Paradise is around here: A Rare Interview with Akira Kurosawa by Maani Petgar

An interview with Akira Kurosawa: Paradise Is Around Here…, Film Monthly (No. 225-1998). The following interview was originally published on Maani Petgar’s website. Be sure to check out the other great articles at MP’s site as well.

PARADISE IS AROUND HERE…

It was exactly four and a half years ago that Australia’s SBS TV approved the making of a documentary on Iranian cinema. As we were working on the preliminary stages of research and preparation with the producer, Claude Gonzales, a conversation between Kurosawa and Kiarostami was published in Film International magazine. We thought it will be wonderful if Mr. Kurosawa can mention those comments in our film. If this were possible, it would lend a great deal of credit to Iranian cinema and also to my own film. I remembered Donald Richie, the American author and film critic, who had been living in Japan for the past fifty years and thought that he would be the ideal person to help us get in touch with Mr. Kurosawa. Richie has written twenty-two books on Japanese culture, history and cinema. He has also subtitled some Japanese films in English, including some of Kurosawa’s recent films. We wrote Richie a letter, and received a reply stating that since he had given Kurosawa’s last two films poor reviews, Kurosawa had felt somewhat offended. He suggested that we avoid mentioning his name, but he gave us advice on how to approach him. About a month later, we received a reply from Kurosawa’s office: “I am Kurosawa’s nephew and the production manager of his films. Mr. Kurosawa has shown interest in meeting with you. He would like you to provide him with the details, including the date you’re planning to conduct the interview.”

We weren’t sure what they meant, exactly, by ‘details.’ Of course, we had some clues, but Donald Richie had said so much about the differences between Japanese and Western cultures that we had no confidence in making decisions. So, we contacted Richie once again and he told us to limit the film crew and lighting as much as possible and to restrict our interview time to one hour. We wrote out the details and faxed them to Kurosawa’s office. A few days later, we received the final and affirmative answer along with the exact date, time of the interview and its location, which was to be at one of Kurosawa’s villas in southern Tokyo, near Mt. Fuji. Even a map of the region and its distance to Tokyo, as well as written directions from the local train station to the villa were faxed to us.

For several days we were all in a daze. We could not believe that the 83-year-old Kurosawa had granted us an interview. He rarely accepts interviews and had only agreed to attend a single press conference for the screening of his latest film. We contacted Donald Richie to thank him for his advice. He said: “I told you he would go through with the interview since you are foreigners, especially because you are Iranian.” Foreign, for the reason that Kurosawa wasn’t very keen on Japanese media, press, critics and audience since they have always been indifferent to his films, and Iranian, because Richie had learned through mutual friends that Kurosawa was quite fond of films by Kiarostami.

In June of 1994, we set out for Tokyo with two video cameras and a couple of lights. I was so nervous on the plane to Tokyo, that it was as if I were going to interview Kurosawa upon getting off the plane. Despite the expenses in Tokyo, we had planned to arrive 5 days prior to the interview. I wanted to have enough time to be able to get an idea of the Tokyo of Kurosawa and Ozu. The interview would be on the sixth day and we would have an extra day for looking over the material, before finally leaving Tokyo. For the most part, I was nervous because in his second letter, Kurosawa had requested that the questions be instinctive and not premeditated. How is such a thing possible? What if I have a mental block and can’t think of anything to ask? I couldn’t risk such a thing, so I had to memorize the questions (at least three or four of them), and see which direction the interview takes later.

To tell you the truth, my favorite Japanese director is Ozu. I like Kurosawa mostly for his urban works (especially Up and Downs). But as you know, he is better known for his epic productions. The first five days, we acted as tourists. I asked Richie if there were still Ozu-like suburbs left in Tokyo. Fortunately, he said that his own neighborhood was one of them. However, I don’t know why my initial recollections of Tokyo were summed up in beautiful and peaceful cemeteries. They were the only places one could be left alone. Anyway, we did as much sightseeing in Tokyo as we could. Five days of going to temples, old and new neighborhoods and sleeping in cheap hotels went by. And on the afternoon of Saturday July 11th (1994), we boarded a train and traveled the one and a half hour distance to Kurosawa’s villa. We took into account all possible impediments so that we don’t get there any later than 3 PM, which was our appointed time. When we got off at the local train station, we noticed a country setting, yet the expensive cars and large TV antennas reminded us of the ever-present technology in Japan.

