This April’s Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club feature is the 1970 American-Japanese war film Tora! Tora! Tora!, which dramatizes the planning and execution of the Japanese surprise military attack against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II.
From a Kurosawa aficionado’s point of view the film is important as it was to be Kurosawa’s first Hollywood film, after his plans to shoot Runaway Train, which we discussed last month, failed to materialise. Had Kurosawa completed his work on Tora! Tora! Tora!, it could very possibly also have been the most epic film of his career. Yet, despite working for over two years on the American-Japanese epic, Kurosawa was forced to leave the production, with the producers firing him only a few weeks into shooting.
What exactly happened is one of the most fascinating questions of Kurosawa’s career, and something that journalist and author Hiroshi Tasogawa, who worked under Kurosawa during the production, has attempted to answer in his brilliant book All the Emperor’s Men. Most of what follows about Kurosawa’s involvement with the film comes from Tasogawa’s book.
Kurosawa was originally hired to the project by Fox executive Richard Zanuck together with producer Elmo Williams who was to supervise the production. In late 1966, they commissioned Kurosawa and his co-writers Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima to pen the Japanese half of the script, which Kurosawa would be tasked to direct, while the American half of the film would be handled by an experienced American director. In this way, the finished film would offer a balanced, even objective view of the attacks.
Things, however, didn’t go smoothly. The goals of the Japanese and American teams weren’t always in line with each other, and Kurosawa was very disappointed when he learnt that his American counterpart would be Richard Fleischer, a director he didn’t have much respect for. Matters were further complicated by cultural and language barriers between Fox studios and Kurosawa Production, which acted as a no-financing co-producer of the film.
As a result, much of 1967 was spent on something of a tug of war with the script. Fox was aiming for a historically accurate cinematic spectacle, while Kurosawa, in Tasogawa’s words, was set on making an epic tragedy centred around Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, “one human being who, in his brief moment in the spotlight of history, acted contrary to his own aspirations and ideals”, and with extraordinary consequences. It didn’t help that the script Kurosawa’s writing team had come up with was longer than the intended full film, which should also include the American half.
After most of the major issues were finally resolved by January 1968, Japanese preproduction was ready to begin. If the American producers thought that it would be smooth sailing from here on, they were wrong, for Kurosawa next shocked them by deciding to pick total amateurs for the film’s leading roles. Rather than looking for an impressive acting pedigree in casting, Kurosawa concentrated heavily on character type. By selecting Japanese businessmen who had in real life served in the war, Kurosawa believed that he could bring an air of authority onto the screen in a way that would not be possible with experienced actors. This, together with Kurosawa’s climbing budget needs, continued to keep the American producers worried about the production’s Japanese half.
As the shoot, planned to start in December 1968, drew closer, Kurosawa himself felt increasingly under pressure and his health began to deteriorate. According to Tasogawa, Kurosawa also became increasingly paranoid, as the production began to receive death threats due to its delicate subject matter. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Kurosawa would not be working with his typical crew, but one based in Kyoto. From the beginning of the shoot, the director and his crew, unaccustomed to Kurosawa’s working style, didn’t seem to be getting along.
In the end, Kurosawa lasted for only 23 days. By the time he was fired on December 24, the shoot was badly behind schedule and there had been plenty of finger pointing as Kurosawa’s apparently erratic behaviour, coupled with his notorious perfectionism, intensified to the point that appeared to some observers to border on insanity.
The finger pointing continued long after Fox dropped Kurosawa from the production, with two rather notable fallings out appearing to take place during this time. One was between Kurosawa and his long time co-scriptwriter and Kurosawa Production executive, Ryuzo Kikushima, who would stay with the Tora! Tora! Tora! production and with whom Kurosawa would never work again. The other was with Toshiro Mifune, who heavily criticised Kurosawa for his decision to cast non-actors, and who likewise would never work with Kurosawa again. Whether things said in the aftermath of Tora! Tora! Tora! were the sole reason for Kurosawa never working with Kikushima or Mifune again cannot be said, but they at least probably didn’t help to strengthen any friendships, either.
Losing Kurosawa was a problem also for Fox, who had to regroup and reschedule the Japanese production. In the end, it would take close to two more years for the film to come out, with same-day premieres taking place in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu on September 24, 1970. The Japanese sequences were directed by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasu, the latter later also known for his films Day of Resurrection and Battle Royale.
Although Tora! Tora! Tora! was in the top 10 highest grossing films of the American market in its year of release, the film’s commercial performance in the US was generally considered a disappointment, and neither did it manage to win any major awards. In Japan, however, the film did fairly well.
