In October 1990, in Tokyo, while Kurosawa was still filming his penultimate film, Rhapsody in August (Hachi-gatsu no kyōshikyoku, 1991), writer and director met to discuss the differences between literary and cinematographic language, and the difficulties of the adaptation of the first to the second. On the occasion of the central topic of Rhapsody in August, they addressed the physical, spiritual and historical consequences of the Nagasaki nuclear bombing in 1945 and the reaction of the perpetrator, the United States: the establishment of a machinery of oblivion in Japan, under its auspices, in place of acceptance of his crime and publicly apologize; they also delved into the conditions of happiness, the limits of man, and, of course, the implications of this in art. It is a friendly duel between two of the sharpest and most passionate minds of his time, showing a deep concern to leave, through his work, a positive legacy for humanity. This is a part of the interview.
GGM : I do not want this conversation between friends to be like a press interview, but I am very curious to know many things about you and your work. As starters, I’m interested in knowing how you write your scripts. First of all, because I myself am a scriptwriter. And second, because you have made great adaptations of great literary works, and I have many doubts about the adaptations that have been made or could be made of mine.
AK : When I conceive an original idea that I would like to turn into a script, I lock myself in a hotel with paper and pencil. At that point, I have a general idea of the plot, and I know more or less how it’s going to end. If I do not know which scene to start with, I follow the flow of ideas that arise naturally.
GGM : What comes first in your mind: an idea or an image?
AK : I can not explain it very well. I think everything starts with several scattered images. On the contrary, I know that the writers here in Japan first create a global vision of the sequence of the script, organizing it by scenes, and after systematizing the plot, they begin to write. But I do not think it’s the right way to do it, since we’re not God.
GGM : Has your method been intuitive in adapting to Gorky or Shakespeare or Dostoevsky?
AK : The directors who make adapted films do not realize that it is very difficult to transmit literary images to the audience through cinematographic images. For example, in the adaptation of a detective novel in which a body was found next to the train tracks, a young director insisted that a certain place corresponded perfectly with the one in the book. “You’re wrong,” I said. “The problem is that you have already read the novel and you know that a body was found next to the tracks. But for people who have not read it, there is nothing special about the place. “That young director was captivated by the magical power of literature without realizing that cinematic images must be expressed in a different way.
GGM : Do you remember any image of real life that you consider impossible to express in cinema?
AK : Yes. That of a mining town called Ilidachi, where I worked as an assistant director when I was very young. The director had stated at first sight that the atmosphere was magnificent and strange, and that is the reason why we filmed. But the images showed only an ordinary city. They lacked something that was known to us: that working conditions in the city are very dangerous, and that the women and children of the miners live in eternal fear for their safety. When you look at the town, you confuse the landscape with that feeling, and you perceive it as stranger than it really is. But the camera does not see it with the same eyes.
GGM : The truth is that I know of very few novelists who have been satisfied with the adaptation of their books to the screen. What experience have you had with your adaptations?
AK : Allow me, first of all, a question: Have you seen my movie Akahige, 1965?
GGM : I have seen it six times in 20 years and I have talked about it with my children almost every day, until they were able to see it. So not only is it one of the most beloved movies for my family and for me, it is also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.
AK : Akahige is a turning point in my evolution. All my films that precede it are different from the following ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another.
GGM : That’s obvious. On the other hand, within the same film, there are two scenes that are extremely in relation to the totality of your work, and both are unforgettable; one is the episode of the praying Mantis, and the other is the karate fight in the hospital courtyard.
AK : Yes, but what I wanted to say is that the author of the book, Shuguro Yamamoto, had always opposed his novels being taken to the movies. He made an exception with Akahige because I insisted with implacable obstinacy until I succeeded. However, after having finished watching the film he looked at me and said: “Well, it’s more interesting than my novel”.
GGM : It is a known fact: “Poets are the mixers of poisons”. But, to return to your current movie, is the typhoon the hardest thing to film?
AK : No. The hardest thing was working with the animals. Water snakes, ants devouring roses. The domesticated snakes are too used to people, they do not flee instinctively, and behave like eels. The solution was to capture a huge wild snake, which was still trying with all his strength to escape, and it was really scary. Therefore, he played his role very well. As for the ants, it was a matter of getting a rose bush in single file until they reached a rose. They were reluctant for a long time, until we made a trail of honey on the stem, and the ants climbed. Actually, we have had many difficulties, but it was worth it, because I have learned a lot about them.
GGM : What does the historical amnesia mean for the future of Japan, for the identity of the Japanese people?
AK : The Japanese do not speak it explicitly. Our politicians, in particular, are silent for fear of the United States. They may have accepted Truman’s explanation that he resorted to the atomic bomb only to accelerate the end of the World War. Still, for us, the war continues. The complete death toll for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been officially published at 230,000. But, in reality, there were more than half a million dead. And, even now, there are still 2,700 patients in the Atomic Bomb Hospital waiting to die from the after effects of the radiation after 45 years of agony. In other words, the atomic bomb is still killing Japanese.
GGM : How much has Western literature influenced you?
AK : I am Japanese, and I think as a Japanese, and I make my films with this state of mind. I have never been influenced by the foreigner. When I read Macbeth, I found it very interesting. It made me think of many things. The Japan of the civil war and the time of Shakespeare are very similar. The characters too. Then catching Shakespeare and adapting … to a Japanese context was not too difficult. He is not a unique form of expression in the world. It has a formidable impact. Then if I had not taken this expression, the characters would not have had the same impact. I adored the no and I have always looked at it, then it is normal to be inspired by it.
GGM : What is the type of cinema that you most enjoy when you are about to film?
AK : I like and always liked silent movies. They are often much more beautiful than the sound ones. Anyway, I wanted to restore some of its beauty. I remember thinking it like this: One of the techniques of modern painting is simplification; therefore, I must simplify this film.
GGM : So, do you prefer to make films with less dialogue?
AK : There are many forms of expression. One can tell a story with the dialogues. But it is annoying to explain everything. Therefore I try to economize the dialogue. To begin with, I imagine my film as a silent film. I have always tried to return to the origins of silent movies. That’s why I continued studying silent movies. When I make a film, I wonder how I would do if it was silent, what kind of expression is necessary. Then I try to reduce the dialogue to a minimum. […] I consider cinema as a concentration of arts. Cinema is a complex work that brings together elements of painting and literature … One can not talk about cinema without talking about literature, theater, painting and music … Many arts become one. In spite of everything, a movie is a movie.