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)


Something Like An AutobiographyThe 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.



Four Faces of King Lear

Four Faces of King Lear

Shakespeare’s plays have become an endless pool of resource for the filmmakers of the world. Their universality of themes and emotions has intrigued a range of directors and has prompted so many adaptations and retellings. One of them, King Lear, distinctly stands out. Romeo and Juliet may have become one for the classrooms and Macbeth may still be classified as a terrifying legend, but King Lear seems to grow with age and feels immensely relevant and profound now more than ever. The themes handled by the epic resonate and typify the post-modern era as if the book was written a few years ago. Of course, it is difficult to make a film that is both true to the literature and retains its cinematic qualities without the influence of theatre. But some of these projects have done this well, to say the least. Here are four of the cinematic versions that were but inevitable to come. 

King Lear – Jonathan Miller (1982), The United Kingdom

A film from the home country to begin with. Miller’s King Lear is my substitute for the impossible-to-find Peter Brook version. Made as a part of a massive project undertaken by the BBC in 1982 to film Shakespeare’s works, this version has been remembered almost solely for the monumental performances of all the actors. And in harmony with the intention of the production, the film remains thoroughly faithful to the classic. It attempts to take into it everything that Shakespeare put forth in his narrative.

I must admit that I was quite skeptical when I started watching the film. Shot in 4:3 and under an objective of just filming Shakespeare’s work, I expected the film to be too theatrical and plainly, an extended soap-opera. But the film is far from that. It almost completely does not use expressionist zooms, shot-reverse shots and even a background score for that matter. Yes, it is excessively lit and has got a soap-like visual quality, but it sure does possess cinematic values of its own. Its cinematography, particularly, uses room space well and with surprisingly long shots, achieves a quiet brilliance of its own. The camera is almost static but it conveys much even with that restriction. Interestingly, it almost always films Lear from a downward angle perhaps mirroring Lear’s own infallible pride.

Hordern’s performance as Lear is evidently great and at times, even imposes on the other actors’. Edmund’s character, played by Michael Kitchen, serves as the comic relief and regularly breaches the fourth wall to glorify his vileness. However, the production design of the film leaves a lot to be desired. Shot almost completely indoors, the film uses a bland colour palette that is neither as expressive as Kurosawa’s version nor as meticulously controlled as Kozinstev’s. But the 185 minutes of inspired performances more than make up for that and eventually deem it a very worthwhile effort.

Korol Lir – Gregori Kozinstev (1971), The USSR

Kozinstev’s least talked about adaptation is ironically a fantastic one. Shot arrestingly in widescreen, the film reminds us of the Tarkovsky classic Andrei Rublev (1966) with its measured pace and absorbing imagery. The extraordinary cinematography uses the widescreen judiciously as it uses track shots to cover the vast stretches of barren and decaying landscape that reflect the very nature of Lear’s mind. Kozinstev’s employment of largely empty rooms and lifeless locales coupled with the recurrent images of wild beasts that highlight the torment that Lear is going through provides the perfect ominous atmosphere for the tragic showdown.

Where the BBC version was elaborate and expressive for the sake of the text, Korol Lir is less verbose and more cinematic. The images take the driver’s seat and the emotions are kept suppressed. This quietness of the images adds to the menacing atmosphere that builds up. Kozinstev utilizes the black and white costumes effectively to convey meaning rather than verbalizing it. Yuri Yarvet shines as the (completely shaven!) foolish king and carries naturally with himself an air of madness.

Kozinstev remains mostly faithful to the text and retains most of the characters and elements as they are. However, his handling of Lear and The Fool are interesting. After the first part of the film, Lear is almost constantly shot downwards. At times, the camera neglects him and shuns him oblivion and others, it completely homogenizes him with the helpless mass. Kozinstev places Lear as an insignificant part in the huge fabric of nature. This stark contrast in his position before and after the partition evokes a sense of sympathy for Lear even though his plight is a result of his own decisions. Additionally, Kozinstev ties Lear’s fate to that of his kingdom itself. As Lear deteriorates, we see images of mass exodus looking as if headed towards doom.

