Kurosawa was one of the 20th century’s master auteurs and perhaps my favorite director. His pairing with Toshiro Mifune over 16 films constitute one of the, if not the, most productive actor-director collaboration in the history of cinema. And the greatest of these is Seven Samurai, one of the best films ever made and one that I continually revisit.
Kurosawa said he studied the master as often as he could, meaning John Ford. And though he said this in reference to Ford’s composition and framing, I believe that he far surpassed Ford in this respect. Kurosawa’s compositions imbue his stories with such power and dynamism that even his noirs or domestic scenes seem gigantic.
All of his films contain his usual bravura compositions, but it is with his ensemble films like Seven Samurai and High and Low that you get to see Kurosawa craft such classic fluid group compositions, sometimes composed of dozens of actors, never crowded or confusing, always clear and focused, the menagerie acting like a visual chorus.
Though he was more known for his telephoto lens work, Seven Samurai marks the transition point where Kurosawa moves away from the wide angle lens in favor of the foreshortening and flattening effect of the long lens. This film then has some amazing cinematography by the great Asakazu Nakai using both lenses. Kurosawa and Nakai show their complete mastery of the dynamic wide-angle compositions as the camera is not locked down but moves from one composition to another, all so breathtaking that they form a dynamic texture that propels the narrative over three hours.
If you’ve never seen this movie, watch as each character progresses and reacts and moves in the scene as individuals choreographed in these organic group portraits. This is throwaway virtuoso filmmaking at it’s best. Throwaway because the point of a scene or a shot is never the camera or the composition but always the characters and the drama. Everything is controlled, deliberate and manufactured to be in service of the story.
The term ‘giant’ is used too often to describe artists. But in the case of Akira Kurosawa, we have one of the rare instances where the term fits.
In this three image sequence below, the still frames are taken from the scene where the samurai meet the village patriarch for the first time. There were three shots of incredibly complexity. Pans and dolly moves around the room were blocked so skillfully that no actor’s face was ever occluded, the camera moving from perfect composition to perfect composition, each actor facing a different direction, each face and pose in character, each character processing the conversation a different way.
This is what makes Kurosawa a master. These complex, staged moves are barely noticeable to the viewer, the camera never intrudes on the story, the virtuoso hand never makes itself felt.
You see an absolutely brilliant film later, as an adult, and you walk out thinking about what to have for dinner. Whereas something like Jaws winds up having a huge effect on me. If only my parents had been taking me to Kurosawa films when I was eight, but no.
Good Westerns are liked by everyone. Since humans are weak, they want to see good people and great heroes. Westerns have been done over and over again, and in the process a kind of grammar has evolved. I have learned much from this grammar of the Western.
Being a kid growing up with Kurosawa films and watching Sergio Leone movies just made me love what it could do to you, and how it could influence you – make you dream.
Man is a genius when he is dreaming.
In a mad world, only the mad are sane.
Movie directors, or should I say people who create things, are very greedy and they can never be satisfied, … That’s why they can keep on working. I’ve been able to work for so long because I think next time, I’ll make something good.
With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this.
In all my films, there`s three or maybe four minutes of real cinema.
Human beings share the same common problems. A film can only be understood if it depicts these properly.
Tags: Akira Kurosawa, Ann Patchett, Antoine Fuqua, Asakazu Nakai, Asian Cinema, Cinematography, Japan, John Ford, Martin Scorsese, Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifune, Westerns | 7 Comments »