Book: Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan


Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan

English Book Title

Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan


David A. Conrad







By: Patrick Galvan

As one of cinema’s major artists, Akira Kurosawa has been the subject of a multitude of book-length studies: from the biographical variety (Stuart Galbraith IV’s The Emperor and  the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, not to mention Kurosawa’s own memoir, Something Like an Autobiography) to the academic (Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema). Now comes the unique approach adopted in David A. Conrad’s Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan, which discusses Japanese history as viewed and articulated through Kurosawa’s movies. It is a worthwhile approach. After all, Kurosawa was active during many of twentieth-century Japan’s cornerstone eras (wartime expansionism; postwar occupation by the Allied Powers; the Economic Miracle, etc.), so a book detailing how each was reflected in the work of a major director is most welcome.

Conrad’s book divides Kurosawa’s career—and twentieth-century Japanese history—into four sections. Part One: The War Years begins with his directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and concludes with its sequel, Sanshiro Sugata: Part II (1945). Part Two: The Occupation Years picks up with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (technically a movie which began production during the war era but was not finished until after the American Occupation began and even then did not even see release until 1952) and wrapping up with 1952’s Ikiru. Part Three: The Miracle Years opens with the director’s best-known masterwork, Seven Samurai (1954) and ends with 1965’s Red Beard. Part Four: The Global Years picks up with Kurosawa’s ill-fated first color picture, Dodes'kaden (1970), and finalizes with the director’s last movie, Madadayo (1993). All thirty films counted as part of Kurosawa’s official filmography receive their own respective chapters, Conrad detailing social, economic, political, and international conditions relevant at the time. (Conrad notes that jidaigeki (historical films) “imitate the past but tell us about their future,” and in the Seven Samurai chapter discusses how Japanese farmers of the twentieth-century—like their sixteenth-century counterparts in the movie—“were not as impoverished as their rustic villages and time-honored farming methods might suggest.”)

Observations such as these—about elements of Japanese society that go unchanged despite everything occurring around them—yielded food for thought as I read the book. Conrad discusses cases of corruption prevalent during the time Kurosawa made The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and notes how the director had wanted to go even deeper with the subject but had been asked by Toho not to attack recent government cases in the film. This brought back memories of research in Kyoko Hirano’s wonderful Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation, 1945-1952: about how Kurosawa had been told by Toho not to call out former Minister of Education Ichiro Hatoyama in the prologue intertitle for No Regrets for Our Youth (1946). Although Hatoyama had been responsible for academic persecution during Japan’s war years (a subject dramatized in the film), the studio shied away from such direct criticism due to Hatoyama having recently become head of the powerful Liberal Party. I also thought back to something Kurosawa mentioned in a 1990s interview with Mark Schilling of The Japan Times, wherein the director remarked that a movie about the insider trading Recruit scandal would be an excellent topic for a Japanese film—but that no major studio would grant him the budget for such a film.

Of the four sections, the ones dealing with the war era and the occupation were my favorites—partly because of my own fascination with the historical topics, but also because of the multitude of factoids which end up deepening one’s appreciation for the movies under discussion. E.g., Sanshiro Sugata opens with its protagonist coming upon a group of chanting women while searching for a local jujitsu instructor. In my many times seeing this movie, I never thought much about the song or the “Tenjin god” mentioned in the lyrics; but as Conrad discusses, the Tenjin god is a deity “of scholarship in Japan’s Shinto religion,” making the locale where this song is being enunciated—near the home of a teacher—all the more clever on the part of the filmmakers.

Conrad’s book as a whole is logically organized and well-written, with only a few easy-to-miss typos (on page 57 of the chapter covering 1948’s Drunken Angel, the name of the alcoholic doctor played by Takashi Shimura is mistyped “Sawada” versus the actual spelling of “Sanada,” which—it should be noted—is how the character’s name is represented elsewhere in the book). And content-wise, my only major reservation is less of a criticism and more of “what-if.” While I can certainly understand Conrad’s decision to omit a chapter-length study of Those Who Make Tomorrow (1946), the Toho labor union movie that Kurosawa directed part of and famously disowned—and which is not readily available—part of me feels a chapter on this particular film, Japan’s postwar labor union movement, and the latter's place in the occupation’s changing politics would’ve been a worthwhile addition.

On the whole, David A. Conrad’s Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan is a welcome addition to the pantheon of books about this legendary filmmaker. It comes highly recommended, in particular to those interested in Japanese history as reflected in the media.