Encounter with Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa (left) and Mamoun Hassan (right) - National Film Theatre, London, August 1971

My first meeting with Akira Kurosawa very nearly did not happen. In August of 1971 Kevin Brownlow returned from the Moscow Film Festival with a tantalising prospect: Kurosawa was going to pay a rare visit to London on his way back to Tokyo. I had recently joined the British Film institute as Head of Production so I thought I would try to arrange a reception. Unfortunately, Stanley Reed, director of the BFI, was in hospital recovering from a heart attack and the deputy director would have none of it: he did not rate Kurosawa. So I rang Stanley in hospital. A little while later, the deputy director tersely told me that he would after all agree to a reception — on condition that it did not cost too much. And so it was that Kurosawa had a meal with, among others, Lindsay Anderson, Stanley Donen, John Schlesinger and Kevin Brownlow — and scores of filmgoers — in the National Film Theatre canteen. It could not have been a better venue.

Akira Kurosawa was a proud man, nicknamed Tenno or the emperor, but he disliked court culture, pomp, celebrity,  show biz and most critics. Distaste for these peripheries would diminish with the lessening of his powers, but that was still in the future. On that evening I queued with amazed and delighted filmgoers to get him some food, but he ate hardly anything. However, he did drink. He put a hand on the whisky bottle whenever anyone tried to move it. He was not your stereotype inscrutable Japanese — he was six foot three, informal, urbane, and relaxed. As he was leaving, he playfully locked the much shorter Anderson in a judo hold.

I sat next to Kurosawa all evening; I felt I was sitting with Homer. He would absolutely not discuss the meaning of his films. He said, ‘You either like my work, in which case there is no point in talking about it, or you don’t like my work, in which there is no point in talking about it.’ But the making of his films was something else. He lived the telling of it. He was particularly excited about his use of multiple cameras and drew on a paper serviette the movement of three cameras on the set of The Lower Depths. I still have that serviette. On it is a trace that might have been left by a spider that had accidentally fallen in an inkpot. To be fair, he was by then some way through the whisky bottle. (On examination I realized it was a very clear indication of mise-en-scène.)

Lindsay Anderson made a brief speech slamming the BFI (this was the man who said that it was the ‘duty of the artist to bite the hand that feeds him’) and paid warm tribute to Kurosawa. Madame Kawakita, legendary figure on the festival circuit and wife of the owner of Toho Studios, which had backed most of Kurosawa’s films, translated his response: ‘He cannot speak except in film. Let us drink.’

As it turned out, 1971 was a particularly significant year. There was a before and an after. The innovation, the great films, the time when Kurosawa could command — all that was before. And after?  Just before he left he gave me a big hug and said something in Japanese. Madame Kawakita translated: ‘There are only good days ahead.’

Early the following year, Kurosawa tried to commit suicide. Maybe the future promised only long, unbearable periods of dumbness and silence for him. Lindsay and I agreed that to congratulate him on surviving the attempt might be tactless. We cabled wishing him ‘the best that he would wish himself’. Of course we knew what that was. However, he was to make only six more films. One in the Soviet Union, two with American money and one with a French producer. Like many of his generation, Kurosawa was, for all the problems, at home in the studio system. Outside it, he was in a kind of exile. Hustling did not come naturally; and, although he was often criticised for being too western, aiming at a world, rather than a Japanese, audience blurred his focus.

I next met him fifteen years and three films (Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha and Ran) later at a reception held for him by the BFI at the Dorchester hotel. This time no expense was spared; it was a banquet fit for a king; no, for an emperor. Everybody was there. I shuffled along with others to shake his hand, and when I did I sensed that something had gone. I asked him if he recalled the previous meeting. He nodded, then spoke in a tone that sounded — no, felt — defensive. He did not want to be reminded. His translator was a beautiful young Japanese woman in a little black number, who spoke with an American accent. Everything had changed, he said. These days he spent his energies trying to get his films off the ground — and then trying to sell them. For a man who in his heyday had made his films and then stood aloof from the rest of it, this must have been torture. Or it was some compensation. Attending award ceremonies, listening to tributes and receiving honours may have punctured the silence. And he was, against the odds, still working. He could, with good reason, echo the words of Kambei, the leader of The Seven Samurai, at the end of the battle against the bandits: ‘We have survived.’ But that was not the whole story. Kambei’s next words are ‘We have lost again.’

Copyright©Mamoun Hassan 2011

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