The Epic Images of Kurosawa

By Stu Kobak

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      The crystal branches of the trees reflected flecks of moonlight recalling images of richly produced Hollywood fantasies of a bygone era. The ice storm of 1977 had created a natural wonderland, an anomalous rain softly laying droplets upon the ice cold trees of Long Island, immediately transforming into a captivating coating of ice. As my pregnant wife and I cruised the tree-lined roads drinking in the spectacle of nature, we continued negotiations for the naming of our first child. I campaigned for the name Akira if we had a son, to honor the master Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. Such was the respect I had for this giant of a filmmaker. And this, even before the incredible accomplishments of Kagemusha and Ran. Other considerations prevailed: our first born was named Alexander. Since my first introduction to Kurosawa at a Japanese film festival playing Hidden Fortress, his films have continued to grow in stature for me. They have survived the test of time and repeated viewings. I've probably seen The Seven Samurai 10 or 11 times, and now my son Alex has come to share the experience of Kurosawa. I would also like to share some of the master's work with you.
     Kurosawa is held in such high esteem by his peers and film critics alike that in Sight and Sound Magazine's top ten film survey of 250 critics and directors, an astonishing ten different films by Kurosawa were named, a testament to the amazing depth of his screen output.
     "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" rants Shakespeare's King Lear.

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Akira Kurosawa's use of nature's elements is an intersection crossed by many of his films. Ran is the filmmaker's adaptation of the Lear tale brought to stunning pictorial life in feudal Japan. Indeed, the wind rages, fog and smoke engulf Kurosawa's Hidetora Ichimonji, the Japanese Lear; spikes of flames strike his flesh, foreboding storm clouds shadow his every move and shards of rain whip matted clumps of white hair across his face.
     Thirty years separate Ran from Kurosawa's first epic Samurai film The Seven Samurai. Together they are the brilliant epic bookends of the director's oeuvre. Hidden Fortress, made right after the success of The Seven Samurai, marks Kurosawa's first excursion into a light-hearted treatment of historical Japan and the Samurai. Throne of Blood and Ran are the director's two excursions into the realm of Shakespeare. A fine representation of the director's action style, this quartet of films shows off the best of Kurosawa's action style.
     The Seven Samurai, arguably Kurosawa's greatest film, is tour-de-force storytelling, driven by superb editing and photography. A small village has been looted and pillaged by a hoard of bandits too many times. The village elder advises that Samurai be hired to defend the village. During the period of Japanese civil wars, many battles between feuding Lords had left Samurai warriors without a master. The farmers are able to recruit a group of these unattached Samurai, called ronin, to defend their village.

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     In Kurosawa's hands, this simple story metamorphoses into a symphony of film. The opening introduces the bandits, accompanied on the soundtrack by their specific theme music. The string of outlaw horsemen is exquisitely framed against the horizon, a compositional signature with which the viewer is treated throughout these Samurai epics.
     Deciding to await the new harvest before striking again, the marauders thunder away, as a farmer overhearing them rises from a nearby bush. From a close-up of the farmer, Kurosawa employs his first use of the wipe, a technique whereby a new frame pans across the screen over the existing image to create a transition in time and place. This was used frequently in the three black and white film discussed here, while in Ran the editing was confined to simple cuts.
     In the village movement, Kurosawa's "symphony" introduces the farmers and their theme music, as well as the mill where the village elder resides, accompanied by its own pounding theme. The next lyrical movement is the farmers finding their Samurai in the provincial city. In a brilliantly edited sequence, a parade of passing ronin walking through the city streets are scrutinized by the farmers, who hope to approach some likely candidates for assistance. The director's rapid montage cuts create an intense feeling of action and drama that transcends the borders of the screen. People pass in front of the farmers, obscuring their view, adding a dynamic depth to these scenes.
     As written by Fumio Hayasaka, a collaborator on Kurosawa's six previous features, the music representing the Samurai is, appropriately the most memorable. It ranges from light-hearted to stirring. Hayasaka died before completing work on the next Kurosawa project.

