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August 22, 2008

"Waiting on the Weather" by Nogami Teruyo (Book review)

Nogami Teruyo was the script supervisor and loyal assistant of Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998). This extraordinary women was at his side from the filming of Rashomon on to the very last. She wrote some of her personal memories down after Kurosawa's death for the Japanese magazine Cinema Club - she could not have done this while Kurosawa was still alive, as he would have told her, she says, "You've got it all wrong!"

That was in the mid-nineties, and the Japanese pieces were published in book form in 2000. Thanks to an initiative of Donald Richie (who also wrote an introduction) this English translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter was published two years ago by Stone Bridge Press. As is usual for Stone Bridge, it is a beautiful book, with illustrations by the author.

To be sure, this is not a biography or a full analysis of Kurosawa's films. It is an intimate human record in which we get glimpses of the genius director and the way he worked. After a first chapter on Itami Mansaku, a director Nogami Teruyo never met but corresponded with as a schoolgirl and who inspired love for film in her (later Ms Nogami would take care of one the sons, Itami Juzo, when he was a young boy) and a chapter on the Daiei Kyoto studios where she started working just after the war, the story about Kurosawa kicks in with Rashomon (1951).

We see the then 40-year old director energetically working with his team. At that time, he was already the perfectionist he would always be. The most interesting episode is how they used to carry around mirrors to reflect the sun while filming in the woods - indeed, the contrasts between black and white in Rashomon are perfect. Fascinating is also the episode about the sudden fire in the Daiei studios where quick action miraculously saved the negatives of Rashomon.

What we get from this book is how different film making was before the invention of CGI. That was "waiting for the weather" - not only waiting hours and hours for sunshine, but also waiting for a particular cloud to move into just the right spot above the roof of a building. When filming the village in The Seven Samurai in the setting sun with the seven samurai in profile in the foreground, the cameraman waited just a few seconds too long, so they had to do it all over again the next day. The ants marching in formation over the ground in Rhapsody in August were real ants and a lot of "ant study" went into that scene. The same is true for the crows that fly up at the end of the Van Gogh episode in Dreams. The film team had to catch actual crows, put them in small cages and open the cages at just the right moment. No wonder Kurosawa took months, and even years, making his films, while Miike Takashi finishes off one flick a week...

Kurosawa ruled his team like an "emperor," and could have fits of terrible anger. He and the people around him had an especially hard time when filming Dersu Urzala under the most primitive circumstances in Siberia. In the course of the filming, Kurosawa went from one bottle of vodka a day, to two bottles. Kurosawa worked well with people who had lesser egos, such as Mifune Toshiro, who despite his macho roles was a rather shy man - a pity Kurosawa dropped him after filming Red Beard, just because he had enough of his style of acting.

Katsu Shintaro originally was to be the lead actor in Kagemusha, but the swaggering, rough-and ready actor immediately clashed with the precise and perfectionist Kurosawa - their relation just lasted one day, the second morning Katsu left in a huff and was replaced with Nakadai Tatsuya. This episode reads like slapstick, but the quarrels with Takemitsu Toru were more serious. Takemitsu, who wrote the music for Ran, was Japan's most important composer of the twentieth century and of course had a great sense of artistic integrity. He did not allow Kurosawa (who, as "emperor" wanted to have his say in every small detail!) to meddle with the music he made. Takemitsu got his way but with much difficulty and never worked with Kurosawa again. On the contrary, he made a pointed remark about the group around Kurosawa who just acted as yes-men and never dared to differ in opinion (in this, he also included Nogami Teruyo): "It's all the fault of the people around Kurosawa!"

But Nogami certainly is no flatterer, she openly shows us the great director in his many moods, also the nasty ones. Her book is a treasure of stories and in the end we only would like to have had more.

Kurosawa left a great number of perfect fims behind. The result of reading this book is that I want to see those films again... perhaps I will start with Rashomon...