We (producer; Claude Gonzales and translator Houshang Raasti) got there at 3 o’clock sharp. (Of course, we had killed some time at the station so that we wouldn’t get there too early.) As the taxi approached Kurosawa’s hilltop villa, we noticed a man, about 35 years old, come out of the house and walk across the yard to the driveway to lead us to the entrance. Between the entrance and the main door to the living room, there was an area, just like in Iranian homes, where everyone took off their shoes. The living room was quite large and had huge windows on three sides with a view of Mt. Fuji. We were led to a table in one corner of the living room. We were asked how long we’d need to set up. I asked his assistant where Mr. Kurosawa prefers to sit. He pointed to a chair and that’s when I noticed a fan facing it. It was mid-summer and very hot. We were pouring sweat. The heat reminded me of the detective’s desperation (Toshiro Mifune), in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

We were immediately served cold drinks: iced coffee topped with a little whipped cream. I will never forget the taste of that drink which was very refreshing, but not enough for me. Anyway, when we mentioned to his assistant that we were ready, two minutes later Mr.Kurosawa walked in. A woman, about 35 years old, followed him in, who I believed to be his daughter. Kurosawa walked towards us and after greetings and hand shakes; he sat himself in his rather dignified chair. Our producer had brought him a gift: a book of some of Australia’s nature scenes, laid out on two pages. Since the main reason for requesting this interview was to hear his words on Kiarostami, I wanted to get through that part as soon as possible, and then hopefully, to move on to more personal aspects of his own films.

Mr. Kurosawa, I was wondering how you were introduced to Iranian cinema.
The first film I saw was a Kiarostami film. During the Shah’s regime, I was invited to Iran to judge in the Tehran Film Festival which I declined since it was a huge responsibility. After the revolution, I saw Mr. Kiarostami’s film (Where is the Friend’s House?) and was quite amazed at how well it was made. Then he continued on describing Kiarostami films, and talked about similarities between his own Madadayo and Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House? The screen is like a major square in which everyone can gather and talk to each other. For example, I bring to the screen my own country’s problems and Kiarostami his. The actors voice our words and touch everyone’s heart and this is the role of cinemad talk to each other. And that’s the responsibility of the cinema. (For the complete conversation, please refer to The Emperor and I: Abbas Kiarostami Meets Akira Kurosawa. Maybe is worth mentioning that after seeing the published interview, Mr. Kurosawa was rather upset with the main title). A film must be made with the heart, not the mind. I think today’s young filmmakers have forgotten this and instead they make films through their calculations. That is why Japanese films no longer have an audience. In all honesty, films must be made to target the hearts. During the time of Ozu, my mentor, and also in my time, no filmmaker made films based on theory and calculation, and that was why Japan’s cinema was capable of shaping its golden years. Young filmmakers use techniques to humiliate the audience. This is wrong. We must serve cinema and make a film that would stimulate the audience. Ultimately, the aim should be to make an artistic film. That’s simple, isn’t it?

In your older films there was always some concern about human situations. What is the root of this?
When there is talk of humanity in Japan, everyone thinks of complex subjects and stories. However, whatever an ordinary human feels, we try to project on the screen in an honest way. That’s all.

You were keen on American cinema…
Regarding American cinema, I could say that much better films were made in the past. Today’s American cinema provides the wrong service to the audience. Violence and car crashes are often seen. What pleasure is there in watching such scenes? Old American films expressed human problems quite well, but these days the American cinema has problems. There is no doubt that a film like Jurassic Park is interesting, but there used to be more impressive films in the past. In contrast, films, like those of Kiarostami, touch the heart and are very beautiful. These new sci-fi, action films, are good but they are not cinema.

In comparison to cinema as entertainment, how do you think Third World artistic cinema can attract a Western audience?
Civilization has poisoned humanity. The backbone of a good film is the filmmaker’s humane character. If we are not honest to ourselves, we will never be able to make decent films. Actually, it doesn’t mean that if a country is well off, it is necessarily capable of making good films. A person, who is able to make good films, knows how to find his or her way into the viewer’s heart; such as John Ford, Jean Renoir, John Huston, Federico Fellini, Angelopoulos, Sidney Lumet… I’ve met every one of them and have spoken to them. Just as they have exceptional works, they were also very distinguished in character. It was very easy to establish a cordial relationship with them, which is quite important. The people that are depicted on screen in their films are not predetermined (molded) characters. They express human problems in a natural way. That’s why their films are fascinating. Sidney Lumet is a close friend of mine, and whenever we sit down to talk we never discuss cinema. We generally discuss trivial matters, social problems or our hobbies, and we quite enjoy it. Reporters always ask me what the content of my film is and I tell them that there is no such a thing. I say ordinary things. A film is not supposed to be a lecture.

