The Akira Kurosawa Drawings By Alexander Yanakiev

in 28th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Alexander Yanakiev

he International Istanbul Film Festival turned out to be a good occasion to encounter the artistic work of one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century: Akira Kurosawa. From 10 February to 26 April 2009, the Pera Museum presented the exhibition “Kurosawa Drawings”. It included 87 drawings arranged on the museum’s two floors.

The Pera Museum was founded in 2005 in a place that was one of Istanbul’s most prestigious during the 19th century, and still carries the characteristics of former grandeur. Here lived a great number of the city’s wealthier non-Muslims. For the Young Turks living at the turn of the 20th century, this was an open window to Europe. Originally constructed in 1893, the building was until rather recently known as the Bristol Hotel; later, it was completely renovated to serve as a museum and cultural center.

As early as the 1950s, Kurosawa was considered in Japan to be a “European” director, and this to a great extent explains his first important successes at the Venice film festivals, winning Golden Lions in 1951 for Rashomon and in 1954 for The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). On the other hand, in Europe he is perceived as the face of Japanese cinema. That is why Istanbul — a city situated both in Europe and in Asia — is the best place to present his art.

Kurosawa was only 17 years old when his works were presented for the first time at the Nika Art Exhibition. As a film director, he continued to work with the brush and the feather, crafting more than simple sketches for his films.

The exhibition was first presented at the end of last year at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Paris. The ambitious team of the Pera Museum in Istanbul engaged it immediately. This exhibition is dedicated to Kurosawa’s centenary, which will be marked next year when Istanbul will be the European cultural capital.

The exposition includes two films: A.K. also known as Kurosawa Akira (1985, Chris Marker, 75 min.) and Helping Out a Master (2005, 19 min.) — where directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kurosawa and their roles as executive producers of Kagemusha. These films offer an extensive view on how the film Kagemusha was created.

Kagemusha (1980) is the first film encountered in the exhibition, followed by Ran (1985), Dreams (Yume, 1990) and Madadayo!(1993). The exposition concludes with The Sea Is Watching (Umi wa miteita), a project which Kurosawa could not finish in 1998 and which was completed after his death in 2002 by Kei Kumai.

Visitors admire Kurosawa’s mastery of all different techniques. His drawings are realized with ink, crayons, watercolors or pastels. The colors are very deep and alive. Most are static, and only in some drawings there is a sense of movement. In this respect, they are quite different from his films. But they are an important step in the general visual concept of the director of his future films.

The drawings can be considered part of the work on the film, and be compared with the finished films. This approach can be very productive in the field of film studies. But I think that these paintings are much more than a pragmatic resource to assist in the realization of the film. I believe that Kurosawa himself regarded them as something with their own value. An argument in this direction is also the fact that some of the drawings are signed. For a simple storyboard, this would be too pretentious. But for paintings intended to be individually presented — well, this is quite normal.

Nevertheless, one cannot escape the memory of the great master’s films. They are much more impressive, containing a mystery and a special kind of energy. The drawings are more direct and pragmatic. Sometimes the decorative elements are overwhelming, but there are also drawings that strike us with their depth of feeling and suggestion. I will note just a few: “Main Compound of Nada Castle”, “Death of Amemiya and Okura at Rear Guard headquarters in Taketejin”, “Laydi Kaede”, “Tsurumaru”, “The seductive Snow Woman (Blizzard)”, “An Old Man of a Watermill (Village with Watermills)” etc.

Kurosawa’s direct European inspirations are most obvious in Dreams. We quickly pick out motifs by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Chagall and Rouault. Let us not forget that in addition to works by Japanese authors such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Tsuneo Tomita and Shugoro Yamamoto Kurosawa has also filmed Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

The Pera Museum exhibition reminds us of these connections, and demonstrates them, offering many new starting points for reflection upon and analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s creative work. In this regard the Turkish press wrote:

“The Emperor of Film, Akira Kurosawa certainly has a lot in common with Turkey’s own king of the international circuit, Nuri Bilge Ceylan — and not just for a lack of appreciation in the home country. Both men are painterly in their approach to film, building scenes with more regard for color, perspective, line and composition than plot or narrative. For Ceylan, this visual sensitivity comes from an early career in photography, for Kurosawa a similar start in painting.” (Time Out Istanbul)