Kanbei, played with cool Úlan by Takeshi Shimura, is the first Samurai to accept the farmers' proposal. 

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His strength and integrity become a magnet for the other Samurai, who acknowledge him as their leader. Kurosawa patiently introduces each of the Samurai, giving them time to bond amongst themselves and with the audience. Although the farmers share these moments with the Samurai, they never really become part of their world.
     The Samurai bring very different styles, personalities and abilities to the group. The seventh Samurai, Kikuchiyo, as created on the screen by Toshiro Mifune,

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stands apart from the other Samurai with his scruffy appearance and crude manner. It is natural that Kikuchiyo is represented in the score with his own theme music. On the surface, Kikuchiyo is an unsavory character that the other Samurai refuse to accept. Over the course of the film, we learn more about Kikuchiyo than any of the other characters. He serves as bridge between the farmers and the Samurai, ultimately revealing the most meaningful truths of the film.
     Under Kurosawa's sensitive guidance, Mifune displays a range of emotion achieved only by the greatest practitioners of his art. The scene in which he bares his soul to the other Samurai ranks with the most powerful and memorable screen performances. The scene has never failed to stir my deepest feelings; even now, as I recall it in writing, the close-up of Mifune clad in the armor of a fallen Samurai clearly composes itself within the film banks of my memory.

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     A short transitional passage details Kikuchiyo's acceptance into the group. Spiced with humor, the Samurai's journey to the village is depicted in cavalier fashion, sprightly light theme music adding to the pleasure of the journey.
     The third major movement of the film begins in the village: the Samurai begin training the farmers to withstand the coming onslaught of the bandit marauders. The farmers and the Samurai are able to learn a great deal about one another during this process. The drama is interlaced with comic moments as anticipation builds toward the coming confrontation.

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       In the final major section of this symphonic film, attacking horsemen crash through the driving rain into the village. Pursued by frantic farmers awkwardly brandishing bamboo spears, the manic action is intensified by fierce editing and brilliant use of real sound. In these final battle scenes, Kurosawa eliminates music, successfully heightening the action's impact. Mifune dominates this final battle sequence with the same raw power he has infused in the film from his first appearance. He has become a true Samurai, a fearless inspiration to his fellows. By battle's end, the robbers have been defeated at dear cost to the Samurai.
     The film concludes in a short capitulating sequence. The village has returned to normal life with the harvesting of the rice crop. A villager pounds a drum, beating a ritual chant to express the jubilation of the farmers. The surviving Samurai, departing the village, survey the scene. They are all but forgotten by the farmers, yet they have left compatriots behind in four graves. Kanbei movingly turns to his friend Shichiroji and says "We've lost again." Shichiroji, surprised, looks questioningly at Kanbei, who adds "The farmers are the winners. Not us." The wind whips a banner representing The Seven Samurai which is planted atop the graves. Strains of the martial Samurai theme dominate the soundtrack as the picture fades out.
     Kurosawa's screen compositions are legendary. Extraordinary camera angles are employed to stretch the screen's rectangularity, at the same time adding great depth to the images. Every portion of the film's frame is utilized by Kurosawa, displaying his supreme compositional gift. Deep focus techniques are in constant use so that each painstaking detail in the frame is clearly defined.
     Kurosawa's ability to combine the intimacies of character revelation with exciting action sequences is a quality that places him at the top of his profession. His devotion to detail and stubborn faith in his own vision has served his art well, but it has not made his position within the corporate society comfortable. He has often found it next to impossible to find financial support for his film projects in his native Japan.

