In 1937, director Kajiro Yamamoto pitched to the Imperial Army a movie about a young girl raising a colt that, by drama’s end, is sold to the military. At a time of flourishing Japanese expansionism and federal influence in the motion picture industry, the army was quick to back “military support” stories and thus ordered Toho to greenlight the project.1 Three years of development and twelve months of shooting2 ensued before the picture, titled Horse (1941), appeared in cinema houses and was celebrated for its mix of drama and documentary-esque sequences. Kinema Junpo magazine chose it as the year’s second best feature, and Yamamoto’s military sponsors were so pleased they commissioned him to make a navy movie in the same aesthetic. (That project became 1942’s The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malaya, highlighted by an infamous Eiji Tsuburaya recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor.)3
The success of Horse also nurtured the career of a staffer who, in some ways, was more integral to the film’s cinematic virtues than the man credited with directing it. Akira Kurosawa joined P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory, one of the production outlets that helped form Toho) in 1936, after the recent deaths of two brothers and in the aftermath of a failed painting career. Answering a newspaper ad recruiting assistant directors for P.C.L., he was one of a hundred and thirty applicants chosen for in-person interviews and there caught Yamamoto’s eye. “I really wanted someone who first understood motion pictures and then a person who understood music and, after that, a person who understood literature. I needed those three qualities which none of the assistant directors had at the time. […] The company was reluctant to hire [Kurosawa] but I asked, ‘Please hire him no matter what!’”4
Kurosawa’s tenure as an assistant began with Shigeo Yagura’s Paradise of the Virgin Flowers (1936), which proved so miserable an experience that he nearly walked from motion pictures. Fortunately, colleagues persuaded him to stay and he was next assigned as third assistant director on Enoken’s Ten Million (1936), directed by Yamamoto. “[I]t was [he] who influenced me to make my home in this world of cinema.” At the recommendation of fellow apprentice Senkichi Taniguchi, Kurosawa became Yamamoto’s chief assistant for the first time on 1937’s The Beautiful Hawk, and they collaborated on numerous projects over the next few years.5
As Kurosawa recalled in his memoir Something Like an Autobiography, P.C.L. policy described assistant directors as “cadets who would later become managers and directors. They were therefore required to gain a thorough mastery of every field necessary to the production of a film. We had to help in the developing laboratory, carry a bag of nails, a hammer and a level from our belts and help with scriptwriting and editing as well. We even had to appear as extras in place of actors and do the accounts for location shooting.”6 Through this hands-on training came experience valuable to Kurosawa’s career, even before he started directing projects of his own. Early in Horse’s making, Ishiro Honda, initially chosen as Yamamoto’s chief assistant this time around, was conscripted and sent to the Chinese front; Kurosawa stepped in to take his place7 and, as shooting progressed, ended up taking a substantially greater role.
Although Toho complied with military instructions to produce Horse, they also wanted Yamamoto’s attention directed at smaller-scale films deemed more financially viable. As a result, the front office frequently summoned him from location filming to shoot studio-bound comedies, and large portions of Horse fell into the hands of his new chief assistant. “Kurosawa took over much of the production,” Yamamoto remembered. “He […] assumed complete responsibility for the second unit and shot location footage […] in northeastern Japan. […] When we both got back [and resumed principal photography in Tokyo], I found him much tougher, much more exacting than I generally was. He would order retakes for scenes I thought acceptable. At first the crew was flabbergasted, but they soon realized his instincts were right and obeyed his instructions. People began talking about this young man’s prospects, and by the time the film was finished, everyone regarded him as a full-fledged director.”8
“[Yamamoto] did indeed come to the location set-ups,” said Kurosawa. “But usually after spending one night there he would say, ‘Take care of it,’ and go back to Tokyo.” Besides shooting a considerable amount of footage, Kurosawa helped pen the script and was placed in charge of editing, his acknowledged affinity for horses9 manifesting via several montages—including one of equines running about the countryside at night. In Kurosawa’s later directing career, one can see other instances: the grueling aftermath of the Battle of Nagashino in Kagemusha (1980) devotes as much—if not more—sympathy to the mortally wounded steeds writhing on the ground as it does to the human carnage; and the director’s sole television directing credit was Song of the Horse (1971), a documentary about thoroughbreds.
Horse is also noteworthy as a collaboration between Kurosawa and the great actress Hideko Takamine. Takamine was five years old when her uncle took her on a sightseeing trip to Shochiku’s Kamata Studio in Tokyo, where—as it happened—an audition for child actors was underway. Participating on a whim—her plain clothes comically unlike the ornate attire of the more hopeful applicants—she won a major part in Hotei Nomura’s Mother (1929) and shot to fame when the movie became a record-breaking hit.10 The nearly one hundred films she made in childhood often double-billed with Shirley Temple imports, Takamine all the while modeling for advertisements and working virtually nonstop despite wishes for a proper education. (A largely self-taught writer herself, she played a teenage prodigy in Yamamoto’s 1938 Composition Class—on which Kurosawa also served as an assistant director.) Maintaining star status as she grew up, Takamine was logical casting for the army-endorsed Horse.
