When Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the story of a rape and murder told from three perspectives, was released in 1950, it won the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival and has since received some of the most gushing reviews of all time from Western critics. But the head of the Japanese production company which had coughed up just $5,000 for the film’s budget disliked what he saw so much, he took his name off the credits. Japanese critics called it complicated and boring, and they worried about the swear words. That Kurosawa was regarded with such ambivalence within his own country is one theme of Kurosawa, a two-hour documentary on the filmmaker’s life screening in Vineyard Haven on Saturday. The film’s co-producer, friend of the late Kurosawa and president of the Japanese Society of Boston, and longtime Lake Tashmoo resident, Peter Grilli, will speak on the night.
The work of Kurosawa, who died in 1998, straddled aspects of east and west cinema and frequently transcended the standards of both. As an outsider, this was part of the filmmaker’s story that U.K. director Adam Lowe needed help to convey. Mr. Lowe had never been to Japan and certainly didn’t speak Japanese. Mr. Grilli, who has spent a lifetime immersed in Japanese cinema, acted as a fixer for the project, providing a Japanese context wherever necessary. The script for the documentary, made over the course of a year in 1999-2000, was co-written by Mr. Grilli with Mr. Lowe. Mr. Grilli also facilitated meetings between the documentary team and many of Kurosawa’s colleagues and crew members and conducted many of the Japanese language interviews that ensued.
Mr. Grilli moved to Tokyo in 1947 at the age of five while his father was working as part of the Western occupation force. Returning to America and Harvard for college, he made it to the end of his sophomore year before going back to Japan. He eventually completed his turn at Harvard, but has been shuttling back and forth between the countries since, completing a graduate course in Japanese history and literature and landing his first job there at an English publishing company.
As a teenager in Tokyo when Kurosawa was becoming a household name in Japan, Mr. Grilli became a movie buff. “It wasn’t in any academic way — I went around the corner to the movie house constantly,” he said speaking by telephone from the office of Boston’s Japanese Society this week. “I just happened to be there during the fifties, what became known later as the golden age of Japanese cinema. I watched a lot of shlock — C and D movies, too. I just really, really loved Japanese films.”
As he remembers it, it would be a major event in the newspapers when a Kurosawa project was under way. But the director also had many critics.
“I never fully understood it, but a lot of people didn’t like him,” he said. “The criticism tended to be that his films aren’t very ‘Japanese.’ They’re too direct, too blunt and not subtle enough. He had carefully constructed narratives, and real plot lines, whereas so-called Japanese films may have tended more towards character and, too, more atmosphere, and they are often not linear. But I just don’t agree with the distinction. The culturally nationalist line would be that you need to be Japanese to understand Japanese culture. Kurosawa’s films are universal; anyone can relate to it. This in and of itself made cultural nationalists nervous.”
The documentary, co-financed by PBS and the BBC, was shot in 1999 and first broadcast in 2001. The director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, Richard Paradise, who happens to be planning a trip to Japan this spring, had been in contact with Mr. Grilli about a suitable film to kick off a series of Japanese screenings and arrived at the Kurosawa documentary.
“He’s seen by many as the single most important Japanese creative individual of the 20th century,” said Mr. Grilli. Working with the Japan Society in New York in 1981, Mr. Grilli put together the first complete retrospective of Kurosawa’s work, which brought the filmmaker to the country for two weeks, easily his longest stay in the U.S. up to that point.
“Part of our motivation to do this film,” he explained, “was to tell the story of a great man, but also to take the fact that Kurosawa’s life spanned the great part of the last century and so, through him, tell the story of 20th century Japan.”
Born in 1910, Kurosawa lived through social change and periods of violence in Japan, reflected in his work. The samurai films particularly are marked by moments of graphic terror and violence.
“Some of it is very violent, but it was meaningful — not like in western films when you see trucks blowing up and you often wonder why,” said Mr. Grilli.
The subject also is extensively explored in the documentary. As a 13-year-old, Akira Kurosawa walked through the devastation left by Toyko’s Great Kanto earthquake with his brother Heigo, then 17. In the documentary we hear an excerpt from the filmmaker’s memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, dramatized by high-contrast, black and white, war news footage of the miles of ruined houses and thousands of charred bodies that remained of Tokyo. Kurosawa remembers that the scene laid bare every different way in which a human could die. When his brother caught Akira averting his eyes from the carnage, he scolded him. “‘Akira, look carefully now,’ he said,” Kurosawa recalls, “‘If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’”
“He brought that up all the time,” said Mr. Grilli of the anecdote. “He was like a broken record sometimes. It stuck in his nerves all his life, the idea that fear of violence needed to be confronted head on, and he put his audiences through that, too.” Nine years later, Akira’s brooding older brother committed mutual suicide with his girlfriend.
Mr. Grilli was first introduced to Kurosawa towards the end of the 1970s after working with Kurosawa’s lifetime production assistant on a documentary. He soon became a fixture on Kurosawa sets, writing stories about life on location for film magazines.
“I feel like I’ve always known him,” said Mr. Grilli. Nevertheless he remained an enigmatic figure. “You always felt like you were in the presence of someone major. He was physically taller than most Japanese. He never got chummy. He was always focussed on the next problem or movie. I don’t feel I was ever close to him, though I had huge admiration for him. The same was true of the Japanese workers who were with him throughout his career. Particularly towards the end, it became difficult,” Mr. Grilli said of the painful isolation Kurosawa experienced in his old age. “He had millions of admirers, but no-one was close to him.”
Kurosawa screens on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Katharine Cornell Theatre.