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Throne of Blood is more compact than the other Kurosawa Samurai epics. It is the definitive screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, very focused and direct. The film is a dark brew of ingredients in which the sun virtually never appears. Fog is so stunningly used that in several scenes it successfully substitutes for a dissolve. Lightning, thunder, rain and wind drive the characters to their ordained destinies.
     The formality of structure in Throne of Blood is established immediately by a chorus chanting a prologue. The musical score features extensive use of the Noh (traditional, highly stylized Japanese drama) flute. Kurosawa relentlessly propels this tale from opening chorus to a parallel device at the end.
     Toshiro Mifiune is Washizu (Macbeth), again brilliant under the direction of Kurosawa, for whom he has acted in 16 films. His facial expressions early on indicate self-conscious horror at his own actions and what is sure to follow as a consequence. This aspect of Mifune's performance plants the seed for Tatsuya Nakadai's portrayal of Hidetora in Ran some three decades later. Washizu's demise is strikingly realized  as his own men turn on him with their bows, pursuing him with waves of arrows. To the left of him and to the right of him, the arrows strike. Close-ups of Mifune are spectacular. This is one of the screens greatest death scenes. In fact, off-screen archers were actually shooting arrows within inches of Mifune. The range of fear on Mifune's face was perhaps closer to reality than the actor might like to admit.

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     The forceful editing of Throne of Blood,  as in The Seven Samurai, is a major factor to the success of the film. The horizontal wipe is again used extensively,  with an interesting variation. More often than not the wipe moves from a scene of pale gray and white tones to a highly contrasted dark scene. Full appreciation of Kurosawa's use of the technique requires multiple viewings. In re-running a sequence, one realizes that Kurosawa's wipes often follow the direction and movement of his characters, prefiguring a similar movement in the ensuing scene. In some cases the movement is from the reverse direction. While the technique is considered dated by many, I have never seen it used with greater success. George Lucas, who has acknowledged Kurosawa as an inspirational film figure, uses the wipe frequently in the Star Wars trilogy.
     In a astounding sequence of editing, we are introduced to Washizu. Signature Kurosawa elements representing turmoil are used to heighten the frenetic pace of this action sequence. The windblown rain rages, accompanied by flashes of lightning and cannon volleys of thunder. The hoofbeats of the horses of Captains Washizu and Miki (Banquo) pound threateningly through the forest to the Cobweb Castle, as incongruous spears of light penetrate the tall  trees. Kurosawa uses the moments of lightning to trigger his cuts. A close shot of Washizu and Miki flashes to a long shot through the trees, everything remaining in focus; another blast of lightning coincides with a cut to a close-up of the pair, then a series of cuts from rider to the other until the two finally fade into the forest together, lost in a maze of trails that lead to a witch, chanting the inevitable fate of the two captains riding the ladder to power.
     Asaji, Washizu's wife, is a thoroughly malicious adaptation of Lady Macbeth. Where Washizu hesitates, Asaji's path to evil is unwavering. Actress Isuzu Yamada creates this malevolent mistress of ambition in icy tones. Again, Throne of Blood relates directly to Ran in the creation of Lady Kaede, a direct descendant of and a more fully realized character than Asaji.
     Few images in Throne of Blood rise to the epic grandeur achieved in Seven Samurai, Ran or Hidden Fortress. Mifune's death scene is comparable in scale, as are the long camera views of Lord Tsuzuki's (Duncan) approach to the North Castle domain of Washizu and the battle between the warriors of Washizu and Tsuzuki after the latter is assassinated.
     Kurosawa composes Throne of Blood for the Academy aperture(1.37)as in The Seven Samurai. Camera angles again create the illusion of a wider screen format. Deep focus techniques are used through extensive use of small camera apertures. Even  telephoto shots crisply illuminate the details that Kurosawa insists upon. Authenticity of sets and costumes placed great demands on production collaborators, often throwing Kurosawa into conflict with the Japanese film studios.
     The source material from which the laser disc is mastered may be the best available to Voyager, but it is unacceptable. The Scenes of Washizu and Miki adrift in the fog are laden with scratches, and the fog itself, no doubt difficult to transfer, has an irritating instability manifested by flickering. Many scenes are disturbed by white speckles. However, the worst technical problem last for virtually the entire final reel of the film: a thin, white stationery line dominates the left third of the film.
     Hidden Fortress was a landmark film for Kurosawa. For the first time he employed the widescreen process. The compositions in his earlier films were crying out for the additional freedom of the wider screen and one can sense the director's personal joy in experimenting with the new format. Except for the intimate Dodes'ka-den, the master never again composed in the 1.33 aspect ratio. His full use of the wide screen results in characters facing one another from the extremes off the picture.

