Fascinating book on the events surrounding the making of 1968's Tora! Tora! Tora! and Akira Kurosawa's role and subsequent dismissal as director of the picture
Last Updated: November 16, 2012 6:59 pm GMT
(Montclair, New Jersey--November 16, 2012) When 20th Century Fox planned its blockbuster portrayal of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor with the epic film Tora! Tora! Tora!, it looked to Akira Kurosawa—feared and revered as the “Emperor” of Japanese filmmaking—to direct the Japanese sequences. Yet, three weeks after he began shooting the film in December 1968, Kurosawa was summarily dismissed and expelled from the studio. The tabloids trumpeted scandal: Kurosawa was betrayed, or sick, or even a madman.
All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor (Applause Books, $29.99, Oct. 23) is the first book that tells the truth of the making of Tora! Tora! Tora! In these pages, author Hiroshi Tasogawa, who acted as interpreter for Kurosawa for two years during the gestation of the film and who translated 27 versions of the screenplay, probes the most sensitive questions about Kurosawa’s thwarted ambition and the demons that drove him. The book includes Kurosawa’s letters and personal records, tantalizing extracts from the scenario for the film, and a foreword by Elmo Williams who was charged with dismissing Kurosawa: “Firing him [from Tora! Tora! Tora!] filled me with an anguish I cannot describe.”
“In a joint announcement of the film project in April 1967, Kurosawa and I emphasized that it would be ‘neither a record of victory nor a record of defeat.’ We said: ‘No attempt will be made to place blame on individuals of either side…(the film) will show how tragic misunderstandings can grow between two nations, and how misunderstandings… can combine with an unpredictable chain of coincidence to produce a disaster…’ In retrospect, it was indeed an unintended prophecy of what was to follow.” –Elmo Williams, foreword
This is the story of what went wrong—Was it the unorthodox casting choices, the money spent, the schedule delays? And in this story, there are no villains, as noted WWII historian Professor Gordon W. Prange has said about the Pearl Harbor attack itself, because everyone made mistakes. In All the Emperor’s Men, Tasogawa brings to life what might have been one of the finest war films ever made with a great clash of personalities, a clash of filmmaking philosophies, and ultimately a clash of Japanese and American cultures.
Read an excerpt of the book
The following is an excerpt of the book All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor by Hiroshi Tasogawa, published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group. Used with permission of the publisher.
A reporter at the New York press conference called to announce production of The Runaway Train asked: “Are you worried about language differences being a problem in the creation of a movie in America?” Kurosawa answered: “With a single conductor’s baton, Karajan enables the people of the world to understand his music and with a single brush, Picasso can communicate his image to the people of the world. I am confident that if you give me a camera and film, I can create a movie that will be understood by the peoples of the world.” In later years, he added: “Movies communicate to the heart at a level that transcends language.”
Kurosawa undoubtedly believed what he said but he was most likely thinking about the communication that occurs between the finished movie and its audience. The language issues that arose in the course of producing the movie could not be so easily glossed over.
An orchestra conductor has the musical score to serve as the common language for himself and the orchestra. A painter can face the canvas alone with only a brush in hand. Film, however, is an art form requiring people in a group that includes both cast and staff pulling in the same direction. To manage the production of a movie while reconciling differences of opinion and correcting misconceptions, a high level of verbal communication is indispensable. Even with skilled interpreters, communicating the will of the director is not easy.
Furthermore, Kurosawa relentlessly polished the script while the filming was underway and tended to be more ruthless than other direc¬tors in coaching actors on the delivery of their lines. If he trusted the discretion of the actors or entrusted the coaching to an assistant who was a native English-speaker, it would be one thing. But that was unlikely. So it was not really clear how Kurosawa intended to instruct the American actors about their English lines or how he intended to judge the success of the resulting performances. Particularly serious, Kurosawa was not aware of the pitfalls inherent in a process in which his Japanese screenplay had not been merely translated word for word but rather rewritten in a framework of the American English language in a Hollywood screenplay. Having earned a reputation as a skilled screenwriter early in his career, Kurosawa was fully aware of the importance of the screenplay. “If the screenplay is excellent, even a third-rate director can make a decent movie, but if the screenplay is no good, the situation is hopeless even for a first-rate director,” he once said. Kurosawa was woefully unaware, however, of the accommodations demanded by Hollywood as standard operating procedure with respect to screenplays in English.
