Rashomon (1950) + Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa
December 11, 2010 § 1 Comment
Kurosawa was a well known for his virtuosity in film craft, and propelled Japanese cinema into international prominence, most notably marked by Rashomon’s win of the Golden Lion award at the 1951 Venice film festival. Rashomon was a significant work because it marked the discovery of Asian cinema by the West and paved way for the sustenance of the concept of a “world cinema”. Seven Samurai, on the other hand, represented one of Japanese cinema’s grandest epic works in the shomingeki genre. It represented Toho’s era of production adventurism that also gave birth to films like Gojira (1954). This review seeks to explain Kurosawa’s filmic techniques to show how he was just uniquely different, but also a master in executing them.
The Camera as the Actor
If Mizoguchi was well known for his long takes, then certainly Kurosawa would be known for his superb editing skills. I think this is best exemplified by the scene in Seven Samurai, where the samurais run out in a successive order through quick edits that could easily become jump cuts if not for a few technical experimentation by Kurosawa.
Typically, filmic conventions avoided placing two shots of too similar a shot size beside each other because they would result a jarring effect known as the jump cut, which ran contrary to the Hollywood’s invisible editing style. Kurosawa’s running sequence however, “worked” and avoided jump cutting because of the following reasons:
- Symmetrical compositions between each shot provided graphical continuity for each subsequent shot, functioning much like a mirroring effect reminiscent of Ozu’s style of shooting shot-reverse shots.
- The samurais were all running towards a similar direction against a similar foreground of tall grasses, and a cut-on-action or a match-on-action edit was applied to conceal the cut.
Of all these reasons, I think the cut-on-action was one of the longest lasting editing technique found in almost any film. While Kurosawa didn’t invent it per se, his imaginative use of the cut-on-action certainly highlighted the technique’s expansive longevity in film grammar. His obsession for editing manifested itself in how Kursawa was one of the few directors who would review each day’s rushes at the end of every day’s shoot and even got down to editing them sometimes.
Kurosawa was not only innovative with his editing techniques, but with his cinematography as well. Most notably, Kurosawa was fond of using the telephoto lens and multiple camera shooting (started in Seven Samurais) almost extensively in all of his films. The choice of a telephoto lens firstly gave his films the trademark “flattened” look. This particular lens choice was innovative because the other alternative to such “flattened” images was the use of the wide lens, small aperture, fast film stock combination to create the deep-focus effect most evident in Citizen Kane for example. More importantly, the choice of a telephoto lens gave Kurosawa’s films a sense of closeness that made viewers feel like they were right beside the character per se.
This can be seen in one of the earliest and famous scenes in Rashomon where the camera tracks along the woodcutter walking in the jungle. The use of the telephoto lens made the movement more apparent with the leaves appearing closer and larger on screen than if a wide or normal lens was used. I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking beside the woodcutter. Cinematic space tightened with the telephoto lens, and the experience very mysterious, almost dark and looming. It must be acknowledged however, that filmmaking is a collaborative endeavour and all of these wouldn’t have been possible without the fine mastery of Kurosawa’s Director of Photography, Kazuo Miyagawa, who was one of Japan’s best cinematographers with works such as Ugetsu under his belt.
Another one of Kurosawa’s technical innovations was in the use of flashbacks, a narrative technique that most of us are so accustomed to that we take for granted. Although signs of the flashback technique can be found as early as in the 1941 in Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane, it was Kurosawa who crystallized this technique with Rashomon.
Culturally, Rashomon, along with many other Kurosawa films represented a distinctive shift in Western conceptions about Japanese culture. Kurosawa’s films and characters were mostly visceral in nature (something I wasn’t so fond off), and that ran in contradiction to Western perceptions of the Japanese as a gentle and docile. In Rashomon, as with Seven Samurai, the performance of the Bandit was both exaggerated and animalistic. Such unforeseen actions and behaviors by Japanese actors was most unexpected until Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and such contradictions were further amplified by mystical elements such as the medium in court.
Known to many as the most Western of all Japanese directors, Kurosawa was ironically steeped in Japanese culture and society. Kurosawa’s cinema tended towards a humanistic perspective, such as in Rashomon where he questions the notion of absolute morality and/or objectivity. More importantly, Kurosawa was undoubtedly a very culture specific director. That culture was Japanese, and despite all its Japanese specificity, there had always been a certain sense of universality to Kurosawa’s films. His filmic techniques, innovative in his days, are now being regarded not only as classic, but also fundamental. That I think, is the lasting impact of Akira Kurosawa.