Kurosawa on Screenwriting

The photo is from Ran. Isn’t that a fabulous image? Of all the directors in the history of cinema, I’d rank Akira Kurosawa somewhere at the top of my list. One could argue persuasively that no filmmaker has created more masterpieces than Kurosawa.

Patrick Garson wrote, “Analysing any film by Akira Kurosawa is a joy. The sense of care, placement and thought lying behind every shot is an unspoken guarantee that nothing on screen is accidental.” I couldn’t agree more, as I had once analyzed Ikiru, which broke my heart.

We are also reminded by Dan Harper that, “Despite his unarguable success, Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film (many of those risks, I might add, didn’t pay off). Every one of his world-renowned films was either preceded or followed by a film more experimental in form or more difficult. You can even argue that some of his greatest successes (Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai) were enormous risks for Kurosawa’s career – the ones that did pay off…”

Kurosawa was, in fact, one of the greatest risk-taking filmmakers in the history of international film.

Of course, Kurosawa was heavily involved in the screenwriting of his films with a handful of writers he used throughout his career. So this begs the question: what did the renowned risk-taker, ground-breaker, and masterpiece-maker, have to say about screenwriting?

These quotes come to us from Akira Kurosawa’s book, Something Like an Autobiography. Hope you enjoy them.

With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.’

With a bad script even a good director
can’t possibly make a good film.

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things.

You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.’

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films.

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony,
with its three or four movements and differing tempos.

The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for the people of today to understand.’

Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into.

It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the “hard-boiled” detective novels can also be very instructive.’

I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then 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.’

In writing alone there is a danger that
your interpretation of another human being
will suffer from one-sidedness.

I‘ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. 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. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthourgh. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.’

A novel and a screenplay are entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay without using narration.’

Characters in a film have their own existence. The filmmaker has no freedom. If he insists on his authority and is allowed to manipulate his characters like puppets, the film loses its vitality.’

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 until his legs became useless, a path will open up.’

Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. 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.

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.

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.’

- Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.


2 Comments

  1. Steve April 19, 2010 at 11:43 pm #

    Something Like an Autobiography is an excellent book.
    I like how Kurosawa wrote about his personal experiences, ranging from his childhood right through his film career, rather than dictate a theory or set of rules designed for others to follow.

    I found a lot that interested me in the book and I strongly recommend it. :)

  2. Miri Stone November 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    SOOOOOOO inspiring – thank you Karel for bringing together such a breadth of inspiration and insights into your blog. And thank you Mystery Man. A pleasure to read your thoughts, as always… I think the most inspiring thing of this article was this nugget of gold:

    ‘Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. 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.’

    Awesome.

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