Note: Please scroll to the 6:52 mark where the conversation begins.
The name Miyazaki defines Japanese animation not just in its own country, but across the world. The name Kurosawa does the same for the rest of Japanese cinema. But given their differences of not just specific art form but of generation (Akira Kurosawa was born in 1910, Hayao Miyazaki in 1941), one might wonder whether the men themselves, were they to meet, would have much to talk about. Nippon TV put the idea to the test in 1993 by airing Miyazaki Meets Kurosawa, which sends the already renowned animator, whose sixth film Porco Rosso had come out the previous year, to the home of the long-reigning “Emperor” of Japanese film, whose thirtieth and final film Madadayo (a title translatable as Not Yet!) had come out the previous month. Their conversation starts at the 6:52 mark above.
After a bit of small talk, mostly about the magnificent view of Mount Fuji from Kurosawa’s front porch, the masters get down to shop talk. Kurosawa and Miyazaki discuss the difficulty of speaking about one’s own work, the sweet taste of sake at the end of a long shoot, the pain of sitting at a desk drawing day in and day out, what it took to build a sloping street for Madadayo or an entire castle for Ran (just to burn it down), how to visually and sonically evoke the various different eras of Japanese history, Miyazaki’s appreciation for Kurosawa’s storyboards, and Kurosawa’s appreciation for the cat bus in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro — at which point the translated transcript at fan site nausicaa.net indicates that “Miyazaki seems to be at a loss for words.” (You can read the transcript at the bottom of the post.)
Though Japanese tradition, to say nothing of the customs of one dedicated artist speaking to another, dictates that Miyazaki display a certain deference to Kurosawa (an attitude certainly visible in the segments of the broadcast available on Youtube), the two have plenty of insight to offer one another. And however different their films, they all emerged from the same spirit of painstaking dedication. “If you let things slide thinking ‘well, this won’t be in view of the camera,’ ” Kurosawa warns, “then there’s no end to how lazy you can get. You either give it your all, or don’t even bother.”
Miyazaki, who has since risen to a Kurosawa-like prominence of his own, offers this closing reflection on his first meeting with the director of the likes of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru: “Whether a work is a masterpiece or… something more modest, I realized that they all originate at the same place — an environment where people are constantly thinking and rethinking their own ideas,” rather than waiting around for inspiration. Instead, they adopt the attitude of, “ ‘Regardless of what they think… or whether or not they like the way I do things, I’m gonna do what has to be done!’ That’s what’s important.”
A big hat tip goes to Adrian.
Transcript, translated by Yuto Shinagawa.
KUROSAWA — One of the settings for our movie — the “Oichini [ah one two]” drug salesman scene — if you recall, is a rectangular room. What we’d do is use three cameras, all on one side of the room to film everything from start to finish… after which we’d move the them to another side of the room, switch out the lenses, and film the scene over. We’d do this three times…from all four directions. So in the end, there’d be 36 cuts that we had to look through during editing…just for one scene.
MIYAZAKI — That’s what boggles my mind. How do you pick which cuts to use?
KUROSAWA — Pretty much on a first come first serve basis for me.
MIYAZAKI — Is that so?
KUROSAWA — You just skim through them really quick…“toss…keep…toss,” so that all you have to do in the end is just string together what’s left. That’s all there is to it.
MIYAZAKI — Well yes, but…[Laughs]
KUROSAWA — So we might have one segment that seems like it’s going to be a big hassle…perhaps take days to film…but ends up taking only half a day — from morning to 3 o’clock later that day. The same goes with editing — we’d be expecting a big mess, when in fact, we’d be finished by 3 o’clock the same day, only to have everyone go, “what?!”
[Shows clip from Maadadayo]
KUROSAWA — Battle scenes too. When the cavalry makes a charge or something…we film it three times with three different cameras, each time with different lenses. So in the end, we’ll have 9 cuts, and all you have to do is string together the good ones. It’s not that hard. Aside from that…when someone falls off a horse…gets shot and falls of a horse… we’ll do a special take afterwards for those types of scenes. And all you have to do is throw that clip in at the right moment, and that’s it. [Pause] And…if you run out of cuts, just flip the film over…
[Takes a while to get it; Big Laugh]
KUROSAWA — Yeah, just flip it over and now the guy is running from that side to this side. Hey, you’ll never notice the difference.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughing] Even if they’re carrying their swords on the wrong side? [Usually, the left so they can draw it with their right hand]
KUROSAWA — No you won’t notice…because…it’s only when the guy falls off the horse. It’s really absurd if you’re paying close attention…with the sword on the wrong side and all. You should notice it, but…well…[Pause] you just don’t.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — You know how Mifune’s fight scenes are really intense. Well one time, we were editing one of those scenes and had to stop the reel because someone came in to ask a question. And that’s when I happened to look down at the film and notice that… he’s not visible on the film itself.
