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Thursday, Jan. 18, 2007
An unflinching account of a cinema legend
Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies With Akira Kurosawa, by Teruyo Nogami. Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006, 296pp, $25 (cloth)
Great directors, once dead, inevitably attract biographers, memoirists and critics in large numbers who chronicle and critique every aspect of their subject's work, as well as detail his (much more rarely, her) personal history and dissect his personality. But what this crowd so often skimps or ignores, as Teruyo Nogami's "Waiting on the Weather -- Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa" makes so absorbingly clear, is what it was like to actually be with the master on and off the set, year in and year out.
Nogami worked with Kurosawa on 19 films, beginning in 1950 with "Rashomon" and ending in 1993 with "Madadayo," his last film as a director. Her work often required her to either be with Kurosawa or do his biding nearly every hour of every day of a shoot. At the same time, Kurosawa's drive for perfection -- including the perfect cloud formation -- also often meant that Nogami and other crew members had much time to lounge and chat until the elements aligned for the next shot, hence the book's title.
Nogami also attended the many dinners with cast and crew where Kurosawa -- a gregarious man -- told stories and led everyone in group singalongs. He was, Nogami writes, a fan of singing rounds, an activity ordinarily more associated with a primary school music class than the director of "The Seven Samurai." She spent more time with the workaholic director (he was often an absent husband and father) than anyone else in the professional "Kurosawa family." Nogami was also no mere factotum, drudging mindlessly away. Though she did not keep a journal for most of her years with the director, she was a keen observer of Kurosawa in his dealings with everything from egocentric stars to unruly ants. She knew all his weaknesses and strengths, from his raging temper to his almost uncanny ability to remember all of the hundreds of shots he made in the course of a filming. Her reminiscences, first published in a video sales company newsletter, starting in 1991, and then in book form in 2001, are valuable not because they are so rare -- books about Kurosawa now fill a long, groaning shelf -- but because they are so insightful, human and thorough. Nogami may not write in chronological order, skipping freely back and forth between the decades, but she covers nearly every facet of Kurosawa's career, with affection and gentle humor, but also with a clear, critical eye.
One of the most revealing chapters of the book deals with "Dersu Uzala," the 1975 film Kurosawa shot in Siberia at a difficult moment in his career when he was all but a pariah in the Japanese film industry following the box-office failure of "Dodesukaden" in 1970. During the long grueling shoot -- Kurosawa and Nogami were in Russia from December 1973 to June 1974, suffering through a harsh Siberian winter -- she saw him in every mood, including anger, frustration and black, drunken despair. One night, after he pitched a bowl of rice gruel she had made for him onto the floor, she stormed out of the room and refused to be placated until the next day, when Kurosawa came to apologize.
Nogami's account is even-handed -- she has long since forgiven him for any transgressions -- but unstinting in its portrayal of Kurosawa at his worst. The book is further enriched by Nogami's account of her girlhood and early career. While a schoolgirl she was a pen pal of director Mansaku Itami and, while a script girl at the Daiei Studio in Kyoto, she was the (often absent) caretaker of his adolescent son Juzo, who later became a director himself.
The self-portrait that emerges is of a smart, passionate woman who was in love with film and filmmaking long before she met Kurosawa -- a love that continues to this day. The translation for the book's English edition, by Juliet Winter Carpenter, perfectly captures Nogami's salty personality, and Nogami's photos and 27 drawings of Kurosawa and his world add to what is sure to become a classic memoir, essential for our understanding of one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.
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