For anyone who has seen such masterpieces as as Rashomon (1950) Ikuru (1952), or Seven Samurai (1954), it goes without saying that Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was one of the greatest directors in cinematic history. Like many geniuses though, he did not always play by the rules. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that he simply wrote his own set of rules. Kurosawa also had a dark side that was kept from the public in many ways.
In All the Emperor’s Men, author Hiroshi Tasogawa details one of the greatest mysteries of Kurosawa’s career. After being hired to direct the Japanese half of the war film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), he was fired after just three weeks. At that point, he was already 10 days behind in his shooting schedule, and had only eight minutes of footage to show for his efforts. The true story of what went so dramatically wrong has never fully explained until now. It is an incredible tale, and in his role as interpreter for Kurosawa, the author witnessed everything.
The critical and box-office success of The Longest Day (1962) is what prompted the studio to embark on Tora! Tora! Tora! in the first place. The Longest Day was one of the greatest war movies ever made. The film detailed the events leading up to D-Day, the invasion of Normandy by the Allies on June 6, 1944. There were multiple storylines threaded through the all-star, three-hour epic, and perhaps the most significant element was that it was presented from both the Axis, and the Allies points of view.
The idea behind Tora! Tora! Tora! was to take a similar approach to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The plan was to make what amounted to two movies, one from the Japanese perspective, and one from the American perspective, and combine them. As anyone who has seen the film knows, this goal was achieved. What is not so well known was that “The Emperor” of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa was the original choice to direct the Japanese half.
Relations between Twentieth Century-Fox and Kurosawa soured almost immediately. Kurosawa had visions for the movie that went so far beyond what Fox had in mind that it is almost beyond comprehension. Let us begin with his first draft of the screenplay. His first order of business was to write the entire script, both the American and the Japanese sections.
What he turned over to Tasogawa for translation were 1,000 hand-written pages, which would have resulted in a seven-hour feature. The “ring of hell” that Tasogawa came to inhabit was in translating Kurosawa’s script to English, then Fox’s “trimmed” version back into Japanese. He believes that he translated 27 versions – back and forth for a total of 54 scripts in those three weeks.
That is just the beginning though. To add a layer of authenticity, Kurosawa decided to hire amateurs, rather than professional actors. The sets he designed and had built were then deemed unacceptable by him, and he demanded they be re-done. He also decided that the American director, Richard Fleischer, was an unworthy counterpart. Kurosawa had seen Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) and “found it irritating.” From then on he referred to Fleischer as “the micro guy.”
The writing was on the wall about Kurosawa’s involvement in the project pretty early on. Still it was difficult to fire one of the most respected directors in the world. For one thing, it could mean box-office poison for the film. Various statements were released, but the result was the same. On December 24, 1968, Akira Kurosawa was officially relieved of his duties.
There was a lot going on behind the scenes that is sad, but not really too surprising. For one thing, Kurosawa was a workaholic, which the 1,000-page handwritten manuscript certainly attests to. According to Tasogawa (and other sources), he was also a heavy drinker, and took sedatives to sleep. Some of the doctors consulted about his condition for purposes of insurance claims (to cover the losses incurred by his dismissal), claimed he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Tasogawa says that Kurosawa threatened suicide at one point, although nobody seems to have taken him seriously.
On December 22, 1971, Kurosawa did attempt suicide however, and apparently came very close to killing himself. He also suffered from epilepsy his whole life, a fact which was not revealed until the publication of his Something Like an Autobiography in 1978. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1990 for his contributions to cinema, having made 30 films in his lifetime, including seven after Tora! Tora! Tora!
Since Hiroshi Tasogawa read and translated each script Kurosawa wrote for Tora! Tora! Tora! he is in the unique position of knowing exactly what it was the director had in mind for the film. It sounds as if he had a grand vision, a desire to make his own version of War and Peace no less. Kurosawa stated his intentions at a press conference: “This movie will be a record of neither victory nor defeat but of misunderstandings and miscalculations and the waste of excellent capability and energy. As such, it will embrace the typical elements of tragedy. I want to look straight into what it might mean to be a human being at a time of war.”
Kurosawa’s films were so personal and his vision so complete that there is no way he could have compromised in the manner that was required for Tora! Tora! Tora! But for a Kurosawa fan, it is a beguiling fantasy to think about what he might have achieved had he been given the opportunity. According to Tasogawa though, there was a part of Kurosawa which simply did not take practicality into account. To have made the film he wanted to make would probably have bankrupted the studio. Still, a fan such as myself salivates at what might have been.
As for the fate of Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Japanese sequences were directed by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, and Fleischer remained on for the American parts. The New York Times review called it “A $25-million-dollar irrelevancy.” The box-office returns were as disappointing as the reviews.
The entire situation is layered with irony. Darryl F. Zanuck looked at Tora! Tora! Tora! to salvage the studio after the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor fiasco Cleopatra (1963). It was Zanuck’s idea to hire Kurosawa, and in the end he felt he had no choice but to fire him. The main reason Kurosawa accepted the assignment was because of Zanuck’s involvement with John Ford. Zanuck had produced three of Ford’s greatest pictures, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); and How Green Was My Valley (1941). To top it all off, Tora! Tora! Tora! wound up being Zanuck’s final production.
All the Emperor’s Men is one of those rare film history books that is positively riveting. I read it in record time and was inspired to watch both Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Longest Day again afterwards.
Akira Kurosawa’s position as one of the finest directors of the twentieth century is unassailable. His experience with Tora! Tora! Tora! is so strange that it would make a fascinating film in itself, and Tasogawa has done a marvelous job in telling the story.
As fate would have it, the Criterion Collection are releasing a digitally remastered version of Rashomon, one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, on November 6, 2012. My review of it will appear right here on Cinema Sentries that day. To insure you catch it the moment it goes live, stay right here for the next 48 hours or so and browse through our vast archives. That should keep you busy, and with all the terrible weather outside, (kind of like the big storm in Rashomon), there is really no better place to be anyway.