There was a time in America when you could sit down in the evening, turn on a television talk show, and hear a conversation with Akira Kurosawa. That time was the early 1980s, and that talk show came hosted, of course, by Dick Cavett, to whom no cultural current — and indeed no culture — was too foreign for broadcast. With pictures like Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood, Kurosawa established himself in the 1950s as the most acclaimed Japanese auteur alive, with prominent admirers all over the world, Cavett included. “Kurosawa no dai-fan desu,” he says in the filmmaker’s native language before living the Kurosawa dai-fan’s dream of having a chat with the master himself.
Kurosawa, Cavett also notes, had never been interviewed on television in Japan, a fact that might have struck a Western cinephile as indicative of the bewildering lack of support he suffered in his home country. “Why does he think he is so revered in the West as a filmmaker,” Cavett asks his interpreter (Japanese Film Directors author Audie Bock), yet “has trouble getting money up in Japan to make a film?”
To this inquiry, which must have struck him as unusually or even refreshingly direct, Kurosawa first replies thus: “I certainly can’t explain that either.” In fact his then-most recent film Kagemusha had taken years to reach production; while unable to shoot, a despairing but undeterred Kurosawa hand-painted its every scene.
Only with the support of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (who went on to co-star with Kurosawa in a Suntory whiskey commercial) could Kagemusha eventually be realized. The picture thus escaped the realm of such unmade Kurosawa as an adaptation of Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, which would at the end of the 1980s pass into the hands of his more eccentric but also-acclaimed contemporary Shohei Imamura. Kurosawa tells the story when asked if he’d ever considered making a film about Hiroshima, just one aspect of the director’s mind and experiences about which Cavett expresses curiosity. Others include the prewar Tokyo in which he grew up, his family’s samurai lineage, his pacifist detestation of violence (perhaps the source of his own films’ violent power), and his Western influences. “Would he like to have made a film with John Wayne and Toshiro Mifune?” Cavett asks. Though the notion strikes Kurosawa as “very difficult,” it’s surely the stuff of a dai-fan’s dreams.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.