"A Horrifying Excursion" A One-Chapter Excerpt From Akira Kurosawa's Autobiography


WHEN THE HOLOCAUST had died down, my brother said to me in a tone betraying his impatience to do so, "Akira, let's go look at the ruins." I set out to accompany my brother with the kind of cheerfulness you feel on a school excursion. By the time I realized how horrifying this excursion would be and tried to shrink back from it, it was already too late. My brother ignored my hesitation and dragged me along. For an entire day he led me around the vast area the fire had destroyed, and while I shivered in fear he showed me a countless array of corpses. At first we saw only an occasional burned body, but as we drew closer to the downtown area, the numbers increased. But my brother took me by the hand and walked on with determination.

The burned landscape for as far as the eye could see had a brownish red color. In the conflagration everything made of wood had been turned to ashes, which now occasionally drifted upward in the breeze. It looked like a red desert. Amid this expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable. I saw corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, "Akira, look carefully now." I failed to understand my brother's intentions and could only resent his forcing me to look at these awful sights.

The worst was when we stood on the bank of the red-dyed Sumidagawa River and gazed at the throngs of corpses pressed against its shores. I felt my knees give way as I started to faint, but my brother grabbed me by the collar and propped me up again. He repeated, "Look carefully, Akira." I resigned myself to gritting my teeth and looking. Even if I tried to close my eyes, that scene had imprinted itself permanently on the backs of my eyelids. In this way, convincing myself it was inescapable, I felt a little bit calmer. But there is no way for me to describe adequately the horror I saw. I remember thinking that the lake of blood they say exists in Buddhist hell couldn't possibly be as bad as this. I wrote that the Sumidagawa was dyed red, but it wasn't a blood red. It was the same kind of light brownish red as the rest of the landscape, a red muddied with white like the eye of a rotten fish. The corpses floating in the river were all swollen to the bursting point, and all had their anuses open like big fish mouths. Even babies still tied on their mothers' backs looked like this. And all of them moved softly in unison on the waves of the river.

As far as the eye could see there was not a living soul. The only living things in this landscape were my brother and I. To me we seemed as small as two beans in all this vastness. Or else we, too, were dead and were standing at the gates of hell. My brother then led me to the broad market grounds of the garment district. This was where the most people lost their lives in the Great Kanto Earthquake. No corner of the landscape was free of corpses. In some places the piles of corpses formed little mountains. On top of one of these mountains sat a blackened body in the lotus position of Zen meditation. This corpse looked exactly like a Buddhist statue. My brother and I stared at it for a long time, standing stock mill. Then my brother, as if talking to himself, softly said, "Magnificent, isn't it?" I felt the same way. By that time I had seen so many corpses that I could no longer distinguish between them and the burned bits of roof tiles and stones on the ground. It was a bizarre kind of apathy. My brother looked at me and said, "I guess we'd better go home."

We crossed over the Sumidagawa again and headed for the Ueno Hirokoji district. As we approached Hirokoji Street, we came upon a large burned out area where a great number of people had gathered. They were assiduously sifting through the ruins, looking for something. My brother smiled bitterly as he said, "It's the remains of the bullion treasury. Akira, shall we look for a gold ring as a souvenir?" But at that particular moment my eyes were fixed on the greenery atop the Ueno hills, and I couldn't budge. How many years had it been since I'd seen a green tree? That's how I felt, as if I had after a long time at last come to a place where there was air. I took a deep breath. There had not been a single trace of green in all the ruins of the fire. Until that instant it had never occurred to me how precious vegetation is.

The night we returned from the horrifying excursion I was fully prepared to be unable to sleep, or to have terrible nightmares if I did. But no sooner had I laid my head on the pillow than it was morning. I had slept like a log, and I couldn't remember anything frightening from my dreams. This seemed so strange to me that I asked my brother how it could have come about. "If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of." Looking back on that excursion now, I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.

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