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Esthetic and symbolic balances are laid out upon this vast rectangular plain. Interesting camera angles are maintained, but wide group compositions are shot from a more direct point of view.
     Structured as a traditional adventure story, Hidden Fortress is surely the most light-hearted of Kurosawa's epic films, although the story of a princess escorted through enemy territory also contains messages about the horror and senselessness of war. Kurosawa's opening image is a war-ravaged plain, wind sweeping dust across the wide screen. Two farmers, refugees of defeated armies, pawns in the power plays dominating the country, walk through the desolate landscape lamenting the war and their misfortune. Suddenly, a stray Samurai pursued by enemy horsemen bursts through their plaintive banter . As he is chopped down ruthlessly, the horror of war is written on a close-up of his face. The dead Samurai lies upon the ground, dust swirling, his arm frozen upright in a hideous sculpture.
     When the two bickering farmers are captured in separate incidents, they are relegated to slave labor. Kurosawa fills the screen with massive numbers of soldiers and slaves, traveling in long, lateral movements across the screen. The sequence of their captivity and subsequent escape are crowd spectaculars.

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 Composed diagonally from corner to corner of the wide screen, the weaving movement of the rebelling slave laborers recalls a ceremonial Chinese dragon celebrating the new year. The director's visual fascination with massive staircases is realized in a number of these incredibly photographed scenes; by positioning his camera at the base of a long stairway, in the most memorable of these images, he heightens the impact of the fleeing captives sweeping down the stone steps directly into the camera. The stairs represent the extremes at which Kurosawa's characters exist. The imagery later recurs in Ran, except that the focus is on the solitary figure of the mentally destitute Hidetora Ichimonji.
     Kurosawa's flawless use of deep focus camera techniques is illustrated elegantly in the initial appearance of star Toshiro Mifune, playing the delightfully ruthless General Rokurota Makabe. Farmers Tahei and Matakishi are searching through a mountain brook and its surrounding boulders for more gold-filled bamboo shafts. 

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While they fight greedily after finding a second shaft, the viewer is aware of another presence, a sharply focused miniature of Mifune, precisely framed in a hollow between the boulders, hands on hips in an imperious stance. The wide screen stretched to its full dimension, perfect employment of deep focus, and an extraordinary sense of composition--all these elements of Kurosawa mastery are exhibited in a single frame.
     In a total departure from the broad portrayal of Kikuchiyo in The Seven Samurai, Mifune's Rokurota is a character of coldly calculated strength, dominated by a sense of honor and duty. Mifune's repeated presence in Kurosawa films is not simply a reprisal of prior work, but remains fresh and original time after time
     The Voyager Criterion Collection laser disc of Hidden Fortress replicates the exquisite black and white photography achieved by Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki. It is interesting to note that although Kurosawa has used a variety of cinematographers over the many decades of his career, the images are always stamped with the Kurosawa look,  emphasizing powerful screen compositions. The subtle range of grays is accurate. Each detail, obsessively captured by the director, is duplicated clearly on the laser disc pressing. Focus is consistently sharp. Source material for Hidden Fortress is in pristine condition. The image is presented in approximately a 2:1 aspect ratio while the film was shot in 2.35 Tohoscope. While few images are compromised significantly by the cropping, there are a number of instances where major characters on the extremes of the screen are partially cut off, resulting in a violation of Kurosawa's perfectionist composition. White English titles appear in the bottom black band of the letterboxed image.

