Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa
by Teruyo Nogami
Reviewed by Doug Brown
If you have seen the bonus features on any of the recent Criterion Collection DVD releases of Akira Kurosawa's films, Teruyo Nogami is a regular character with her frizzy hair, detailed notes, and annotated scripts. She has worked in the Japanese film industry her whole life, from the 1940s through the '90s. She worked on 19 of Kurosawa's 30 films, starting with Rashomon in 1950 and continuing through the end of his life. While the bulk of Waiting on the Weather is her recollections of working with Kurosawa, there are also remembrances of other Japanese filmmakers, most notably her mentor Mankasu Itami (father of Juzo Itami, director of Tampopo).
Most of her life she was a script girl, which is more complicated than the name implies. Script girls time the length of scenes for the editors, and continuity was also her responsibility. Often she was the go-between for Kurosawa and crew members. On later films she became an assistant producer, and then a production manager on Kurosawa's last few films. Waiting on the Weather began life as a series of articles for a Japanese film magazine, so it doesn't have a memoir's usual temporal narrative structure. She'll tell a story about making Dersu Uzala in the mid-1970s, and then tell a story from the '50s, and later tell another overlapping story about Dersu Uzala. While some might find this lack of structure frustrating, it made me think of how it would really be to sit down with her for a few hours and listen to her stories. In the afterword, after explaining the genesis for the book, she politely says, "I ask the reader's indulgence for inevitable repetitions along the way."
Near the end of the book she recalls meetings between Kurosawa and other famous directors, including a meeting with Martin Scorsese in which the American director spoke so fast the translator couldn't keep up with him. Kurosawa remembered his manic energy, though, and subsequently cast Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh in Dreams on the basis of that drive (Scorsese took a break from filming Goodfellas for his cameo). She says, "Later a Frenchman mentioned that it was somehow strange to see the Dutchman van Gogh played by an Italian-American who spoke New York-accented English to a Japanese."
Waiting on the Weather makes a good companion piece to Kurosawa's own book Something Like an Autobiography, as Kurosawa's book frustratingly ends with Rashomon and Nogami's begins there. It discusses how Kurosawa worked, what he was like on and off the set, and how hard it was getting some of his films made. It reads quickly, and while Nogami dishes a bit of behind-the-scenes dirt, she always does so with respect for all parties concerned. Waiting on the Weather is a valued addition to the short list of books available in English on Kurosawa, and highly recommended to Kurosawa fans.