AKIRA KUROSAWA is the one film maker more than any other who first alerted the West to the largely unknown glories of the Japanese cinema. The year was 1951, the locale the Venice Film Festival, the film Rashomon. Ironically, Kurosawa had already been fired by the Daiei studios when news of the triumph of Rashomon in Venice reached Japan.
In the epilogue to his autobiography, Kurosawa evokes both a lingering bitterness and a samurai-like sense of accountability:
"Through Rashomon I was compelled to discover yet another unfortunate aspect of the human personality. This occurred when Rashomon was shown on television for the first time a few years ago. The broadcast was accompanied by an interview with the president of Daiei. I couldn't believe my ears.
"This man, after showing so much distaste for the project at the outset of production, after complaining that the finished film was 'incomprehensible,' and after demoting the company executive and the producer who had facilitated its making, was now proudly taking full and exclusive credit for its success! He boasted about how for the first time in cinema history the camera had been boldly pointed directly at the sun. Never in his entire discourse did he mention my name or the name of the cinematographer whose achievement this was, Miyagawa Kazuo.
"Watching the television interview, I had the feeling I was back in Rashomon all over again. It was as if the pathetic self-delusions of the ego, those failings I had attempted to portray in the film, were being shown in real life. People indeed have immense difficulty in talking about themselves as they really are. I was reminded once again that the human animal suffers from the trait of instinctive self-aggrandizement."
In the same passage Kurosawa goes on to define the very limited scope of his memoir: "And yet I am in no position to criticize that company president. I have come this far in writing something resembling an autobiography, but I doubt that I have managed to achieve real honesty about myself in its pages. I suspect that I have left out my uglier traits and more or less beautified the rest. In any case, I find myself incapable of continuing to put pen to paper in good faith. Rashomon became the gateway for my entry into the international film world, and yet as an autobiographer it is impossible for me to pass through the Rashomon gate and on to the rest of my life. Perhaps someday I will be able to do so."
Kurosawa thus ends his recollections in Something Like an Autobiography at precisely the point at which he finally becomes known in the West. Clearly, this book is addressed more to his admirers outside Japan than to his own countrymen. Kurosawa himself acknowledges Jean Renoir's very fragmentary "autobiography" as the model for his own enterprise. Moreover, he reserves his highest praise for Jean Renoir and John Ford, though he expresses deep respect for Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, the only two other Japanese directors (both now deceased) whose international reputations are at all comparable to his own. (The late Kajiro Yamamoto, less known abroad, is given extensive credit for training Kurosawa in his craft.)
Yet with all his disclaimers and demurrers, Kurosawa has produced in print a fitting companion piece to his many dynamic and absorbing screen entertainments. The book is short, to be sure, less than 200 pages in length even including an eight-page section of "Notes on Filmmaking," but it is nonetheless packed full of incisive insights and images as if it had been rigorously edited in the mind. So many of the memories have been transformed stylistically into luminous flashbacks that when one finally comes upon a montage of family and professional photographs bunched together between pages 114 and 115, the emotional congruity of words and pictures seems positively uncanny.
If there were a Rosebud in Kurosawa's life it would undoubtedly have taken the shape of his elder brother Heigo who committed suicide at the age of 27. It was Heigo who tauntingly and scoldingly and yet ultimately lovingly led little Akira from a crybaby childhood into a self-reliant manhood. It was Heigo who first instructed Akira in the beauties of the silent film classics from Europe and America. In the late '20s Heigo had graduated from writing program notes for movies to performing in theaters as a professional silent-film narrator. Hence, when the talkies arrived alongside the world-wide depression Heigo's future seemed doubly threatened. Having modeled himself after the morbid young Russian heroes in the novels of Turgenev and Artsybashev, Heigo had always said that he had no intention of living past 30 since all that human beings accomplished after that age was to "become uglier and meaner."
The many dual dark-light characterizations one finds in Kurosawa's most morbid works seem to have been inspired by the artist's need to continue a dialogue with a lost brother and mentor. Similarly, the disciplinarian in Kurosawa that makes him reject the coquettish mannerisms of Kabuki for the control and restraint of the older, more aristocratic Noh theater can be traced back to his samurai father, a retired army officer who worked somewhat fanatically in the field of physical education. There is a poignant moment in Ikiru when an old man is flashed back to an image of his youngest child perceived through the screen of a backstop at a baseball game. That image had always moved me in the manner of a sliver of sunlight through a remembering heart.
Kurosawa's autobiographical correlative for this haunting reminiscence is summed up in this passage on his father: "He built Japan's first swimming pool, and he worked to make baseball popular . . . I am my father's son. I, too, like both watching and participating in sports, and I approach sports in terms of single-minded devotion to a discipline. This is clearly my father's influence."
In recent years Kurosawa's own life and career has seen a wild swing from despair to regeneration, from a suicide attempt in 1971, to winning an Oscar in 1975 for a Russian co-production, Dersu Uzala, and in 1980, a Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival for the Francis Coppola/George Lucas-backed film Kagemusha. As always, Kurosawa had found salvation from his admirers outside of Japan, and it is for them that his very moving and very informative memoir is primarily intended. At the very least, his recollections are to be recommended as an unusually skeptical inside view of Japanese history from Kurosawa's birth in 1910 to his creative blossoming in the early '50s. For the lover of Kurosawa's movies, however, this slim volume is nothing short of must reading.