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     The musical scores for both Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood were written by Masaru Sato, who worked with Kurosawa on nine films, ending with Red Beard in 1965. Unlike the solemnly dominent and often grating score of Throne of Blood, Hidden Fortress features a lighter tone.
     Hidden Fortress is especially interesting in comparison with these other three epics since it establishes the range of Kurosawa and his star Toshiro Mifune. In his body of work, Kurosawa has employed the same talented people time and again. Unlike Mifune, who erupted to stardom in his first screen role in Kurosawa's Drunken Angel, Tatsuya Nakadai, the glorious star of Ran, made his first fleeting screen appearance as one of the passing Ronin scrutinized by the farmers in The Seven Samurai. It was seven years before he again appeared for Kurosawa, this time in a featured role in Yojimbo. He has been featured or starred in five Kurosawa films, culminating in the magnificent interpretation of Hidetora Ichimonji in Ran. The haunting expressions of desolation captured on his face and every movement of his body are strokes of acting genius.

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     The Japanese character "Ran" translates in English to chaos. The meticulous compositions at the outset of Ran represent the harmony before Hidetora abdicates his rule over the house of Ichimonji to his eldest son Taro. As the film progresses, this sense of family harmony will never again recur.
     Ran differs from the other epic Kurosawa films in technical style. There are no wipes, no fades, simply montage cuts. However, the use of color adds a new dimension. The beautiful palette with which Kurosawa imbues this film plays perfectly against the themes of madness and betrayal. Each frame is a painting, executed in bold strokes of contrast. Kurosawa actually produced a startling series of lithographs from his story boards for Ran. Reproductions of many of these have been collected in a book published along with the screenplay. Viewing the lithographs alongside the film is revelatory. Characters, right down to costume and make-up, emerge from paper to screen.
     Kurosawa again weaves a wonderful musical score into the fabric of the action. As youngest son Saburo's troops evacuate the castle after their master's banishment, the pounding horses hoofs fuse with the music to form a single element of immense power. The majesty of epic movement is gracefully expressed as the horses are followed down the steps by foot soldiers, their jingling armor another element in the exciting musical composition. Blue and yellow banners splash contrasting color against the pale grays of the castle, completing the epic image.
     Composer Toru Takemitsu infuses the score with sound of mocking cicadas as Hidetora's rule is dismantled bit by bit. The sound is like wave upon wave of arrows, slicing through the air, quivering in the great Lord. Indeed, they foreshadow the coming decimation of Hidetora's retainers.
     Thirty years after choosing to eliminate the music from the climactic encounter in The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa presents a large segment of the culminating battle 

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 in Ran accompanied only by music. The silent montage of Hidetora's entourage is commented upon by the solemn score. Individual frames of the montage offer one stunning depiction of violence after another: a multitude of arrows protrudes from a fallen Samurai; two of Hidetora's concubines perform seppuku upon each other's outstretched blade; bloody bodies piled in death's repose; a quintet of Hidetora's battle weary Samurai stand upon the castle steps in hopeless defense of their Lord; a wounded Samurai sits motionless on the ground holding his recently severed arm; riders and foot soldiers, shrouded in dust created by their massive movements charge laterally across the screen. These images of unbelievable power run uninterrupted for almost six minutes until broken by the sound of a single shot unseating Hidetora's son Taro from his horse. The battle frenzy is sustained for a full fifteen minutes in a total assault on the senses.

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The battle concludes as Hidetora glides trance-like down the steps of the castle. Horror is etched in his painful, vacuous stare. All the battle elements surround his walk through the troops of his two treacherous sons; fog, fluttering banners, arrows, blood, and always, the swirling wind. He exits through the gates of the castle into a storm brewing on the surrounding plain. High grasses whip in the wind as the totally distracted Hidetora picks wild flowers in the storm.

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Lady Kaede is the other great character of Ran. The embodiment of evil, her love scene with her dead husband's brother borders on the supernatural. Oozing malice, Lady Kaede is captured superbly by Mieko Harada. Her beheading by a single stroke of General Kurogane's blade is the perfectly chosen violent depiction of her demise, an explosion of blood covering the backdrop of the scene.
     Kurosawa's accomplishments as a film director through six decades serve as an inspiration to filmmakers and film lovers alike. These four films of the more than thirty he has directed, represent only one aspect of a brilliant career.


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