Den Of Geek Book Club: Something Like An Autobiography – Akira Kurosawa

Aliya tackles Akira Kurosawa's Something Like An Autobiography in this month's non-fiction Den Of Geek Book Club selection...

What makes a great film director?

I’m not sure there’s an answer to this question, but if you’re interested in throwing out ideas, then Kurosawa’s autobiography is a great place to find inspiration. Kurosawa is one of those figures who can lay claim to being a visionary. His films are meticulous, involving and intelligent, and his writing style is much the same. There’s something about the way he puts words together that reminds me of his movies.

The preface starts with a traditional Japanese home remedy for treating burns and cuts. A toad would be placed in a box lined with mirrors, and the sight of its own reflection would bring the toad to an oily sweat, that would be collected and simmered for 3,721 days to make a potion. Kurosawa writes that although he might not be a toad, ‘…what confronts me in the mirror does bring on something like the toad’s oily sweat.’ He may feel that way about writing his life story, but it certainly doesn’t translate to the page. He chooses to write about his childhood, his family, his reminiscences of where his early interests and experiences took him, and how they shaped the person he became. This isn’t a collection of anecdotes about the famous people he worked with over the years, the parties he attended or the awards he won. It’s about how he saw the world as a picture to be painted, and how his love of art became a love of film.

If you’re interested in gaining an insight into Japanese culture then this is also the book for you. Kurosawa explains the traditions of his way of life without overlooking the fact that he railed against many of these traditions. He lived through tumultuous times; Japan in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s underwent vast changes. We learn about the effect of the Second World War, and the death of an ancient way of life. Perhaps the pivotal moment comes with Japan’s surrender. Kurosawa describes how everyone was waiting to hear the Emperor’s address over the radio – would he instruct the public to commit suicide en masse? Instead the Emperor told the people to lay down their swords, and life went on. But Kurosawa thinks that mass suicide might well have happened in the millions on that day. It’s a mark of the quality of the writing that he makes such a terrible possibility seem understandable to us.

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He writes about what was lost, such as the sounds and smells of his youth, as well as what was won. His freedom to express himself artistically was a constant battle against forms of censorship. Government Review Committees often criticised his work, and he describes the rages this criticism brought on with a self-effacing embarrassment. To be honest, if I was being told to cut swathes of my work because it felt too ‘American’ in tone (any hit of romance was usually deemed to be too close to Western cinema) I’d be livid too. But still, Kurosawa doesn’t like this side of his personality. The fact that he discloses it gives some measure of his commitment to honesty in this autobiography.

Film-making itself only really gets discussed at the end of the book, where he lists some of his early films and how he made them, ending with Rashomon. Kurosawa says himself, ‘I don’t really like talking about my films. Everything I want to say is in the film itself.’ There is, however, an additional section at the back of the book in which he makes some short points about film-making that are more technical in nature, and these are fascinating. So, for all his reluctance, we do eventually see the pieces of the puzzle coming together to reveal a master of his craft.

What makes a great film director? I don’t know. But Kurosawa’s book suggests that they are shaped from formative experiences, and that they see the world as a series of intense images that imprint upon their memory. Kurosawa describes the world he grew up in with such exact, sharp, colourful terms. It’s as much of a pleasure to read his work as to watch it.

If you have any thoughts about Something Like An Autobiography we’d love to read about them in the comments section below. The next book club discussion will take place at the beginning of March, when Kaci will review The Archived by Victoria Schwab.

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