(Feature) No Excuses

We are never as creative as when making excuses for why we can’t be.

Akira Kurosawa, for those who don’t know, wasn’t just one of the greatest directors in Japan. He was one of the greatest directors of the 20th century and a founding voice in the cinematic arts.

The joke goes, he was every Western director’s favorite artist to steal from. His 1958 black-and-white film The Hidden Fortress was direct inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars, both the original film and The Phantom Menace — and that is putting it charitably.

It went both ways, of course. There’s a story about Kurosawa, certainly apocryphal but I’m sure with a grain, that tells of his assistants running to him one day in a fit.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Sensei,” they say, “The Italian, Sergio Leone, has made a movie called A Fistful of Dollars, and it is Yojimbo!”

“Yes,” the master says coolly. “I heard it was like Yojimbo.”

“It is not ‘like’ Yojimbo, sensei,” the assistants object. “It IS Yojimbo! You must do something.”

“No, no,” he waves them off. “We will do nothing.”

“But…” the assistants stammer. “But why, sensei?”

“Because,” the master says, returning to his work. “Yojimbo is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.”

(In fact, a case was brought, although it seems to have been settled out of court.)

In Japan, once you reach master status, you’re expected to speak tersely and with zen-like wisdom about your craft. Kurosawa had a lot to say about art and creativity, but he seemed almost offended, certainly annoyed, by excuses.

Take the following quote, one of my favorites, given in an interview near the end of his life.

“The thing I stress the most to the aspiring directors who often come knocking at my door is this: ‘It cost a great deal of money to make a film these days, and it’s hard to become a director. You must learn and experience various things to become a director, and it’s not so easily accomplished. But if you genuinely want to make films, then write screenplays.

All you need to write a script is paper and pencil. It’s only through writing scripts that you learn specifics about the structure of film and what cinema is.’ That’s what I tell them, but they still won’t write. They find writing too hard. And it is. Writing scripts is a hard job.

The tedious task of writing has to become second nature to you. If you sit down and write quietly the whole day you’ll have written at least two or three pages, even if it’s a struggle. And if you keep at it, you’ll eventually have a couple of hundred pages. I think young people today don’t know the trick of it. They start and want to get to the end right away.

When you go mountain climbing, the first thing you’re told is not to look at the peak but to keep your eyes on the ground as you climb. You just climb patiently one step at a time. If you keep looking at the top, you’ll get frustrated. I think writing is similar. You need to get used to the task of writing. You must make an effort to learn to regard it not as something painful but as routine. But most people tend to give up halfway.

I tell my assistant directors that if they give up once, then that’ll be it, because that becomes a habit, and they’ll give up as soon as it gets hard. I tell them to write all the way to the end no matter what, until they get to some sort of end. I say, ‘Don’t ever quit, even if it gets hard midway.’ But when the going gets tough, they just give up.”

I spent the last couple years finishing FEAST OF SHADOWS for this exact reason. It’s an odd book. As I noted in a recent interview, it’s not like my others, and I will probably lose readers. But I needed to finish it. Not because it was easy. Because it was hard.

It sounds so lofty and artistic. “I have to finish it.” But it’s not. It’s the opposite of that. I can think of nothing more mundane than sitting down and finishing your work.

There’s a kind of paradox, as the master notes. Everybody wants to rush to the end, but to write quickly, you need to write slowly. That is, making a living at the craft — forget completely about fame, which is not a reason to do anything — making a living requires that you produce swiftly at high quality, but you can’t do that until you’ve reached a certain proficiency, and you can’t reach proficiency except by practice, practice, and more practice.

That doesn’t mean writing words. Poets make words. Novelists make novels. Practice means making novels, complete novels — or complete films, as the case may be, versus taking pictures or making snippets.

Not that you’re a dilettante if you’ve yet to finish a creative project. But you might be.

No one writes solely for money or solely for art. I’m not sure anyone who’s tried ever produced anything worth reading. (A good story, one that resonates, is one written to be read rather than to exist as an object unto itself.)

No one is born a novelist or film-maker either. If you expect to be any good at it, you have to suffer the hard bits. That’s where you learn.

The good news, Kurosawa tells us, is that if you’ve never finished a project, or have yet to try, it’s not too late.

In 1988, famed director Ingmar Bergman released his memoirs, called “The Magic Lantern,” wherein he admitted “I probably do mourn the fact that I no longer make films.

Reading this, Kurosawa sent him a short letter:

Dear Mr. Bergman,

Please let me congratulate you upon your seventieth birthday.

Your work deeply touches my heart every time I see it and I have learned a lot from your works and have been encouraged by them. I would like you to stay in good health to create more wonderful movies for us.

In Japan, there was a great artist called Tessai Tomioka who lived in the Meiji Era (the late 19th century). This artist painted many excellent pictures while he was still young, and when he reached the age of eighty, he suddenly started painting pictures which were much superior to the previous ones, as if he were in magnificent bloom. Every time I see his paintings, I fully realize that a human is not really capable of creating really good works until he reaches eighty.

A human is born a baby, becomes a boy, goes through youth, the prime of life and finally returns to being a baby before he closes his life. This is, in my opinion, the most ideal way of life.

I believe you would agree that a human becomes capable of producing pure works, without any restrictions, in the days of his second babyhood.

I am now seventy-seven (77) years old and am convinced that my real work is just beginning.

Let us hold out together for the sake of movies.

With the warmest regards,

Akira Kurosawa

Start. Finish. No excuses.


Feast of Shadows is available here.