A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In October 1990, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez visited Tokyo during the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate feature, Rhapsody in August. García Márquez, who spent some years in Bogota as a film critic before penning landmark novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, spoke with Kurosawa for over six hours on a number of subjects. Here are two excerpts from that conversation.
Gabriel García Márquez: I don’t want this conversation between friends to seem like a press interview, but I just have this great curiosity to know a great many other things about you and your work. To begin with, I am interested to know how you write your scripts. First, because I am myself a scriptwriter. And second, because you have made stupendous adaptations of great literary works, and I have many doubts about the adaptations that have been made or could be made of mine.
Akira Kurosawa: When I conceive an original idea that I wish to turn into a script, I lock myself up in a hotel with paper and pencil. At that point I have a general idea of the plot, and I know more or less how it is going to end. If I don’t know what scene to begin with, I follow the stream of the ideas that spring up naturally.
Kurosawa: I can’t explain it very well, but I think it all begins with several scattered images. By contrast, I know that scriptwriters here in Japan first create an overall view of the script, organizing it by scenes, and after systematizing the plot they begin to write. But I don’t think that is the right way to do it, since we are not God.
García Márquez: Has your method also been that intuitive when you have adapted Shakespeare or Gorky or Dostoevsky?
Kurosawa: Directors who make films halfway may not realize that it is very difficult to convey literary images to the audience through cinematic images. For instance, in adapting a detective novel in which a body was found next to the railroad tracks, a young director insisted that a certain spot corresponded perfectly with the one in the book. “You are wrong,” I said. “The problem is that you have already read the novel and you know that a body was found next to the tracks. But for the people who have not read it there is nothing special about the place.” That young director was captivated by the magical power of literature without realizing that cinematic images must be expressed in a different way.
García Márquez: Can you remember any image from real life that you consider impossible to express on film?
Kurosawa: Yes. That of a mining town named Ilidachi, where I worked as an assistant director when I was very young. The director had declared at first glance that the atmosphere was magnificent and strange, and that’s the reason we filmed it. But the images showed only a run-of-the-mill town, for they were missing something that was known to us: that the working conditions in (the town) are very dangerous, and that the women and children of the miners live in eternal fear for their safety. When one looks at the village one confuses the landscape with that feeling, and one perceives it as stranger than it actually is. But the camera does not see it with the same eyes.
Kurosawa: [Rhapsody in August] is simply about an old woman from Nagasaki who survived the atomic bomb and whose grandchildren went to visit her last summer. I have not filmed shockingly realistic scenes which would prove to be unbearable and yet would not explain in and of themselves the horror of the drama. What I would like to convey is the type of wounds the atomic bomb left in the heart of our people, and how they gradually began to heal. I remember the day of the bombing clearly, and even now I still can’t believe that it could have happened in the real world. But the worst part is that the Japanese have already cast it into oblivion.
García Márquez: What does that historical amnesia mean for the future of Japan, for the identity of the Japanese people?
Kurosawa: The Japanese don’t talk about it explicitly. Our politicians in particular are silent for fear of the United States. They may have accepted (President Harry) Truman’s explanation that he resorted to the atomic bomb only to hasten the end of the World War. Still, for us, the war goes on. The full death toll for Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been officially published at 230,000. But in actual fact there were over half a million dead. And even now there are still 2,700 patients at the Atomic Bomb Hospital waiting to die from the after-effects of the radiation after 45 years of agony. In other words, the atomic bomb is still killing Japanese.
García Márquez: The most rational explanation seems to be that the U.S. rushed in to end it with the bomb for fear that the Soviets would take Japan before they did.
Kurosawa: Yes, but why did they do it in a city inhabited only by civilians who had nothing to do with the war? There were military concentrations that were in fact waging (war).
García Márquez: Nor did they drop it on the Imperial Palace, which must have been a very vulnerable spot in the heart of Tokyo. And I think that this is all explained by the fact that they wanted to leave the political power and the military power intact in order to carry out a speedy negotiation without having to share the booty with their allies. It’s something no other country has ever experienced in all of human history. Now then: Had Japan surrendered without the atomic bomb, would it be the same Japan it is today?
Kurosawa: It’s hard to say. The people who survived Nagasaki don’t want to remember their experience because the majority of them, in order to survive, had to abandon their parents, their children, their brothers and sisters. They still can’t stop feeling guilty. Afterwards, the U.S. forces that occupied the country for six years influenced by various means the acceleration of forgetfulness, and the Japanese government collaborated with them. I would even be willing to understand all this as part of the inevitable tragedy generated by war. But I think that, at the very least, the country that dropped the bomb should apologize to the Japanese people. Until that happens this drama will not be over.
García Márquez: That far? Couldn’t the misfortune be compensated for by a long era of happiness?
Kurosawa: The atomic bomb constituted the starting point of the Cold War and of the arms race, and it marked the beginning of the process of creation and utilization of nuclear energy. Happiness will never be possible given such origins.
García Márquez: I see. Nuclear energy was born as a cursed force, and a force born under a curse is a perfect theme for Kurosawa. But what concerns me is that you are not condemning nuclear energy itself, but the way it was misused from the beginning. Electricity is still a good thing in spite of the electric chair.
Kurosawa: It is not the same thing. I think nuclear energy is beyond the possibilities of control that can be established by human beings. In the event of a mistake in the management of nuclear energy, the immediate disaster would be immense and the radioactivity would remain for hundreds of generations. On the other hand, when water is boiling, it suffices to let it cool for it to no longer be dangerous. Let’s stop using elements which continue to boil for hundreds of thousands of years.
These excerpts are part of a conversation between Akira Kurosawa and Gabriel García Márquez that was published on June 23, 1991 in The Los Angeles Times. To read the full interview, click here.
Still shot from Rhapsody in August