MIYAZAKI — Huh…
KUROSAWA — He’s nothing but a blur on each of those frames…and you can’t really see his face either. Only when you play back the film do you actually see Mifune in combat. That’s how fast he’s moving. That’s why those fight scenes are so intense. Also, when you spend a lot of time editing those scenes, you get the impression that it’s going to be very lengthy, but no…it’s really really short. I’d say the film itself is about 20 feet…no more than 20 feet. Even then, I feel as though I’ve seen plenty, and that’s because I’m so nervously focused onto the screen.
MIYAZAKI — [Say’s something about the audience’s perception, but I’m not sure what he meant]
KUROSAWA — Right, right.
[Shows clip from Tsubaki Sanjuro (1962)]
MIYAZAKI — Do you make these [storyboard] drawings after you finish writing the script?
KUROSAWA — Most of them, yes…but there are a few that I draw while I’m still writing the script. I’ll sometimes come across old sketches on the back of an envelope or something.
MIYAZAKI — [Looking at the drawings] Really good.
KUROSAWA — Huh?
MIYAZAKI — You’re really good
KUROSAWA — Huh?
MIYAZAKI — You are really good [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — Nawww, I really don’t think…
MIYAZAKI — You don’t think so? I…
KUROSAWA — Well the funny thing is… I was supposed to be an artist when I was young. My dream was Paris — to open my own art shop. Mr. Umehara would always walk up and compliment my drawings whenever I’d be painting outside. It was with his and Mr. Cardin’s support that I eventually got the chance to put some of my drawings on display at an art exhibition overseas. And to my surprise, I was later invited to give a talk at the Louvre Museum. “But sir, I’m not an artist!” was my response. So oddly enough…my dreams did come true.
MIYAZAKI — It sure did!
KUROSAWA — “Your style is really interesting,” is what Mr. Umehara used to always say, and we wondered why. Well, after much discussion, we figured out it’s because they [the paintings] aren’t intended to be very high quality paintings when I draw them. They’re just meant to give my staff a feeling for the scene, and nothing more, so they tend to be a little reckless in style. There might be some that are draw sensibly. It depends; I’ll draw with whatever I have on me at that moment.
MIYAZAKI — [Flipping through more drawings] From the sound of your stories, the live-action business sounds like a lot of fun.
KUROSAWA — Huh?
MIYAZAKI — Live-action sounds like a lot of fun. [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — It sure is. For example, if there’s going to be a film shoot the next day, I want to get out there as early as possible. Though, my assistants probably don’t like it when I come in early because they’d rather not have to deal with me. For them, a good day is one where I take my time coming into work. So a lot of the time, you’ll find me waiting impatiently at home.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — Everyone has a lot of fun, really. I always tell my people, “no matter how grueling things may be at first, you’ll eventually start to enjoy it if you just keep at it. Once you reach that state, you’ll be putting in a lot of effort without evening knowing it.” And it’s true. I might say “ok, that’s good enough,” but their response will be “just a second…one more thing” They’re that immersed in their work. Conversely, if you let things slide thinking “well, this won’t be in view of the camera,” then there’s no end to how lazy you can get. You either give it your all, or don’t even bother.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — And sometimes, ridiculous things happen because of it. If you recall Hachi-gatsu no Rapusodi [Rhapsody in August, 1991], there’s a field across the house. Well, long before any filming takes place, the first thing we do is ask the local farmers to plant the appropriate crops in each of the fields. You know, “pumpkin fields here…” and so forth. All this so that by the time we come back, all the crops will be fully grown. You just can’t plant these things at the last moment and expect them to look natural. Well one time, I look down on what was supposed to be a pumpkin patch and “wait a minute, these are gourds!”
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs] Mixed up the seeds did they?
KUROSAWA — “I told you, the gourd goes here on this shelf in the kitchen. The field out there is supposed to be pumpkin!” But in the end, we figured that it would all get covered with leaves, and that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. People got the idea to claim their own gourd by writing their name on it, so they could take one home afterwards, and make them into ornaments or whatever. They all grew up to be pretty big. So yeah, we had a big laugh over that — “what kind of fool plants gourds in a field?”
MIYAZAKI — When you’re recruiting your staff for a movie, do you just announce it and have people flock to you?
KUROSAWA — No… in my case, most of my staff members are people that I’ve worked with for a very long time. When I announce a new movie, it’s the usual gang that rushes in to help. Otherwise, I don’t think it would go so smoothly. “Man, have you lost a lot of hair.” That’s how long I’ve known some of the people. Like Takao Saito, our cameraman who I just refer to as Taka-bou (little Taka)…he’s already sixty. It’s just that I’ve known him from when he was that little, and the name stuck through all these years.
