Book: All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor


There’s a song on Cursive’s The Ugly Organ called “Art is Hard.” The title is so facile and yet you know it’s true. In Les Blank’s documentary The Burden of Dreams, you watch Werner Herzog suffer potential ruin in order to complete Fitzcarraldo. In Chris Smith’s American Movie, the dream is much smaller and yet still cumbersome: Mark Borchardt just wants to finish a short film.

For all these making-of profiles, there are also unmaking-of’s. Earlier in the year I looked at multiple cases of unmaking in Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes, and I still keep coming back to Lost in La Mancha to ponder if there really was a curse on Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film. More recently, there’s Kevin Schreck’s Persistence of Vision, which shows Richard Williams’s 30-year labor of love turn into muck — a work completed but through demoralizing compromise.

In All the Emperor’s Men by Hiroshi Tasogawa, we learn about Akira Kurosawa’s dismissal from Tora! Tora! Tora! Part of it was due to his uncompromising vision, and part of it was due to cultural differences. Whether it’s vision or competing values, there are always things that get lost in translation. Maybe the Tora! Tora! Tora! that Kurosawa wanted to make was impossible because it could only be expressed as a kind of burdensome idea rather than a film — an abstract solo effort rather than an actual collaborative one.

Then again, that assessment puts a little too much blame on Kurosawa. Before Kurosawa was even attached to Tora! Tora! Tora!, producer Darryl F. Zanuck had big ambitions. Fox had scored a major hit with The Longest Day, a massive production about the D-Day invasion mounted by American, British, French, and German talent. With Tora! Tora! Tora!, Zanuck wanted to do something similar with a Japanese/American co-production about the bombing of Pearl Harbor: a Japanese team would shoot their side of the story, an American team would shoot its own, and a balanced film would be the end result.

Kurosawa wound up with the directing job thanks to Elmo Williams, best known for editing High Noon. A fan of Kurosawa’s films, Williams showed Zanuck Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Kurosawa accepted, partly because of Zanuck’s relationship with director John Ford, who was one of Kurosawa’s biggest heroes. It all sounded so amicable, and everyone would be going into the film with the best intentions. Kurosawa actually felt the weight of history on his shoulders to make this movie, and even a sense of fate — Kurosawa was 56 years old when he took on the project; Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was 56 at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.

But after an agonizing scripting process and just 23 days of shooting, Kurosawa was dismissed from the film. Not without reason. The production was well behind schedule, and the cast and crew reported that Kurosawa had gone mad: he’d show up on set drunk and/or in bad moods; he’d verbally abuse and fire people on a whim; he was even paranoid that the yakuza was after him. As Tasogawa notes in his prologue, upon being dismissed from Tora! Tora! Tora!, Kurosawa said the following to Williams through an interpreter: “If you all insist on dismissing me, I will commit hari-kari and die.” (Kurosawa would unsuccessfully attempt suicide almost three years later in 1971.)

Tasogawa was an assistant to Kurosawa during this time and translated the Japanese and American screenplays for Tora! Tora! Tora! Tasogawa also translated the screenplay for Kurosawa’s Runaway Train, a film that was abandoned prior to work on Tora! Tora! Tora! A runaway train is a metaphor for this whole ordeal; it’s like Herzog moving the boat over the mountain for Fitzcarraldo. A still odder coincidence, Kurosawa’s first film after these unfortunate productions was the small-in-scope Dodes’ka-den, the title of which is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a moving train (i.e., how they say “clickety-clack” in Tokyo).

All the Emperor’s Men doesn’t read like a memoir until the end but remains deeply involved and compelling. It’s more of a journalistic account of how the production unfurled, not quite like those legendary Esquire pieces by Gay Talese, but similar in how personal distance is used to establish humanizing closeness. By keeping himself mostly out of the book, Tasogawa allows readers to feel like flies on the wall rather than tag-alongs. That sort of reader experience shouldn’t be discounted. It establishes a tone of balance in search of facts, which might mirror the best intentions of the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. Only in the epilogue to do we see Tasogawa clearly: a man in his early-to-mid-thirties getting drunk on whiskey until dawn with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

One of the most essential ideas in All the Emperor’s Men is the difference in expectations from Zanuck/Fox and Kurosawa. In his foreword, Williams notes that film is a business, especially with a major war film like Tora! Tora! Tora! Kurosawa approached this all differently, which might be hubris, but I think it’s more the result of cultural difference. Tasogawa says that film is more director-driven in Japan while it’s more producer-driven in America. There’s also the problematic matter of two screenplays for two different stories unfolding in one movie. This is not writing an exquisite corpse like the surrealists used to do for kicks. Collaborative writing seems like something that needs to be done side-by-side with real-time discussion rather than thousands of miles apart by post.

