Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t the first or last Western celebrity to hawk booze in a Japanese commercial, but if you’re looking for the seed that sprouted into the funnies scene from his daughter Sophia's Lost in Translation, here are the series of five ads in all their glory, in which the director shares a glass with one of his idols, Akira Kurosawa.
The year is 1979, and Coppola is deep in post-production for Apocalypse Now. While he is struggling with reels and reels from a troubled production, Akira Kurosawa, despite his stature in the world of cinema, is struggling with finances. His two films of the 1970s, Dodeskaden and Dress Uzala, had been flops, despite some critical acclaim. At some point he had been so despondent wondering if he’d ever direct again, he had attempted suicide and was a heavy drinker.
But George Lucas and Coppola, learning of the director's sad condition, convinced 20th Century Fox to put up the money for Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior, Kurosawa’s return to the samurai films of his classic period. At the same time, Coppola agreed to be in a commercial for Suntory Whiskey alongside Kurosawa--who had shot some ads for them in 1976--just to get the director some more money. (Kurosawa’s fee was $30,000. And Coppola didn’t drink.)
For Suntory, the oldest distilling company in Japan, this meeting of East and West was a metaphor for their desire to break into the Western whiskey market. Using American celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. established authenticity in the mind of the Japanese consumer, but this was a new level of prestige.
The series of ads above also show glimpses of Kurosawa in the midst of filming Kagemusha, shooting epic battles featuring samurai on horseback. The voice over is unsurprisingly (for this sophisticated market) pretentious:
“The world’s gaze is fixed on these two men right now as on nobody else. There’s no stronger friendship than that between these two men.” (The impact of that translation, you could say, is lost.)
Unlike Bill Murray’s character in Sophia Coppola's film, Francis Ford Coppola really didn’t have to do much except show up, but no doubt the experience was re-told many times to his daughter over the years. And after the comeback of Kagemusha, Kurosawa went on to direct one of his best films, the King Lear-inspired Ran.
We’ll raise a glass to that.