It was a good idea when they asked Akira Kurosawa to direct the "Shogun" miniseries for TV. In the West, he is easily the most famous of all Japanese filmmakers, with a long line of hits including "Rashomon," "Yojimbo," and "The Seven Samurai."
But Kurosawa turned down the offer, for a fascinating reason. He looked at the story, examined the characters, and promptly declared he couldn't involve himself with a project that had so little to do with the actual facts and spirit of Japanese history.
As the director of many historical films, as well as contemporary subjects, Kurosawa knows the necessity of ending stories and ordering events for dramatic purposes. Yet he also has a sharp sense of where to draw the line. In all his pictures that deal with the past, he has worked to convey the essence of two visions: what it was like thenm we can draw now.m
Kurosawa' 27th picture, now playuing in the United States, is an epic called Kagemusha. It shares the vast scale of his last movie, "Dersu Uzala," which won the 1975 Oscar for best foreign-language film. But this time there's also a period setting, a welter of action scenes, and a cast of thousands (it looks like thousands, anyway) that has made "Kagemusha" the most expensive production ever undertaken in Japan. Some of the cost was underwritten by Twentieth Century-Fox in a rare display of big-studio confidence. American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola are credited as executive producers of the subtitled "international version."
The hero of "Kagemusha" is a "shadow warrior" -- a man who impersonates the leader of his clan to confuse their enemies. Only in this case the "warrior" is a condemned thief who has been forced into his new role, and the deception is aimed not just at enemies, but at members of the clan itself -- whose loyalty must be maintained after the real chief has gone insane and died.
In a recent conversation with Kurosawa -- assisted by translator Audie Bock, who is currently rendering the filmmaker's autobiography into English -- I asked what interested him in the "Kamusha" story. He replied that he had been reseraching another project when he ran across historical accounts of the battle that ends the film.
"I couldn't find any parallels to it in the rest of Japanese history," he said. "All the generals on one side died, a whole clan was decimated.And on the other side, no one died. That peculiarity fascinated me."
Kurosawa decided to dramatize this unusual event. Yet he couldn't deal with it too braodly -- he needed a focus for the tale. "I had to find a narrower angle through which to view the whole thing," he says. "That's when I discovered that this warlord had doubles, who impersonated him by his own command. I hit on the idea of seeing the battle, and the events that led up to it, through the eyes of one of these men."
Most Japanese samurai films take place during the Tokugawa shogunate, which began in the early 17th century. Yet most of Kurosawa's period movies (leaving out "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro") take place during the time of civil war before that , in the 16th century.
"When the Tokugawa shoguns took over," he says, "they set up a rigid class structure. The samurai were one of the four classes, and their freedom was completely gone -- the purpose of the shogunate was to keep them in line.
"But during the civil war before that, very interesting warlords vied for power all over Japan. The competition was fascinating. Also, these were very distinctive and energetic characters. One of them, for example, was a farmer. Because of the strength of his personality and his energy, he took over a good part of the country, and for a time he held sway over the whole place. That wasn't possible later, when the class system was established."
Kurosawa's interest in these matters is not isolated or detached. Rather, he sees a strong relevance to contemporary life in chronicles of the past. "The Tokugawa period was very bureaucratic, with a very rigid structure," he says, expressing his personal viewpoint on the subject. "I feel Japan today is also very bureaucratic.
"And I don't like that situation. I'd like to see Japan closer to the way things were during that time of civil war. I only wish we had politicians in Japan today who were as strong as Nobunaga," he continues, referring to a "Kagemusha" warlord. "And unless we get them, I don't feel there is much hope for Japan."
Of course, Kurosawa isn't looking for civil war to break out. "But I would like to see more free competition in Japan," he says. "The situation now is most uninteresting. If we could get our leaders from more different sources, it would be much better." Not that "Kagemusha" is a "message movie" about the dangers of bureaucracy in Japan. "That's not the reason I made the picture," he says. "I did it because I found the people and the subject interesting, and I wanted to transform them into a film people throughout the world could enjoy.That's all."
Still, Kurosawa feels other resonances between the era of "Kagemusha" and today. "I've always been drawn to the splendor and energy and power of that time," he admits. "It's not the politics and warfare that fascinate me.The warlords competed culturally, as well, and influenced the taste of the whole country during their times of power. Look at the things they had: their arts and letters, their magnificent castles, the clothes they wore, the utensils and dishes they ate with. We don't have anything like that in Japan today, nothing of that quality. I'd like to show that again, to people all over the world."
In his long and detailed book on "the Films of Akira Kurosawa,"Donald Richie tells many times of the lengths Kurosawa goes to in ensuring the rightness and authenticity of his images -- building an entire town as the set for "Red Beard, " for example, complete with century-old roof tiles. This kind of attention is integral to Kurosawa's vision.
"It does appear to me that the further back you go in history," he says, "the better things were. and the objects were connected with how the people were -- the more wonderful the objects, the more wonderful must have been the people who prized them. Today, not only in Japan but all over the world, the only thing that has really advanced is that technique of killing people. Throughout the world, the spiritual values of human beings have decayed with time."
In his films, Kurosawa is battling this tendency. They are never flawless -- "Kagemusha" goes on much too long in its spectacle scenes, and its human relationships seem rather tortured at times. But everywhere you can see the care Kurosawa lavishes on telling details, right down to the freely flowing clothes worn by the women, so much less restricting than the rigid get-ups fancied in the Tokugawa period.
In his book on Kurosawa's films, Richie repeatedly finds a theme running through the picture: Good people are always in a state of becoming, or growth, while bad or misguided people have become rigid and inflexible. The same goes for "Kagemusha," where the hero must learn new kinds of courage and resourcefulness, even though his efforts are doomed.
And something similar goes for Kurosawa, who says that "the older you get, the easier it is to keep with the same formal construction in your films. I try to change things consciously," he says. "I try to keep it new, to keep it interesting for myself."
Yet cinematic form is only part of the situation. Kurosawa feels other things matter, such as the director's personality, and the cultural framework in which he works. for Kurosawa, this has very much to do with being Japanese.
"I feel there is something essential that the best Japanese films have in common," he says. can be expressed adequately in words, and you shouldn't look for it only in the form of the pictures. Rather, it comes from what's in the heart of the director. I hope people will look for that, in other people's films as well as mine. it's the most important thing, this element of the heart. . . ."