And more fascinating is the character of The Fool. Kozinstev does use The Fool as the pivotal character but where Shakespeare killed off the character towards the end, Kozinstev retains him even after Lear’s death. An interesting proposition – The Fool without The King – considering that The Fool is but a manifestation of Lear’s mental self. The soul without the body, the shadow without the object.

Ran – Akira Kurosawa (1985), Japan

Moving farthest from the country of origin, we arrive at my favorite version of the tragedy. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a revelation and a slap for those who considered him defeated after such frustrating years. Kurosawa gives a complete reboot to the book and revamps it perfectly to suit the backdrop. He had already sizzled in the multi-layered feudal drama Kagemusha (1980) and in Ran he retains the backdrop to carve out a shattering masterpiece that is much more cinematic, much more harrowing and much more human than its counterparts.  As much cold at surface as it is with its gut-wrenching violence, Ran at heart it is an elegy, a requiem for the helpless decline of humanity.

Kurosawa makes remarkable changes in the text as he replaces the daughter trio with three sons. He completely eliminates the Gloucester subplot and the theme of lust from the picture. The central focus of Kurosawa remains the idea how man’s past catches up with him no matter what he does. Hidetora (The Lear character) suffers progressively as every one of his action turns back on him one by one. He shelters in a ruined fort that was destroyed by him. He then is protected by Tsurumaru who was blinded during one of his raids. And both his daughters-in-law have been affected by his wars in one way or the other. Hidetora has cast the boomerang, now he has to collect it.

Kurosawa was an excellent painter and it shows. With remarkable use of almost all colours, Kurosawa takes us the filmic medium as his canvas and strikingly brings out the brewing savagery and insanity of all his characters (“Ran” incidentally means Chaos).

Watching Ran even after 20 years of its production, a shiver runs down the body, for the images are of such power. The threatening clouds that preface each scene, the opening hunt, Lady Kaede’s vengeance and its termination and the final image of the blind Tsurumaru dropping the scroll of Buddha – more than an adaptation. Poetry of war.

King Lear – Jean-Luc Godard (1987), France

It actually isn’t fair to call this one a French adaptation. It is Godard’s adaptation, period.

And it isn’t fair to even call it an adaptation of King Lear; it is a film that tells about an adaptation. I might just be giving the article away, but there are some traces of the Shakespearean work to classify it with the other three films. It follows a man who calls himself Shakespeare Junior the fifth just after the Chernobyl incident as he tries to re-create Shakespeare’s (lost) work. And as usual, Godard uses this loose structure to weave his tangled web of ideas and reflections.

What Godard has done here is commendable because he takes Lear from one form of literature to another. All the Lears hitherto have been narrative oriented whereas Godard presents him inside an essay – an essay on art, its preservation and reproduction. He discusses how images are unique and how it is inimitable. Additionally, he places the audience directly in King Lear’s shoes. Lear wanted to believe everything he heard from his daughters and similarly, the audience is “led” to believe that the film has ended much before the actual finish (many times!). And through this mockery, Godard calls for a desertion of belief on the images we see. He emphasizes time and again that “seeing isn’t believing”.

The film regularly tells us that it is 3 journeys into King Lear. Godard grazes the book, which is essentially a tale of struggle of virtue amidst domination, power and betrayal, and extends its possibilities to ponder upon the nature of the cinematic medium. He explores three kinds of domination – domination of commercialism over art, domination of power of image over that of words and the domination of existing forms of cinema over the new ones. And surprisingly, the final tragic image of Lear (Don Learo here) doesn’t show him crying with Cordelia in his arms. Instead, his back is turned as Cordelia remains dead behind him. He continues to be blind.

As such King Lear is all about decadence. Everyone in the story is blind. Lear is blinded by his pride and the fear of hatred, Gloucester by mere belief and later physically, Edmund the sisters by their lust for power and even Kent by his loyalty. The only person unaffected by this “disease” is Cordelia (and perhaps The Fool who is but half a man) whose is the only symbol of virtue and righteousness in the story. And Shakespeare’s work is a tragedy only because of her death that apparently leaves us without a channel of hope.  However, Kent’s eventual awakening after Lear’s death is a possible conduit to sustenance of humanity.