The actress’s memories of working under Kurosawa varied. “He can make his actors miserable, twisting them around, trying to get them to do what he wants. Directors like that make me very nervous.” But other anecdotes were positive. Speaking to journalist Phyllis Birnbaum in 1989, Takamine recalled how she, saturated from making one movie after another in Tokyo, was forced to endure lengthy train rides for location filming on Horse, often arriving in a state of exhaustion. “I was very tired and too pressured by work. And also, I was suddenly outside in the sun. Remember, I had been living like an owl, always in the darkness of indoor sets.” In the midst of filming, the overworked Takamine fainted and woke up to learn she’d been diagnosed with appendicitis. At this point, the director she feared showed kindness. “Kurosawa-san was very nice. He got me to take my medicine.”11
However, it was after the making of Horse that Kurosawa and Takamine became linked via sensationalized publicity neither of them desired. Secondhand reports vary as to who allegedly became infatuated with whom, but the director and star did form a friendship that came to a crashing halt amid scandal. As Takamine recalled, she and Kurosawa were enjoying “an innocent private meeting” when her aunt—who at that time controlled her career and, indeed, much of her life—stormed in, assumed the worst, and returned her home. When at last released from her family-imposed house arrest, she discovered the press was claiming she’d become engaged to Kurosawa; and Takamine was crestfallen that Kurosawa—affronted by the gossip—refused to speak to her afterward.12
Despite the exploitative press, both director and star benefited from Horse’s success. While the picture marked Kurosawa’s final time (credited) as an assistant, it also effectively signaled his emergence as a major talent. “[H]e was still called my assistant, but he was much more than that, he was more like my other self,” recalled Yamamoto.13 Over the next two years, Kurosawa deepened his reputation with a slew of award-winning scripts. As a salaried assistant director, his monthly earnings equated 48 yen, but through screenplays sold to studios and film journals, he earned between 200 and 2000 per sale.14 After reading the script for A German at Daruma Temple—which could not be filmed for political reasons—writer/director Mansaku Itami predicted Kurosawa would become a leading figure in Japanese film history.15
Like Takamine, who gained further stardom after Horse, Kurosawa worked on films supportive of national policy during the final years of World War II, and then on pro-democracy pictures when the victorious Allied Powers assumed control of Japan’s film industry. But despite the fact that he’d since married, the yellow press continued to link him romantically to Takamine because of their perceived relationship during the making of Horse.16 Perhaps for this reason, the two never worked together again—the one possible exception being Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), a labor union movie in which Takamine, playing herself, vocally deplored the working conditions at her film studio. Kurosawa was one of three directors assigned to this project, though it remains unclear whether he supervised any of Takamine’s scenes. In any event, he disowned the picture. “[I]t is a film made by committee and it is a good example of how uninteresting such films can be.”17
Although she never starred in any of his movies, Takamine played a role in introducing Kurosawa to the actor with whom he remains most associated. In 1946, she approached the director on the Toho lot and told him to stop by the audition room. “[Takamine] said there was a guy with promise whose attitude wasn’t helping him and he was about to get cut. So I went to see this guy. […] He was really frightening. He was raging.” Impressed by applicant Toshiro Mifune’s energy, Kurosawa consulted the judges, which included Kajiro Yamamoto, and found that Mifune hadn’t been chosen, despite Yamamoto’s vote for him. “Back in those days, union guys were chosen as judges under democratic guidelines. […] I had a big argument with them over that. Giving equal weight to the votes of an expert and an amateur didn’t make any sense, I said. So then Yamamoto’s vote was counted as five, and Mifune got in.” From here, Mifune and forty-seven other winners took six months of lessons in acting, ballet, and Japanese dance.18 In 1947, he starred in Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail, co-scripted and edited by Kurosawa, and the following year they began their sixteen-film partnership with Drunken Angel.
The making of Horse might’ve also influenced Kurosawa’s 1950 film Scandal. In his autobiography, the director claimed this movie was inspired in part by a then-recent news story exploiting the personal life of a woman he identified only as “X.”19 But in examining the film’s set up and characters, one can reasonably suspect he drew additional influence from the publicity he and Takamine continued to face: the plot revolves around a painter (remember Kurosawa’s initial career choice) accused of having an affair with a famous woman; their own non-romantic private meeting becomes fodder for a tabloid sensation. However, in spite of the yellow journalism that chased him after Horse, Kurosawa remembered the 1941 film fondly, telling historian Donald Richie: “That was Yamamoto’s production and I was only an assistant director but there is no other picture into which I put so much affection.”20
- Sato Tadao. Translated by Gregory Barrett. Currents in Japanese Cinema. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1982, p. 255
- Anderson, Joseph L. and Donald Richie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 102
- High, Peter B. The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 382
- Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. New York: Faber & Faber, 2002, p. 25
- Ibid, pp. 26-34
- Kurosawa Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 95
- Honda did serve as Yamamoto’s chief assistant for a few sequences on Horse, including the auction where the horse is sold to the army, but did not see the finished movie until the following year. At that time, he was on the Chinese front. Source: Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. New York: Faber & Faber, 2002, p. 34
- Ibid, p. 35
- Kurosawa, pp. 70; 105-6
- Birnbaum, Phyllis. Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo: 5 Japanese Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 205
- Ibid, p. 214; 226
- Ibid, p. 227
- Kurosawa, pp. 116-7
- Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Third Edition, Expanded and Updated). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, p. 13
- Itami was also the mentor of Shinobu Hashimoto, later one of Kurosawa’s most prolific writing collaborators, and the father of acclaimed director Juzo Itami. Source: Hashimoto Shinobu. Translated by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I. New York: Vertical, Inc., 2015, p. 20
- Richie, p. 65
- Hirano Kyoko. Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p. 218
- Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. “Drunken Angel.” Kurosawa Production Co., 2002
- Kurosawa, p. 177
- Richie, Donald. “A Personal Record.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Autumn 1960), p. 21