Kurosawa’s side of the screenplay highlighted Admiral Yamamoto as a central tragic figure, and yet he is meant to have a strange human side to him, at one point waddling like Charlie Chaplin. Kurosawa wrote his first draft of the film with two other screenwriters, Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima. The first draft was more than 1,000 handwritten pages in Japanese, and more than 650 pages when it was printed and bound as an English version for the producers. (You can apparently find a copy of one of these behemoths in a library in LA.) While there were striking scenes in it that Tasogawa includes in the book, the screenplay was written in evocative prose that wouldn’t help a production company determine the budget, let alone where a camera should go.

And then so many strange events occurred that seemed to spell doom for the film before it even got underway. Kurosawa went with unconventional casting of non-actors, a decision that would eventually result in a falling out with long-time friend and collaborator Toshiro Mifune. On the U.S. side of the production, rather than picking an American filmmaker on par with Kurosawa, Fox went with Richard Fleischer, best known for Fantastic Voyage and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (No offense to the late Fleischer, but I don’t think he’s even on the same level as Kinji Fukasaku, one of the two Japanese directors that Fox picked to replace Kurosawa.) Tasogawa includes a hilarious mention of the first face-to-face meeting between Kurosawa and Fleischer in Hawaii. As if the high stakes weren’t human enough, this small moment of awkwardness and resentment makes everyone in the book even more sympathetic.

Somehow amid the reportage and relaying of information, Tasogawa tells a story that’s rarely dry. It reads well — a few slight redundancies here and there, but nothing too distracting — but more importantly, it left me intrigued throughout. This is particularly true of its explorations of Kurosawa’s thematic hobby horses and a bizarre day-to-day shooting timeline that shows just how unhinged Kurosawa had become. Even during some complicated sections regarding studio contracts and insurance, I felt glued. Tasogawa finds a sense of cultural difference and language barriers here as he does in other sections of the book — in America, a contract is perceived one way, in Japan it’s perceived another; and no one in any culture really understands the alien legalese in which contracts are written.

But more than intriguing, All the Emperor’s Men is a compassionate portrait of its various players. No one comes out totally blameless, no one involved is free from culpability when it comes to the filmmaking fiasco, and no one comes out of the book a bad guy. There’s an obvious tragedy for Kurosawa, who seems to have experienced a total breakdown of some kind. Zanuck is tragic as well, particularly given his fate after a series of production losses. And I felt a strange affinity for Williams, a man caught in between Fox and Kurosawa, who himself felt responsible for hurting both the company he worked for and the Japanese filmmaker he’d so admired.

There’s so much to unpack in All the Emperor’s Men, but I wanted to end with the idea of epilepsy as a road to artistry. Kurosawa suffered from epilepsy, as did Vincent Van Gogh and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As Tasogawa pointed out yesterday, it’s been posited that some epileptics may experience emotions more vividly. Here are three artists with such a strange set of aesthetic connections and sensibilities. You can see the expressive color in Kurosawa’s later films (e.g., Dodes’ka-den and Kagemusha) as well as his paintings (one seen above) which suggest the textures and mastery of Van Gogh. Dostoyevsky was Kurosawa’s favorite writer; the director praised Dostoyevsky for his unflinching compassion in the face of such misery and tragedy. There may be something to this, or maybe it’s just the number 56 all over again.

Epilepsy is not sufficient for artistry, of course. One can feel something very deeply, but it takes talent and craft to translate that feeling into something that communicates it to others. And so I come back to that idea not of Kurosawa’s unmade Tora! Tora! Tora! but Kurosawa’s unmakeable Tora! Tora! Tora! To have invested so much for so long, to have strained in collaboration as a kind of unwanted compromise, to feel a weight of history and fate guiding you as you create something — that’s too much feeling to contain, and possibly felt too profoundly. Something inevitably gets lost in translation. In this case, maybe too much that was too important would have been lost, though I wonder if it was even capable of being expressed.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.