world cinema of one of its greatest treasures (i.e. the negative of Rashomon), and the titular waiting on the right weather for a shot. But in addition to trivia, she also gives us invaluable first-hand accounts of the making of Rashomon, of filming in the tick-infested forests of Siberia on Dersu Uzala, and of the falling out between Kurosawa and Shintaro Katsu on Kagemusha. Her recollections of Kurosawa himself aren't always flattering, such as when she recalls bringing him water on the midsummer shoot for Rashomon and notes that "the pungent smells of sweat and garlic would assail my nostrils."
Nogami's writing is wonderfully colloquial, making it feel like you're being told the story rather than reading it, while her sketches of memorable on-set events further liven up the text (one of these shows her handing out shots of methamphetamines to help the crew work around the clock!). Her book also resuscitates a great many names that have largely fallen by the wayside of film history, such as Taizo Fuyushima, Akira Nobuchi, and Mansaku Itami. Another handful that did reach some measure of fame as genre specialists, like Tai Kato and Tokuzo Tanaka, put in appearances in the days when they were still lowly assistants. With so little information available on these men (biographies exist in Japanese for some, though obviously not in translated form), this is a welcome insight into their personalities and methods.
Mansaku Itami in particular receives a loving tribute, with the opening chapter entirely devoted to the man whom Nogami regards as her first mentor. The father of the late Juzo Itami is hardly known abroad these days, but the portrait Nogami paints of him is a touching and fascinating one, made all the more powerful by the fact that the two never actually met and only corresponded through letters. Nogami became a friend of the Itami family only after the director's death in 1946 (and would work with Juzo many years later).
But of course, the main focus here is Kurosawa, and Nogami humanizes him like no one has so far managed to do in a book in the English language. An artist who has come to be seen as monumental and monolithic could not wish for a greater favour. For any fan of Japanese cinema, and not just those of Kurosawa, Nogami's delightful memoirs are a genuine treasure trove.