Five lessons in filmmaking from Kurosawa

Imagine being 24 years old and finding yourself working as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa…

Leigh Singer

Akira Kurosawa on location for his late masterpiece Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa on location for his late masterpiece Ran (1985)

There are film schools, and then there’s standing at the shoulder of a legend for months as he creates his late masterwork. That was the unlikely and incredible experience of Italian Vittorio Dalle Ore, then only 24-years-old, and not able to speak one word of Japanese, who found himself in 1984 as an assistant director to the great Akira Kurosawa on Ran.

Ran (1985) poster

Not so much a straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear as a highly personal amalgam of Lear and a famous Japanese 16th-century legend, it’s a career summation and high point for Kurosawa. Now re-released 30 years after its debut, the stunning 4K restoration does justice to the famously epic, colour-coded battle scenes and intensity of the intimate struggles that result from a ruthless warrior king relinquishing his throne to three sons, and the ensuing betrayal and madness, bloodshed and tragedy.

“It was one of those very lucky things in life in that a cousin of mine married a very famous Japanese writer called Nanami Shiono, who worked for Japanese television,” Dalle Ore relates. “She knew Kurosawa and had interviewed him several times. And she knew I was interested in film and told me, ‘I know Kurosawa and he’s preparing his new film Ran, would you like to work with him?’ Of course! So the next time she met him, she asked him – and you know, for an old gentleman it’s not very easy to say no to a lady, so he mumbled something like, ‘OK, send him over…’”

“Of course I was nervous. He was wonderful but, of course, he did not speak with me, because I didn’t speak Japanese at the time. But I was included in the crew and he allowed me in the editing room and then he called me back for the other films. By then I spoke Japanese and became assistant director officially on Dreams (1990).”

So what was the essence that Della Ore took away from his experiences watching a master at work? “The intensity and the energy that he put in everything he did,” he replies instantly. “That’s why he’s famous for his rages, but he demanded from himself first and then the crew. We were responsible for everything and scapegoats for everything!” Della Ore chuckles, his memories evidently very vivid on this subject. “When you saw his eyes changing colour, becoming grey, oh my God…” Here then are five more harmonious recollections, each a telling example of Kurosawa’s filmmaking mastery at work.

Uncompromising attention to detail

Extract from Ran (1985). Courtesy StudioCanal / Independent Cinema Office (ICO)

VDO: This was the first scene that was shot on the film. That scene is two shots but nothing is as simple as that in Kurosawa’s films. One shot is made in studio, the long travelling shot; but before that there is another shot, where Taro looks out of the window. And that was the real landscape. So Kurosawa had this window frame brought to Kyushu, the island where we shot all the battle scenes. And it ended up being one of the most expensive scenes in the film, because the good weather never came, so it was taken up and down and rebuilt three times, for something that you could just as easily have made in the studio with a painted landscape! But no, he wanted the real thing.

Before shooting, all the crew – even the cameraman, the sound man – would go and polish the sets so that they would sparkle, and that was on every set! Kurosawa felt it was so important that everyone enter the spirit of the scene; that it gave intensity to the image that came out.

The organisation of chaos

Extract from Ran (1985). Courtesy StudioCanal / Independent Cinema Office (ICO)

VDO: The set was very organised. There was a crew of actors that were trained as soldiers – the Sanjuki – and they would train the extras every day. The extras would come, get their armour and flags and then they would be trained by the Sanjuki. And Kurosawa would design the shot and the movement and then the camera would film it. There’s a sequence where Hidetora’s soldiers are all dead and you have a montage of the scene; and he had drawn all the pictures of how he wanted them, with the colours and everything, and we had to prepare everything just as they were. And he would go with the cameras to one after the other, so those were shot in very little time.

I was really lucky because he allowed me into the editing room, so I followed all the post-production – and all the fights between [composer Toru] Takemitsu and Kurosawa, [compared to] which, the battle scene is nothing! It was always Kurosawa’s idea to use only the music score for some of the battle and he also had a very strong idea of what the music should sound like. Only Kurosawa was not a musician and had never studied music, so he was not able to communicate what he wanted to Takemitsu, so it took a long time. But the result is fantastic.

Working with the elements

Extract from Ran (1985). Courtesy StudioCanal / Independent Cinema Office (ICO)

VDO: That was a real typhoon! No one was in a shelter except the camera and the lights. They had the only way to shoot in the rain that was available at the time – a disc of glass that would spin around and rotate in front of the lens so that it would protect the lens from water. It had been used in [David Lean’s] Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and they had it flown over. We could not hear each other! It took a whole day [to shoot] because the visual part was very important. But, of course, wind you don’t see and so we took the grass from somewhere else where you had long grass and put them all around, so that they would sway in the wind. Unfortunately what happened was the costumes got wet and heavy and would not sway in the wind, so some of the effect got lost…

Poor Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora) had to go through four hours of makeup every day and the makeup would change for different scenes and he would have different Noh masks as the character developed. And Kurosawa was very demanding of him, and Nakadai was very good in developing this character slowly losing his mind and going into his own world.

An actors’ director

Extract from Ran (1985). Courtesy StudioCanal / Independent Cinema Office (ICO)

VDO: I had the immense fortune to be there for all the preparation for Ran as well, and Kurosawa would bring all his crew to the rehearsal room to watch the scene develop. His way of shooting was to use three cameras at a time when it was not common at all, and he used long lenses. Not only for an aesthetic choice but also so that actors would not feel the cameras, they would not see them because they would be far away and not be disturbed by their presence. He used tracking shots, not so much as tracking shots but to move the camera from one position to another, in order to have the different angles of the scene. So he would rehearse the scene the day before with all the camera movements and costumes, and then shoot it the next day.

Another thing that amazed me, Kurosawa often did not shoot a reserve take. He would shoot and most of the time he would say, Cut!’, get up to leave and then turn and say [to the cameraman], “Oh sorry, was it OK for you?” because for him himself it was OK. And if the cameraman would say yes, then it was done. And on such a large production, it was amazing, but that was his faith in the work. His limit was the length of the magazine of film, 12 minutes. It happened one time, on Dreams, that the magazine ran out, so he said “Everybody freeze!” and they changed the rolls and continued. That way you had the scene come out much more natural.

Control that allows for improvisation

Extract from Ran (1985). Courtesy StudioCanal / Independent Cinema Office (ICO)

VDO: You see Kurosawa’s [storyboard] pictures and they are exactly as they appear in the movie. No changes at all. But in one of the last scenes where you have Kurogane chopping off Kaede’s head, the day before he was saying to the costume designer, what a shame that we have to soil such a beautiful and expensive costume with blood. And then while blocking the scene on the set, the whole thing changed. And it came out with such power. That is his faith in the cameramen, [Taeko] Saito and [Masaharu] Ueda. It is such a narrow frame! Hisashi Igawa [who played Kurogane] had to deliver a long line with such strength that he took quite a few times before he was able to go all the way to the end and strike, and then the blood shoots up. Even all of us when we saw the rushes, we were amazed at the power of that scene.

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