You said something about humanity in Japan. Can you please elaborate on that?
I can talk politics also, but I tend to speak about people more often. For example, such and such kind of humans used to exist in the past but they no longer do. Society is heading towards corruption. In the past, we didn’t have abundance or any means of comfort, but man lived in a natural way. Nowadays there’s always news of murders and violence on Japanese TV and in newspapers. When I was young, there were rarely any murders, and if one was committed it aroused a great deal of commotion. I’ve heard that it’s worse in America. In the past, people were more decent.

What do you think the reason for that is?
In Japan, the society progressed through a rapid growth, which was an unnatural process. Daily life lost its natural course. To live, it became necessary to work beyond one’s abilities. That’s why instability among people has increased.

In the midst of all this, what do you think the responsibility of a filmmaker is?
Lately, there are less pleasing films being made. Yakuza (Japanese Mafia) films or similar violent American films have become strangely attractive, which is a dangerous trend, especially since it has a negative effect on children. I recently heard that an English youth committed a terrifying crime. Once violence becomes an ordinary act, it distorts the minds and intellects of children.

It seems as though you despise violence…
Yes, I do. The main problem of today is the way of teaching and educating, which cause the emergence of such tendencies. In present Japan, the education system has become a source of income. I don’t allow my grandson to go to school. A responsible teacher is hard to find in schools nowadays. There used to be exceptional teachers in our school systems. As the story suggests in Madadayo, the students learned more from the teacher’s conduct than from what they were taught. So even once they graduated, they continued to remain devoted and loyal to their teacher. One of the school subjects was Psychology and Philosophy, a discussion on what kind of human one should be, which is no longer a part of the curriculum. Before the war, logic was taught as the aim of the army, but after the war teaching logic was forbidden. The problem was in the way it was taught (to the advantage of the army), not in the subject itself. This is a big mistake. In the past, schools set high goals in educating the students, but today, it’s just the opposite. It is very difficult to get into college in Japan today, yet it’s only enough to get in, and in a few years graduate with no particular education or training. On the contrary, in the West, it’s not so hard to get into college, but instead, scientific subjects are taught scrupulously and if one cannot pass them, he or she doesn’t graduate. In terms of the education system, Japan took the wrong road. Our politicians are constantly asked to reconsider this wrong approach. It’s quite unfortunate that the number of ignorant youth is on the increase.

You’ve made films about the atomic bomb. Do you believe that with the downfall of Russia, the danger of using nuclear weapons has to some extent diminished? Will you make other films on this subject?
The first film entitled I Live with Fear and another film Rhapsody in August were made about the atomic bomb. An episode of the film Dreams is devoted to this topic also. Concern about the atomic bomb is very important. For example, due to the shortage of energy, nuclear energy is used, but they don’t know exactly how to dispose of the nuclear waste. So I see the hazards we face. If there is really a lack of energy, then we can try to conserve energy. In Tokyo, they use electricity like there is no tomorrow. This is not necessary. If only we could take the expertise of power plant employees and direct it towards creating energy using wind or natural sources. I believe that nuclear waste disposal is an extremely important issue.

How are such concerns reflected in your next film?
It’s a simple story about people and their psychological problems. Compassion must be taken more seriously. Formerly, people thought of others before themselves. Now that we look back, we realize what a blessing that was, although it was a natural instinct. If it’s brought on screen, I know it will be effective. In the past, the relationship between neighbors was warm and sincere, while today no one knows what the next-door neighbor does and no one cares. My neighbor is a baker who has a bakery nearby. He often brings me fresh bread. I still consider such friendships important. (In many instances, I wanted to talk about some of his films but he seemed reluctant. Any talk of style or aesthetics bored him. At one point he said: “Style? What style? We just express humanitarian stories in a very simple way.” When asked what criteria he uses for showing violence in his films or the degree of violence used, he said, “I’ve never used violence in my films.” I thought it would be rude to mention about the violent scenes in Ran? As he was talking about murder and crime, I tried to phrase my next question in a way that would somehow refer to Dreams, hoping it would prompt him to talk about his film. I should mention that although many critics and a number of my mentors don’t particularly like Kurosawa’s Dreams, I’m quite fond of it.)

Paradise was presented gloriously at the end of Dreams. Could you please elaborate more on what you thought of the qualities of that heaven?
We did a lot of searching to find an appropriate location for that scene. The embankment along many Japanese rivers had been restored with cement recently. We really had a hard time. Finally, some of the shots were filmed around the area of this very house. The windmills, we made ourselves, and some of them are still standing (he said no more, but again I tried to stick to the subject of his films).

