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.

 

Verdict:

12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet
English

“I’m just saying it’s possible”

 

12 Angry MenIf I was to choose one debut movie from Hollywood that I would have loved to make, it would not be Citizen Kane (1941), it would not be Duel (1971) but it would be Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). Perhaps the word “Powerhouse” was coined keeping 12 Angry Men in mind. The film still has the raw power to shake, thrill and move audience of any generation. The granddaddy of all courtroom dramas.

12 Angry men follows the decision making process of the 12 titular men, coming from carious strata of the society, on a teenage murder convict inside a single room as all of them but one ritualistically try to wrap up things with the seemingly solid evidence provided to them. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is disgusted at disposing off a life so simply and tries to make the rest of them deliberate over their decision. What begins as a single dissident voice turns out into a fierce tug of war that gradually descends into a no competition. All of them slowly realize that what they have at hand is supposed to be a qualitative process and not quantitative and that there is more than a vote at stake.

12 Angry men remains one of the best character studies made on film till date. The protagonists enter the room with wide range of mentalities ranging from boredom and arrogance to curiosity and apathy. As the day progresses, each person’s mentality catalyses the others’ and the chemistry within the members changes in order to suit each other’s ideologies. At the end of it all, not only is the prejudice of the characters shattered but so is the audience’s preconceived notion about the power of cinema. The viewer will walk out of the movie with open minds as the characters walk out of the dreaded room.

The most stunning aspect about the film is that nobody knows the truth at the end of the ordeal – Neither the characters nor the audience. One is reminded slightly of Kurosawa‘s minimalist masterpiece Rashomon (1950), for both deal with subjective accounts of crimes and yearning for absolute truth. Kurosawa’s film leaves the audience helpless and craving for objectivity with the woodcutter’s benign act being the only comforting element, whereas 12 Angry Men makes them gradually reconcile with the fact that there is much more to “truth” than meets the eye. The film’s greatest success lies not in changing the decision of the characters, but in making them and the audience acknowledge the fact that there are possibilities outside their frame of minds.

Minimalism in film is ironically a very tough job and not many have achieved it with success. As they say, it is difficult to be simple. Pulling off a film inside a single room and with a dozen characters is definitely not an easy task and Lumet has done it with more than perfection. What could have easily rolled off to a claustrophobic garrulous mess is instead fabricated into a gripping study of human characters and group dynamics. The performances are all top rate and one wonders if these characters were written with the corresponding actors in mind. Lee. J. Cobb‘s loud arrogance is as moving as Martin Balsam‘s quiet leadership. Such great casting never comes often.

Needless to say, 12 Angry Men forms the cream of greatest American films ever made and is in the same league as Kubrick’s and Ford’s masterpieces, if not better. Be whatever your mood while you watch the film, you will end up awe-struck at the flawless execution and at the realization that only “Seeing is Believing“.

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.