The Art of Akira Kurosawa
In 1977, Akira Kurosawa was at wit’s end. His script for Ran, written several years earlier, had met with stiff resistance. Producers repeatedly insisted it would be too costly to make. So he’d gone ahead and written Kalemusha, thinking it would be less expensive to shoot and that if he could interest a producer in that project, he might be able to make Ran afterward. But he was unable to obtain backing even for his lower-budget screenplay. It didn’t seem to matter that he was the most celebrated Japanese filmmaker of his generation, or that he had made such universally renowned films as Rashomon (1950 The Seven Samurai (1954), and High and Low(1963), No one in Japan was interested. His previous film, Dersu Uzala (1975), had been made largely with Soviet financing. It looked like it might well be his last.
Understandably Kurosawa experienced mounting frustration. “I began to feel that my visions for my films would never be realized,” he says today. “So I started making drawings and paintings as the only other way I could imagine to communicate something of my vision; if I could get people to see these drawings, then at least something would get across.” As it turned out, after Kurosawa began showing people his drawings, the financing for Kagemusha finally materialized: His pictures had seemingly worked a potent imagistic voodoo, conjuring into being the film they depicted.
The impact of his drawings on the Kayemusha crew was equally pronounced. “They wanted me to make more and more and more, because it was so helpful for them to see exactly what I wanted in a pictorial sense,” Kurosawa recalls. He obliged his crew, creating more than too detailed drawings and paintings for Kayemusha (1980) and the same number for Ran (1985). In preparation for Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, his 28th and latest film, he produced 60.
In referring to his artwork, Kurosawa modestly uses a Japanese term that translates as “picture continuity.” His drawings, however, bear no resemblance to the average storyboard. They are highly colorful and utilize a variety of media, including watercolors, Japanese calligraphy ink, pastels, pencil, marker, and ·crayon. “I use whatever materials I can get my hands on at the time,” he says. “I have to do them fast.” Indeed, many of the works look as if they were casually dashed off, but in fact Kurosawa usually makes many drafts of a drawing before he’s satisfied with it.
Like his films, his art combines influences of East and West. His informal yet highly dramatic use of line, as well as his expressive palette, calls to mind late-19th-century impressionist painters. On the other hand, the cartoonlike quality of his portraits relates to a tradition of caricature in Japanese art; his landscapes, drawn in an elusively articulated perspective, evoke another native art convention.
Kurosawa’s “picture continuity” is often heavily atmospheric. A drawing for the “Mr. Fuji in Red” sequence in Dreams is loaded with apocalyptic menace: under an ominously dark and swirling sky, Fuji glowers in fiery tones while a panicked and faceless crowd flees into the foreground, where it seems trapped as if in a dead end. The sense of “no exit” conveyed by the illustration perfectly captures the intended mood of the scene-one inspired by Kurosawa’s fear of nuclear disaster. A drawing of three climbers lost in a blizzard has an equally charged tone: seen from behind and partially swallowed up by attacking lines of wind and snow, the climbers already seem perilously anonymous. A childlike whimsy lends a number of the illustrations the aura of a fairy tale. A drawing of a confrontation between a soldier and a mangy dog takes on mythic overtones through Kurosawa’s imaginative rendering: drawn in splattered shards of red and green, the dog looks like a creature spat from the mouth of hell, a wretched dragon sent to impede the hero’s quest. The poignantly comic flavor that pervades many of Kurosawas films is especially evident in his portraits. With his lopsided frown, dejectedly hanging spiked head, and motley-colored rags, “The Weeping Ogre” suggests a browbeaten and utterly pathetic cousin of the Hulk.
Though his illustrations evince the imaginative innocence characteristic of the art of children, Kurosawa is no untrained doodler. At the age of eighteen, he was dead set on a career as a painter. A lover of Cezanne and van Gogh, he disliked academic painting, and after failing the entrance examination to a traditional art school, he joined the Proletarian Artists’ League in 1929. Eventually, poverty and the conviction that he lacked a personal vision led him to answer a classified ad for a job as an assistant director.
However elaborate his drawings may be, Kurosawa views them as little more than a preliminary stage to filming. “The main purpose is to communicate to my cameraman and my crew the look that I am trying to achieve,” he says. “But I also do them to help myself, because in the process of drawing, I have to develop concrete images of the costumes, sets, the background-everything that’s going to go into the frame.” When asked if he knows of other directors who employed elaborate “picture continuity,” Kurosawa immediately replies, “Eisenstein.”