“Perhaps it is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination.”

Akira Kurosawa*

In 1920, a ten-year old boy in fifth grade, dressed in samurai hamaka pants and kimono, with a bamboo Kendo sword tied in his sash was attacked by 7 or 8 other boys armed with sticks and rocks.  The boy kicked off his high wooden clogs, pulled out his Kendo sword and launched his counter attack with the battle cry “O-men” (to your face).  He parried and lunged, jumping left and then right, keeping the attackers in front of him.  He successfully drove the boys into a fishmonger’s shop.  The fishmonger sprung to their defense with a long, carrying pole.  The ten-year old Akira Kurosawa escaped down an alley.

Twenty-three years later, Kurosawa directed his first film, Sugata Sanshiro, the story of an aspiring judo master in the late 19th century.  In his autobiography, Kurosawa wrote:

“Without knowing it at the time, it was these objects [Kendo sword and clogs] from my past that I employed in my first film, Sugata Sanshiro [1943] as visual devices showing Sanshiro’s new dedication to a life of judo.”

Kurosawa was a global influence on cinema.  As director and screenwriter, Kurosawa made 30 films during his 57 year career, many now viewed as classics.  Rashomon was the surprise winner of the Golden Lion award at the 1952 Venice film festival, becoming the first Japanese film to win critical acclaim in the West.  His film Seven Samurai has been remade five times, known in the West as The Magnificent Seven.

In 1990, Kurosawa received the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Kurosawa described himself:

“I am not a special person. I am not especially strong; I am not especially gifted. I simply do not like to show my weakness, and I hate to lose, so I am a person who tries hard. That’s all there is to me.”

Kurosawa admits to obstinacy, ambition and persistence, but denies any special talent.  What carried him from a 10-year old bamboo samurai to earning global recognition in film? Was it his memory?  The power to observe and recall?

Kurosawa: “I’ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory.”

(In postulating the power of memory, Kurosawa concedes his forgetfulness.  Memory is frail.)

“My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read.”

Kurosawa began making his notes and filling his memory before he ever considered working in film.

He originally considered himself a painter but also dabbled in literature, theater, music, socialism, and other arts before he “chanced” on film.  His father was adamant that he get a job. So in 1935 on a whim, he responded to a want ad for an assistant film director at Photo Chemical Laboratory (P.C.L. eventually became the Toho Film Company.)

The first step in the application process was to write an essay on the “fundamental deficiencies of the Japanese films” and how to correct them.  He observed in his essay that if the problems were fundamental they probably couldn’t be solved.  There were several more steps in the hiring process—including submitting his family registry.

Kurosawa had never entertained the notion of working in film.  After the roughly three month hiring process, he was hired as an assistant director for Yamamoto Kajiro.  Yama-san, as Kurosawa called him, was a master teacher as well as film maker.  Yama-san said: “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.”

Assistant directors were expected to work on every aspect of the film from hammering nails, to adjusting lights, to applying make-up to editing. They began early, worked late into the night and sometimes all night.

But, Kurosawa was not deterred.  He wrote screen plays:

“Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of one page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, even after crawling into bed I would turn out two or three pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.”

Even with his imagination fueled by his stockpile of memory, he, like every artist, ran into dead ends:

“But at some point in the writing of every script. I feel like giving the whole thing up. From my many experiences of writing screenplays, however, I have learned something: If I hold fast in the face of this blankness and despair, adopting the tactic of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect, who glared at the wall that stood in his way, a path will open up.”

Film making is necessarily a cooperative effort.  But, Kurosawa—already writer and director—believed that he should be in charge of every detail.  However, he learned to collaborate, recognizing that one view alone is inadequate.  Beginning in 1940, Kurosawa began writing his scripts with two co-writers.  To write the script for Seven Samurai, he retreated to a mountain inn with a team of writers for 45 days:

“[Prior to 1940] I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about two other people, you can avoid this danger also.”

Kurosawa urged film makers to draw on the memories of collaborators.  He consistently demonstrated that the path to success lies in persistence.

For Akira Kurosawa, memory is the power of imagination.

What should we remember?  Anything and as much as possible, as Kurosawa did.  Even the sounds of the day.

Kurosawa could still hear in his memory the childhood sounds of the bugle of the tofu seller, the clicking of the lock on the hard candy vendor’s chest of drawers, the scissors grinder, the insect vendor, the humming of kite strings.

And drums: the drums of the clog repair, the candy seller, the lion dance, monkey trainer, temple services and the drums of the Kendo master’s studio at dawn.


*Quotes are from Something Like an Autobiography, Akira Kurosawa, 1983