To see how various filmmakers have been obsessed with the representation of power over virtue and vice versa, death and survival of good and vagaries of the human mind is as enlightening as it entertaining. One realizes that even after so many interpretations and analyses, the book remains a constant supplier of thought and remains open to so many adaptations. I, for one, would like to see at least two good Indian adaptations of the book. One, a neorealistic version set in the cities of modern India where struggle for survival is at its peak – something like what would evolve if Wong Kar Wai made it. And the other, a Ran meets Tokyo Story kind of adaptation rooted in the most rural of India’s villages where, also, the feud over familial property remains a fiery issue.

Kakukshi-Toride No San-Akunin (1958) (aka The Hidden Fortress)
Akira Kurosawa

“Get away from me! You stink of dead bodies!”

Hidden FortressJapanese cinematic master Akira Kurosawa has always been a source of inspiration for both contemporary and future film makers. Right from Sergio Leone to Kamal Haasan, every one who has come across his films have been entranced by it. Kakukshi-Toride No San-Akunin (1958), which is considered one of Kurosawa’s finest, apparently inspired George Lucas to script the characters and the narration in the Star Wars franchise based on the two slaves of the film.

Tahei and Matakishi are two slaves who dream of making big business during the war time. They are always fighting and trying to pull each others’ leg. They escape from a concentration camp and stumble upon some pieces of gold and discover that there is more where that came from. They are led by Rokurota Makabe who seems to have all the gold hidden at a secret place. They strike a deal with him wherein they get a share of the gold if they help him smuggle the gold across the heavily guarded border into another country. The gang go through a variety of dangerous situations, every time being saved by Rokurota Makabe. Gradually, they learn that Rokurota Makabe is not a lay man but he is the general of the Akizuki country and is in charge of getting Akizuki’s national treasure and its princess to the right place. The journey not only enlightens the princess about the plight of her subjects but also acts as a medium of settling the differences between the bickering duo.

“Unconventional” doesn’t start to describe this film that refuses to go traditional. Right from the starting conversation that is introduced without an establishing shot (that is reminiscent of the Tarantino age) to the style of narration of the story as viewed my the minor characters of the plot instead of the protagonists, the film breaks the canons of film making one by one with the action and thrill kept intact. Toshiro Mifune is majestic as ever with the right blend of the arrogance and humour. The film was the recipient of the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1959.

Yume (1990) (aka Dreams)
Akira Kurosawa

“Yesterday I was trying to complete a self portrait. I just couldn’t get the ear right, so I… cut it off and threw it away.”

YumeThe first thing that strikes everyone about Japanese cinema is the Samurai culture. And the first thing that strikes about Samurai films is Akira Kurosawa. Akira Kurosawa’s later films, however, were not received well even though they were offbeat works such as Dodes’ka-den (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975) and Yume (1990). Yume presents itself as a episodic collection of eight vignettes apparently based on the director’s dreams.

The first dream “Sunshine Through The Rain” presents a kid witnessing the wedding procession of foxes against his mother’s warnings and his subsequent punishment. In the second segment “The Peach Orchard” has a boy witnessing her sister’s dolls (which represent peach orchards) performing a dance and later scolding him for cutting down peach orchards. The next dream “The Blizzard” portrays a few mountaineers trying to scale a peak against all odds posed by the harsh nature. “The Tunnel” sequence is a chilling account of a Japanese army official who meets a dead soldier from his squad who refuses to believe that he is dead. In the “Crows” dream where Martin Scorsese plays Vincent Van Gogh, we are given a tour through the works of Van Gogh. The “Mount Fuji In Red” segment shows a nightmare portrayal of Nuclear explosion. In the seventh dream “The Weeping Demon”, a man meets a demon who explains that a large scale mutation took place that resulted men such as him. In the final dream “Village Of The Watermills”, a man looks at a village that abandoned the use of modern technology and has decided to live in a clean and peaceful environment.

Spectacular imagery and and amazing production design spells class all over. The film, without doubt, provokes mixed reactions from the audience. But it is indisputably, a daring work of art by all measures. Let’s face it. Which other director has the guts to make a picture based on their dream! The film was nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign film in 1991.