The Sensei who is forever

In a YouTube video titled, Akira Kurosawa’s great advice to aspiring filmmakers, Kurosawa’s languid discourse that runs for a little over six minutes centers on a solitary point, that all filmmakers must write and write prolifically.

A particular example that he cites in great detail to illustrate his point was Balzac’s rewriting process. Kurosawa narrates how Balzac would make corrections on the margins of his printed pages and how he would then send them over to the printer again. As Kurosawa narrates the story, he pauses in between. It’s as if he intends the recipient of the video to reflect for a moment on how painful that process might have been.

Among the gigabytes of video advice that floats around for aspiring filmmakers, this might come across as another unbiased counsel from another classic director of an era gone by. Except that there are two things that are unmistakably unique about Kurosawa’s well-intentioned advice.

First, this was a man who practiced what he preached. On IMDB, he has more writing credits mentioned (77) against him name than as a director (33), editor (17) and producer combined (11). And second, that what most people saw as pain of putting words to page, Kurosawa seemed to thrive and revel in that painful process because he knew the eternal power of film to make all that pain worthwhile.

While every studio today heavily relies on franchise-led tentpoles, Kurosawa’s attitude towards writing in specific and filmmaking in general, is a marked departure from the <insert Disney/Marvel/DC Comics title> factory that we have been subjected to in recent years.

Hypothetically, if one of us were placed in the boardrooms of any of these mega studios today, a key question I suspect everyone to be asking is, “What sequel do we make next and how do we market it?” And as if we didn’t have enough titles to flog already just a week ago, we heard that Miles Teller has been roped in to play Goose’s son in a Top Gun sequel and Idris Elba has been signed on for a Fast and Furious spinoff. You get the drift.

Contrast that with a hypothetical boardroom scenario from the early 50s in a studio called Toho Inc. in Tokyo. Rashomon has just been declared a commercial hit and opened to rave reviews worldwide including the US. Kurosawa sits in the board room with the folks from Toho Inc. and discusses the script of Ikiru his next project, that would release in 1952.

Less than two years later, he ups that ante and makes Seven Samurai. Three years thereafter, he makes Throne of Blood. Four years later, he conjures up Yojimbo. In 1963, he comes up with High and Low. And that is just a handful of names in a glittering filmography, the run of which extends to the Oscar-winning Dersu Uzala (1973) and beyond. In any of these meetings, the only question that Kurosawa and his team of writers and actors and assistant directors, can possibly be asking is this: ‘How can we make a better film?’

Reels and reams of material have gone into understanding what made Kurosawa such an accomplished storyteller. Was it his background of being an arts student? Or did he develop his chops with help from his elder brother, an acclaimed benshi (a silent film narraror), who committed suicide or was it simply his exposure to top quality filmmakers during his internship days at PCL (Photo Chemical Labs), that eventually became Toho Inc. To my mind, it was his relentless drive to tell more stories and better stories. Yes, he also faltered along the way, but he also recovered giving us classics such as Kagemusha and Ran even in his waning years.

If one tries to draw a common line between his 30 odd films, one realizes that no such common ground really exists. Each of them (barring Kagemusha and Ran) were as distinct as the colors of a rainbow. All of his films though had the veneer of a deep-rooted theme that was bound to a central question that left the audience reflecting way beyond the obvious empathy for the apparent goal of the protagonist.

In Ikiru, an old bureaucrat strives to give some meaning to his life, even as he rattles towards the throes of an unexpected terminal illness. In Rashomon, perspectives of truth alter depending on the narrator and in Kagemusha, questions about relevance of the identity of self are raised and squashed. It is hard to pick a single Kurosawa film and ignore a larger philosophical question about human behavior.

Nothing captures this better, than the penultimate scene in Ikiru. One of the supporting characters, a sole voice of conscience in a film that highlights the red tapism of a government office, stands up to protest against its very workings in the middle of office hours. He flings his chair in disgust and is on the verge of leading a rebellion for change. The chief of this Public office and his other colleagues look at the dissenter in surprise. Not a word is exchanged and before we know, our dissenter collects himself, places the chair back in place and buries himself under the files that lay stacked on his table, in a symbolic abject surrender. It serves as a depressing reminder of the state of corruption in post-war Japan.

If you consider, the canvas of the story laid out for the two hours before this scene, in an instant you realize how Kurosawa could kill more than the proverbial two birds with a single stone.

That he was en route to mastery in filmmaking without the technological sophistication that’s at the beck and call of every filmmaker in the world today is probably the insignia of the true marvel (no pun intended) that he was. His trademark shot compositions that often involved exaggerated movements and transitions that were made in the middle of those very movements, were inimitable at the time.

Filmmaking as a language is meant to transcend generations and geographies. From Spielberg to George Lucas to Scorsese (who often refers to Kurosawa as Sensei) to Inarittu, each of these doyens of filmmaking have repeatedly acknowledged the sway that Kurosawa’s work held over their films.

While the Seven Samurai racked up the reputation to be one among the most imitated films from the world over, Kurosawa’s influence is evident in films as recent as Mad Max: Fury Road and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, that released earlier this year.

When Inarittu received his Best Director award for The Revenant in 2016, his final words towards the end of his speech centered on the epochal trials and tribulations of shooting an intense survival film in the cold wilderness of a harsh Canadian terrain. As he walked off the stage, his last words were, ‘Pain is temporary, a film is forever.’

It sounded like the kind of thing that Kurosawa might have said. And for those of us who didn’t know this, Inarittu acknowledged Dersu Uzala as an influence while filming The Revenant.

It’s only apt.

The filmmakers might keep coming. But the Sensei is forever.

P.S. This story was commissioned by Maxim India and first appeared in the October edition of Maxim India.




Tinker, tailor, writer, rye. Building Discovery’s digital future in India. Also, author, ‘Buffering Love’: a collection of short stories (Penguin India)

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Issac John

Issac John

Tinker, tailor, writer, rye. Building Discovery’s digital future in India. Also, author, ‘Buffering Love’: a collection of short stories (Penguin India)

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