Something Like an Autobiography
 Akira Kurosawa - Audie E. Bock (translator)
Language: English Release: 1983
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 205
Genre: Non-fiction ISBN: 0394714393

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Back Cover
Nicholas Driscoll

I'm probably not the ideal person to review this book. Of the movies that Kurosawa actually discusses in some detail herein, I have seen exactly none (Kurosawa ends his autobiography with the 1950 Rashomon, which somehow I still haven't seen). It's not that I don't like Kurosawa's work—I have seen many of his films (as of this writing, I have seen Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), Red Beard (1965), Kagemusha (1980), and Dreams (1990), as well as After the Rain (1999), which was produced posthumously and based on one of his screenplays), but am far from an expert on his work. Still, I have really appreciated Kurosawa's artistry in the past, and I was very curious about his autobiography (incidentally the first book I finished in 2015). Thus, after finishing my perusal, I can't comment much on the insights gleaned from this book pertaining to his earliest productions. However, the book is still easily recommendable for anyone curious about the director, or even those interested on what a great artist has to say about some of the harshest times of recent Japanese history.

But first, the title—Something Like an Autobiography—is not the title of the Japanese release. Originally the book was called Gama no Abura (蝦蟇の油), which can literally be translated as "Toad's Oil." This title comes from a line used by wandering salesmen who sold snake oil in the pre-war era—except the snake oil equivalent in Japan at the time was toad oil. Yet Kurosawa is not here claiming that his story is a series of lies—rather, he is comparing himself to the toad from which the medicinal oils were supposedly extracted. Apparently the swindlers would claim that their bottled slop was gleaned by placing ten-legged mutant toads in a box of mirrors, and the toads, startled by their own appearance, would excrete the oil in reaction. Kurosawa, then, compares his task of writing about his life to looking at himself surrounded by mirrors, exposing all of the ugly bits, and it makes him sweat. Really, one of the most refreshing aspects of the resultant book is, what seems to be at least, Kurosawa's raw honesty about many painful and troubling stretches of his life. Kurosawa does not present himself as a god-like director; nor does he strut about, nose pointed skyward, sneering at those with less talent. Instead, he presents himself humbly, even self-effacingly, recounting many bumbles and stumbles along with the triumphs.

Kurosawa's autobiography is composed of a series of over 50 short essays detailing sundry adventures and misadventures growing up in pre-WWII Japan, the transition to wartime, stumbling into the movie business, and eventually becoming a director and navigating a series of union battles between Toho and Shin-Toho. From the start, Kurosawa depicts himself as a flawed person, and apparently was a sometimes dull-witted, weak child—a crybaby who did not fit in and bungled school. His tales of the cruelty of children and the rigidity of some of his teachers needle readers with sympathetic details, pricking the heart—and his ghastly narrative of the great earthquake in Tokyo in 1923 is absolutely horrifying; the vivid recollections of death and corpses littering the landscape echoed for me some of the battle sequences of Kagemusha (1980), though he does not make this connection.

Most readers will probably be especially interested in what Kurosawa has to say about making movies, and the master has many amusing and enlightening stories. For example, when working as an assistant director with Mikio Naruse, Kurosawa recalls once falling asleep on the set, and his snoring disrupting the day's shooting! Kurosawa also recalls frequent, bitter quarrels with censors—first with the Imperial Japanese government before the conclusion of the war due to their obsession with stamping out "British-American" influences (such as including a birthday party scene), and then with the American occupation censors (and one unfortunate encounter with the ASPCA, in which they were convinced Kurosawa had infected a dog with rabies for the opening scene of 1949's Stray Dog). Fans of Godzilla will be interested in Kurosawa's recollections of working with Ishiro Honda; though he does not mention Honda frequently, Kurosawa does recount several warm stories of Honda's hard work and dedication. Kurosawa met Honda while working under Kajiro Yamamoto, and at the time Honda had apparently earned the nickname "Keeper of the Grain" because of his assiduous attention to painting parts of the set (such as pillars) along the grain of the wood so as to create the best possible final product. I have often heard rumors that Kurosawa had wanted to direct a Godzilla movie of his own, but that Toho refused to allow him to do so given his tendency to go over budget; unfortunately, Kurosawa does not discuss any such intention or interest here. Those interested in Kurosawa's thoughts on effective movie making will gain much insight in the book, however—even moreso because, in addition to the autobiography itself, translator Audie Bock includes a section in the back of some of Kurosawa's thoughts on film making.

The most frustrating part of the book for most readers will be the lack of breadth, despite the random notes on filmmaking in the back—even though the book was published after Kagemusha's release, Kurosawa stops with Rashomon and states several times that he does not like to discuss his movies, that he wants them to stand on their own without his further commentary or explanation. (He also states several times in the book about how he could fill entire volumes with stories about making individual movies, and he seems to relish retelling some of the stories, so he comes across as a bit contradictory.) For some reason, Kurosawa devotes more space to Drunken Angel (1948) than any other film, giving the movie two chapters—one about writing the screenplay, one about actually making the movie. For those interested, he writes at length about his admiration of Toshiro Mifune, and he includes anecdotes of many other actors—including the actor he would eventually marry, Yoko Yaguchi! How they came together was a real surprise to me, and an insight into the chaos of wartime matrimony.

A note on the translation: Audie Bock (author of Japanese Film Directors and friend to AK, as well as an assistant producer on the international version of Kagemusha) does a fine job, conveying Kurosawa's wistfulness with tenderness with skill, and writing with clarity. I was skeptical at first, given that the very first sentence of the translation is poorly written, but overall the prose is strong with this one, and the book is vastly superior to many of the grammatical disasters I found in many Godzilla/kaiju books.

Kurosawa's autobiography overall is inspiring, exciting, and enlightening, compelling readers to revisit their artistic side and reconsider how they evaluate movies—even if, like me, they have not seen even half the master's filmed work. As I read, a desire grew in me to try to track down the classic works of Kajiro Yamamoto, or watch some Mikio Naruse films, and definitely to mend my ways and experience Kurosawa's first few films. Even beyond the film recollections, Kurosawa's stories of life in old Japan are very moving. Highly recommended.