When the great Akira Kurosawa met Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami
For many cinephile, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa sits atop of the pile, a creative whose legacy seems to grow stronger with every passing moment.
Having directed for over 30 years throughout his career, Kurosawa worked his way through the film industry having ended his brief spell as a painter back in 1936. As a director in training, Kurosawa worked as an assistant director to the famed filmmaker of the time Kajirō Yamamoto who, in turn, nurtured his talent by increasing his responsibilities as part of the team and inevitably teaching Kurosawa the core roles of cinema.
Kurosawa eventually made his directional debut during World War II by releasing the popular action film Sanshiro Sugata. Following the end of the war, the Japanese filmmaker’s career was beginning to flourish and the release of the critically acclaimed 1948 film Drunken Angel which signified a major moment in the making of Kurosawa.
The likes of Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha and Ran followed in what proved to be a hugely successful and expansive career for Kurosawa who would influence leading names in cinema such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Federico Fellini and more.
One other iconic filmmaker to take inspiration from Kurosawa was famed Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and, it must be stressed, the feeling was mutual. Kiarostami, an active film-maker from 1970, achieved critical acclaimed for helming projects such as the Koker trilogy, Close-Up and 1997 effort Taste of Cherry, a project that was later awarded the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year. While Kiarostami was never shy to hide his admiration for Kurosawa, the affiliation went full circle when the Iranian filmmaker was awarded the Akira Kurosawa Prize for lifetime achievement in directing in 2000.
But for many fans of Kurosawa, the heft praise rarely comes back in the same direction. Kiarostami, however, was one of the exceptions. “I believe the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami are extraordinary,” Kurosawa once said. “Words cannot relate my feelings. I suggest you his films; and then you will see what I mean. Satyajit Ray passed away and I got very upset. But having watched Kiarostami’s films, I thank god because now we have a good substitute for him.”
Here, we revisit a moment when the two iconic masters of cinema sat down in conversation. In a story that was printed through The Film International Magazine in 1993, Kurosawa and Kiarostami share opinions and creative thoughts.
See a transcript of ‘The Emperor and I’, below.
‘The Emperor & I’: Abbas Kiarostami Meets Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa: “I was in Cannes when you too, were there… of course, I had not seen your films then.”
Kiarostami: “I had the chance to see your Madadayo in Cannes and you were sitting two rows ahead of me. It was a great opportunity to see you and your film at once. You may not know how popular you are in my country. Both the intellectuals and ordinary people like your works. In fact, you and the late Alfred Hitchcock are the most popular foreign filmmakers in Iran. Once one of the officials at the Iranian film industry said that you and Tarkovsky were the only foreign filmmakers whose film compiled with the value system of Iranian arts. I wish I could share the joy of meeting you with others in Iran.”
Kurosawa: “I was a friend of Tarkovsky. Our friendship started during a visit to Moscow. I was twice invited to Iran more than a decade ago to join the jury of the Tehran International film festival. But I don’t like to judge the films. It’s too difficult a job for me. I understand you were a member of the jury in Yamagata, wasn’t it difficult?”
Kiarostami: “Yes, it is always difficult particularly when there are no certain criteria. Every time I act as a juror, I tell myself that I would never do that again. But any new invitation creates a new temptation… and it’s always impossible to resist when you are tempted to set out for a trip. It is always nice to do something contrary to what you used to; and I won’t miss any opportunity.”
Kurosawa: “I agree with you, but it is really difficult for me to embark on any trip. My legs are aching and official trips impose limitation on you. You have to accept anything that has been planned for you. In fact you do not travel. They take you from one place to another.
“I’m sure there are other good filmmakers in Iran. However, what I like about your films is their simplicity and fluency, although it is really hard to describe them. One has to see them.
“It is strange how you work with non-professional actors. How do you work particularly with children?”
Kiarostami: “The best answer to your question would be that I simply don’t know.
“I learned this from you and I use it more easily since I first listened to you saying this at last year’s Tokyo film festival. Sometimes, non-professional actors’ performance surprises me. Of course there are certain rules for everything, but what you gain is not always necessarily the outcome of rules.”
Although working with professionals, too, is not so easy. You have to crush them with every film and build them anew. That is why working with professional actors is difficult”. – he says. Kiarostami says that he has heard how Kurosawa has treated the veteran actor who played in his latest film. “Everyone was obviously worried about the old man’s health,” he says.
[Kurosawa laughs] “I had no other way but to do that, you have to trim an actor’s personality if you expect an excellent performance. To do that, I have to be a little bit violent and exert pressure on them. Have you ever worked with professionals? ”
“I’ve had a fresh experience with a professional actor in my latest film. As you said, they stick to their previous roles. A peril that threatens us, too. Sometimes, we tend use an idea that we have had for our previous films but failed to actualize. As someone has said, one wouldn’t get old if s/he could forget her or his experiences. If we could forget our experience our film may not be flawless, but they will certainly be fresh. Veteran actors are powerfully experienced, but alas, they are no longer fresh; and it is difficult to make them return to their credo human feelings.”
Kiarostami: “Maybe that’s because you are Kurosawa. The children that work for me hardly know me. During the actual filming I try to pretend that I’m not the governor. Usually I ask the crew to judge about their acting. Of course, every needs a special trick, sometimes it is another story.
“This is the cinema that must be supported and taken seriously. My children and grandchildren never see American films. They have their own boycotting system which rules out violent films. I wish this humanistic cinema could stand against all vulgarity,” says Kurosawa. He adds, “I’m sure good films are being made everywhere. But filmmaking in Europe and the States is going backwards while good films are being made in Asia and finding their way to International film festivals. The global screen is not for the films of only one country. Films make their viewers familiar with the cultural settings of their country of origins. If they are made according to a national culture then they will be welcomed abroad. My grandchildren and I made ourselves familiar with Iran and her people with your films.
“You have said that films must be made with hearts and seen with hearts.”
Kurosawa: “Yes, I did; unfortunately most Japanese people see films with brains and try to find flaws in it. Sometimes, critics ask questions for which I have no answer, because I have not thought about the matter when I was making the film. Films must be rather felt, but there are little feelings in recent films.”