The Solitude of the Oppressed: García Márquez and Akira Kurosawa discussing war, alienation, films, humanity
In October 1990, 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. Below is a partial transcription of the conversation, first published by the Los Angeles Times in 1991.
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.
García Márquez: Is the first thing that comes to your mind an idea or an image?
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.
García Márquez: The truth is that I know very few novelists who have been satisfied with the adaptation of their books for the screen. What experience have you had with your adaptations?
Kurosawa: Allow me, first, a question: Did you see my film Red Beard?
García Márquez: I have seen it six times in 20 years and I talked about it to my children almost every day until they were able to see it. So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.
Kurosawa: Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evolution. All of my films which precede it are different from the succeeding ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another.
García Márquez: That is obvious. Furthermore, within the same film there are two scenes that are extreme in relation to the totality of your work, and they are both unforgettable; one is the praying mantis episode, and the other is the karate fight in the hospital courtyard.
Kurosawa: Yes, but what I wanted to tell you is that the author of the book, Shuguro Yamamoto, had always opposed having his novels made into films. He made an exception with Red Beard because I persisted with merciless obstinacy until I succeeded. Yet, when he had finished viewing the film he turned to look at me and said: “Well it’s more interesting than my novel.”
García Márquez: Why did he like it so much, I wonder?
Kurosawa: Because he had a clear awareness of the inherent characteristics of cinema. The only thing he requested of me was that I be very careful with the protagonist, a complete failure of a woman, as he saw her. But the curious thing is that the idea of a failed woman was not explicit in his novel.
García Márquez: Perhaps he thought it was. It is something that often happens to us novelists.
Kurosawa: So it is. In fact, upon seeing the films based on their books, some writers say: “That part of my novel is well portrayed.” But they are actually referring to something that was added by the director. I understand what they are saying, because they may see clearly expressed on the screen, by sheer intuition on the part of the director, something they had meant to write but had not been able to.
García Márquez: It is a known fact: “Poets are mixers of poisons.” But, to come back to your current film, will the typhoon be the most difficult thing to film?
Kurosawa: No. The most difficult thing was to work with the animals. Water serpents, rose-eating ants. Domesticated snakes are too accustomed to people, they don’t flee instinctively, and they behave like eels. The solution was to capture a huge wild snake, which kept trying with all its might to escape and was truly frightening. So it played its role very well. As for the ants, it was a question of getting them to climb up a rosebush in single file until they reached a rose. They were reluctant for a long time, until we made a trail of honey on the stem, and the ants climbed up. Actually, we had many difficulties, but it was worth it, because I learned a great deal about them.
García Márquez: Yes, so I’ve noticed. But what kind of film is this that is as likely to have problems with ants as with typhoons? What is the plot?
Kurosawa: It is very difficult to summarize in a few words.
García Márquez: Does somebody kill somebody?
Kurosawa: No. It’s 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 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.
García Márquez: I owe a large measure of my own faith in humanity to Kurosawa’s films. But I also understand your position in view of the terrible injustice of using the atomic bomb only against civilians and of the Americans and Japanese colluding to make Japan forget. But it seems to me equally unjust for nuclear energy to be deemed forever accursed without considering that it could perform a great non-military service for humanity. There is in that a confusion of feelings which is due to the irritation you feel because you know Japan has forgotten, and because the guilty, which is to say, the United States, has not in the end come to acknowledge its guilt and to render unto the Japanese people the apologies due to them.
Kurosawa: Human beings will be more human when they realize there are aspects of reality they may not manipulate. I don’t think we have the right to generate children without anuses, or eight-legged horses, such as is happening at Chernobyl. But now I think this conversation has become too serious, and that wasn’t my intention.
García Márquez: We’ve done the right thing. When a topic is as serious as this, one can’t help but discuss it seriously. Does the film you are in the process of finishing cast any light on your thoughts in this matter?
Kurosawa: Not directly. I was a young journalist when the bomb was dropped, and I wanted to write articles about what had happened, but it was absolutely forbidden until the end of the occupation. Now, to make this film, I began to research and study the subject and I know much more than I did then. But if I had expressed my thoughts directly in the film, it could not have been shown in today’s Japan, or anywhere else.
García Márquez: Do you think it might be possible to publish the transcript of this dialogue?
Kurosawa: I have no objection. On the contrary. This is a matter on which many people in the world should give their opinion without restrictions of any sort.
García Márquez: Thank you very much. All things considered, I think that if I were Japanese I would be as unyielding as you on this subject. And at any rate, I understand you. No war is good for anybody.
Kurosawa: That is so. The trouble is that when the shooting starts, even Christ and the angels turn into military chiefs of staff.