MIYAZAKI — And the cameraman’s assistant…Taka-bou-san gets to pick?
KUROSAWA — Yes, he makes those decisions. So everyone works their way up the ranks. In that sense, people will gather around if I holler. You know, “we’re gonna start filming in however many hours so have everything ready to go by then.” I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to planning and preparation, so I tend to spend more time than most. If the filming doesn’t go smoothly, it’s usually because you didn’t spend enough time getting everything ready. You do your homework, and everything goes smoothly.
MIYAZAKI — In the old days when movie studios were in much better shape, we could afford to put up a fight against movie companies. That is, even if we went over-budget…even if we didn’t get along at all, we could still manage to squeeze the funding out of them to make movies.
KUROSAWA — That was exactly what happened when we were working on Seven Samurai. It was taking a whole lot longer than it was supposed to. So much so that we were expecting them to cut us off at any moment. In fact, we hadn’t filmed a single scene from the last battle because of it. And just as we expected, we had a few visitors come in from Toho: “We’d like to see what you have so far.” “But sir, we haven’t filmed the most important part of the movie.” “I don’t care; just show us what you have.” “Sir, it’s already February. If it starts snowing now, we’ll be in big trouble when it comes to filming the rest of the movie. Are you sure about this?” “Yes, let’s see it.” So we spent an entire week editing what we had of the film so far. And we showed it to them, up towards the end, where Kikuchiyo runs up the roof where the flag is…you know, “ta ta ta tee ta ta ta…[flutter] [flutter]” right? “[Points] There they come there they come!” and then…blank, goes the screen.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughing]
KUROSAWA — “[With a confused and impatient look] so what happens next…?” “We told you, we don’t have a single scene filmed for the rest of the movie.” So they all gathered around…mumbled something and then came back to us and said “Go ahead, film whatever you need…please.”
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — And that’s when it started snowing. We all yelled, “Told you so! That’s what you get!” and then proceeded to have big binge back at my place later that night.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — As luck would have it, it snowed pretty heavily that night. We had to bring in the fire department and spend an entire week melting all that snow. Melting the snow over an area that used to be rice paddies to begin with… the muck was unbelievable. That might be part of the reason why those scenes were so dynamic.
MIYAZAKI — Indeed! [Laughs]
[Shows clip from Seven Samurai]
KUROSAWA — You know, I really liked that bus in Totoro.
MIYAZAKI — [Gleefully] Thank you.
[Miyazaki seems to be at a loss for words here]
KUROSAWA — Those are the kinds of things that people like me in this business can’t do, and that’s something I’m really envious about.
MIYAZAKI — The thing is, I grew up in the city… in a time right after the war…when my only perception of Japan was that it was an impoverished and pitifully hopeless country. [Laughs]. At least that’s what we were always told. It was only after I went overseas for the first time that I started appreciating Japan’s natural environment. That being the case, it’s funny that I keep wanting to make movies with a foreign [western/European] setting. I made Totoro because I felt the need to make a movie that takes place in Japan.
[Shows the Mei-bound Catbus scene from Tonari no Totoro (1988)]
MIYAZAKI — Lately, I’ve been wanting to make a Jidai-geki [period dramas]. Man is it hard! I don’t even know what to do!
KUROSAWA — What I think is really interesting about the Sengoku-era [1467–1567] is that…it’s perceived to be a time when, for example, one had to be loyal to his lord and obey similar moral and ethical codes. But in actuality, those only came into existence during the Tokugawa Shogunate [Edo-era; approximately 1603–1867] as an attempt to maintain some degree of order [and peace for the Tokugawa family]. The Sengoku-era, on the other hand, was quite the opposite — people had a lot of freedom then.
[The word KUROSAWA — uses next is ambiguous; “shujin” can either mean man of the house (husband) or landlord; below are two plausible translations based on these two different definitions]
KUROSAWA — (first translation): “This husband of mine…he’s no good.” If that’s what she thought, then she would’ve, you know… [walked out on him]…without so much as a second thought.
KUROSAWA — (second translation): “Our landlord…he’s no good.” If that’s what they thought, then they would’ve, you know…[revolted]…without so much as a second thought.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — And that’s the kind of environment that spawned people like Hideyoshi [1536–1598]. They’re free-thinkers. “You must be loyal to your husband” — that wasn’t the case then. If he wasn’t worthy, then you could just abandon him. That’s what it was like. I think it would be really interesting if you could portray that.
MIYAZAKI — Hmm…
KUROSAWA — Shakespeare might be uniquely British, but actually…Japan did have people like Macbeth during that era. You’d be surprised how easily you could make a Japanese story that parallels something out of Shakespeare. Yeah, why don’t you do a Japanese Shakespearean Jidai-geki? There are a lot of good stories.
