Alongside great artists are those who witness their triumphs and setbacks, recording behind-the-scenes episodes that illuminate the processes of art.
Teruyo Nogami is one of those, although her contribution to Japanese cultural life is not limited to being an amanuensis to the great. Nogami is also a fine novelist in her own right, and an astute observer of the Showa Era (1926-1989) that she lived through.
Last December, Bungei Shunju published her memoirs, titled “Tokage no Shippo (The Tail of the Lizard).” That was less than four years after the publication of her other volume of reminiscences, “Tenkimachi,” superbly translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter in the Stone Bridge Press edition titled “Waiting on the Weather.” The current volume is made up of interviews, and as such is an oral history of the people Nogami worked with and with whom she shared her life.
The main protagonist of the memoirs, aside from Nogami herself, is famed film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-98). Nogami began as his script supervisor on his 1950 period crime-drama “Rashomon,” and from then on collaborated with him right to the last. But in this book we also get perceptive looks into the lives of novelists Naoya Shiga, Masuji Ibuse and Akiyuki Nosaka — as well as film greats like Mansaku Itami, who was her mentor. (She formed a lifelong friendship with Mansaku’s son, Juzo Itami, when the latter was a very young man; and many intimate episodes between them are related in “Waiting on the Weather.”)
“Tokage no Shippo” goes into revealing detail on the personality and working methods of Kurosawa. It is hard to overestimate the impact that his winning the Gran Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 (with “Rashomon”) had on both the Japanese film community and the Japanese nation at large.
That achievement of international recognition was, I would say, the single most important event in the cultural life of Japan in the first decade after the war. Once again, it signaled, it was all right to feel pride in your culture and what it could contribute to the world. It fostered a reaffirmation of faith amid the postwar despondency over Japanese values: That Japanese culture did, after all, have worldwide significance.
Nogami offers insightful comments about the making of “Kumo no Sujo (Throne of Blood),” Kurosawa’s 1957 version of “Macbeth” set in medieval Japan.
“The success of ‘Throne of Blood,’ ” she writes, “was due to the fact that (Kurosawa) introduced a noh style into it. He had taken refuge during the war in the world of the Japanese classics, haiku, noh, and the like. He wasn’t unique in this, however. At the time, many authors, for instance, hated militarism and escaped into the study of the classics.”
Kurosawa based the makeup of the Lady Macbeth character in the movie on the noh mask called Shakumi, and was known to hold photos of noh masks before a mirror and order the makeup accordingly.
The astonishing “rain of arrows” at the end of “Throne of Blood” — where actor Toshiro Mifune is deluged by scores of deadly arrows — is arguably the most dramatic of all the scenes in Japanese cinema. Nogami explains: “When I tell people that we used real arrows in that scene and had no insurance, they just can’t believe it . . . Only Mifune could do a scene like that.”
Actually, fishing line was run through the arrows to guide them to fixed spots. The lines had to be kept taut at all times, lest the arrows veer and cause a tragedy.
“The shooting of that scene,” writes Nogami, “took three days.”
Nogami is the author of the novel “Kaabee,” on which director Yoji Yamada based his film “Kaabee (Kabei: Our Mother)” that is now in cinemas around Japan. The story of her life, sketched in “Tokage no Shippo,” is as poignant and dramatic as the film.
Born in May 1927, she grew up primarily in the Tokyo district of Koenji, the location of “Kaabee.” Toward the end of the war, she was evacuated with her sister to rural Yamaguchi Prefecture, where her great uncle had a home. This is where the “Kaabee” story has its origins.
The Great Kanto Earthquake
In the book we get fascinating glimpses of what life was like in the early Showa Era. We see that her father, on leaving home and returning every day, would stop in front of photos of his deceased parents and bow. When he went to Tokyo to enter university, he married a distant relative, Ayako Murata, and her family paid his tuition as part of the marriage bargain.
In the year that her parents married, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake hit the Tokyo region. This — and the rise of fascism leading up to the war — is the backdrop for the early years of Nogami’s life.
On her deathbed in January 1954, her mother sat up and worried, saying: “When I die, I don’t think we have enough zabuton (floor cushions) for the wake.”
Three years later, her father, who had been a committed socialist all his life, died of liver cancer.
Nogami says of herself, “I am a real child of the Showa Era.” Reading her book is indeed like reliving that period. When the war ended, she was elated. “No more air raids,” she writes, “and now you could turn on the lights to your heart’s content.”
“Tokage no Shippo” is written in an easy, colloquial style, for, after all, it is composed of recorded interviews with the author. This is a book that non-natives who may not be fully accomplished in reading Japanese can readily tackle.
Prewar Japan, rural and urban, the war at home, the postwar recovery and the renaissance in Japanese culture as seen through the lens of Akira Kurosawa, not to mention intimate portraits of major creators of that culture . . . it’s here in the words of a primary witness and recordist of history.
The cover of the book also attests to the author’s keen wit. Drawn by Nogami herself, it depicts a lizard with a cane in one paw. The lizard’s tail has been sliced off, and the reptile is glaring back at the severed end — as, perhaps, Nogami looks back at her past — remarking: “Farewell, tail. Thanks for all your trouble.”