When it comes to film studies, there’s no shortage of books on Akira Kurosawa. One of the latest is David A. Conrad’s Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan, which takes the unique approach of using the director’s movies to discuss 20th-century history. Patrick Galvan recently sat down with Conrad to talk about his interests in both Kurosawa and history, and how the two resulted in this latest book.
Galvan: Could you start by telling us about your background and how you came to write a book about Kurosawa?
Conrad: I’ve loved history from a young age and became interested in Asian history specifically because I had a cousin who was adopted from China and a grandfather who was a Korean war vet. I went to Austin College, which is a small liberal arts college north of Dallas, Texas. They had a really good study abroad program and just randomly—for my second time studying abroad—I went to Japan, not knowing any of the language. I had a homestay experience in Chiba-ken, in part of the greater Tokyo area, and for the first time in my life really enjoyed learning a language. I’d tried French and Latin, but something about having to figure out words and use them right away with a family that didn’t speak much English—that was really transformative. When I got back to Austin College, I knew what my focus was going to be: Japanese history.
I majored in History, minored in Asian Studies, and after that did the JET program, knowing I wanted to go to grad school and do a PhD in some aspect of Japanese history. I was on the JET program for two years, teaching English in a very small town that’s incorporated into the city of Kesennuma. Twelve years ago, nobody outside of Japan had heard of Kesennuma, but eleven years ago—when the 3/11 tsunami and Fukushima meltdown happened—the city got on the map in a really bad way. Large parts of the city were destroyed, parts of the city caught on fire. No friends of mine lost their lives, but some did lose their houses and had to relocate. Some are still in Kesennuma; some never came back. I went back to Japan after the disaster as part of my dissertation research and lived in Sendai, but visited Kesannuma and saw the aftermath.
That covers the history portion of my background. As for the Kurosawa portion: I’ve been into older classic movies since I was young, and movies became something of an escape from the terror of grad school: having to write a dissertation and all of the burnout that goes with academia. I eventually found my way to a website called Flickchart, where I started writing for the blog, became an assistant editor, and covered local film festivals (South By Southwest, the Austin Asian American Film Festival, etc.). Along the way, I was racking up more and more Kurosawa movies. But it wasn’t until after I graduated that I encountered No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which as you know is the first movie Kurosawa made during the occupation. Technically. He started making They Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) during the war and finished it during the occupation.
Galvan: Also if you don’t want to count the labor union movie that he disowned.
Conrad: Right, Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), which he co-directed under pressure. But No Regrets for Our Youth was the whole impetus for the book. The film’s based in part on a true story: about a spy who was executed during the war. But it’s also part of occupation-era messaging about so-called democratic values, liberated women, etc. And it hints at change in the rural parts of the country. At that time, over 50% of the labor force was still in agriculture, and the occupation authorities were working on what became known as the Land Reform Program, wherein the government of Japan—really at that time the United States military—compulsorily buys farmland over a certain acreage, buys it for basically nothing, and sells it for basically nothing to the farmers who are already working it. This massive overhaul of agricultural land ownership in Japan was what I had written my dissertation about. So No Regrets for Our Youth interested me because it’s a movie that’s almost about something I knew a lot about.
I encountered some analyses of the movie online that didn’t really hone in on that and in fact gave what I thought was a totally wrong interpretation of No Regrets for Our Youth. Some people are really invested in seeing it as a pro-communist movie by Kurosawa. Yes, there were left-wing directors of that time period like Masaki Kobayashi, but Kurosawa’s really neither left nor right; he’s not really that political; he’s interested in people, destiny, and fate.
Anyway, I’m seeing these interpretations and thinking, “No. I can see why you would think No Regrets for Our Youth is communist propaganda, but it’s really American occupation propaganda.” Later that night, I was ranting about this to my wife, and I said I should make a YouTube video series going through Kurosawa’s movies, explaining the historical context. And she said I should write a book instead.
Galvan: Your approach of using Kurosawa’s movies to discuss 20th-century history is very different from other tomes about this director. Were there any books that influenced your approach?
Conrad: Yes and no. Mostly, I was relieved that a book like this hadn’t been done yet. I’d pick up Stuart Galbraith IV’s great joint-biography The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and film studies books like Stephen Prince’s The Warrior’s Camera and the Donald Richie books. The latter are really film studies books and auteur-driven but not all that focused on the historical context except where it’s really obvious. I looked into some Japanese authors, too, and none of them had done what I wanted to do, which was a huge relief.
However, one book that I kind of wish had not already been written so that I could write it myself is Kyoko Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952. That one I really love and got a lot out of. It’s a very useful book about the occupation film policies—so, film censorship by Americans in occupied Japan. Hirano’s book is great, but at the same time hers is organized thematically rather than chronologically. I knew I wanted to write my book chronologically, to give each movie an equal amount of space. So I was really glad that I was breaking new ground.
