Not logged in  (Log in | Register)
RSS News       RSS Comments       RSS Forums
Currently playing at the AK film club: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fleischer-Fukasaku-Masuda 1970)

Review: All the Emperor’s Men

All the Emperor's MenHiroshi Tasogawa’s new Kurosawa book All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor was announced last year, then cancelled, then announced again by its new publisher Applause. With the book now out in some parts of the world, I am here to tell you that it has been more than worth the wait.

INTRODUCTION

About a year and a half ago, we got news of a new Kurosawa book to be published in English. All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor by Hiroshi Tasogawa would look at what went wrong for Kurosawa during the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!, a topic that had over the years been the subject of endless speculation but few actual facts.

Tasogawa worked as a translator and interpreter for Kurosawa during the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!, allowing him something of an insider’s view into what really happened. Having also worked as a journalist, reporter and academic, Tasogawa set out in the early 2000s to unearth documents dealing with the production and Kurosawa’s role in it, giving him a new vantage point to the events, which was further enhanced by his interviews with many of the key players.

Unfortunately, just before the book was suppose to go into print last year, the publisher closed shop, the book got cancelled, and there was no information about a possible future publication date.

Earlier this year news surfaced that the publisher Applause, who specialise in theatre and cinema books, had picked up the title and that it would be out on October 23. This was Tuesday last week, and the book is indeed on sale now in the US, and at least also in some places in the rest of the world as well. I got my copy last week and, as is customary, have written a review to help you get an idea what the book is about. If you are of the impatient sort, however, I can summarise the book in one word for you: excellent.

CONTENTS

The book begins with a Foreword (4 pages) by the Tora! Tora! Tora! producer Elmo Williams, which is followed by an Introduction (4 pages) by film historian and Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema author Peter Cowie, and the author’s Prologue (4 pages).

Chapter 1 (pages 19-40) narrates the origins of the Tora! Tora! Tora! project and introduces the main players of the story: Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck, his son and Fox executive Richard Zanuck, producer and executive Elmo Williams and Kurosawa Productions producer and managing director Tetsuo Aoyagi. Interestingly, and I think understandably considering the target audience of the book, the author has decided not to give any special biographical introduction for Kurosawa.

Chapter 2 (pages 41-64) discusses the plans and pre-production of Kurosawa’s failed 1965-1966 Hollywood work on The Runaway Train, and how the project became intertwined with the later American offer of Kurosawa helming the Japanese parts of the Tora! Tora! Tora! film. The chapter shows how and why Kurosawa gradually became more focused on the latter film, also suggesting why The Runaway Train ultimately never got made.

Chapters 3 and 4 (pages 65-111) are devoted to the original screenplay which Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima laboured on for over one hundred days in early 1967. Tasogawa discusses and quotes specific parts of the screenplay which would become important later on as misunderstandings between Kurosawa and the Fox producers grew. Tasogawa’s knowledge and understanding of the screenplay is impressive, but also understandable considering that it was he who was the document translator between Kurosawa Productions and Fox, and was responsible for translating the screenplay’s 27 drafts into both English and Japanese during the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. It is interesting to note that he landed this job through his former university professor Donald Richie, who obviously needs no introductions, and who also offered assistance and guidance to Tasogawa with his translations.

Chapter 5 (pages 111-140) describes the difficult efforts by producer Elmo Williams in the summer of 1967 to combine the original Japanese screenplay with the entirely separate version that had been written in the United States by Fox’s Hollywood screenwriters. It also narrates the near disastrous meeting in Hawaii in July 1967, when Kurosawa practically refused to meet with Richard Fleischer, whom Fox had, to Kurosawa’s disappointment and great annoyance, selected as the director for the American parts. Kurosawa’s thinking was that no discussion of shooting could go forward before the screenplay was satisfactory, and he was not happy with the changes proposed by Fox. At the heart of the problems, writes Tasogawa, was that in Kurosawa’s mind Tora! Tora! Tora! would be an epic tragedy, at the centre of which was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. For Kurosawa, the film would be “the tale of one human being who, in his brief moment in the spotlight of history, acted contrary to his own aspirations and ideals”, with extraordinary consequences. (139) Meanwhile, producer Williams’s vision for the film was more that of a cinematic spectacle, albeit just like Kurosawa’s, based on fact and neutrally balanced in its narration.