The ways of Japanese movie production known to Kurosawa are centered on the director. In the Japanese movie world, a director comes to be recognized as a “master,” with more and more people likely to see it as natural that he be permitted to be dictatorial. In the case of Kurosawa, movie production was director-centered as he brought each project to completion by writing the screenplay—and doing the directing, shooting, and editing.
In contrast, in America the principle is that movie making is not director-centered but rather producer-centered. In many cases, it would not be far off the mark to consider the director to be a foreman who does not appear on the scene until after the preliminary arrangements have been made. From an American perspective, a Japanese movie screenplay, particularly one by Kurosawa, is inherently different from that in Hollywood. Taking Kurosawa as an extreme case, so long as he had a clear picture in mind, he would write the screenplay concisely. Even if no one else understood, he had no problem using keywords to suggest the image he desired.
In the screenplay for Kurosawa’s first movie, Sanshiro Sugata is a scene described only as: “Quiet afternoon in the temple district.” The No Regrets for Our Youth screenplay has a scene that says only: “Vivid young leaves.” When read in Japanese, such notes might leave the reader with a vague sense of knowing the feeling Kurosawa was looking for. But a non-Japanese had no way to come up with a reliable image of the picture Kurosawa had in his head. Intimately connected to an aesthetic sensibility, these Japanese expressions are almost impossible to translate accurately into a foreign language. By nature, such scenes have no place in a Hollywood screenplay. But Kurosawa had no doubts about the propriety of instructions like “the black runaway moving along through the white snowfield at a high clip.” He already had a fully developed image of the scene in his head.
This would be a problem for the American staff. It was unclear whether this was to be a live-action shot or a special effects shot. And if live action, was it to be shot from a helicopter? Was it to be shot with a telephoto lens? Was it to be shot looking at the snowfield from inside the cab of the first locomotive? Was it to be shot with a camera fixed to the side of the locomotive? Only Kurosawa knew for sure. If the American staff were to receive such a screenplay, they would have had no idea of how to prepare. It would be different from the screenplay that the producer, cinematographer, art director, and other staff in America would expect to receive as a matter of course.
From this perspective, Carroll went beyond the call of duty. Was this scene on location or in the studio? Was it morning, mid-day, evening, or late at night? How were the people to be positioned with respect to each other? What is the camera angle and what is in the frame? If Kurosawa would not decide such things, there could be no English screenplay. So Carroll repeated these questions endlessly.
In some cases, answers were immediately forthcoming but in other cases answers were like: “I have not yet thought about it at that level since we don’t yet know what the situation is going to be at the site.” Pushed for a reply, Kurosawa would manage to come up with a response that sometimes even he was not satisfied with.
Faced with Carroll’s comment that, from an American’s viewpoint, a line of translated Japanese dialogue did not make sense, Kurosawa had to change it. Changing one line, however, can affect what comes immediately before or after it. In some cases, the entire script was affected.
Carroll’s three-week stay in Japan was over all too soon. He returned to America but the rewrite continued for another two weeks and the final version of the screenplay, approved by Levine, was sent back to Japan. Kurosawa, however, was not happy with that version, which had been translated back into Japanese. It was quite different from what Kurosawa had intended. Finding fault in one place after another, he sent requests for revisions to America. “Making new revisions and returning to previous versions, it seemed like we were just doing the same thing over and over,” Kurosawa said.
This was Kurosawa’s first encounter with culture shock. He faced a continuous series of provocative situations that made him worry that his fundamental method of movie making was falling to pieces. As getting a final version of the screenplay took more time than expected and the date to start filming approached relentlessly, Kurosawa began to doubt even his initial scenario. So he wanted to make more revisions.