MIYAZAKI — [Pause, perplexed laugh]
KUROSAWA — Yeah?
MIYAZAKI — Well, let’s start with what they ate…what they wore.
KUROSAWA — We do have records of those…like menus
MIYAZAKI — What about the Muromachi-era [encompasses the Sengoku-era, also known as the Ashikaga-era; 1333–1573]
KUROSAWA — Muromachi is…a good period.
MIYAZAKI — It gets a little fuzzy in the Nanboku-cho [early years; 1336–1392]. That and the Taiheiki [collection of war tales]…everything becomes a big mess.
KUROSAWA — Yeah, it gets more difficult the further back you go. If it’s the Tale of the Heike [Part of the Taiheiki], then we have good records of those.
MIYAZAKI — The utter devastation of Kyoto towards the end of the Heian-era [794‑1185], as depicted in the Houjouki [Tale of the Ten-Foot Square Hut] — earthquakes, great fires, dead bodies everywhere…rushing back from Fukuhara [modern day Kobe area] only to find your estate in complete ruins…
KUROSAWA — You mean Rashomon’s time period. That’s interesting too.
MIYAZAKI — Watching it as a kid, I remember it being a really scary movie! [Laughs]. For me, the movies that stay on my mind aren’t the uplifting ones, but rather the ones that depict the realities of survival.
KUROSAWA — Akutagawa-san has a lot of novels [aside from Rashomon] that depict that time period. Remember that the Rashomon written by him is completely different from Yabu no Naka [from which the movie was originally adapted] — remember the old lady upstairs who’s stealing the hair from the corpse?
MIYAZAKI — Right, right.
MIYAZAKI — It seems as if movies these days don’t deal with as wide of a time frame as they used to.
KUROSAWA — Yes, and that’s because…well first of all, even if you wanted to make a movie of that era, you’d have a lot of trouble finding a good filming location.
MIYAZAKI — That’s very true. Power lines everywhere! [Laughs].
KUROSAWA — Places like the Ikaruga no Miya Palace [7th century] were built in the middle of a cedar forest. Those trees were huge [Gestures] and that’s why they could manage to build such a wooden structure. Nowadays, there’s not a single one left! That’s how much things have changed.
MIYAZAKI — [Nodding] Yes…yes.
KUROSAWA — For Maadadayo (1993), we had access to many of the clothes from that era [1940s]…like suites. But if you and I try to wear them, they won’t fit at all; we’ve gotten bigger.
MIYAZAKI — Oh I see.
KUROSAWA — But if you look at the armor from the Battle of Okehazama , or something, they’re noticeably bigger. Clothes from the Sengoku-era are big.
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs] Are you saying that we got smaller during the Edo-era [1603–1867]?
KUROSAWA — [Nod] Our physique undoubtedly deteriorated during the 300 years under Tokugawa. At first, I didn’t think such a drastic change was reasonable, or even possible. But when you look at the clothes from the early Showa-era [pre WWII] and compare it to those of today…in just 40 years, look at how much we’ve changed. They just don’t fit!
MIYAZAKI — [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — So we had to find fabric that matched the original and tailor new ones based on that. It was a big hassle.
MIYAZAKI — When it comes to making a Jidai-geki, I just keep running in circles…and never actually come close to realizing that goal. People ask, “so what’s your next project?” to which I’ll respond, “Jidai-geki!” I’ve been saying that for the past 10 years! [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — In Seven Samurai, we were originally going to chronicle the everyday life of a particular samurai. And as you mentioned earlier…he’ll wake up in the morning, eat something for breakfast, perhaps go to the Edo Castle…but what exactly would he do there, and what would he do for lunch? We don’t know any of the details. There’s no way we can write a script like that.
MIYAZAKI — Right…right.
KUROSAWA — It’s actually easier to find earlier written records than it is to find those of the Edo-era. We did a lot of research, and that’s when we came across an account of a village hiring samurais to become the only village spared from rebel attacks. “Hey, let’s do this.” And that’s how it started. Of course, once we got to work on it, we just let our imagination run wild. Our producer asked, “what about the title?” and I said, “well, it’s about seven samurai…hey, that’s perfect!” “We’re going with this, no matter what!”
MIYAZAKI — That’s true! Movies that don’t have a fitting title are no good. [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — That’s very true. Although… we had a lot of trouble naming this one [Maadadayo].
MIYAZAKI — Oh really? [Laughs]
KUROSAWA — They were all too awkward sounding. Every day, I’d rack my brain over a title to the point where one day, I just blurted out “Maadadayo! [Not yet!]” My son said “hey, that works!” so we knew it was a keeper.
[Shows clip from Maadadayo]
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.