Chapter 6 (pages 141-162) gives an account of the first meeting between Kurosawa and Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck, who personally flew to Tokyo in January 1968 to discuss the script problems. This meeting succeeded in resolving many of the conceptual problems, largely thanks to Zanuck siding with Kurosawa’s vision over the importance of the character of Yamamoto. It also follows their subsequent correspondence and the shaping of the screenplay after the meeting.

Chapter 7 (pages 163-186) talks about the Japanese preproduction which took place during 1968. This includes storyboards and information about the sets as well as casting, with Kurosawa famously deciding to pick total amateurs for the film’s leading roles.

Chapters 8 and 9 (pages 187-222) give a day-to-day account of the 23 days of shooting that Kurosawa was able to carry out before his dismissal on December 24. It gives detailed information about what was (and what wasn’t) shot and how the crew as well as producer Williams and Fox’s production supervisor in Japan, Stanley Goldsmith, reacted to Kurosawa’s erratic behaviour on the set. It describes Kurosawa as stressed out, suffering from lack of sleep, spending his nights drinking and growing increasingly paranoid believing that he was in some sort of physical danger. His aggravated behaviour on the set lost him the respect of the crew who was not accustomed to Kurosawa’s methods or personality.

Chapter 10 (pages 223-246) is the first of three chapters exploring what actually happened with Kurosawa. It looks at the question from a production point of view, noting certain core misunderstandings as well as the fact that Kurosawa’s paranoia may in fact had some grounds in reality, with the production having received assassination threats because of its delicate subject matter.

Chapter 11 (pages 247-272) looks at Kurosawa’s mental and physical health at the time of production and also notes the various rumours that were floating around after his dismissal. It discusses medical documents from the four diagnoses given to Kurosawa by three different doctors during December 1968, and also describes Fox’s lengthy battle with their insurance company to recover losses after Kurosawa’s dismissal, which ended in defeat as the insurers’ investigation indicated that nothing had been wrong with Kurosawa, while also pointing out flaws in Fox’s original insurance application. The chapter also considers Kurosawa’s epilepsy, from which he suffered throughout his life, and which Tasogawa suggests may have contributed to his behaviour in December 1968. Interestingly, Tasogawa does not mention the rumours of a gastronomic ulcer that surfaced after Kurosawa’s suicide attempt in 1971, and which has sometimes been suggested as the cause of his behaviour also in the late 1960s.

Chapter 12 (pages 273-298) looks at what went on behind the scenes at Kurosawa Productions. It shows that Kurosawa was not entirely in the know about the contents of his English language agreement with Fox and consequently did not fully understand what his position in the production was according to that agreement. The only person on the Japanese side who apparently had access to all the facts was Kurosawa Productions producer and managing director Tetsuo Aoyagi, but for one reason or another he did not fully brief the others. Here, as throughout the book, Tasogawa refrains from turning Aoyagi, who oversaw practically all communication between Kurosawa and Fox, into a villain who schemed behind Kurosawa’s back, as he has often been portrayed. Tasogawa’s account here as elsewhere seems journalistically balanced. It is unfortunate however that unlike with Elmo Williams, Tasogawa was not able to interview Aoyagi for the book, and consequently although Aoyagi features at the very centre of the story we never really get to know his thoughts or motives. In fact, with Elmo Williams apparently being the only surviving member of the Tora! Tora! Tora! production team, despite Tasogawa’s extensive research and neutral narrative, the book is for a large part given from Williams’s perspective.

Chapter 13 (pages 299-312) briefly looks at the finished Tora! Tora! Tora! film, the reception that it received, and what happened afterwards to the people who had been working on it.

This is followed by an Epilogue (pages 313-326), in which Tasogawa tells more about his own personal experiences and how he ended up working for Kurosawa in the first place. He also talks about his sources. The book ends with Acknowledgements and a fairly comprehensive Index.