With one thing left undone and another thing still unfinished, everything seemed to Kurosawa to be in a desperate and distressing rush. Moreover, Kurosawa became exhausted both physically and mentally.
The Mysterious Last-minute Cancellation
At his New York headquarters on November 15, 1966, Levine received a telegram from Kurosawa that left him dumbfounded. The gist of the message was that Kurosawa was due to come to America but wanted to cancel his trip. Likewise, the start of shooting The Runaway Train was cancelled. Kurosawa asked for all plans to be postponed for one year.
For Levine, this astonishing development was unacceptable. With only one month left until the planned start of shooting, all preparations had been moving along. Sitting on Levine’s desk was a detailed schedule prepared by production manager Harrison Starr for 16 weeks of shooting on location and in the studio. For 40 days of shooting along the New York Central Railroad between Syracuse and Rochester, a film crew numbering about 130 was almost completely assembled. Contracts and cast insurance covering key personnel were all in order. Levine had managed to charm Haskell Wexler into being the cameraman. Wexler was a highly sought-after cinematographer who had won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography that year for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He was sitting waiting, having left his schedule open for The Runaway Train. With preparations for filming complete and the cast announcements imminent, everyone was waiting for Kurosawa’s arrival in America.
In an era before personal computers and e-mail, desperate telephone calls and telegrams flew back and forth between New York and Tokyo. Questions from New York: “What is the problem? What do we need to do so that filming can start as planned?” With a single-mindedness that could not be budged, Kurosawa persisted in responses that explained nothing: “The plans are squeezed for time. There is a lack of advance preparation. It is not possible to start shooting. Please wait a year.”
The American contact in Japan was producer Tetsu Aoyagi, and he seems to have been put through the wringer. Within Kurosawa Productions, there was considerable discord in discussions leading up to the decision to inform Levine that Kurosawa wanted a one-year delay. Recognizing the danger that the project could be scrapped and trying to prevent that, Aoyagi and Kikushima frantically tried to persuade Kurosawa. “I am the director and I say it is impossible,” was his response. There was nothing they could do.
The Americans had two choices: Give priority to the movie and go ahead under a different director or cancel the whole thing on grounds that it would be meaningless without Kurosawa. Levine chose the latter.
Conscience about the Art of Cinema
In Japan, Kurosawa Productions sought to conceal the last minute postponement. The media, however, began to pick up the scent when no movement could be seen even though the date for Kurosawa’s trip to America (November 20, 1966) was rapidly approaching. People were surprised then when the news of a one-year postponement began to leak out. Conjecture about the reason raged. Media coverage was confusing. Among the many reports, however, a few gradually revealed the depth of anguish among the people involved.
Despite the uncertainties, Kurosawa spoke boldly and explicitly in a newspaper interview in early November, declaring there was no problem. “Unlike Japan, in America the movie production system is complex so the preparation took a lot of time, but a perfect screenplay has been produced. As long as the American staff has a detailed shooting script, the language barrier is not a worry. Skilled first-rate people have been gathered for the cast, camera operators, lighting people, and other staff.”
About the significance of the movie, Kurosawa asserted. “The production cost of two billion yen is a huge amount close to the entire annual production budget of one of Japan’s movie companies. Using American capital, a Japanese director can make a movie on a grand scale impossible in the Japanese movie industry. By doing this, I want to show the world the high quality of Japanese movies.”
Kurosawa was in a position like that of athletes who, blessed with talent, are put up on a pedestal when they win an Olympic gold medal. Such expectations must be a heavy burden. Serious and hard-working members of a national Japanese team can sometimes be heard proclaiming their steadfast resolve to win. Kurosawa’s statement felt like the proclamations of those athletes, which to some ears could sound quite pathetic. As a representative of Japanese cinema, master director Kurosawa brought upon himself a tremendous responsibility. It must have been no easy task to hold up under that pressure.
