Flixclusive Interview: Author Hiroshi Tasogawa


With Tora! Tora! Tora!, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hoped to do for the Pearl Harbor attack what The Longest Day did for the D-Day invasion. To helm the Japanese sequences of the film, he enlisted Akira Kurosawa. The director felt he was tasked with making an epic human tragedy with shades of classic literature. After countless headaches with scripting and casting, shooting on Tora! Tora! Tora! started on December 2nd, 1968. By Christmas Eve, Kurosawa was fired from the film.

The fiasco of Tora! Tora! Tora! is chronicled by writer Hiroshi Tasogawa in All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor, published last month by Applause Books. A reporter for NHK and a former writer for the Associated Press, Tasogawa was involved in translating the American and Japanese screenplays for Tora! Tora! Tora!, working alongside Kurosawa. Tasogawa’s book is a compelling and evenhanded account of the film’s troubled production, exploring cultural differences, clashes in filmmaking philosophy, language barriers, and Kurosawa’s creative frustration. We’ll have a closer look at All the Emperor’s Men tomorrow.

Despite being under the weather, Tasogawa was kind enough to answer a few questions about All the Emperor’s Men by email. He commented on his (often drunk) interactions with Akira Kurosawa, his thoughts on translation, and how he felt about Tora! Tora! Tora! itself.

Tora! Tora! Tora! Theatrical Movie Trailer (1970)

In the acknowledgments, you mentioned that All the Emperor’s Men was based on your Japanese book Kurosawa vs. Hollywood. Why did you decide to write a new book rather than translate the Japanese book into English?

I strongly believe that readers with different languages and different cultures need a book written for them. When I wrote my original work Kurosawa vs. Hollywood published in Tokyo in 2006, I had only Japanese readers in mind. In other words, the original book was written on the premise that the author and the reader had many things in common: traditional conception, sensitivity, way of life, and basic knowledge about things Japanese. Too often I have observed that there is no use trying to explain Japanese nuanced key words in a different language because their connotations are easily lost or misunderstood in translation. Also, there are many cases where it is too difficult or simply not worthwhile to try to explain them in a different language. Translated Japanese does not always work in English, anyway.

That is why I decided to reorganize the entire structure of my original work and chose to write a new book in English from the very beginning. It was indeed a challenging task. Many passages in the original work have been excised. On the other hand, I could successfully include new materials and fresh interpretations in the English edition. I am also very happy that Elmo Williams wrote the foreword and Peter Cowie wrote the introduction for me in All the Emperor’s Men. Those are new to the English edition and I am lucky to be able to include them. Anyway, if you want to write a book in a language that is not your own as I did, it’s better to shake off the curse of translation. Then you will have more freedom and spontaneity.

You have some great personal anecdotes in the epilogue about your interactions with Akira Kurosawa. What’s the most enduring memory you have of the man?

I was introduced to Kurosawa by the prominent film scholar Donald Richie, a long-time close friend of the director. Richie was a professor at my alma mater, Waseda Univerisity. I worked for Kurosawa as an interpreter, translator, and researcher for about 28 months between September 1966 and December 1968. That is when he was working on The Runaway Train and Tora! Tora! Tora! Actually, I was a part-time volunteer assistant to Kurosawa and I was never paid anything for my work.

The most enduring memory I have of the man is the six days in May 1968 when I accompanied Kurosawa on his visit to Beverly Hills, California. He went there for summit talks with Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck in an attempt to break an impasse over the shooting script of Tora! Tora! Tora! As soon as his business at the Fox Studio was over, he preferred to be driven immediately back to his hotel. After dumping his business suit and a tie, he would take a quick shower, change into his pajamas and a dressing gown, and he sit down for a drink. It was exactly the same for six days as if set in stone. He flatly refused to go out for sightseeing or to eat out.

Kurosawa and I spent long hours at his suite in the Plaza Hotel after work — just the two of us — until dawn. Every afternoon after work — before and after the same dinner via room service of a thick beef file mignon, rare, with baked potato on the side — we downed two one-liter bottles of Kurosawa’s favorite brand of Scotch whiskey, White Horse. It was indeed a rare experience for me, which is not so easy to forget. Kurosawa was 58 years old and I was 34. I think it was mostly an empty conversation.

Kurosawa had no shortage of topics, all of them amusing. I have little or no memory, however, of what we talked about. Most of the time, I was helplessly fatigued and drunk. All I really wanted was to get rid of this ‘old drunkard’, return to my room, and have some sleep. In later years, not a few fellow journalists despised me as a ‘drunken fool’ because — they say — it could have been in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest exclusive interview with this great filmmaker. About this, I am very remorseful. It could have earned me a fortune.

Tetsuo Aoyagi is such a fascinating figure. I’m still not sure how I feel about him. That ambivalence is not a criticism but a compliment to the way you conveyed all the information in the book. I believe you mentioned something about his reputation in the Japanese film industry. Could you elaborate on that?

