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Looking back on a major turning point

by Mark Schilling

ALL THE EMPEROR’S MEN: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor, by Hiroshi Tasogawa. Applause, 2012, 337 pp., $29.99 (hardcover)

Routinely acclaimed as a giant of world cinema in his lifetime, Akira Kurosawa has slipped in the global director league rankings since his death in 1998. Young foreign fans now more often come to Japanese cinema via the anime of Hayao Miyazaki than the films of Kurosawa, the best of which, including “Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)” (1954) and “Rashomon” (1950), were shot in the black-and-white format so many of them find off-putting.

Meanwhile, Western academic critics have long decried the absence of strong, credible women in his films, viewing his preoccupation with male heroism as less than politically correct, if not outright sexist.

So Hiroshi Tasogawa’s painstakingly researched account of Kurosawa’s firing from “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” the 1970 Hollywood epic about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, might have had more impact if it had appeared while Kurosawa was still alive and reigning as a cinematic god (or, as he was often called in Japan, “Emperor”).

But this incident, which caused the director to threaten suicide and was long obscured by incomplete and misleading reports in the media, is central to understanding not only his career, which was slow to recover from the blow, but also his personality as an artist and individual.

Tasogawa, a veteran journalist, is the ideal writer for the subject since he translated the script for “Tora! Tora! Tora!” under Kurosawa’s supervision, as well as interpreted at key meetings between Kurosawa and his Hollywood collaborators.

Among them was producer Elmo Williams, who first proposed Kurosawa to Twentieth Century Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck as a director for the film’s Japanese sequences and later had the unenviable task of dismissing him from the film. He became an invaluable source for Tasogawa, involved as he was with every aspect of the film’s production, including Kurosawa’s meltdown during three disastrous weeks of shooting in Kyoto in December 1968.

What brought his erratic behavior, from all-night drinking binges and mysterious absences to on-set blowups over trivialities (one such tantrum was set off by pinholes in an officer’s uniform) and fantasies about death by hired assassins (fearing a fatal “accident” Kurosawa took to wearing a construction helmet on the set)?

Wisely, Tasogawa avoids after-the-fact psychoanalysis in favor of a meticulous reconstruction of events leading up to the shoot and beyond, much of which is based on materials such as Kurosawa’s own storyboards, which had lain buried in U.S. archives for decades.

A foreshadowing of the “Tora! Tora! Tora!” debacle was Kurosawa’s aborted plan to make “Runaway Train,” a thriller to be set in the United States and shot with American actors, based on a true incident.

In November 1966, after months of preparation and the expenditure of large sums by producer Joseph E. Levine, Kurosawa abruptly announced that he was postponing his participation by one year. This killed the film, since Levine decided it would be pointless to continue without Kurosawa at the helm.

The same problems that were later to plague the “Tora! Tora! Tora!” shoot first surfaced in “The Runaway Train” project, from Kurosawa’s inability to adapt to the producer-centered Hollywood system, which bruised his massive ego, to his crippling anxiety about the high expectations he felt were being placed on him.

These were even higher for “Tora! Tora! Tora!” since Kurosawa not only felt a duty to his fellow Japanese to tell the Pearl Harbor story as truly and accurately as possible (to the point of casting former navy men in the officers’ roles, despite their total lack of acting experience), but also charged himself with changing American perceptions that Japan had made a “sneak attack.”

Faced with demands from his Hollywood partners (actually, bosses) to play ball and toe the line, this proud, unworldly man, with his destructive streaks of paranoia and perfectionism, fought and raged, but finally and totally collapsed.

In telling the heart of this story, Tasosgawa begins with a bare-bones diary-like account of the doomed “Tora! Tora! Tora!” shoot, while adding details, including the fact of his own intimate participation in the drama, in later chapters. This unusual structure is somewhat distracting, as is the at times rough translation.

But Tasogawa’s uncluttered, fast-paced journalese and his thorough acquaintance with his subject make “All the Emperor’s Men” both a valuable contribution to Kurosawa scholarship and an engrossing read for any Kurosawa fan. Four decades after first being enthralled by “Seven Samurai,” I still count myself as one.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.

  • A M Corbett

    I`d love to get this book. I only realised Kurosawa was originally involved in `Tora! Tora! Tora!` when I bought the dvd this week and watched the director`s commentary. It was also on tv a few days after I bought it. Typical – but it was only 3 euros so that wasn`t too bad. Then I read this article. If it`s true he was eccentric and a bit paranoid, well aren`t all geniuses? I don`t know enough about his attitude towards women or seen enough of his films – unfortunately – to comment properly on the paragraph above about critics decrying the absence of strong women in his films. Otherwise, I really enjoyed Tora! Tora! Tora! and I think they did a great job of it. It`s definitely worth buying the dvd.

  • Lord Bigglesworth

    Ah, Kurosawa. I remember seeing his “Seven Samurai” on TV, which led me to buy the Nintendo game “Nobunaga’s Ambition” back in the early 1990s. Thus leading to a lifelong interest in Japanese history and pop culture. Ah, the memories.