In the presence of ‘Emperor’ Kurosawa

by Mark Schilling

Akira Kurosawa’s assistant for almost four decades, Teruyo Nogami discusses the master filmmaker’s genius, and his weaknesses

No one, perhaps not even Akira Kurosawa’s immediate family, knew him better. Teruyo Nogami worked with the legendary director for nearly four decades, beginning with “Rashomon” (1950), the film that launched him — and the Japanese film industry — internationally when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

After starting as a script supervisor, Nogami became Kurosawa’s production assistant and production manager, but whatever her title on the credits, she was usually by Kurosawa’s side from the beginning of the shoot to the end. She was on the set of “Ikiru” (1952), “The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai)” (1954) and “Yojimbo” (1961) — classics that made Kurosawa one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers — and influenced everyone from Sergio Leone, who remade “Yojimbo” as “A Fistful of Dollars,” to Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who not only acknowledged their artistic debt to Kurosawa, but supported his work as producers, promoters and, in Scorsese’s case, as an actor. (He played Vincent Van Gogh in the 1990 film “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams [Yume].”) Nogami was also with him at a low point of his career in the early and mid-1970s, when his professional problems and personal demons, including suicidal depression, threatened to overwhelm him.

Though a loyal member of the “Kurosawa family,” she was no sycophant, but rather a keen observer of her boss’s character, including his fearsome temper, and was one of the few people able to stand up to him when he flared out of control. She also had intimate knowledge of his working methods, as well as his relationships with his creative collaborators, from Toshiro Mifune, the star of many of his greatest films, to Shintaro Katsu, the volatile action star who stormed off the set of “Kagemusha” (1980) after falling out with Kurosawa on the first day of shooting.

In 2001 Nogami published “Waiting on the Weather — Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa,” a collection of articles about her career, centering on her years with Kurosawa. Last year Stone Bridge Press published an English translation [see review below].

Now semiretired, Nogami is a familiar figure at film screenings and events, her mane of white hair and broad, cheery smile immediately recognizable in any crowd. She is usually dressed in casual, practical clothes, as though permanently “on location.” She is frank and down-to-earth — the exact opposite of a film-world diva. She is also a thorough pro, who studied filmmaking in the ultimate master class, and has strong views about both the process and the people who make it happen. She reels off anecdote after anecdote with little prompting, while maintaining a critical distance from her most famous subject. Freely acknowledging Kurosawa’s genius, she knew him too well to be in awe of his legend.

After “Waiting on the Weather” Nogami published a volume of girlhood reminiscences, “Chichi e no Requiem (Requiem for a Father),” that Yoji Yamada, one of Japan’s best-known film directors, is using as basis for his next film, “Kabei.”

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How did you start writing “Waiting On the Weather?”

It began as a series of articles I wrote for a newsletter called “Cinema Club.” The readers were people who liked old movies, so [the editors] asked me to write about my memories of the old days — not just [Akira] Kurosawa. I really wish now that I had kept some sort of journal back then; it would have helped me so much in writing the articles. But while you’re on a shoot you never think of that sort of thing — you’re just trying to get through the day’s work. But when I went to Russia with Kurosawa to shoot “Dersu Uzala” [1975] I did keep a journal. That’s why that section of the book is so long. When I started the series, I wrote about my association with [director] Mansaku Itami and his son Juzo. Kurosawa was still alive then, so I hesitated to write about him. I started writing about him after he died [in 1998]. If I had written about him while he was still alive, he would have criticized me [laughs]. Not that I was telling lies, but he’d say things like “You’re exaggerating here” or “I didn’t say it that way.” I didn’t lie, but I did forget a lot — it was so long ago.

You spent a lot of time with Kurosawa on the set, but what about off the set?

When shooting was done for the day he was already thinking about what to do tomorrow. He’d draw pictures and show them to the staff to give them an idea of what he wanted. Also, while eating dinner with the staff, he’d talk about the next day’s work. On location we’d all eat together nearly every night. He’d often be telling stories until one or two in the morning. I’d laugh when his stories were interesting, even if I’d heard them many times before, but when he was mad about something it was terrible. Usually he’d lay into the assistant directors or other staff about something that had happened that day. When he really got going, you didn’t feel like eating — but there was no escape [laughs].

What impression did you have of Kurosawa when you first worked with him on “Rashomon?”