Galvan: In addition to films set in the modern day—The Bad Sleep Well (1960), High and Low (1963)—you use Kurosawa’s jidaigeki (period films) to discuss modern Japanese history. Was that ever difficult: using films set in the past to reveal something about the 20th century?
Conrad: Usually I would start off with no idea what I was going to write about. Sometimes, there’d be an event so big that I had to address it—such as the start of the Korean War in 1950. The war was enormously consequential for Japan in terms of economic rehabilitation and the way Japan ultimately re-arms while maintaining the fiction of disarmament and non-involvement; they were very much involved in helping the United States. I knew that would be part of the Rashomon (1950) chapter, because the film came out at that exact time. Of course, the story of Rashomon has nothing at all to do with the Korean War; the war had not yet happened when that movie was being written, and it’s based on much older short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. But I think I was able to convincingly draw connections to help people think about the moment Japan was in at that time, the changes it was going through, and the changes that it was about to go through. Namely by finding echoes of those changes in the movie’s themes.
You know, one thing that makes these movies still so relevant is they have universal messages. They’re not just about what they seem to be about. And that much at least was very much on purpose; Kurosawa didn’t make Rashomon just because he wanted to make a story set in early medieval Kyoto. He made it because there was something about that story that spoke to him, something that remained relevant in 1950 and which remains relevant now in 2022.
It was difficult to make connections in the sense that it’s kind of wide open. In Ran (1985), to give another example, there’s a character who’s blind. And so I would take the idea of blindness and ask myself, “What was going on with blindness in Japan specifically in the 1980s?” Sometimes I would ask those questions not having any idea what the answer was, and find something surprisingly relevant. “Oh, yeah, there was something going on with blindness in the 1980s.” And who knows whether that was in Kurosawa’s mind when he was creating that character.
But yeah, in some cases I had no idea what I was going to do, and sometimes there might have been things I didn’t write about just because they didn’t seem relevant. Especially in the case of Sanjuro (1962). I remember having a hard time with that one partly because it’s a sequel and I’d already said a lot of what I had to say about the character in the Yojimbo (1961) chapter. But one thing that I do in the Sanjuro chapter is talk about changes that the samurai film genre was going through. This is not a film history book by any means, but I do think it’s interesting and says something about audience interests—that samurai in the 1960s went from being heroes to being villains in a lot of movies. So you’ve got a lot of revisionist samurai movies coming out at that time like Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai (1963), the Zatoichi movies, and of course Chushingura (1962). The latter is of course about good samurai but it’s also about corrupt bureaucrats who are part of the samurai class. By that same token, you’ve also got Harakiri (1962).
So even though it’s not a film history book, I did find ways to talk about other movies and explain why certain trends in movies happened when they did. I think in the case of anti-samurai movies, the rapid changes in income level have a lot to do with re-evaluating old-fashioned social hierarchies.
Galvan: Your book is divided into four sections, titled The War Years, The Occupation Years, The Miracle Years, and The Global Years. Was there a particular section that interested you most?
Conrad: You’d think it would be the occupation chapter because that’s what my dissertation was about; and I absolutely love those movies, especially Stray Dog (1949). But my favorite Kurosawa movies are actually the late color epics where he gets—in some cases—pretty experimental, giving into his artistic impulses and not caring at all how these movies will be received. I think that transition happens after 1975 when his career’s saved—after the failure of Dodes’kaden (1970)—by the success of Dersu Uzala (1975). After that, he’s spending his time painting lavish storyboards for Ran and makes Kagemusha (1980) almost as a proof of concept. In Japan the money had dried up, but there was interest from western filmmakers.
So I just love those films from purely aesthetic and entertainment aspects: what he’s doing when he has no more constraints, no worries about pleasing anybody but himself, and he’s using other people’s money to do it. Those ones were super fun to write about, and so Part Four: The Global Wars was my favorite part to write.
Galvan: As you mentioned, you’ve lived in Japan a couple of times, for teaching and for your dissertation research. Did your time living abroad deepen your understanding and appreciation for Kurosawa’s movies?
Conrad: It absolutely did, and I kind of feel bad talking about it now because it’s been years since anybody has really been able to go to Japan. There’s a lot of frustration especially with academics in grad school, as the clock’s ticking on them and funding’s running out. They have not been able to go to Japan for their research or even just to have the life experience they need. My years in Japan were completely transformative—really redefined my life—and I hope other people can start to have that experience soon.
