Exhibition: Akira Kurosawa

The Storyteller's Storyboards

Film director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) is perhaps more famous outside Japan than any other of his fellow countrymen. This is partly because his films confirmed the gaijin view of his country as a land of geisha, samurai and warlords, but also because he made artistic films that, especially in Europe, were a welcome antidote to Hollywood's formulaic outpourings. For anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the great director and his working methods, the current exhibition at Yokohama's Sogo Museum is a must.

Featuring storyboard drawings and paintings in pencil, crayon, watercolor and gouache that he made for several of his films, the exhibition shows the keen artistic eye and visual sense of a man who could quite easily have become a painter instead of a director. As a youngster he aspired to be an artist and had some of his paintings accepted for exhibition, but his inability to pass an art-school entrance exam meant that the art world's loss became the film world's gain.

Unfortunately none of his early paintings are on display, so the only way to judge his painterly skills is from the storyboards that he dashed off at great speed. Unburdened by an excess of artistic technique and free from the conscious attempt to create "art," Kurosawa painted with a panache and energy that, despite its roughness, produced several pictures quite capable of standing their ground as works of art.

Among his influences, Impressionism and Van Gogh rate rather highly, sometimes conflicting with his directorial urge to capture as many details as neatly as possible. His character study Hidetora Wearing a Helmet of Woven Grass, for the movie Ran (1985), shows all the intensity and the use of color for which Van Gogh was famous. In Dreams (1990), he also paid tribute to this artist by re-creating the painter's visual world with great fidelity. No wonder, then, that several of the storyboard illustrations for this movie resemble Van Gogh pictures, such as the wrinkle-browed, straw-hatted Old Man of the Water Mill and the picture of Van Gogh in a field, The Crows, Landscape in Auvers, painted with the vibrant hatched brushstrokes characteristic of the artist.

Although the exhibition includes battle studies for Kagemusha (1980), vivid depictions of costumes for Dreams and excellent character studies like Takeda Shingen and Kageboshi, also from Kagemusha, the focal point of the exhibition is the more than 40 storyboard illustrations Kurosawa made for a project he was still trying to get backing for when he died in 1998. Titled Umi wa Mite Ita (The Sea Was Watching), the story, based on Shugoro Yamamoto's novel Before the Dew Evaporates, is set in the Edo Period and deals with two poor prostitutes of a local okabasho (red-light district).

With so many storyboard illustrations for one project, the curator, Akira Tomita, has arranged the pictures in sequence with dialogue and continuity notes so that visitors can follow the story. Although there is no English explanation, the continuity of the pictures allows even those of us without kanji skills to get a sense of the story. Another good idea is the slide show of these images.

Painted mainly to focus his artistic vision and to assist in winning financial backing and planning costume and set designs, these works also tackle a fundamental problem for any artist: how to depict movement. "A painting is just a painting," Kurosawa once said. "A film moves, while a painting doesn't. So the question is how to capture the motion on paper."

Toward the end of the story of Umi wa Mite Ita, as a great storm strikes the town and floodwaters rise, the storyboard starts to depict swirling scenes of howling wind, lashing rain and churning waves. Here, Kurosawa manages beautifully to capture a sense of the kinetic with wild, frantic, Impressionistic brushstrokes.

When a director hands over the personal vision that has existed only in his head to cameramen and actors, an inevitable dilution of that vision takes place. Visiting this exhibition allows one to come face to face with the raw imagination of Japan's greatest filmmaker.
Akira Kurosawa - The Sea Was Watching runs until June 17, 2001, at the Yokohama Sogo Museum

The Japan Times
6th June, 2001
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