Thursday, November 22, 2012
Kurosawa on Earthquakes By AARON RETICA
March 14, 2011, 4:18 pm 10 Comments
Kurosawa on Earthquakes
By AARON RETICA
When the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the fires that erupted along its trail destroyed Yokohama and three-fifths of Tokyo, killing nearly 150,000 people, Akira Kurosawa was in middle school. Kurosawa, the director of “Rashomon” and “The Seven Samurai,” never tried to put the wasteland that suddenly overtook the landscape of his childhood on film, but in interviews and an autobiography, he returned to the devastation again and again. Trying to take in the scale of the destruction in the aftermath of the earthquake last week in Japan, particularly the way active coastal towns were suddenly vaporized by the tsunami, I was reminded of what Kurosawa never forgot.
“My brother once forced me to spend a day wandering through Tokyo looking at the victims of the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923,” Kurosawa told an interviewer in 1993, 70 years after it struck:
Corpses piled on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at the intersection, corpses displaying every manner of death possible to human beings. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, “Akira, look carefully now.” When that night I asked my brother why he made me look at those terrible sights, he replied: “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” With my camera, like Dostoyevsky with his prose, I have tried to force the audience — which is often unwilling — to look carefully now.
Kurosawa was also keenly aware, even as a teenager or perhaps more so because of his age, of the absurdity of the terrible political violence that the earthquake triggered. Mobs massacred thousands of Koreans in lurching bursts, the insanity of which Kurosawa describes in “Something Like an Autobiography.” His father, who had a full beard and was therefore mistaken for a foreigner by a crowd that menaced him with clubs, was able to break the spell by yelling “idiots” in unaccented Japanese. But, Kurosawa goes on, “there was an even more ridiculous incident.” He writes:
They told us not to drink the water from one of our neighborhood wells. The reason was that the wall surrounding the well had some kind of strange notation written on it in white chalk. This was supposedly a Korean code indication that the well water had been poisoned. I was flabbergasted. The truth was that the strange notation was a scribble I myself had written. Seeing adults behaving like this, I couldn’t help shaking my head and wondering what human beings are all about.