There have been fiercely differing views as to what he had actually tried to do in the Tora! Tora! Tora! production. Some say he was a villain who betrayed and deceived Kurosawa, and others say he was just one of those men who tried to help the director but couldn’t. For the past four decades, Aoyagi has refused any interview on the Tora! Tora! Tora! fiasco. I used to work closely with Aoyagi as a friend during the time I served as Kurosawa’s assistant. I know Aoyagi well and I remember him as an able, hard-working man. I now know also that he had his own ambition — and possibly strong ego and greed — in his younger days.

I am not in a position to comment further on his personality or his reputation. Some Kurosawa loyalists say Aoyagi has already been ostracized from Japanese filmdom. I don’t know. All I can say is that he was one of those ‘lone wolves’ in the Japanese film industry and still is.

How do you feel about the finished film Tora! Tora! Tora!?

I first saw the film at the 1970 world premier at the Criterion Theate in Manhattan. I felt then and I still feel now that the Kurosawa version of Tora! Tora! Tora! would have been a different film in many ways. Most likely, it would have been a better film with more humanized tragic components woven into the Japanese sequences. This feeling is based on my understanding of Kurosawa’s mindset and aspirations concerning the Pearl Harbor epic film.

What was probably most compromised was the opening scene which Kurosawa thought very important. The entrance of the tragic protagonist, Admiral Yamamoto, the C-in-C of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s Combined Fleet. He arrived at his flagship the Nagato on September 1, 1939. That was the day when World War II began in Europe. In this opening scene, Kurosawa was about to describe beautifully a sense of destiny surrounding Admiral Yamamoto who was soon to be the architect of Pearl Harbor attack. For years Yamamoto had risked assassination dangers and tried boldly to prevent a disastrous war with the United States.

After Fox expelled Kurosawa from the studio, Elmo Williams — with the approval by Darryl Zanuck — revised Kurosawa’s final shooting screenplay although they tried to keep the basic storylines. They deleted a dozen scenes, and shortened or rewrote more than 30 scenes. Those changes seriously affected many of Kurosawa’s ‘pet scenes’. Most regrettably lost was this opening scene. Kurosawa’s idea was cheapened almost beyond recognition. I resent it.

I’ve always been curious if a translator is also a kind of literary editor. (Maybe more like Maxwell Perkins than Gordon Lish.) What are your thoughts on the role of a translator and the art of translation?

There is an old saying dating back to the Italian renaissance which likens the art of translation to the reputation of a woman. It goes something like this: a chaste one is ugly; a beautiful one raises doubts about chastity. Just think of computer translation. Word-by-word translation so often ends up in ugly nonsense. To be sure, since there are so many different languages in this world we need interpreters and translators to help us communicate beyond linguistic and cultural barriers.

That said, some sort of editing and retelling is inevitable and should be tolerated in the course of translation. Sometimes interpreters are criticized as ‘interrupters’ but we must forgive them because they are useful in many cases. If you suspect some quaintness, just laugh it off.

With modern technology, more convenient means of communication, and a globalized world, do you think an ambitious co-production like Tora! Tora! Tora! could get made today without as much trouble, or would there be similar difficulties given cultural differences?

You probably have in mind the internet, Skype, and other computerized technology. Technological innovation has indeed revolutionized the speed of communication but not its quality. It is too obvious that the computer will never save the world. Technology has achieved very little in improving human wisdom or in alleviating the human misery of the present world. On the contrary, advanced technology has sometimes aggravated suspicion, hatred, greed, or distrust among peoples.

Four decades ago, when Tora! Tora! Tora! production was in progress, we had only the telephone and telegrams to communicate across the Pacific. The computerized means of communication might be useful in speeding up message transmission and perhaps also in closing information gaps between the United States and Japan. But it would be less helpful in closing conception gaps rooted in language barriers and cultural differences. I think that is one lesson we could learn from the Tora! Tora! Tora! fiasco.

There’s a section of All the Emperor’s Men where you discuss a possible link between epilepsy and artistry. Could you elaborate on this? Do you have any personal thoughts on this theory?

Several Japanese medical experts who read my book have told me that Kurosawa seemed to have had classic symptoms of ‘temporal lobe epilepsy’, called the Geshwind Syndrome (also known as ‘Gastaut-Geschwind Syndrome’). Doctors say that epilepsy is a type of electrical short-circuit discharge of the brain and that it has significant effects on the behavior of most people who suffer from this trouble. Commonly cited characteristics of the Geshwind Syndrome include ‘deepened emotions’ such as anger, hostility, and aggression.

More recently, psychiatric research has suggested an ‘epileptic personality’, a complex of traits seen between periods of seizure where the patient is egocentric and displays an explosive impulsivity. Experts say that most likely Kurosawa was a case in point when his ‘eccentric behaviors’ were witnessed at the Kyoto Toei Studio in December 1968 just before Fox dismissed him as director of Tora! Tora! Tora!

In his life, Kurosawa had a strong love of the works by Dostoevsky and Van Gogh. It is quite possible that he had felt an unusual level of compassion and mental affinity with those artists who also were known to have had epilepsy problems.

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