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KUROSAWA - THE LAST EMPEROR on DVD

 

IMDb Credits
KUROSAWA - THE LAST EMPEROR

 

Photo
director at Kurosawa's grave

 

Photo
Tatsuya Nakadai, actor

 

Photo
Teruyo Nogami, producer

 

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Senkichi Taniguchi, friend

 

 

 

 

 

 

KUROSAWA -
THE LAST EMPEROR

Kasuko Kurosawa, costume designer
 

IS THIS THE FIRST DOCUMENTARY YOU'VE MADE?

No - I made a short documentary for BBC2 about the Kennedy assassination which played on "Moving Pictures" when the JFK film came out.  And I shot documentary footage of Salvadorian guerrillas who had had limbs blown off by land mines and had sought sanctuary in San Salvador's cathedral.

WHAT'S THAT DOCUMENTARY CALLED?

I don't know.  I shot all this footage of the guys in the cathedral, talking about their experiences, arm-wrestling with their stumps, sleeping and keeping watch - the place was ringed by cops and army troops.  This was before the peace agreement between the guerrillas and the government.  The guerrilla wounded had occupied the cathedral to draw attention to their status as war-wounded:  who are, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to be allowed to leave a war zone unmolested in order to seek medical treatment. 

AND DID THEY?

Yes.  After a few weeks they were allowed to leave El Salvador for Cuba, where they were treated, and I, think went to work in a prosthetic limb factory.  A number of Europeans and Americans stayed with them while they were in the cathedral, in the hope of deterring the government or the American embassy from ordering another massacre - this is the same cathedral where Archbishop Romero had been murdered only a few years before.  It was a very interesting subject.   I gave all the footage to the FMLN before I left, and I never saw what - if anything - they made of it. 

So KUROSAWA is the third documentary I've been involved in, and also the longest. 

WHY DID YOU MAKE A FILM ABOUT KUROSAWA?

Because he is my maestro.   Buñuel and Kurosawa are the greatest of directors, for me.  Buñuel for his sense of humour and his stories, Kurosawa for his technical mastery and epic despair.  (Tod Davies - who produced the film for Exterminating Angel - and Andrei Konchalovsky - who directed Kurosawa's script  RUNAWAY TRAIN - would say that his most important theme is that you can have no freedom without individuals and individual responsibility.)   No one but him could have made RAN, or SEVEN SAMURAI, or IKIRU -- or MADADAYO, his last film, which has been generally disparaged or misunderstood.   I wanted to make a documentary about him for many years - just as an excuse to meet him, really.  But it wasn't until he died that we found a sympathetic ear at Channel 4 and were able to go to Japan and interview some of his family and associates... 

WHO'S IN IT?

His daughter, Kasuko Kurosawa, his childhood friend Senkichi Taniguchi, his "script woman" Teruyo Nogami, his producers Masato Hara and Yoichi Matsue, his friend and biographer Donald Richie, one of his cameramen, several actors - including Tatsuya Nakadai, the "Japanese Olivier" who was in RAN, and KAGEMUSHA and played the rock-n-roll  samurai in YOJIMBO.

There's a selection of directors who talk about Kurosawa's influence on their work - John Woo, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Coppola, Paul Verhoeven, Arturo Ripstein, Andrei Konchalovsky... plus the inimitable Mike Hodges, who was young Kurosawa's fencing  teacher in turn-of-the-century Japan.

And there are sections on TORA TORA TORA, the film he didn't make; on the making of AME AGARU (one of his last screenplays) by his former collaborators; and on MADADAYO - his last film, the story of an intensely tedious and sentimental old schoolteacher. 

IF IT'S INTENSELY TEDIOUS HOW CAN IT BE GOOD?

I didn't say it was intensely tedious, I said the central character was.  He's called Hyakken Uchida, a real person brilliantly played by the actor Tatsuo Matsumura.  Uchida was a writer of books which were allegedly universally popular.   In the film he's an appalling old man whose wife treats him like a big baby, but who is held in manic, astonished reverence by his former students. 

Kurosawa depicts him as a pointless character, writing sentimental books about stray cats who come to stay, weeping unconsolably when one of his damned pussies gets lost, constantly attending elaborate parties and roasts in his inestimable honour.  Uchida is as deluded and foolish as the King Lear character in RAN -- perhaps the way Kurosawa felt himself in later years, flying to film festivals around the globe, attending banquets in his  honour, hailed like royalty, at the same time disliking mobs of any kind and possessed of an extreme cynicism and ironic distance.

Kurosawa films and choreographs MADADAYO's party scenes like battles - endless stylized movement, switches of direction, a uniformity of grey suits sweeping past. 

It probably says more to a Japanese audience; in the way the Second World War takes place off screen without comment; in the gradual appearance of American street scenes; in Uchida's and his students' relentless enthusiasms as they drift into a miasma of forgetfulness...

Kurosawa's films were often said to be "western" in style;  sometimes they were more popular internationally than in Japan.   MADADAYO seems to me very important, in the canon of RAN.  It's unfortunate that it was made at a time when there is little market for "foreign language" films in the west, and that it hasn't been distributed in the cinema in Britain or the US.   But at least in the documentary we have at least a little taste of it.

DO YOU SHOW MUCH OF "MADADAYO"?

Are you kidding?  KUROSAWA - THE LAST EMPEROR is fifty minutes long!  We're making the mini-bio of one of the world's greatest filmmakers, who lived to be 88 years old, and made maybe a dozen classic films.  No, there are just three extracts from MADADAYO: part of the mad militarist dance number, and the disappearance and subsequent lamenting of the cat.

WHAT OTHER FILMS ARE IN IT?

Paul Verhoeven does a mini-lecture about RASHOMON, Ms. Nogami shows how they did the final "Arrows" scene in THRONE OF BLOOD, the actors talk about SEVEN SAMURAI and RAN, Nakadai-san discusses the creation of his character in YOJIMBO, there's IKIRU, KAGEMUSHA, RED BEARD, RAN...   I realize there's a preponderance of samurai and period films, but that's the way it is.  I would have liked to include THE BAD SLEEP WELL and more of the early films, and a scene from SANSHIRO SUGATA.  But así es.

HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO "A.K."?

They are quite different.   Chris Marker's documentary is an epic -- a portrait of Kurosawa during the making of his most ambitious and expensive picture.  You see the Sensei director in front of JCBs, great earth-moving machines...   You see massive sets, hundreds of extras, the Plains of Gotenba...

Ours, though it has a rather grand title, is more about the personal.  The guide through it is his daughter, Kasuko, who is now a costume designer.   She has the first and last word.   In that way our documentary is a bit like EL PATRULLERO.  As much about the domestic life as about the other stuff.   People can be incredibly commanding in public and pathetic and cranky at home.  They can be both noble and ignoble, and at the same time be worthy of respect.  I like that dichotomy, and hope it  comes across.