Wide-Screen, Big Ideas

The Wide-Screen Cinema of Akira Kurosawa

by Fred Shimizu

13 October 2010

The Hidden Fortress 

The wide screen format of 'The Bad Sleep Well' served both style and substance

The wide screen format of The Bad Sleep Well served both style and substance. As in The Hidden Fortress before it, an unusually large number of scenes feature three people, such as the three principal villains, the police in their office, Nishi with his two confederates, and the trio of Nishi, his wife and her brother. These were shot either on a flat plane to form a triptych composition, or with one or two people foreground to create a triangular formation. Throughout the film doors are constantly opened and shut, seeming to symbolize a border between the public and private personas and serve as passageways into the “true nature” of the characters. Elevator doors open and close like stage curtains, setting off contrasting groups of passengers, a door is slammed in the faces of reporters, and a series of bank doors create a labyrinth for access to laundered money; while shoji screens are opened to reveal a married couple’s true relationship.

The irreverent morals and black humor, the artistry of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and the ever-contemporary sounding score of Masaru Sato make Yojimbo just as rewarding today as it was nearly 50 years ago when it was released. Similar to the realism Rashomon and Seven Samurai brought to jidai-geki filmmaking, Yojimbo had a direct influence on heightened graphic violence on screen. While Rashomon and Seven Samurai were early and accurate renderings of how physically difficult it is to actually wield a sword, it is in Yojimbo and Sanjuro that the residual effects of that swordplay has on human flesh - the depiction of severed limbs and arterial spurts are shown graphically for the first time.



In Yojimbo, as in most Kurosawa films, nature’s elements are a compelling character within the story. An untimely visit by officials is prolonged by heavy rain. The dust and wind that travel down the main street are among the many references to American Western films that Yojimbo became known for, though the first screen appearance between Toshiro Mifune and a gun-toting Tatsuya Nakadai is most memorable. The introduction of the gun—a new weapon—implies a new set of rules and morals. The sword, the eternal symbolic soul of Japan, has become quickly outdated, and by that implication, the code of morality and way of life it represented ends with it. Thus this battle between sword and gun might also be viewed as a struggle between East and West, or perhaps maintaining the East against the oncoming West, a last stand for the traditional against the technical, and even a struggle between good and evil.

Mifune’s character in this film is often referred to, even in later non-Kurosawa films as Yojimbo, meaning “bodyguard,” and is one of the actor’s most original and engaging characters. Blending broad and subtle reactions, the first ten or so minutes of Yojimbo is virtually a silent film as Mifune assesses his environment and the people in it. Unshaven and unconventional, it is his wit and superior swords skills that allow him to survive in an imperfect world, even if only by virtue of making his own rules and remaining detached from alliances of any kind.



In Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo, Mifune reprises his role within a profoundly different environment. Yojimbo takes place in a small town, in its own world of bad characters and morals where Mifune fits right in among gamblers, yakuza and outlaws; Sanjuro takes place within a more formal, more refined world where bad deeds are carried out discreetly. Because the ronin Mifune has long been freed from the constrictions of proper, reserved samurai behavior, Sanjuro cane be viewed as something of a comedy of manners, playing heavily upon its “fish out of water” elements. Much of the humor—and this is a very funny film—comes from his disregard or impatience with traditional conventions and protocol. In the unforgettable climax of Sanjuro, a close quartered stand-off that draws heavily on the elements of a quick-draw gunfight, Kurosawa makes full use of all the cinematic tricks of the classic western. The static composition of the long single take is there, as is the minimizing of sound but for the wind, the swoosh of sword and the unearthly sound effect of the gurgling of the cut. The director’s patience allows the dramatic tension to build before suddenly, jarringly collapsing in a shocking gout of blood. This scene, highly influential in all action genres, as it introduced the arterial spurt, is still impressive today even after decades of, often gratuitous, screen violence.

The structure of High and Low is most unusual of Kurosawa’s wide-screen works, with the first act confined to a single set of a luxury high-rise apartment. While the set itself may be limiting, the action is not. The staging is nothing short of remarkable, with character movement, plot delineation and developments all played out in the confined setting of an air conditioned high-rise apartment overlooking the sweltering city. The latter part of the narrative, a train sequence, seems even faster paced following the claustrophobia of the initial section of the film. It plays in real -time and the split second timing of the narrative is largely due to the split second timing of the staging, filming and editing. The manhunt that closes the film, even more than the beginning, is about procedure, hearkening back to the high-intensity motif Kurosawa’s earlier Stray Dog.

In Red Beard, Kurosawa revisits the relationship between teacher and reluctant pupil, a theme found many times in his work including his first directorial effort, Sanshiro Sugata through Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog, Seven Samurai and even Sanjuro. The vast scope of this film (Seven Samurai is the only film prior to it with an intermission) led critic Donald Richie to comment that it seemed the director came to “some sort of conclusion,” as a film-maker and had “pushed his style to the ultimate,” a sentiment with which the director agreed.

The story takes place during a time of transition in Japanese history, when the age of the samurai was about to end and Western influences were becoming more prevalent. Red Beard also marks closure to many aspects of Kurosawa’s career—it is not only is it his last wide screen film, but also his final black and white effort. Music is an extremely key element in all of Kurosawa’s work, and Red Beard  was his last film with composer Masaru Sato, who wrote every score for the director beginning with Throne of Blood in 1957. Yet nothing exemplifies more clearly and sadly the era’s closure than the fact that the great collaboration between director Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, a relationship that spanned 16 remarkable films in 17 years, ended with Red Beard. It is also the end of the most prolific era of Kurosawa’s career, in which he made 23 films in 25 years. After making Red Beard, it would take five years until his next feature, and the next 28 years would yield but seven films.

Orson Welles famously commented that the only thing wide screen was useful for was filming rattlesnakes. Perhaps the comment had in part to do with the types of films being made in wide screen, films more concerned with spectacle rather than character and story. Then again, he may have been reacting to the difficulty in painting on an entirely different shaped canvas. Neither of these speculative obstacles hindered Kurosawa, as it would be challenging to find another run of six consecutive films, in any director’s filmography, as impressive as these. If, as it is sometimes suggested, the films in discussion fall short of the consensus masterworks that preceded them in Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai, they fall just short. Along with Drunken Angel, Stray Dog , Throne of Blood, and Ran, they represent the next tier of Kurosawa’s legacy, ranging from very good to great. If these wide screen efforts were the only films he made, there’s a good chance that Akira Kurosawa’s legacy as a timeless and influential master filmmaker would be lessened, but amazingly, intact.

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