ASSESSMENT

All the Emperor’s Men is an extremely well written book, which is a joy to read and very difficult to put down. It is thoroughly researched and sets out to give out all the available facts, with Tasogawa’s ability to juggle the minute details and put them into a coherent narrative nothing short of impressive. More impressive still is that the book does not force feed the reader any specific interpretation about what or who actually went wrong. Instead, it shows that a number of factors were at play with Kurosawa’s failure to complete the Tora! Tora! Tora! project.

From the book emerges a picture of an exhausted Kurosawa trying to save the in-his-view sinking Japanese film industry by opening the Hollywood doors for Japanese filmmakers. On top of that, Kurosawa also feels the burden of history on his shoulders, and approaches the subject of Pearl Harbour and especially Admiral Yamamoto with special reverence and care. These self-appointed responsibilities compounded with communication problems with Fox, Kurosawa’s long and demanding work on the film’s preparations, and problems with his largely unfamiliar crew, result in Kurosawa being unable to finish the project. All the Emperor’s Men is not only a tremendous insight into the failed production of Tora! Tora! Tora!, but also serves as an excellent look at the character and working methods of Kurosawa.

Tasogawa’s earlier Japanese book on the subject, Kurosawa vs. Hollywood, has been very well received in Japan, winning major awards, and if it is anything like All the Emperor’s Men, I can definitely understand why. All the Emperor’s Men is easily one of the best Kurosawa books available in the English language and I have absolutely no problem recommending it to anyone interested in Kurosawa or film history in general.

AVAILABILITY

All the Emperor’s Men is now officially published in Northern America, and can be purchased for instance from Amazon.com. European publication should follow later this November, but both Amazon.co.uk and The Book Depository already seem to be selling the title.

6 Comments »


RSS

Discussion: 6 Comments »

#1


Fred



Maybe my comment is premature, but still: After having read the intro and a chapter and a half, I would like to remark on something that struck me while I was reading Elmo Williams’ foreword. I may be too prejudiced and too idealistic in my belief in artistic freedom, but I cannot refrain from understanding E. Williams’ remarks as his justification for AK being fired for mostly financial reasons, maybe also because AK was lagging way behind schedule, and because AK did not consult with E. Williams on which actors to select. I expect the book to shed some more light on this. On the other hand, I would not be overly surprised if economic aspects (and different approaches to filmmaking in the US and in in Japan) turned out being the primary cause for AK being fired.
After re-reading the foreword, I still feel that E. Williams’ opinion — nicely packaged in quite a number of compliments towards AK and emphasizing the admiration the author has towards AK — boils down to “he did not do what we wanted and he was not on schedule, so it was only natural to fire him.” E. Williams’ keeps pointing out that making movies has to be a business and needs to offer a financial return — shudder.


 

#2


Vili Maunula



I took the liberty of moving your comment here, Fred. Somehow I thought that its natural home would be with the review post.

I think that as long as you are working with someone else’s money, and you have agreed some sort of a financial deal where the other party expects a financial return, making movies is a business. And I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with that. It’s of course generally not an optimal situation when art is concerned, but it’s a reality.

Based on the book, I felt that Williams was probably right in firing Kurosawa. Or rather I would say that it’s not a question of right or wrong, but I would most probably have done the same in his place (given the available facts). Fox was not really in the position of being able to take a financial hit, and Kurosawa was acting strangely (for various reasons, as the book notes).

But it would be interesting to hear what you think by the time you finish the book!


 

#3


Fred



Thanks for moving my comment, Vili.

I need to finish the book before I can come up with a full conclusion. Your points are well taken, and I had not been aware of the fact that Fox was financially jeopardized at the time. Being an idealist, I still feel strongly that corporations should be (morally, not legally) obliged to take on projects that may be worthwhile even if they are not promising financially. Today, corporate gains have become the only measure of “worth”, probably much more so than in the sixties. This is a worldwide development I strongly resent (I am enough of a realist to know that there is absolutely nothing I can do to change this development). Me favoring AK’s “last 4″ films tells the tale…


 

#4


Fred



Based on the author’s presentation of historical facts he manages to distill what appears to be a highly balanced view; he is not really siding with anyone. When I read the book, I was clearly taking AK’s side, no matter how erratically AK acted… E. Williams’ probably well intended approach to spreading misinformation (to the various committees and institutions on which one of them had already given approval to the script) gave me the shudders. Strange things happen in the business world! In this respect, Williams acted as a shrewd businessperson despite his hands-on experience with the artistic aspects of making films. It it sad to read about AK turning Williams away who was apparently trying to reach some reconciliation many years after the events. Richard Fleischer clearly describes how the disaster came about, and once again AK failed to reconcile with him. These events (and the break-up with Mifune) shed some light on the dark parts of AK’s soul.