So, how much of Kurosawa is there in the final product? According to Tasogawa, the final product is quite different from what Kurosawa had intended:
Kurosawa’s version of Tora! Tora! Tora! was never made. Fox used the costly sets with its life-size warships and elaborate stages, costumes, and art that had been designed and made to order by Kurosawa. His final shooting screenplay was cut and revised by Elmo Williams in 40 places in the U.S. and Japanese sequences, all of which had been personally authorized by Darryl Zanuck. Williams shortened the original three-hour version to 147 minutes for the Japanese market and 143 minutes for the non-Japanese market.
The four-minute difference came about because Williams and Zanuck deleted two scenes they considered relevant only to the Japanese audience. Kurosawa had insisted that those scenes were pertinent to the theme of Tora! Tora! Tora! and Zanuck had consented when they met in California in May 1968. One scene depicted Admiral Yamamoto’s visit to the Imperial Palace to receive and Imperial Order to send the Combined Fleet to war. The other was a comic-relief scene in which two cooks aboard the aircraft carrier Akagi on the way to Pearl Harbor are talking about the International Date Line, which puts Japan nineteen hours ahead of Hawaii. Likewise, Kurosawa’s cherished plan to open the movie with Admiral Yamamoto’s elaborate “manning-the-rails” change of command ceremony was drastically simplified and shortened. Many other scenes that might have benefited from “Kurosawa Magic” were changed or cut. (308-309)
What Kurosawa’s opinion of the finished film was is unclear, as is whether he even ever got around to watching it. What is known however is that in October 1970, a month after the film’s release, a reported asked this very question of Kurosawa, as he was promoting his new film Dodesukaden, which will be our film club title next month. Kurosawa’s reply appears to have been somewhat terse, with the director noting that he hadn’t seen the film “and I don’t want to see it, either. I don’t expect they’ve taken my advice to make that movie a good one.” (Tasogawa, 308)
So, how are you preparing for this month’s war epic? Me, I have dived into the world of block war games, with a test game of Asia Engulfed last weekend, and the proper war starting in two weeks’ time. I’m playing the Japanese.
And even if you don’t intend to simulate the war at home, let us know your thoughts on Tora! Tora! Tora! in the comments and the forum section of this website. As always, the discussion is open and free to everyone. Make some noise!
4 April 2014
I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! earlier today. Although I quite liked it, I would agree with those reviewers who have congratulated the film for its action sequences but found much of its story dull and all of its characters quite uninteresting.
Instead of giving its characters backgrounds or developing them, the film fully concentrates on the political and military background leading to the attack, and then of course showing that attack. This is fairly proficiently executed, but I was left wondering if a documentary film wouldn’t have been able to do a better job, given the apparent goals of the production. Especially early on in the film, in order to communicate to the audience details needed for understanding the attack, many of the characters are given very unnatural scenes and dialogue which in a documentary film could have been handled with voice-over narration, and perhaps would have felt more natural even here.
My understanding is that Kurosawa’s central narrative vision for the film had been admiral Yamamoto and his personal struggle with the war. The admiral initially opposed both the Manchurian invasion as well as the planned war against the US, and would therefore have been a good character through which to understand the conflict. Yamamoto is given prominence also in the finished film as the character who both opens and closes the story, but there is no real exposition of his character, and he remains an enigma, just like everyone else.
Without anyone in particular through whom we could follow the events, the story is curiously detached from human experience, and without that human presence even the terrifying battle scenes at the end fail to have the kind of an impact that they could, would we actually have been made to care about and understand the people depicted.
There is in this regard an interesting difference though between the American scenes directed by Fleischer from the American script and the Japanese ones shot by Masuda and Fukasaku from the Japanese script. The Americans are portrayed as quite casual and easy going, up to a point where the American sequences include a number of quite cringeworthy scenes. The Japanese, meanwhile, are shown as methodical, organised and serious. In my case at least, this difference caused me to believe more in the Japanese characters, simply because they felt more realistic and as a result somewhat more relatable. I wonder if this is something that also you guys felt?
Where the film does excel of course is the assault itself. Watching it from the bluray print, I found myself thinking how much more impressive the visuals seemed if compared to modern day action films. While similar films made today are on the surface more epic thanks to the availability of computer generated imagery, they also tend to step over to cartoony territory with their stylised disregard of realism and physics. Watching the actual airplanes glide in the air is a joy, and the explosions reminded me how much I miss things like actual fire in modern day films. While excellent with a number of things, CGI special effects are still rarely capable of rendering believable fire. The funny thing is though that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to realise this, for most of us rarely encounter large scale fires in real life, and therefore our reference points are already shifting to the non-fire that is composed of CGI generated flames.