“Take ‘myself,’” wrote Akira Kurosawa, “subtract ‘movies,’ and the result is ‘zero.’” Donald Richie, the 20th century’s preeminent Western critic of Japanese film, quoted that line when writing a remembrance of the 20th century’s preeminent Japanese filmmaker. “It was as though he thought he did not exist except through his movies,” Richie’s piece continues. “When I was writing my book about him, he sometimes complained that there was nothing to write about if I persisted in asking him about himself.” Still, for insight into the mind of the director capable of such a range of masterpieces as Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran, you’d do well to read that book — a volume about which the auteur himself had initially dubious feelings, granting his approval “only when he learned it was to be called The Films of Akira Kurosawa” — and to watch A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, a 2000 documentary built around a series of interviews Kurosawa (for most of his career “famously uncooperative with the media”) granted late in life.
Kurosawa, “old-fashioned enough to believe in the traditional Japanese lack of distinction between the arts and the crafts,” discusses all he has learned about every aspect of his craft. He believed that ideas formed naturally, and that story flowed from character. He placed the highest importance on scripts and storyboards. (Unable to find funding for Kagemusha, Richie remembers, he “spent his time painting pictures of every scene,” which “blossomed into whole galleries — screening rooms for unmade masterpieces.”) He brooked no laxity in the collaborators who helped execute the design and filming, and through this strictness “earned his sobriquet of Tenno — the Emperor — a title not at all popular in postwar Japan.” Still, he listened to everyone, using without hesitation any idea that struck him as potentially carrying his project one step closer to the ideal “beautiful movie,” a pure cinema without need for theme, theory, or message. In Kurosawa’s evasion of one of Richie’s questions about the meaning of a scene, we have a summation of his lifelong quest: “If I could have answered that, it wouldn’t have been necessary for me to film the scene, would it?”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.