Something Like An Autobiography
Akira Kurosawa (Translated by Audie E. Bock)
Random House, 1983
“I am not a special person. I am not especially strong. I am not especially gifted. I simply do not like to show my weakness, and I hate to lose, so I am a person who tries hard. That’s all there is to me”
- Akira Kurosawa (Something Like An Autobiography,1983)
The artist is a typed individual. It is always comfortable for us to outcast him and envisage him as a hermetic loner, scribbling about in the wilderness. Why not? History testifies regularly that great artists often succumb to the battle between personal and professional lives. This preservation of the artist as an enigmatic figure also serves partly to assuage our need for heroes. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, too, probably would have been the stuff of legends before the world got to know him through his intensely intimate book Something Like An Autobiography. Kurosawa was at the twilight of his career when he wrote the book and he was, clearly, a man with nothing to lose but his vanity. Kurosawa pains an immensely honest portrait of himself, trying as objective to be possible, sometimes even being overly harsh on himself. Reading the book, one is only surprised that it was this very person who made those fierce Samurai movies!
Divided into many small chapters, Something Like An Autobiography follows Kurosawa’s life right from his birth (!), through his “crybaby” days, his rebellious phase and to his jumping into cinema. With enviable clarity and memory power, Kurosawa recalls even minor incidents that the normal minds do not register. His trips to the ladies toilet (yes, that’s right!), his first encounter with Sake, his friction with the sports teacher and his clash with the local gang of brats are all memories that the reader wishes he had had. However, not all memories are as sweet. Kurosawa’s years following his decision to leave home and his life during tumultuous times of the second big war are but some of the most horrifying experiences a youth can experience. Kurosawa explains with utmost calm his harrowing period as an editor of an underground communist magazine and the exceeding financial crunch he experienced during that time. But what takes the cake is his eternally burning rage against the Japanese board of film censor for whom he reserves the choicest of worlds in the book.
In fact, with only a little effort, Something Like An Autobiography could be easily turned into a dramatic film script. Kurosawa, the man he is, handles the whole book somewhat like a scriptwriter or a director would. Consider the passage where he is about to introduce his biggest influence – director Kajiro Yamamato. Kurosawa directly cuts to Yamamato’s deathbed where the latter asks how his assistant directors are behaving on the sets! This minimalist urge to drive home the point and put the audience immediately into the midst of the context clearly shows up in his films too (He mentions a similar incident that he did for the opening scene of Stray Dog (1949)). Special mention has to be made for the translation by Japanese film scholar Audie E. Bock who has successfully has managed to convey perhaps exactly what Kurosawa intended without resorting to verbose intertitles or unwarranted western phrases.
The most evidently surprising thing about the book, written in 1983, is the timeline it covers in Kurosawa’s life. The book proceeds chronologically and ends with a chapter on Kurosawa’s first international success, Rashomon (1950). The post-Rashomon period is completely missing, not even superficially present. One can perhaps say that the rest was history. But the bigger Kurosawa mystery still persists. What was his state of mind during those troublesome years following the debacle of Red Beard (1965)? Why did he part ways with his favorite actor Toshiro Mifune? Why did he seek out foreign aid for his later films? Kurosawa’s not even willing to bring those questions into picture. You can’t blame him though. He clearly states early on that this book is only something that resembles an autobiography, not an account of what all happened. It would perhaps be fitting to call it a self-portrait than an autobiography – one where the author chooses to illustrate what defines him (and not what is defined by him) with equal measure of subjectivity and objectivity.
But on the other hand, his childhood days are allotted significant amount of space. Kurosawa mentions in the preface that if he had to write a book about himself, it would turn out to be nothing more than a talk about movies. But Something Like An Autobiography is far from that. With the exception of one chapter, there is almost no mention of films that he adored or influenced him. Instead, Kurosawa basks in his reverence for his elder brother Heigo, his teacher Seiji Tachikawa, his mentor Kajiro Yamamato and his lifelong friend Keinosuke Uekusa. He spends a lot of time reminiscing his pre-cinema times, his trips to the country side, his memories of the Great Kanto Earthquate that shattered Tokyo and his stint at the Keika Middle School. But it is in these apparently casual escapades that we get to know Kurosawa’s inspiration as a filmmaker. In hindsight, one can see why there are almost no parents or kids in his films, why his scripts have always had a patriarchal tendency, why the female figure is regularly absent and why his heroes have mostly been angry and lonesome youth. Perhaps, Dreams (1990) is the cinematic equivalent of Something Like An Autobiography.
Kurosawa emphasizes that everything that is to know about him is there is his films. Interestingly, everything that is to his movies is also present in this book. Brimming with humour (including the laugh-out-loud kind) and pathos, Something Like An Autobiography takes you through a quintessentially Kurosawa emotion ride. It would not be a mere coincidence if you envisage Kurosawa as Mifune while bumbling with cold and hot water at a bathhouse or find Kurosawa meeting Tachikawa after 25 years as moving as Shimura sitting in the snow on that swing. He describes his fond acquaintances with as much love and enthusiasm as for his characters. One does feel at the end of the book that he/she has known Uekusa, Heigo and even Yamamato for years. But most importantly, it becomes clear how Kurosawa and, perhaps, many such stalwarts are as tied to this very world as we are. However, not one ounce of respect is lost as Kurosawa disarms himself to reveal what he really is. On the contrary, one only reveres him more as he passes through the purgatorial gate of Rashomon.