Kurosawa had had a big hit with his first film ["Sugata Sanshiro" (1943)], so he was quickly elevated to the top rank. When he arrived [at the Daiei Studio to make "Rashomon"], he was still young — only 40. He was like a star. He came with all these famous actors from Tokyo, which made him shine even more. He cut a stylish figure — I was a bit scared of him. But I consider myself lucky. If it hadn’t been for Itami-san [Nogami volunteered to care for Itami's teenage son, Juzo, who would later become one of Japan's premier filmmakers, after his widowed mother moved to Tokyo], I wouldn’t have been in Kyoto [working at the Daiei Studio]. Kurosawa just happened to come along, and I just happened to be there. It was all a matter of chance. Kurosawa believed in luck; he felt that something would always turn up. In that sense, he had a lot of confidence.

His luck ran out with “Tora, Tora, Tora” [1970].

That was the worst time for him. [Kurosawa was hired to direct the Japanese portion of the Japan-U.S. coproduction about the Battle of Midway, but quit -- or was fired, according to some accounts -- after several weeks of shooting.] There was a Japanese producer on that film who could speak English, but Kurosawa couldn’t really communicate what he wanted to do . . . [the producer] didn’t explain [the contract] fully, so [Kurosawa] didn’t really know what he was getting into. . . . But people were afraid of him, so they just told him what they thought he wanted to hear. With “Tora, Tora, Tora,” he wanted to make an antiwar movie. The Americans, on the other hand, were more interested in battle tactics and that sort of thing. . . . He thought that if you use someone like [Toshiro] Mifune, his star image would get in the way — it wouldn’t feel like a real war [on the screen]. He wanted to shoot in a realistic documentary style, using real people. The Americans had the exact opposite idea. Also, there just wasn’t enough time to shoot the film [Kurosawa's way]. It would have been tough coordinating the schedules of the amateur actors. Also, it would have been hard to make them learn all the lines. Kurosawa’s ideal was one thing, but reality was something else. The whole experience was frustrating for him. He was drinking every night and behaving badly. “Tora, Tora, Tora” was the toughest experience of his career. [After he came back to Japan], he wanted to forget the whole thing. He gave himself some good advice: to empty out his head and become what he called a “fool.” His film “Dodesukaden” [1970] is an expression of that attitude. The hero is a simple-minded boy who is a fool for trains — just as Kurosawa was a fool for films. If he hadn’t made “Dodesukaden,” he might have fallen apart completely. After that he made “Dersu Uzala,” which looked like it might be another disaster but turned out to be a wonderful movie. On that shoot, he couldn’t understand the language [of the Russian cast and crew] and had to work in terrible conditions, but he was able to finish the film. I admire him for that.

You’ve mentioned some of his weak points. What about his strong points?

Kurosawa was a great editor — truly amazing. He could just blaze through a reel of film — bang, bang, bang. He remembered every shot.

And you?

I was hopeless [laughs].When Kurosawa came to edit, I had to work like crazy to get ready, putting numbers on everything and so on. . . . He shot tons of footage, as much as he thought he needed, so when it came time to edit there was a mountain of film to deal with. When he was filming, he was always editing in his head. When he was working with two cameras, he was thinking about how to bring up camera A to match a shot with camera B. He had it all figured out; he wanted every bit of film to have his signature on it. Of course, things didn’t always go the way he wanted — that’s when he got angry.

Did he rage at the actors as well?

He never got angry at Mifune. He never said anything to [Takashi] Shimura, either. In general, he treated his actors well; they were the raw materials for his films. In interviews, though, he used to say all these fine words about the actors [laughs]. He’d say that it was better to let them do what they wanted — that it was wrong to give them a lot of instruction. What a bunch of baloney! On the set he’d make some of them do scenes over and over. Well, films are a concrete medium — you can’t fool the camera — so sometimes that sort of strictness is necessary. He’d be thinking of a particular expression he wanted, even before the start of filming. He would make drawings to show [the actors] what he wanted, but sometimes it was tough to get the expression that matched his image. It would be a hard struggle day after day. In casting a film, he’d sometimes go for rtain type, instead of a name. For example, for the character of Gorobei in “The Seven Samurai” he cast Yoshio Inaba, who had the right,chunky look for the character. He was a newcomer in a veteran cast, so he had a tough time. Kurosawa was always yelling at him for blowing his lines or some other mistake. I really felt sorry for him.

One actor everyone remembers from that film is Takashi Shimura.

He was the right type for that role. Before then Shimura had been mainly a character actor. He didn’t get many leading roles. But Kurosawa made him a star with “Ikiru.” When “Ikiru” came out, Shimura’s wife was worried about him being cast as the lead. “Do you think the audience will come to see my old man?” she asked [laughs]. . . . He was great in “The Seven Samurai,” but after that he went back to supporting roles. Kurosawa used to say that different foreign countries liked different characters in “The Seven Samurai.” In America, they liked Shimura’s character Kambei the best. In Europe, they liked Kyuzo, the samurai played by Seiji Miyaguchi. He had never played a role like that before. Kurosawa was good at that — bringing out something in an actor that was different from what he had done before. That was the finest performance that Miyaguchi ever gave. He was a small man, but there was something intense about him.

