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book review

The samurai and the clouds: An eyewitness account of making movies with Kurosawa Add to ...

Waiting on the Weather:

Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa

By Teruyo Nogami

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Stone Bridge Press,

296 pages, $29.50

Imagine a lightly written account of a giant of any artistic medium -- in this case film, and in this case Akira Kurosawa -- in the manner of, say, Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair or the modern magazine of the same name, and you have a sense of the gossipy flavour of Waiting on the Weather, by Teruyo Nogami, long-time script-girl-turned-production-manager to Akira Kurosawa. There is something of a tradition of the production "wife" to the brilliant director.

What is so startling about this account is its homey, accessible matter-of-factness. There isn't a note of tension, anxiety or breathlessness. Would Kurosawa have been okay with it? Probably not, as the author herself concedes.

One of the things we glean from this memoir of decades of professional devotion is the curious dependency on raw nature that is part of movie-set life; one of this book's early anecdotes describes the anxious waiting for the arrival of a single cloud to pass overhead in order that the camera might catch it during the shooting of the action. (Thus the title of the book.) One of the overwhelming frustrations of Kurosawa's directing life was his slavish devotion to capturing or recreating natural phenomena writ very large; the pathetic fallacy of nature in harmony with his characters' trials. To many of his fanship -- which includes the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola -- Kurosawa was the master of cinematic device.

Kurosawa was a director whose visual imagination ballooned larger than life, even bigger than screen size, though he knew exactly what he would see on the screen at rushes without the aid of video assist, and he was a perfectionist, making his complex logistics difficult for those who worked with him, and for his film budgets. Nogami doesn't attempt to analyze (at about the book's midpoint, I had the curious sense of reading a writer who had never read or heard of Freud) why Kurosawa never found complete acceptance at home in Japan (Bertolucci had this problem in Italy and Claude Jutra struggled in Quebec), where he often faced critical newspaper accounts ranting against his spiralling budgets.

Like the masters of many crafts, Kurosawa demanded unstinting 24-hours-a-day devotion by cast and crew, including a nightly extended meal and, for him, at least one bottle of vodka, the quantity increasing depending on, metaphorically speaking, the number of clouds he might be waiting for.

One longs to have sat around the table and listened to Kurosawa hold forth. These occasions are the special insider pleasures of a film set. In this account of Kurosawa's working life, the events of his film location life are surprisingly more familiar than exotic. A slight shift of the food and seating positions, and it could be a film set anywhere in the world. What Nogami manages to do, in her chatty style (at least in translation), is render Kurosawa as both brilliant director and needy boyish wonder.

She also has a long memory and a treasury of marvellous little cartoon drawings she has inserted among the stories. Nogami recalls that in 1954's Seven Samurai, which won international acclaim, Kurosawa used a mere 50 horses at a time; these were collected from local villages, with villagers as riders. As a samurai, horses were vitally important to Kurosawa. "Before dawn, men dressed in full armour would emerge from the houses, mount their horses, and ride to the set over the paths between paddy fields; along the way, the sun would rise, lighting up this remarkable spectacle." Twenty-five years later, for the production of Kagemusha, village life was much altered in Japan; 150 trained horses were required, and the only logical recourse was to purchase them.

Nogami's elaborate description of preparing the horses to cohabit is uncharacteristically ribald: ". . . there was to be positively no horsing around, if you get my drift: with the serious business of filming at hand, no displays of sexual attraction could be tolerated among the horses. Since the herd was mixed, unless preventive steps were taken, males were likely to get excited and suddenly run amok. The only recourse was to remove the source of their problematic passion."

In the final scene of Kagemusha, with a battlefield heaped with dead horses, Nogami asks, "Has any other film ever portrayed a battlefield heaped with the corpses of horses on such a vast scale or with such a terrible beauty?" Kurosawa reassures concerned journalists: "They were all fast asleep, knocked out with sleeping medicine. Why, we even spread cloths on the ground . . ."

I read this book the wrong way round; I should have re-screened the movies first, and then read of the victories and sorrows of their making. Learn from my mistake; watch the movies, then read the book. Or, if you are not so inclined, have a look at Kurosawa's reel of immaculately constructed trailers of all his films. It's a sort of Classic Comics version of his vast body of work. Kurosawa loved every bit of the filmmaking process; he regretted that he could not compose his own film music.

Kurosawa was completely transparent about how and where his inspiration came from, whether it was a dog carrying a human hand (not real) in the opening of Yojimbo, or ants climbing up a rose bush in Rhapsody in August ( Hachigatsu no Rapusodi). He was a man whose eyes were open so wide he caught sight of metaphor in all the right places, and put them on the screen.

His overriding declaration seemed to be an expression of love for the individual, the man who dared to reform. He didn't see himself as reformer; he would say he was a film director. He was the consummate director; he knew everything, he challenged himself with every film, had honest intentions, took chances, loved film with enviable passion and had the breadth of genius to impact on all our lives without our even knowing it. There is hardly a film made that doesn't in some way refer to what Kurosawa created. His is a heroic record of the pre-digital era, fearlessly pursuing the real art of cinema without regard for fashion or commerce. Long may his legacy survive.

This addition to the vast library of interpretation of Kurosawa makes a nice teatime break. (Or a bottle of vodka, if you want to get deeply into the character.) Interesting to note that two prominent Canadians were involved with the English version: Marty Gross, who works part of the time in Japan, and Toshiko Adelman, a Japanese-English interpreter.

Gail Singer's documentary films are familiar to audiences in Japan.

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