I interpret Hiroshi Tasogawa’s explanation of why the US version of the movie failed as an obvious criticism of a Hollywood spectacle that simply lacks the magic — AK’s magic, of course. The excerpts from AK’s script and the description of AK’s refusal to change or cut certain scenes illustrate what AK had in mind and what the movie could have turned into if much more money had been spent to fulfil all of AK’s wishes. AK’s previous movies were also quite expensive and usually took much longer to make than expected.

The indirect quotation on page 79 provides a solid background for understanding AK’s later films (especially Rhapsody in August and Ran). I was surprised that AK had apparently developed such an understanding as early as in the 1960s:

Kurosawa was acutely aware of this vicious circle of differences that inevitably was destined never to be reconciled. He said that war is always bad and that to answer hate with hate is a human folly beyond salvation.


 

#5


Vili Maunula



Fred: Based on the author’s presentation of historical facts he manages to distill what appears to be a highly balanced view; he is not really siding with anyone.

I thought so, too. I really enjoyed the book, and especially so because it didn’t try to force feed any specific interpretation. I’m happy that you seem to have liked it as well, Fred.

Fred: E. Williams’ probably well intended approach to spreading misinformation (to the various committees and institutions on which one of them had already given approval to the script) gave me the shudders.

This is interesting to hear! Maybe it’s because of my (sort of) working within the industry, but I actually thought that Williams’s actions were for the most part perfectly understandable, and that based on what the book told us, he handled the very challenging production really well.

(When I say that my view may be different from yours because of my working in the industry, I don’t mean to imply that I am somehow in a better position to judge Williams than you are. Rather, it probably just is that I tolerate more (too much?) because of my own experiences.)

So well Williams seemed to handle the situation, in fact, that it would have been great to hear more from the other major participants (especially from the Japanese side), to get their view of Williams’s actions. That’s probably the only aspect of the book which I think could have been improved, although doing so would probably have required a Rashomon-like medium, as the other major participants have sadly all passed on by now, unless I’m mistaken.

Fred: It it sad to read about AK turning Williams away who was apparently trying to reach some reconciliation many years after the events.

Indeed, that was sad to read. But again, I can understand Kurosawa. The lifetime award ceremony may not have been the best time for Williams to suddenly try to reconcile with Kurosawa without any prior warning. But it’s nevertheless a little sad. Would make an interesting ending to a film dealing with the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. I’m surprised if someone won’t sooner or later adapt Tasogawa’s book on film.

He said that war is always bad and that to answer hate with hate is a human folly beyond salvation.

This indeed resonates with Kurosawa’s late films, but I’m not sure if it’s a view that he actually developed only for them. I would say that we can find similar sentiments already in films like Stray Dog or Drunken Angel. Or do you think that these views changed in tone?


 

#6


Fred



He said that war is always bad and that to answer hate with hate is a human folly beyond salvation.

This indeed resonates with Kurosawa’s late films, but I’m not sure if it’s a view that he actually developed only for them. I would say that we can find similar sentiments already in films like Stray Dog or Drunken Angel. Or do you think that these views changed in tone?

I believe that in Ran and Rhapsody in August AK applied these views to war as a conflict involving many people, still with a keen eye on personal failure (Hidetora’s and his sons’ greed in Ran) as the underlying cause and on individual suffering (both films) as a consequence of war. In Dreams the emphasis is again on individual responsibility (e.g. in The Tunnel), in Maadadayo on bearing the consequences of war and on friends who are trying to help (even if they are often helpless themselves, i.e. when they cannot comprehend Prof. Uchida’s intense suffering during thunderstorms and upon him losing Nora, the cat).
My view is a bit oversimplified, but still valid, I think.


 

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.