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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
An Evening with Teruyo Nogami
by Donald Levit

Tickets were difficult to come by, as is, for Japan Society’s “50 Years with Akira Kurosawa: An Evening with Teruyo Nogami” and a reception and autographing of Ran DVDs and/or of the director’s producer-production manager-script supervisor-“right-hand woman’s” 2006 memoir, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, now available in English. Billed as a “lecture,” telecast in Japan as well as available on the PBS Website, the chockablock event would have been impossible to squeeze into had it been known that, the subject of a month-long two-dozen film retrospective downtown at Film Forum, Tatsuya Nakadai was in New York and would surprise and come to share the auditorium stage with the impish eighty-year-old, moderator Michael Jeck, a translator, and screened film clips.

White-haired now and “very lucky” then, only three months removed from studies, Nogami landed the job that “changed my whole life.” Carefully prepared, the director did not shoot chronologically, so her script manager’s work entailed preparation for everything, including knowing the exact order in which to (re)arrange shots. For example, the initial projected clip of the evening was the first scene done for Rashomon (1950) but fitted in late in the multi-viewpoint tale -- Toshiro Mifune’s Bandit crossing a bridge in the woods, the camera tilting upwards to tree tops framing sky, set to Fumio Hayasaka’s Bolero-like building score. Other sound done on the spot in that “kind of secret forest,” the hand-cranked cameras necessitated unseen mirrors for reflection of just the right mix of light and shade.

“That was years ago, and it brings me a lot of memories.” Only slightly more recent, Ikiru/To Live/Doomed (1952) was represented by the snowy scene where the petty bureaucrat pencil-pusher and dying widower sits on a playground swing crooning a carpe diem “old song, I forget, it fits very well.” Takashi Shimura’s voice had to be adjusted here to fit the soft hoarseness of a man with lung cancer, and, Jeck bringing up the “weather” of the woman’s memoir’s title, she explained that the crew could not wait for real white stuff to fall and had used glutinous dried tofu, with a “classical” cotton-and-salt mix covering the ground.

A crucial projected Ran (1985) scene as well “depended very much on the weather,” the one in which Nakadai’s King Lear-Hidetora horseback-rides behind the son to whom he would talk seriously but who is immediately felled by an archer. For some time, the elements did not cooperate for filming, but one day taking a cue from dialogue, Kurosawa reported “I had a pain in my chest” and thus claimed to know that the following day’s weather would be right. And it was.

In a clip from the finale of Throne of Blood (1957), another free Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth-Taketoki is killed by archers who mock, “and who killed our last Great Lord?” Rehearsed for five days, the scene employed “archery students [who] knew what they were doing.” Mifune was “acting terrified, but also was really so” even with the “deep and true trust between Kurosawa and Mifune.” The dozens of shafts to both sides of him were actually shot from bows at some distance, while those that found the samurai’s padded armor as target were threaded along invisible fishing line of exactly the right tension.

It was not until this point that dapper “special guest” Nakadai was introduced and came onstage, one of his country’s enduring stars who had crossed movie swords with Mifune more than once. Three years younger than “very longtime friend” Nogami, he stood up several times to illustrate concepts gracefully like a dancer. The many Japanese or Japanese-Americans in attendance often laughed appreciatively at humorous remarks from the two guests that were not translated, or not translatable, into English.

Of the scene from Ran, Jeck hazarded a guess that it was an extreme long shot taken with telephoto lens, and wondered how close-ups done in such a way might have affected the actor. Kurosawa, in fact, used telephoto most of the time for the bulk of the later films, but that posed no problem for Nakadai, “because I am a movie actor and also a stage actor. A camera too close might bother me, but it doesn’t bother me not to see the camera.”

The event’s luckily running ahead of time allowed for unscheduled inclusion of a fifth clip, from the director’s twenty-seventh feature, arguably the most deterministic view of human impotency of them all, Kagemusha/The Shadow Warrior/The Double (1980). The film in fact concerns three lookalikes, but discussion was about techniques for the three-character scene in which Nakadai is onscreen center and right simultaneously as warlord and petty thief. Calling for twenty days’ rehearsal and pre-recorded dialogue to be lip-synched, it was shot with alternately one- or two-thirds of the film strip masked, then reversing the thirds to shoot again, relying on soft-edged masking to avoid any telltale seam.

“There was never improvisation” with Kurosawa, director-scriptwriter-editor of many genres, periods and places. “I don’t think he changed, that’s my opinion,” although if it became obvious that an actor “couldn’t succeed” with certain lines he would re-write for the next day’s shoot. His ability to create believable period settings prompted a comment about “antique humans,” to which Nakadai responded that moderns are not all that different from their medieval predecessors. The true picture, past and/or present, might be difficult for other directors but was “natural” for Kurosawa. Something one naturally does so well -- like Nolan Ryan’s throwing a fastball, in Jeck’s analogy -- cannot be rationalized or explained.

There is darkness in the films, not just the late ones -- “no film is so dark as Throne of Blood” -- but there is also humanism and compassion. And, of course, rare greatness of talent, so the director’s own personal dark 1960s-‘70s period of aborted or failed projects and inactivity is hard to account for though it is not infrequently given as the cause of his attempted suicide by multiple self-slashing. Nogami says she is asked about this every time, but that his difficult work, whether successful or not, could be only one of many possible reasons. The only one to answer, she continues, is the person himself, and the only comment she ever heard him offer was that “at that time I didn’t want to live one minute, one second, more.”

Within months, the physically and spiritually recovered director set off for Siberia for the poignant Dersu Uzala, which four years later won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and Moscow Film Festival’s Gold Medal. 

(This special event took place on June 25, 2008.)

Photo: Teruyo Nogami

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