Hideo Oguni was a long-time Kurosawa friend and co-author of The Runaway Train screenplay. On the evening of the day that Kurosawa made the decision to postpone the making of that film, he talked with Oguni by telephone. Oguni later recalled: “There was going to be a language barrier working with the American staff and I found it impossible to believe that the work would proceed very smoothly. Kurosawa himself seemed very apprehensive and said “On this movie, failure is unacceptable. Taking his feelings into account, we made the decision to postpone the start of filming.”
Kurosawa himself, after a long public silence, described the circumstances leading up to the postponement. In an interview in the January 1967 issue of the film magazine Kinema Junpo, Kurosawa revealed that he himself had proposed the one-year postponement. In addition, he explained that, when putting the final touches to the shooting script, significant differences had emerged with the Americans about the “root concept” of the film. As they spent time seeking to reconcile those dif¬ferences, it became impossible to start shooting as scheduled. In the article headlined “My Conscience about the Art of Cinema,” Kurosawa contended that the “biggest difference” arose from Levine’s request that a certain “message” be incorporated into The Runaway Train. The article does not, however, say what that message was. In the draft of a letter Kurosawa wrote about that time, though, it appears that Levine had said something on the order of: “Every man has something that he can’t run away from, even if he might want to. That is the theme of this movie.” This did not seem to be a definitive deal breaker that would justify making a fuss, and, in fact, there were concessions from Levine later on this point.
From Kurosawa’s perspective, however, The Runaway Train was to be an all-out action picture with the focus on the out-of-control train. Perhaps for him, Levine’s request represented a grave difference in “root concept” that could not be allowed to pass unchallenged. Kurosawa noted a difference of opinion on the mounting of drama: “I believe that a movie must bring together its dramatic content in a way that is accurate from a time perspective… It is by presenting three minutes of action within a three-minute timeframe that the director is able to create thrills and suspense. If it is not done this way, my brand of cinematic expression does not work. In this area, also, there were differences in our ways of thinking.”
Kurosawa’s explanation recalls a famous train scene in High and Low. As the Tokaido Line Kodama express train crossed an iron bridge over the Sakawa River in just over ten seconds, Kurosawa used eight cameras to capture on film the payment of the three-million-yen ($8,400) ransom for a kidnapped child. The realistic feel of this scene makes it among the most thrilling in the history of cinema. Levine responded at an early stage that it was fine for Kurosawa to follow his own thinking on this matter. So it seems somewhat trivial to contend that the movie could not be made because of this small disagreement.
In the Kinema Jumpo interview, Kurosawa touched upon a health issue that may have been a more serious factor than creative differences in causing him to cancel the trip to America. As the start of shooting approached, Kurosawa’s anxiety intensified. “For a time, I was in a state of nervous exhaustion,” he said. On the postponement, he added, “Once the decision was made, I felt a sense of relief and was able to recover some of my old energy.” During that period, anxiety prevented Kurosawa from sleeping and his health deteriorated to the point where a hospital stay was advisable. Kurosawa Productions concealed this from the Americans and from the Japanese media.
Kurosawa acknowledged that the money spent prior to the planned start of shooting was enough to have made the movie Red Beard. While he may have been trying to justify the last-minute cancellation by brandishing a highbrow “conscience about the art of cinema,” it is unlikely that Kurosawa’s explanation was considered convincing by Levine, the investor who bore the brunt of the huge financial loss.
Kurosawa Productions asked that the production of The Runaway Train be started again in September 1967. This did not happen because Levine rejected Kurosawa’s request for a postponement, cancelled the filming, and disbanded the crew. Levine and Kurosawa never made a movie together and this sorry episode was a precursor to what happened two years later with Tora! Tora! Tora!
Hiroshi Tasogawa was born in Tokyo in 1934, graduated from Waseda University in 1958, and became a reporter for NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting corporation. Later, he was a reporter for the Associated Press and a professor of media reporting at Tokai University. He is now an author and freelance journalist. His book Akira Kurosawa vs. Hollywood was given four prestigious literary awards in Japan. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.