In Japan, Kurosawa is best remembered for his period dramas.

That’s true. He liked period dramas, but he also liked to remake Shakespeare and other Western classics. “Donzoko” [1957] ["The Lower Depths," based on a play by Maxim Gorky] is an example of that — it’s a great picture. The first time he tried that, with “Hakuchi” [1951] ["The Idiot," based on a novel by Feodor Dostoevski], he failed, but that was a good experience for him — he learned a lot. After that he made many films based on Western classics, but he totally Japanized them — he was really good at it.

When he read a novel he was always thinking about how to turn it into a film. He would think in terms of concrete images. He read “War and Peace” again and again, but always with the images in mind. That’s why he was well-suited to be director. He liked various types of literature, including American hard-boiled novels, such as the one by Ed McBain that was the inspiration for “High and Low” ["Tengoku to Jigoku," 1963], but for him the base was always Russian literature. . . . He knew exactly how to turn images into film — he had great powers of concentration. It was as though he was concentrating this energy and then letting it explode on the screen.

You mention in the book that he also knew exactly what was and wasn’t in the frame, even if he wasn’t looking through the lens.

He knew it all right. He would yell at people who didn’t: “What do you think you’re looking at?” [or] “What do you think you’re doing?” He’d blow up in a second. But all good directors are like that; they know exactly what they’re shooting. He was a perfectionist in a lot of ways. He’d have the foreign subtitles for his films translated into Japanese so he could see if there were any mistakes. He’d OK the posters, but just the ones for Japan. He even enjoyed making trailers.

That’s hard to imagine in Hollywood; a famous director making trailers for his own films.

The PR people would never tell him, but they’d have an assistant director add words like “genius” to the trailer. He’d never do that kind of thing himself — he’d be too embarrassed.

He didn’t seem to care that much about the box office; that is, pander to the audience. Would that be correct?

He worried about the box office, but he wouldn’t make films for the sake of it. He did things that would have gotten an ordinary director fired. He’d fight with the studios for the money to make the film he wanted; he had a lot of confidence in his own talent. Movies are a tough business. You have to pour you whole soul into them, otherwise they’re no good.

He also fought with his composers. The quarrel you describe with composer Toru Takemitsu is memorable.

Kurosawa wasn’t the only one. Fellini also fought with his composers. Music was a problem for Kurosawa because he couldn’t write it himself. But he wanted to make his movies his own, completely, so that [inability to write music] bothered him. He often said he wished he could be a composer. He admired Chaplin, because he could compose.

His most famous fight, though, was with Shintaro Katsu, on the first day of shooting “Kagemusha” [1980]. You were there for that one as well.

Do foreign fans even know who Katsu was?

A lot know him from the “Zatoichi” series.

Yes, I suppose so. Anyway, I knew that those two would never get along from before the start of shooting. They were completely different types — like the difference between a school teacher and a gangster. A lot of people think that Kurosawa should have used Katsu in that film and it might have been interesting, but they were destined to fight, if not on the first day of shooting, then sometime after. Katsu was really happy about being cast for the lead, but his personality was that of a playboy. Kurosawa, on the other hand, was a serious type — and he didn’t get along with people who weren’t. He had no interest in playing around with geisha and that sort of thing. Katsu was the opposite: He loved to go out drinking and to play with his gang. He was known for spending 5 million yen in one night. I found him really, really amusing. He was like the wild character he plays in “Zatoichi,” but Kurosawa couldn’t stand that kind of person. He tended to shut out what he couldn’t control. The actor who took Katsu’s place, Tatsuya Nakadai, was more Kurosawa’s style: He would do just as he was told. Mifune was also that type — very serious. That’s fine, but actors who are just serious tend to be small-spirited. They’re cautious to a fault. If an actor is always watching his step around the director and staff, thinking that he’s not so great, then his performance suffers.

Could you say what you wanted to Kurosawa?

I was freer to say what I felt than most of the other staff because I’d been with him so long. I’d sometimes speak up to him for the rest of the staff, but he’d still get angry at me. After “Red Beard” ["Akahige," 1965] Kurosawa entered the latter part of his career. A lot of people say the movies he made then were not that interesting, but all directors are like that when they get older. No one makes great movies all the time. Also, when you get older, you lose your physical strength and aggressiveness.

When Kurosawa got older he was not as in tune with the world as when he was young. He wouldn’t go out drinking and meeting with different people. He never left his own little world. Also, it became hard to speak freely with him — he was too important. He ended up with the same crowd of people, doing the same things. It was just too bad.

See related link:
An unflinching account of a cinema legend