All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor


Akira Kurosawa was without a doubt one of the finest directors to work in the Japanese film industry. He was also one of the very few whose oeuvre won worldwide acclaim.

His mastery of the medium together with his reputation in Japan for being a demanding perfectionist led to him acquiring the nickname “the Emperor”.

So it is perhaps not surprising that in 1966, when Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation was contemplating making a film about the notorious 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as examined from both American and Japanese perspectives, the producer, Elmo Williams, recommended Kurosawa to direct the Japanese sequences.

Kurosawa was suitably courted and set about working with his usual attention to detail. Not only did he work with the writers of the film script, but he also drew his own storyboards showing how each shot in every scene should look.

Shooting began in December 1968 but, three weeks later, the celebrated director was summarily dismissed and expelled from the studio.

Almost immediately there was a media outcry and rumors were rife. It was said by some that Kurosawa had had a nervous breakdown—there were countless stories of his eccentricities on the set—while others believed it was a plot by his associates who were bent on betraying him, and some even blamed a Hollywood conspiracy.

Ironically, the tragic thread that Kurosawa had seen in the story of Pearl Harbor — almost Lear-like in its poignancy—was playing out in real life — his life.

This was a classic example of what happens when two cultures clash: miscommunication, unread assumptions, and misunderstood expectations.

Hiroshi Tasogawa, the author of “All the Emperor’s Men: Kurosawa’s Pearl Harbor,” is singularly well placed to write this definitive book. A seasoned journalist who has reported for NHK and The Associated Press, and who was a professor of media at Tokai University, Tasogawa served as translator, interpreter and researcher to Kurosawa at the time he was engaged with the film.

Tasogawa’s earlier work, “Kurosawa vs. Hollywood: The True Story behind Tora! Tora! Tora!” — written in Japanese — was widely acclaimed and won no fewer than four prestigious awards.

But his current publication is not a translation. It is a completely reworked manuscript that draws on previously unavailable documentation from Twentieth Century Fox and other archives.

“All the Emperor’s Men” has the support of the Kurosawa family, who collaborated with the author and thus enabled him to produce a definitive account of what happened on and off the set of what might have been one of Hollywood’s greatest films.

Chapter by chapter, Tasogawa sets out in meticulous detail the events that led up to the momentous decision to dismiss “the Emperor”.

The reader is let in on internal meetings and exchanges of correspondence at the film studio; invited onto the carefully constructed — and often reconstructed—sound stages in the Kyoto film studios; and catches glimpses of Kurosawa’s shooting scripts.

Often courting controversy, Kurosawa, on this occasion, dismayed the world of Japan’s professional actors by casting non-professionals to play the leading naval characters and invited ridicule by parading them in public in their costumes.

But there were other more worrying eccentricities. These the author deals with in a detached but sympathetic way, inviting us to form our own judgment: was Kurosawa mentally unstable or otherwise ill? The expert medical evidence is examined for the first time.

This is a compelling piece of investigative reporting that sheds completely new light on the controversy that surrounded the aborted partnership between one of Japanese cinema’s leading masters and one of Hollywood’s giants.

It is written with authority and compassion and will appeal to anyone with an interest in the world of Japanese cinema.

Far more reaching than that, however, it will draw the attention of anyone who has an interest in cross-cultural communications and wonders why, sometimes, the best of intentions are simply not enough to achieve a common goal.

  • -1


    So Kurosawa was dismissed for being too good?

  • -6


    One has to be real fool, if one thinks that a nation that wins a war will then allow the defeated nation to state its own case. That may not be very idealistic, but it helps everyone get a new start and the US in return made a reasonable development in the loser nations Germany, Italy and Japan possible. That is a lot more than can be said about other vistors in other wars, even if this certainly was foremost in the US's interest...

    The price for this is ignorance of the historical truth. Just ask 100 americans on the streets if Hawaii was part of the US when it was attacked, and you will get somewhere betwen 99 and 100 wrong answers. I always found Kurosawa's films incredibly childish and their succes in Europe is based on the complete ignorance of european people when it comes to the true history of Japan, because Kurosawa and the japanese people take his work actually serious. Which is something that is unthinkable in Europe in historically educated circles. Kurosawas desaster in Hollywood with this movie was caused by exactly that.... The image that Japan has of itself and wants to project to the rest of the world is simply ridculous.

  • 2

    Dennis Bauer

    Volland, If you think Kurosawa's movies are childish, what says that off the many American movies that are inspired by/based on Kurosawa's movies?

  • 0


    The writer could have told us more about Kurosawa's mental illness. Just how nutty was he? He must have been pretty screwy to be fired after only 3 weeks.

    By the way, 'Volland", Hawaii WAS part of the U.S. in 1941, it just hadn't achieved statehood yet. Same goes for Alaska. It's you who are wrong, not anyone else.

    • Moderator

      Stay on topic please. Whether or not Hawaii was part of the U.S. at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack is not relevant to this particular discussion.

  • 2


    Dear volland, you have made some interesting points, but more importantly, you have discredited your opinion quite considerably by baseless and flat out wrong statements. The United States did not make the abandonment of any historical revisionism a condition of aid following the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. Also, I challenge you to prove any connection between Kurosawa being fired as anything more than a movie studio fearful of losing money from bad publicity.

    Secondly, I will ask you the same question, "Was Hawaii part of the US when it was attacked?" You claim historical truth as a casualty of of ignorance. But in order to make this claim you have to get the facts correct, which you haven't

    Also please explain what is so ridiculous about the image that Japan has of itself?

    Thank you for contributing to the conversation!

    • Moderator

      Readers, please do not be impolite to one another and stay on topic. Whether or not Hawaii was part of the U.S. when it was attacked is irrelevant to the story.

  • 1


    What I heard was that most of Kurosawa's ideas that he presented were declined to be put in by the producer Elmo Williams which put Kurosawa into rage that was taken by Holywood as being mentally unstable.

    In otherwords it was just studio politics at work and 20th Century Fox did not what to discrace their good name so they placed the blame on Kurosawa.

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