Wide-Screen, Big Ideas: The Wide-Screen Cinema of Akira Kurosawa

Fred Shimizu
The Hidden Fortress

After eschewing innovations like color and wide-screen filmmaking, when Akira Kurosawa made the conversion to a wider screen, he did so by making six consecutive films in wide screen, with a degree of success that was as resounding as it was influential.

In the late 1950s, as color film and wide screen formats were rapidly becoming industry standards. Akira Kurosawa was highly reluctant to make the change to color from the rich, brilliant textures of black and white film. It was yet another example of the director’s legendary stubbornness, and would last through the entire 1960s. When he finally did switch to color in 1970 with Dodeskaden, he made up for much lost time, featuring vivid primary colors in a way many found overly calculated and self-conscious.

But in 1957 he did embrace the other technological innovation: the wide screen format. The industry standard was roughly 4:3 (standard fare at the movie theatres or equivalent to what was until high definition television one saw in one's home). Wide screen, copyrighted under the various names such as Panavision, Vistavision, Tohoscope, and others made the ratio of the screen width more than twice the height.

In Japan, screen dimensions were often even more “squarish” and more confining at 1.33:1, as is the case in Seven Samurai. Contemporary viewers of this classic are usually taken back watching the opening sequences until they get used to the lack of horizontal breath, especially in a film from the late 1950s, a time of epic filmmaking. The movie industry, in direct response to the challenge of upstart television, had to make the most of its larger, more visually impressive format to distinguish itself and remain relevant. Films featuring casts of thousands, rich colors and stereophonic sound presented epics larger in story and visual scope., with which the tiny boxes in viewers homes could not compete. Cinema became a format that implied spectacle, modernity and importance in the world of the arts. When Akira Kurosawa did make the conversion to a wider screen, he did so by making six consecutive films in wide screen, with a degree of success that was as resounding as it was influential. The six films that Akira Kurosawa made in Tohoscope represent the director at the height of his international reputation and during the most autonomous period of his career.

Kurosawa often looked to the West for source material, as in 1951, when he made an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Just prior to his first wide screen venture The Hidden Fortress, he had completed two films derived directly from Western sources: Throne of Blood, from Shakespeare’s Macbethand later that same year, an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. He would again turn to Shakespeare for inspiration in The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet) and Ran (King Lear).

The Hidden Fortress is a rousing adventure, the most unabashed piece of entertainment to come out of this period of Kurosawa’s career. It is not strictly a samurai film, but an adventure featuring the samurai period elements of class division, feudal terrains, and unequivocal clan loyalties. It is specifically Japanese in these ways. The basic storytelling, if not the overall pacing, is very western and, therefore, easily accessible to western audiences. Of course, this is true in nearly all of Kurosawa and is the point of departure for the primary disagreement in assessing his work.

From the viewpoint of western audiences, there are enough elements of the “exotic” blended with Akira Kurosawa’s masterful storytelling and classic John Ford-based action to be immediately satisfying. To the Japanese, the immediate appreciation and understanding of Kurosawa by western audiences, meant that either he wasn’t “Japanese enough” or was working with international audiences in mind. Among the Japanese intelligentsia and critical writers during the period in which these films were made, the prevalent thought was that in the pantheon of Japanese film masters, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi were “more Japanese” and should be more greatly regarded. The Japanese public may have disagreed, as The Hidden Fortress with its great spectacle, superior action and storytelling, wonderful cast, and stirring score was Kurosawa’s greatest commercial success.

Much has been written about the influence of The Hidden Fortress on George Lucas and Star Wars, including structuring the story around the viewpoints of the lowest characters, the vast horizontal landscapes, and the morally ambiguous action hero. The story element of crossing a hostile border while protecting a sheltered young princess is actually something of a re-visiting of one of Kurosawa’s very early films (Those Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) the source of which was a historically based kabuki play. The degree of influence, however, is less important than the appreciation of classic storytelling told in two completely different settings.

The Bad Sleep Well

Less acknowledged but equally exacting is the influence The Bad Sleep Well (the first film that Akira Kurosawa produced independently of Toho) had on director/ writer Francis Ford Coppola, who said, “The first thirty minutes of The Bad Sleep Well seem to me as perfect as any film I have ever seen.” Coppola, in fact, uses it as a template for the opening sequences in all three films of his “Godfather” trilogy. This is particularly true of the first film, which, like The Bad Sleep Well, opens with a wedding sequence which stylishly delineates a great deal of plot and character information while a celebratory public ceremony counterpoints a darker inner reality.

Although The Bad Sleep Well is scarcely a direct adaptation, in the manner Throne of Blood was to Macbeth, there are clear similarities to Hamlet in the characters, plot and theme. The hero, played by Toshiro Mifune, plans a measured revenge that takes us through the public and private sides of a corrupt corporation. In addition to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well incorporates the indigenous Japanese tradition of vengeance as a relevant source. The avenging hero shares with Ôishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the revenge in the classic Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, a great deal of ingenuity and seemingly endless patience. The primary interest is with the elemental ethical issues of good and evil, basic to all revenge tragedies, and the inevitable moral price that must be paid in order to exact revenge, no matter how justified.

Kurosawa said that with The Bad Sleep Well, he wanted to make a film of social significance. This represents something of a return to the type of contemporary set film that first established his reputation in such works as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. The film was made in 1960, during the early stages of that Japanese “economic miracle” that signaled recovery from the devastation of World War II. It was an era of growing prosperity that would in time evolve into the opulence of the “bubble economy” of the 1980s. In this early phase, however, the chief preoccupations were corporate survival and ruthless expansion by highly competitive businessmen, a corrupting mindset that Kurosawa would revisit in High and Low.

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