Born March 23, 1910 in Tokyo
1943 Releases first film, Sanshiro Sugata
1952 Earns international recognition when Rashomon wins Oscar for Best Foreign Film
1954 Reputation confirmed as Seven Samurai wins Silver Lion at Venice film festival
1978 Publishes Something Like an Autobiography
1990 Receives honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement
1998 Dies Sept. 6 in Tokyo
Bigger in the West than in his own Japan, he was the quintessential Asian filmmaker
By ZHANG YIMOU
I knew nothing about cinema before enrolling at the Beijing Film Academy in 1978. The Cultural Revolution had ended, and I had worked in the countryside and in a factory. I wanted to go to college--I even applied to the Xian Physical Education Institute--to change my fate.
A year later I saw my first Kurosawa film. It was Rashomon. I was immediately besotted. And a few years after that, from my humble seat in the audience, I actually watched Kurosawa receive a lifetime achievement award at Cannes. There he was, a filmmaker from the East loved and admired by people all over the world. I never met him, although I once had the chance. I was on a business trip to Tokyo when a Japanese friend suggested I meet Kurosawa on the set of Ran. I didn't dare to go. He was, after all, a world-famous dashi (grand master). In the cinema world, I was a very small potato.
Kurosawa was born in Tokyo in 1910, the seventh child of a strict soldier-father. The boy's early loves were oil painting and literature, including the Western writing that was so influential in Japan at the time. These interests would become vitally important throughout his career. The painter's eye is particularly obvious in his films, especially in his sumptuous later ones, and Kurosawa adapted film plots from such disparate authors as Shakespeare (twice), Dostoevsky and hard-boiled detective writer Ed McBain. He stumbled into the movie business as a young assistant director and scenario writer, directing his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, at the age of 33. Five years later, he made Drunken Angel, considered by critics the first true Kurosawa film. It was also, perhaps not incidentally, his first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, who would work with the master 15 more times. (He was the drunken bandit in Rashomon--one of the most charismatic performances in 20th century cinema--a farmer's son-turned-warrior in Seven Samurai and a Japanese Macbeth in Throne of Blood.)
Rashomon was the film that introduced Kurosawa to the outside world, and that began an uncomfortable relationship with fame that lasted his whole career. Like Stanley Kubrick, he had the artistic strength to resist compromise, either political or commercial. But his own producer on Rashomon didn't understand the film, which gained attention at home only after receiving international accolades. Kurosawa had sporadic commercial difficulties from then on, despite such major hits in Japan as Yojimbo. His last films were produced with Hollywood support--and money--from the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. They were bigger events in the West than in Japan, despite the kimonos and the films' medieval settings. At his death in 1998, four decades after Rashomon, Kurosawa was virtually forgotten in Japan.
The irony is that he was such a Japanese filmmaker. Aside from his superb movies about warriors, including Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa also told poignant stories of ordinary, contemporary Japanese, some of them nobodies. High and Low, with Mifune as a rich businessman tormented by a poor kidnapper, is one. These films have influenced me greatly with their realism and concern for the common people. My impression is that through Kurosawa's films all of us can experience the soul of Japan, the inner strength of the Japanese people. Yet his own countrymen, in rather large numbers, accused him of making films for foreigners' consumption. In the 1950s, Rashomon was criticized as exposing Japan's ignorance and backwardness to the outside world--a charge that now seems absurd. In China, I have faced the same scoldings, and I use Kurosawa as a shield. It isn't such an effective one, not yet anyway. Maybe after 20 or 30 years, people in China will no longer see my work in that narrow light.
As a cinematographer, I am awed by Kurosawa's filming of grand spectacle, particularly battle scenes. Even today I cannot figure out his method. I checked our film library and found that he used only 200 or so horses for certain battle scenes that suggest thousands. Other filmmakers have more money, more advanced techniques, more special effects. Yet no one has surpassed him. In 1989, while performing in an action film, I broke a leg and had to be grounded for three months. The director brought me 80 video tapes, including virtually all of Kurosawa's action films. We all crammed into my trailer to watch them, trying to learn how the sensei, or teacher, had achieved his effects. It was a very educational three months for me.
Just a few weeks ago, I was having a discussion with my crew on an action film we are making. We conceived a scene in which several people told their stories from different perspectives, and we realized, "Hey, that's Rashomon." I counsel my colleagues to resist the temptation to imitate Kurosawa blindly; it is impossible to surpass him. But such a strong and lingering impact on filmmakers is very hard to resist.
Whether Kurosawa's world is the real Japan, I don't know. It certainly seems so to me, a foreigner: a country and a people full of strength but depicted, naturally or perhaps inevitably, with a strong artistic backdrop, not just in the filmmaker's eye but in the country as a whole. Kurosawa has set the example of a cinema with a strong national flavor that attracts the interest, and the embrace, of the outside world. I tried to put that lesson to use in my maiden film Red Sorghum and in The Story of Qiu Ju. The world is getting closer and smaller. Kurosawa tells me to keep my own Chinese character and Chinese style. That is his great lesson for Asian filmmakers.
Today, many Chinese directors have gone to Hollywood. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Yet Kurosawa focused his camera on his country. I shall not go to Hollywood. Just like him, I hope to persist in making films that transcend the limits of nation or country, East or West, Japanese or Chinese. Our individual emotions, our thinking and perceptions may differ and will likely become obsolete after, say, 100 years. But the unique character of our films can last forever. My own movies are innately Chinese. And for that, I will always thank Kurosawa for serving as an indelible and inspiring example.
I shall always remember seeing Kurosawa in a documentary about his life and career. He was on location, wearing a pair of sunglasses and a small hat. I saw a man walking in front of the crew with his hands clasped behind his back. A man carrying a stool followed him. It was very funny: Kurosawa stopped. The assistant unfolded the stool for him. The director didn't sit, but kept on walking. When they saw the master coming, all the Japanese actors playing fierce warriors dismounted their horses and bowed to him. He spoke a few words; they listened attentively. Kurosawa looked like a commander, or a father, to them--as he is to my entire generation of Asian filmmakers.
Zhang Yimou is director of Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern