Maybe we expect too much of our artists. We try and remind ourselves that they are only human; but when a novel or a film makes a statement that elevates us, that speaks of our common humanity in a voice true and wise, it can be a huge letdown to discover that its creator holds divisive political views, or harbors unexamined prejudices. When the artist is the late filmmaker Akira Kurosawa—whose works remain beloved the world over for their powerful statements on timeless themes—the letdown carries a special sting.
But there’s no earthly reason I should feel upset or betrayed to learn, say, that Kurosawa could be inflexible and dismissive, given to snap judgments that hardened into lifelong grudges, or that he had a colossal ego, rejecting out of hand collaborators he felt were unworthy of him. Not every great artist can also be a terrific human being, and vanity and condescension are failings to which all men are heir. Indeed, these flaws, highlighted in Hiroshi Tasogawa’s recent account All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor, make Kurosawa more than ever a universal figure, simply by humanizing him.
But Tasogawa’s book, which chronicles the great director’s abortive involvement with the 1970 Japanese-American coproduction Tora! Tora! Tora!, highlights aspects of Kurosawa's worldview that are troubling in a different way. The film dramatized the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor from both the American and Japanese perspectives, telling parallel stories that intersected at the climax. The film was the brainchild of producers Elmo Williams and Darryl Zanuck, who brought Kurosawa on board in the early planning stages with the thought that he would write and direct the Japanese sequences. It seemed like a genius move all around; Kurosawa’s involvement would bestow upon Tora! Tora! Tora! both authenticity and cachet, while Kurosawa—who had grown disillusioned with the Japanese studio system—saw the picture as his ticket to a career in Hollywood.
But he also saw in Tora! Tora! Tora! an opportunity to rehabilitate the image of his homeland—to emphasize the audacity and boldness of its wartime strategy, and wipe away the stigma of cowardice from the surprise attack. He saw it as setting the record straight; some in Hollywood (and in the US military, whose cooperation was essential to the making of the film) saw it as rewriting history.
It’s tempting—though probably inaccurate—to label Kurosawa as a Pearl Harbor “truther.” Certainly his take on the attack that triggered America’s entry into World War II differed from what I learned in school. But part of that, of course, is simply cultural; Western historians are bound to interpret events differently than their Japanese counterparts.
We imagine somehow that a creator of Kurosawa’s stature can, sheerly by virtue of his artistic sensibility, rise above the common cultural prejudices that divide us. So it is unsettling to find Kurosawa's sensibilities—on the subject of Pearl Harbor, anyway—so foreign to our own. Only human? Would that it were so—that he were only human, and of no particular nationality, belonging to all of us. Only human? Would that it were so—that he were only human, and of no particular nationality, belonging to all of us.
As Tasogawa shows, though, Akira Kurosawa was no mere apologist for Imperial Japan. His worldview, typically, was more nuanced, allowing room to admire the courage and military genius of the men who executed the attack, even while decrying the misguided militarism that gave rise to it. It’s a theme that echoes throughout his work, back to his samurai dramas: a warrior may serve with honor, even if he serves a bad master. While writing his draft screenplay for Tora! Tora! Tora!, Kurosawa viewed the protagonists—the brilliant tactician Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who masterminded the raid on Pearl Harbor, and Mitsuo Fuchida, the daring flying ace who led the attack—as heroic figures, albeit as tragic heroes.
Tora! Tora! Tora!, as originally conceived, was probably an impossible dream from the start. The proposed creative method—two screenplays, two directors, mash together and hope for the best—had little hope of producing a coherent whole; Kurosawa’s singularity of vision, the very thing that we value in his work, operates at cross-purposes to the collaborative technique. The film’s American financial backers took exception to Kurosawa’s spiraling budget, his historical revisionism, his open contempt for co-director Richard Fleischer, his insistence on hiring non-actors—actual veterans of the Japanese navy—for key roles. Kurosawa, for his part, was used to a high degree of creative autonomy in his work, and chafed under the restrictions put in place by his American bosses.
After just three weeks of photography, Kurosawa was abruptly removed from the project. Rumors bubbled that he had suffered a nervous breakdown—a view to which Tasogawa subscribes—or that, frustrated with the project, he had been trying to get himself fired. The film, completed by others, was a flop in the States (though it was, perhaps predictably, a hit in Japan). Kurosawa never did get that Hollywood career, and the saga of Tora! Tora! Tora! remains an intriguing might-have been.