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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #8 (February 19, 2008), page 16.
An intimate portrait of a cinematic legend
Waiting on the Weather:
Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa
By Teruyo Nogami
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Stone Bridge Press, 2006
Hardcover, 296 pages, $24.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
In the world of Asian film there is no greater name than Akira Kurosawa, the director whose career spanned six decades, who ultimately transcended any regional or ethnic designation to become one of the world’s finest cinematic craftsmen. Throughout his prolific career his script supervisor, Teruyo Nogami, was almost always at his side, orchestrating the complex shots and sets demanded by the meticulous Kurosawa, and Nogami became a firsthand witness to his genius, as well as his faults.
During the 1990s, Nogami produced a series of essays for a Japanese film magazine (Kinema Kurabu), and those essays, with several others, are collected in Waiting for the Weather, creating a strikingly human portrayal of a man whose life and work have become legendary.
Nogami began her career under the influence of Mansaku Itami, a very influential figure in early Japanese film. After seeing his film Akanishi Kakita (1936) she was so moved that she wrote Itami a fan letter. Surprisingly, he replied with an autographed copy of one of his books, thus beginning a correspondence that lasted until his death, and greatly influenced the young Nogami. Later, as a work-hungry apprentice at Daiei Kyoto Studios — a job arising from her connection to Itami — Nogami worked with Kurosawa on his classic Rashomon, and later followed him to Tokyo and Toho studios, where she would continue as his regular script supervisor for the rest of his career.
A script supervisor is sometimes credited as "Continuity," and this designation points toward the essence of the job — ensuring a logical continuity between shots. Because films are almost never shot in the same scene-by-scene order in which they will ultimately appear, a script supervisor ensures, for example, that the costume a character wears in one shot is identical to her costume in succeeding shots, even if days or months have intervened between the two shootings. This requires an intimate knowledge of the script and shooting schedule, and Kurosawa’s well-known attention to detail meant Nogami was under a great deal of pressure. The fact that she persisted in this job means, of course, that she did a very good job, even by Kurosawa’s exacting standards.
Nogami’s work in film production also makes her memoir an education in filmmaking, particularly Kurosawa’s contributions to the craft. When his editors followed the then-standard procedure of editing the dailies from each day’s shooting, Kurosawa exploded and insisted upon seeing unedited dailies, a practice which is now universal. Nogami will undoubtedly educate readers in other aspects of filmmaking; I learned that the pre-shot "clapper" not only marks details about the shot to follow, but also facilitates sound synchronization.
Thus Waiting for the Weather is an education in many ways, all of them entertaining as well. Her anecdotes both lend personality to the story and refer to the meaning behind the title. Because Kurosawa wanted each scene and shot to be perfect, he would often assemble the cast and crew on location, in full costume, only to wait for hours until the sky cleared or the perfect collection of clouds drifted into view. Though it enraged studio financiers, Kurosawa’s costly dedication to detail reveals his idiosyncratic craftsmanship, and these "down times" during filming allowed for the sort of storytelling Nogami engages in throughout the book.
The construction of her stories in Weather, assembled from earlier essays and later additions, leads to the book’s only real shortcoming: its repetitions and scattershot style. Nogami may reference an event several times throughout the book before fully explaining it, and one film (Dersu Uzala, Kurosawa’s Soviet collaboration) receives far more attention than the rest of Kurosawa’s vast body of work combined. Though there is a rough chronology to her stories, she still skips back and forth in time, giving the book a jumpy, episodic feel. And those readers wishing for a traditionally constructed memoir or an exhaustive history of Nogami’s life will also be disappointed. Nogami would likely never produce such a work; she is extremely humble and recognizes that her importance comes more from her association with greatness than from her own individual accomplishments.
In spite of these minor faults, Weather is both enjoyable and essential, and film students as well as Kurosawa fans will find it revealing and engaging. Nogami tells her story without foregrounding herself, and employs characteristically Asian touches, such as when she reveals the nature of Kurosawa or Itami by sharing haiku they have written. Her slightly cartoonish illustrations lend further depth and emotion to this work, providing the same sort of life-in-miniature perspective of the book. Though neither exhaustive nor entirely chronological, Waiting for the Weather gives us a fascinating snapshot into the personality, mind, and style of Kurosawa, creating a nuanced and very intimate look at this legendary Japanese filmmaker.