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Work of Kurosawa

redaktor: Richard Kitta 2010-12-27


Work of Akira Kurosawa

A lot of biographical and movie sources confirm that Kurosawa was passionately involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process. As one interviewer summarized, “he (co-)writes his scripts, oversees the design, rehearses the actors, sets up all the shots and then does the editing.” His active participation extended from the start concept to the editing and scoring of the final result.

Kurosawa emphasized time and again that the screenplay was the absolute foundation of a successful film. During the postwar period, he began to collaborate with a rotating group of screenwriters e.g. Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima or Shinobu Hashimoto. Often they all would work on exactly the same pages of the script, and Kurosawa would choose the best-written version from the different drafts of each particular scene. In addition to the actual script, Kurosawa at this stage often produced detailed notes to elaborate his vision. For example, for Seven Samurai, he created six notebooks in which he created (among many other things) detailed biographies of the samurai, including what they wore and ate, how they walked, talked and behaved when greeted, and even how each tied his shoes. For the 101 peasant characters in the film, he created a registry consisting of 23 families and instructed the performers playing these roles to live and work as these “families” for the duration of shooting.

For his early films, although they were consistently well-photographed, Kurosawa generally used standard lenses and deep-focus photography. Beginning with Seven Samurai (1954), however, Kurosawa′s cinematic technique changed deeply, through his extensive use in that film of telephoto lenses and multiple cameras. Kurosawa claimed that he used them at once to help the actors—allowing them to be photographed at some distance from the lens, and without any knowledge of which particular camera′s image would be utilized in the final cut—making their performances much more natural. But these changes had a powerful effect as well on the look of the action scenes in that film, particularly the final battle in the rain...

With The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa began to utilize the widescreen (anamorphic) process for the first time in his work. These three techniques—long lenses, multiple cameras and widescreen—were in later works fully exploited, even in sequences with little or no overt action, such as the early scenes of High and Low that take place in the central character′s home, in which they are employed to dramatize tensions and power relationships between the characters within a highly confined space.

For Throne of Blood, in the scene where Washizu is attacked with arrows by his own men, the director had archers shoot real arrows, hollowed out and running along wires, toward Toshirō Mifune from a distance of about ten feet, with the actor carefully following chalk marks on the ground to avoid being hit.
For Red Beard, to construct the gate for the clinic set, Kurosawa had his assistants dismantle rotten wood from old sets and then create the prop from scratch with this old wood, so the gate would look properly ravaged by time. For the same film, for teacups that appeared in the movie, he ordered his crew to pour fifty years’ worth of tea into the cups so they would appear appropriately stained.
For Ran, art director Yoshirō Muraki, constructing the "third castle" set under the director’s supervision, created the "stones" of that castle by having photographs taken of actual stones from a celebrated castle, then painting Styrofoam blocks to exactly resemble those stones and gluing them to the castle “wall” through a process known as “rough-stone piling,” which required months of work.

Kurosawa often remarked that he shot a film simply in order to have material to edit, because the editing of a picture was the most important and creatively interesting part of the process for him. The director’s frequent crew member Teruyo Nogami confirms this view. “Akira Kurosawa’s editing was exceptional, the inimitable work of a genius... No one was a match for him.” She claimed that Kurosawa carried in his head all the information about all shots filmed, and if, in the editing room, he asked for a piece of film and she handed him the wrong one, he would immediately recognize the error, though she had taken detailed notes on each shot and he had not. She compared his mind to a computer, which could do with edited segments of film what computers do today.

In his films of the 1940s and 1950s, Kurosawa frequently employs the "axial cut," in which the camera moves closer to, or further away from, the subject, not through the use of tracking shots or dissolves, but through a series of matched jump cuts. For example, in Sanshiro Sugata II, the hero takes leave of the woman he loves. The three shots are not connected in the film by camera movements or dissolves, but by a series of two jump cuts. The effect is to stress the duration of Sanshiro′s departure.
E.g. in the opening sequence of Seven Samurai in the peasant village, the axial cut is used twice.

A number of scholars have pointed out Kurosawa’s tendency to “cut on motion” that is, to edit a sequence of a character or characters in motion so that an action is depicted in two or more separate shots. Kurosawa frequently breaks up the action, fragments it, in order to create an emotional effect. Also form of cinematic punctuation very strongly identified with Kurosawa is the wipe. This is an effect created through an optical printer, in which, when a scene ends, a line or bar appears to move across the screen, “wiping” away the image while simultaneously revealing the first image of the subsequent scene. In his mature work, Kurosawa employed the wipe so frequently that it became a kind of signature. James Goodwin claims that the wipes in Rashomon, for instance, fulfill one of three purposes: emphasizing motion in traveling shots, marking narrative shifts in the courtyard scenes and marking temporal ellipses between actions.

Kurosawa always gave great attention to the soundtracks of his movies. In the late 1940s, he began to employ music for what he called "counterpoint" to the emotional content of a scene, rather than merely to reinforce the emotion, as Hollywood traditionally did. This ironic approach to music can also be found in Stray Dog, a film released a year after Drunken Angel. In the climactic scene, the detective Murakami is fighting furiously with the murderer Yusa in a muddy field. The sound of a Mozart piece is suddenly heard, played on the piano by a woman in a nearby house. As one commentator notes, "In contrast to this scene of primitive violence, the serenity of the Mozart is, literally, other-worldly"...

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

After training as a painter, Kurosawa entered the film industry in 1936 as an assistant director, eventually making his directorial debut with Sugata Sanshirô (1943). Drunken Angel (1948) was the first film he made without extensive studio interference, and marked his first collaboration with Toshirô Mifune. In the coming decades, the two would make 16 movies together, and Mifune became as closely associated with Kurosawa′s films as was John Wayne with the films of Kurosawa′s idol, John Ford. After working in a wide range of genres, Kurosawa made his international breakthrough film Rashômon (1950) in 1950. It won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and first revealed the richness of Japanese cinema to the West. The next few years saw the low-key, touching Ikiru (1952) (Living), the epic Seven Samurai (1954), the barbaric, riveting Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood (1957), and a fun pair of samurai comedies Yôjinbô (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). In the late 1960s and early 1970s Kurosawa attempted suicide. He survived, and made a low-budget picture with Dodesukaden (1970), a larger-scale Russian co-production Dersu Uzala (1975) and, with the help of admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the samurai tale Kagemusha (1980), which Kurosawa described as a dry run for Ran (1985). He continued to work into his eighties with the more personal Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991) and Madadayo (1993).
Kurosawa′s films have always been more popular in the West than in his native Japan, where critics have viewed his adaptations of Western genres and authors (W. Shakespeare, F. Dostoevsky, M. Gorky) with suspicion - but he′s revered by American and European film-makers, who remade some of his movies...