ALL THE EMPEROR’S MEN: Akira Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor


“The whole truth will be out someday, somehow,” Akira Kurosawa said with resignation late in his life. The master Japanese director was answering a question about one of the darkest, saddest, and most bizarre episodes of his life — his involvement in the making of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). It was a source of such pain for him that he never talked about it publicly afterwards. Now, however, the truth has come out, or at least as much of it as we can reasonably hope to ever uncover. Kurosawa’s translator and interpreter at the time, Hiroshi Tasogawa, has chronicled the chaotic genesis of the film in his new book, All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor (Applause, 337 pages).

It’s a tale of cultural clashes, competing visions, unbridled egos, misunderstandings, drunkenness, epileptic seizures, and even missed telegrams. And just as Tora! Tora! Tora! attempted to tell the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor by objectively showing both the American and Japanese perspectives, so does Tasogawa matter-of-factly relate this tale from the points of view of both sides. That he succeeds far more entertainingly than the film itself (despite some unnecessary repetitiveness) says as much about the flawed movie as it does about Tasogawa’s skill as a journalist.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was one of a wave of big-budget World War II combat movies produced in the 1960s and ’70s that emphasized the re-creation of historical battles — films like The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), the great In Harm’s Way (1965), and Midway (1976). These pictures combine narrative and docudrama storytelling to varying degrees, but all are primarily concerned with feeling “realistic.” Darryl F. Zanuck had resuscitated his career by producing The Longest Day, an account of D-Day told from multiple perspectives and by multiple directors, and a film whose success allowed Zanuck to regain control of the Twentieth Century-Fox studio. Five years later Zanuck decided he wanted to produce a Pacific version of The Longest Day, focusing on the events leading up to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

With his son Richard Zanuck (head of production for Fox) and producer Elmo Williams, Zanuck set about putting together the massive production. The idea was for the two perspectives on Pearl Harbor to be written separately in Japan and Hollywood, then combined into one massive screenplay. The title, “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” was the Japanese code to signal their surprise attack had been achieved. (“Tora” means “tiger.”) Richard Fleischer would direct the American side of the story, while Akira Kurosawa would write and direct the Japanese side. Elmo Williams in particular figured that an artist of Kurosawa’s prominence would lend the picture instant stature and importance.

The problems started right away, however. Fox wanted a film of riveting movement and spectacle, and a factual account of what led to Dec. 7 told from both sides; Kurosawa saw a chance to tell an epic tragedy primarily of one man, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who engineered the Pearl Harbor attack. He wanted to explore “the tale of one human being who, in his brief moment in the spotlight of history, acted contrary to his own aspirations and ideals brought about a fatal collision between two countries, one that brought his own country to the brink of ruin and resulted in his own death.” This was not the movie that Elmo Williams and Fox were trying to make.

Kurosawa also wanted to write the entire film, and his first draft ran to 1000 handwritten Japanese pages (400 typed English pages). Williams found the draft bloated and at times incoherent, though it had its moments of Kurosawa magic—such as a scene of a fisherman on the Japanese coast seeing a massive battleship silently gliding through the dark, misty, predawn sea: like a monster in a nightmare.

It’s descriptions like that which allow one to understand why Fox stuck with Kurosawa as long as they did, for despite all the erratic behavior that was to follow, the man was undeniably a cinematic genius whose vision for this film, if somehow allowed to be realized, might have resulted in a masterpiece. But the reality of the situation meant this was an impossibility. This was Fox’s film, and Fox’s vision, and there was never any thought to Kurosawa creating the entire movie. The studio simply decided to try and compromise enough with him to keep everyone happy.

But that, too, turned out to be impossible, as the book makes clear with example after example of Kurosawa’s intransigence. Kurosawa wrote his drafts (27 in all, and all translated by author Tasogawa) with no thought to the huge cost or production logistics they would entail. He was dismissive of Richard Fleischer, having found the one Fleischer film he had seen (Fantastic Voyage) “irritating.” At a summit meeting in Honolulu to talk about the production, Kurosawa refused to even come out of his Ilikai Hotel room because he hated the current script and saw no reason to start discussing anything else until the script was finalized. At the same time, he refused to delete certain scenes that Fox insisted had to go. He also demanded on a full-scale battleship and aircraft carrier to be constructed despite not explaining to the studio how he planned to shoot them. Kurosawa was aggravated that he wasn’t being shown due respect as an artist, and producer Williams was increasingly annoyed that Kurosawa didn’t accept the fact that Fox was in charge.

When production finally started in December 1968, things got much worse. Kurosawa spent many nights awake and drinking, and routinely showed up very late on set, often paranoid. He lost his temper over seemingly inconsequential things, such as pinholes in his officer characters’ uniforms, or wrinkled wallpaper on his sets. He fired his AD one day for disobedience (the man had refused Kurosawa’s order to hit the other ADs for their supposed infractions). And he demanded that the actors playing the naval officers (all amateur actors—another source of consternation with Fox), remain in character at all times, whether on or off camera. Furthermore, all members of the crew had to treat these amateur actors as if they really were the officers, meaning red carpets were laid out and musical fanfares played whenever they arrived on set. At one unbelievable point, Kurosawa and his assistant, both drunk, went to the sets at night to see if they were being guarded properly. Finding they weren’t, they vandalized them, then tried to surrender to police, who laughed the two men off.

Reading all this and more, one would laugh as well were it not for the fact that this is Akira Kurosawa! The shock of seeing so revered a filmmaker as a crazed, dictatorial, unstable man is mixed with sympathy for what must have been at least in part a mental breakdown. Indeed, doctors eventually enter this story, and we learn that Kurosawa had already been suffering from epileptic seizures, sometimes even losing consciousness momentarily, something that he never divulged to Fox.

On December 23, 1968, word reached Williams that “Kurosawa’s once again lost his mind and he is now repainting the set.” The director had freaked out over the paint in the admiral’s quarters aboard the replica battleship Nagato, and had indeed started to repaint it, because in real life it had been repainted every month. The next day, Williams, with a heavy heart, fired Kurosawa. The reason given to the media was ill health. Three weeks of shooting, at a cost of $1 million, had produced six minutes of usable footage. (None of it was actually used in the final film.)

It’s quite amazing the show wasn’t shut down after Kurosawa was fired. The Zanucks wanted to, but Williams saved the film by arguing that so much had already been invested and so many sets built. Eventually, two Japanese directors were hired to forge ahead and the film was only delayed. Tasogawa’s book goes on to detail what happened afterwards, and it is all equally remarkable. (Perhaps never before has reading of insurance claims been so fascinating.) Tasogawa also, along the way, paints a compelling and accurate picture of the strains between Darryl Zanuck and his son Richard, who was never fully on board the idea of making Tora! Tora! Tora! in the first place.

In the end we are left with a portrait of a sensitive, paranoid artist whose bewildering behavior was due not just to mental and physical breakdowns, or to drinking, or even to a quality that went far beyond mere perfectionism, but may ultimately be due to the way in which he inherently approached film projects that he felt deeply connected to. Kurosawa tended to identify with his protagonists to such a degree that he mentally took on their actual struggles. As his second unit director on Tora! Tora! Tora! said: “Yamamoto’s war with the United States became [Kurosawa’s] own war. It seemed he was determined never to yield to America.”

1 Comment

  1. derekbd

    April 9, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Thank you for the summary of events. I have been getting to know Kurosawa’s work recently and had read a few brief mentions of the turbulent time after Akahige [Red Beard] and his involvement with Tora! I think I will look for Tasogawa’s book.
    (The story that Kurosawa had wanted to film sounds fascinating.)

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