September 25, 2003

The Suntory Commercials of Akira Kurosawa

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Akira Kurosawa in a Suntory Reserve whiskey commercial, circa late 1970's

Nothing wrong with bigname film folks making commercials. Errol Morris (whose The Fog of War I just saw and will write about soon) directed the Apple Switch ads. Swedish master Ingmar Bergman made some cake by selling cakes of soap. Hell, Spike Lee's got a whole agency, SpikeDDB, to sell out through. And as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation shows, Japanese commercials are a great way for stars to pay their jumbo mortgages.

Coppola mentioned she got the idea for Bill Murray's character from a photo of her father and Akira Kurosawa on the set of a Suntory whiskey commercial. I tracked them down and watched them; here's my brief review.

Nine of the commercials for Suntory Reserve can be seen on Kurosawa, a generally excellent, if conventional, documentary DVD on his career [original PBS site]. (They're kind of hidden, but dvdeastereggs.com has the path.)

First, it's worth noting: Kurosawa doesn't direct, he both directs and stars in the ads, like fellow whiskey shill Sean Connery. Decked out like the Asian neighbor at an Ice Storm key party, the sunglassed Kurosawa alternately wanders, broods, or holds court from a wingback chair with a gang of white men. Every piece of typically intense classical music you can think of plays over the largely dialogue-free spots.

There's a whole batch of them shot in Russia: on the bank of the ice-choked Neva River in Leningrad; an escalator in the Moscow subway; a whiskey klatsch in some guy's dacha. These commercials have a caught-on-the-fly feeling, as if Kurosawa just let a 16mm film crew tag along with him for a couple of days, but wouldn't actually do anything, except drain a lowball now and then. They're little whiskey documentaries, tracking the bottle into its natural habitat.

A couple of others, shot in Japan, are more staged, and cast Suntory as the muse and great lubricant of directorial creativity. Kurosawa shuffles contemplates some papers, or looks out over the sea, envisioning. In the phoniest spot, a narrator reads inanely inspirational copy while Kurosawa sits "on the set" of Kagemusha. He pretends to give direction to a flock of samurai extras, who cluster around him like a JV football squad in a lockerroom pep talk. My favorite, though, is the most pared down: a single tight shot of the director contemplating his glass. It's also the only one I could get a screen capture of, which works out, too.

The DVD has no information about the ads (I figure they're hidden because someone, somewhere, wisely figured "filmography/interviews/awards/liquor ads" would look funny on DVD menu.), and no one but Sofia connects Coppola pËre to them in any way. But there are still clues, at least to the ads' dates. Kurosawa made Dersu Uzala in Russia in 1973-4, which was followed in 1980 by Kagemusha. [His masterpiece, Ran, came later, in 1985. ]

The decade before Dersu Uzala was rough for Kurosawa, who got fed up with studio pressure to keep cranking out samurai flicks after the 1965 Akahige (Red Beard). His production company was involved in making Tora! Tora! Tora!, but pulled out after complications. And Kurosawa attempted suicide in 1971. But then Dersu Uzala won the Academy Award for best foreign film. Still, with a film every five years or so, Coppola's suggestion that the director needed money sounds plausible. The campaign spans at least six years and two productions. While in the ads, Kurosawa--who was nicknamed Ten-no (The Emperor) because of his demeanor on the set--seems like he can't be bothered, it's possible these commercials helped keep Kurosawa afloat until he could get to Ran--and a whole subsequent body of work. I'll drink to that.

[Related: David at GreenCine just posted some Kurosawa links and info, including screenings at BAMcinematek.]

[Update: I just watched the actual NHK/BBC/WNET documentary on Kurosawa, and I was missing half the fun and most of the point. Not only does it mention Kurosawa directing and starring in the commercials in order to make money in the lengthening interval between films, it liberally uses clips from the commercials themselves throughout the film.

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

Francis Coppola and Akira Kurosawa on the set of Kagemusha, still from a Suntory whiskey ad in the WNET/NHK/BBC

As for Francis Coppola, well, there he is. He appears in silent color footage that's almost certainly from the Suntory ads (it matches a couple of others in look and location) on the set of Kagemusha, which, it turns out, he and George Lucas helped raise the money for. In 1980, their stars were rising and they felt a debt to Kurosawa (Lucas cited his work as an inspiration for Star Wars [Don't try to pin the sequels on him, though, George. - ed.]). Sofia's more right than wrong, it turns out. Good stuff.]

1 Comment

i was just wondering if you had past records of advertisements from the 1970's. preferably with a man named stephen hunn. thank you. jenny!

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: September 25, 2003.

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