What kind of experiences have you had with foreign co-productions and big budget films?
I had an offer from Russia. I had read Dersu Uzala before, and I suggested making that. They thought it was a great idea. They asked me how I knew that book. I told them that I had read it before entering the world of cinema. The people described in this story have beautiful spirits. After filming, I noticed that in one of the towns in Siberia, they had displayed statues of the two main characters of the story. At the time, I thought we would have major problems with the Russian language. However, the leading actor couldn’t speak Russian very well either and was basically on the same boat as me. So we were able to communicate well. A funny thing happened one day: The actor in the captain’s role was saying his lines when I said, “Cut.” He ran towards me and said, “Do you understand my language? I just made a mistake in the dialogue but it was so minor that I didn’t think a foreigner would catch it.” I said to him, “I didn’t understand what you were saying, but I felt your uncertainty as you said your lines.” (Then Kurosawa pointed to one of his legs, which reminded me that he had walked into the room with a slight limp. He told us that his leg had suffered frostbite in the Russian cold and that it’s been bothering him ever since.)

Can you give us some details about your new film?
I wanted to start filming this summer, but the leading actress gothome pregnant. Now we have to wait for her. I haven’t mentioned this anywhere else. I had asked her not to get pregnant but apparently my request came too late. She even considered abortion, but I told her not to even think about it and to have a healthy baby. I told her I would postpone filming and wait for her. (This film was never made. Those who have seen Kurosawa’s last two films claim that his films have turned rather sentimental. Later, when I watched the interview tapes, especially in close-up shots, I noticed the anxiety and sadness, which appeared on his face while he waited for my interpreter to translate what he had said. The Japanese are even more inclined to hide their feelings than Iranians, but even the great Kurosawa could not escape those moments of exposure that only a camera can capture.)

The comings and goings of his assistant and his daughter in the background (but off-camera) reminded us that we were out of time. I looked at my watch; fifty five minutes had passed since our arrival, but we couldn’t exactly bicker about the ten minutes spent on setting up! I’m compelled to ask my final question.

What do you think of Tarkovsky, both as a filmmaker and a friend?
He was a fine man. He was as dear as a little brother to me. I was worried about him because he was so frail. I was truly disturbed by his death (At this point, Kurosawa looks downcast. I say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” In order to give him some time and also to change the mood in the ending of the interview, I say…)

Your sense of humor may have made life more bearable for you, whereas Tarkovsky’s bitterness may have been rather excessive…
He was extremely weak, sensitive and ill. (The interview came to an end on a sad tone on his part, and I tried to find an appropriate time to thank him through our interpreter, but Kurosawa continued. He seemed completely engrossed in what he was saying): In the past, my filmmaker friends and associates would stop by without prior notice. We would sit and talk and drink. But in recent years, they don’t show up even when I invite them.

I was forced to end the interview. His daughter and his assistant were standing in the long shot. They moved towards us and served us another drink. We gathered up the equipment, but Kurosawa continued to speak of his memories. He seemed to be on a roll. I quickly drank my iced coffee and with the help of my interpreter and Claude, put the cameras in our bags since Kurosawa was standing and didn’t intend to go anywhere until he had seen us out. We were anxious to leave quickly so that we wouldn’t keep him standing on his painful leg.

He followed us to the entrance hall. As I was tying my shoelaces, he continued to chat with us. With great excitement we had come to meet Mr. Kurosawa and now, it was time to leave, but in the midst of the visit, there were several moments of very pleasant tranquility, during which four human beings were able to go beyond title, name, race and language barriers, and see eye-to-eye. Of course, it’s more appropriate to say that the three of us were able to listen to an old master without being overwhelmed by the power of his name. They say he was a bad-tempered dictator at work, though we saw nothing but modesty and kindness. But I must say that he seemed rather lonely. Before he left us, the taxi arrived. While bowing, Japanese-style, we walked out backwards. Kurosawa waved to us from above the stairs. The taxi set off and we began to look at the surrounding woods and groves. I then noticed areas, which reminded me of scenes from the first episode of Dreams. The taxi was moving fast and for some reason I didn’t think to ask the driver to slow down or stop so we could film a bit. It didn’t even occur to me that we could film. Therefore, my memory has no record of the past, but I cannot forget the feeling that the interview with Kurosawa left me, and all the impressions fleeting through my mind as we left behind this monumental figure of Japanese cinema standing in front of his home. When Kurosawa was speaking to us by the door, he pointed to one of the windows and said, “You can usually see Mt. Fuji from here, but it’s not visible today because of pollution.”

This article was originally published on Maani Petgar’s website.

Also, recommended reading: astonishingly comprehensive and fascinating conversation between Akira Kurosawa and Gabriel García Márquez. The interview was published in The Los Angeles Times in 1991. Márquez, a former film critic in Bogata, Colombia as well as the author of A Hundred Years of Solitude, spoke with Kurosawa on a diverse range of topics for more than six hours.

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