I probably didn’t watch any Kurosawa movies while I was in Japan, but going back to them later I’d notice little quirks. I’m thinking of Takashi Shimura, in particular, and his body language in movies like Seven Samurai (1954). I don’t know if that kind of body language existed in the 16th century, but it absolutely does exist in the 20th century, and you see it today in office workers, in salarymen, in the way that they carry themselves. And through living in Japan, I found I would adopt those quirks, too; I got pretty decent at my bowing game—so much so that when I came home I’d reflexively bow to grocery store workers; it took a while to get out of that mindset. There’s also little sounds you make in Japanese that you also hear in the movies. And that takes me right back like an auditory cue. “Oh, yeah, I knew a teacher who talked like Takashi Shimura.”
Galvan: History is, of course, ongoing, as is its relation to the movies. I often find myself wondering: “If So-and-So were still alive today, how would he approach making a movie about contemporary events? Say, Fukushima or Japan’s social climate following the assassination of Shinzo Abe?” Do you find yourself wondering how Kurosawa would respond to contemporary events in Japanese history?
Conrad: I think Fukushima is a good one to hone in on, because we know exactly how he would feel about that. He was not a fan of nuclear power, as he depicted in dramatic fashion in Dreams (1990). Also I think he’d be frustrated by how westerners forgot about the tsunami and forgot about the 19,000 deaths it caused, in part because we were so focused on the nuclear meltdown. I think he would also be very concerned about climate change. Somebody asked me once, “Did Kurosawa ever make a sci-fi film?” Other than Dreams, the closest he got was I Live in Fear (1955), about a man obsessed with the threat of nuclear annihilation. I do think that Kurosawa would be looking at the world in a very pessimistic mood right now, and I imagine him making pessimistic movies set in the near future, showing what happens if we keep on this path.
But I also think he would be frustrated with the status of Japanese film. Yes, we have some Japanese directors getting international acclaim now—primarily Hirokazu Kore-eda, though he primarily makes family dramas, not the kind of grand societal movies Kurosawa was interested in. I think Kurosawa would be glad that a Japanese director won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but I think he’d also be frustrated that there isn’t more of that going on, that Japanese film might be in a bit of a rut right now and is definitely losing ground to the Korean film industry in terms of its share of the international market.
Galvan: How long did it take to write the book?
Conrad: From the conversation I had with my wife to the first draft being finished, about two years. And it was another two years before the book came out: finding a publisher, doing edits, peer reviews, etc. I was kind of surprised by how fast the writing went, but that was also because I pushed myself to work on it. I had a rule that I had to work on it every single weekday, partially because my wife and I had our first child coming along. I knew I wanted to get as much of it done as possible before that happened.
Galvan: Any future projects or events related to the book?
Conrad: I’m hoping to present the book at a couple of local conferences: the Texas Book Festival here in Austin, Texas, and I hope to present something at South by Southwest next March.
But I’m also thinking about my next book project and what that might be. Having written the Kurosawa book, I’ve kind of got the bug now. But I need to wait until my kids get a little bit older. I’ve got a three-year-old and a one-year-old, so that leaves me very little time for things like research and writing. I think most likely I’ll do another book about Japanese movies and history. Maybe not “This book but Yasujiro Ozu,” because Ozu made the same movie again and again and Kurosawa varied it up a lot, changing genres. Which is not a knock against Ozu. I love Ozu, especially his later films. But I think everybody agrees they’re the same kind of movie over and over.
Galvan: Well, he described himself as like an artist who keeps painting the same rose, so I think he’d be the first to agree with you.
Conrad: Absolutely. My introduction kind of runs through the question, “Why isn’t there another director like Kurosawa that you could do this exact thing?” Very few of them had 50-year careers and very few of them didn’t just make the same movie over and over again.
Actually, there is another director I love and maybe you could do a book like mine about his career, and that is Kon Ichikawa, who made films like The Burmese Harp (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), Tokyo Olympiad (1965), and The Makioka Sisters (1983). Of course, the problem is he’s more obscure than someone like Kurosawa. Also, with Kurosawa, we’re lucky to have his long-time assistant Teruyo Nogami, who’s still alive at 95. Without her, I think we’d—first of all—have fewer Kurosawa movies because she was that crucial of an assistant to him in the later years. But also we’d know so much less about the behind-the-scenes stories. After all, she put together that amazing Toho Masterworks series that’s still only partially available in English, for instance.
Galvan: Any final comments?
Conrad: This might interest the readers of Toho Kingdom. I recently watched the entire run of the Showa Godzilla movies. The one that was the biggest surprise for me in terms of how much I enjoyed it, maybe even more than the original 1954 film, was Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971). Its message coincides with what I wrote about in the Dersu Uzala chapter of my book about the rise of environmental consciousness in the 1970s: the “sunshine rights” movement, legal action and protests against polluters, a rise in forestry association memberships and an increase in hunting permit applications. But unlike Dersu Uzala, which takes place 70 years earlier, Godzilla vs. Hedorah really goes all-in on its 1970s counterculture aesthetic, and that makes it super fun and a great window into its period. It was a great way to (almost) end the Showa run of Godzilla movies!