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.



ikiru.jpgIkiru is another gem from the great filmmaker. A sincere officer in a government office realizes that he is going to die in a few months due to a disease. He does all he can against all odds to finish a public park before his death. The final moment in the movie shows him sitting in the snow on a swing in the completed park. This remains one of the most memorable moments in world cinema.

Another example of Kurosawa’s perfection is Red Beard which revolves round a hospital in a disease-stricken village. Kurosawa had asked all the actors to not sign any other film during the two and a half year shoot so that they get into the character’s skin. Even the sets in the movie were made of rotting wood to show the time line of the movie. The operation scene in the movie is way ahead of its times and even now it makes us wince.

ran.jpgThere are numerous other examples from all his films that shows his mastery over the medium. The fate of the impersonator in Kagemusha after the king dies is true of the acting profession as a whole. The contrast of classes in the final sequence of High And Low remains one of the most subtle scenes ever. The intense heat wave throughout Stray Dog directly places us into the protagonist’s boots. Ran is as grand as an epic gets.

dreams.jpgThese are images that are cherished by filmmakers and movie buffs all over the world. Even though he had a huge downfall in his career monetarily after Red Beard, the films that followed did not show any aging or fall in quality. In fact, the movies that came in the dusk of his career are some of the most different and daring film works ever. Even now, when a samurai film is made, it is endlessly compared with Kurosawa and labeled “Nah! Not as good as Kurosawa!”.

Ask some film buff to name a Japanese film director. The first answer (may be the only answer) would be Akira Kurosawa. The name of Akira Kurosawa has become synonymous with samurai cinema. His film techniques have been the fuel to numerous other filmmakers around the world including George Lucas and Kamal Haasan. The powerful imagery he assembles in his shots produces a terrific impact on the viewer’s minds instantly. Ironically, this film genius is recognized more outside Japan than in it.

Perhaps his most famous film, Rashomon is one venture that changed not only the way the world looked at cinema, but also introduced a new term in English, The Rashomon Effect. The sheer minimalist mode that the film is shot in, sets up the mood for such a thrill. The shot where the woodcutter comes across the corpse early on is shown from the point of view of the corpse and looks as if it is going to get him. This innovation instantly familiarizes us with the corpse as a character that is to come later in the movie. Also, the use of rain as a metaphor for the pettiness of human nature and negative connotation of man’s ego provides that dream ending one expects.

Take Yojimbo for instance, the film that spawned a new genre of movies called the spaghetti westerns. The bodyguard has just lost his identity and wanders into a barren town. The shot where he realizes that the town is war-torn is probably the most thrilling moment of the movie. A dog comes around a corner carrying a human hand! The vast barren stretches of land in the movie are reminiscent of the wild west, providing the perfect platform for remake into Fistful Of Dollars.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne Of Blood provides a whole new interpretation to the work. An ambitious man who is manipulated by his wicked mistress and the reasons for his subsequent fall. The story is cleverly blended with Japanese folklore and the feudal system to provide a whole new look. Toshiro Mifune‘s best performance may just be in this movie. He does a perfect job as a man who is swallowed by his own pride.

lowerdepths.jpg In one of my favorites, The Lower Depths, Kurosawa adapts the Maxim Gorky work into the slums of Japan and the various issues there. The final scene where one of the partying inmates of the house exclaims after the suicide of the wretched wannabe-actor (“Stupid actor, he spoiled all the fun”) defines the whole life in the slums and portrays their everyday struggles with ease. The Lower Depths remains one of his most underrated works.