Half-way through my Kurosawa marathon, a realization dawned on me: every single frame in Kurosawa movies either tells a story or is aesthetically pleasing, or, in many cases, both. Upon closer inspection, my realization proved right. I would choose his movies at random, pause at a random scene, and marvel at his craft, pondering how he has achieved this level of consistency throughout his diverse filmography. Putting aside his flair for painting, I arrived at two factors: movement in general, blocking in particular.
You can always find something in his frames that moves. First, it’s the movement of nature, like rain pelting down in Rashomon (1951), fire in Dersou Uzala (1975), snow in Ikiru (1952), wind in Yojimbo (1961), mist in Throne of Blood (1957), and water in Dreams (1990). Second, it’s the movement of bodies – eyes in particular – that make his reaction shots vivid, like the mastershots of The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low (1963). Third, it’s the movement of groups as they go from one scene to another, like in Sanjuro (1962), Ran (1985), and Seven Samurai (1954). And finally, it’s the movement of individuals that brings me to the second factor: blocking. This might sound hyperbolic, but I’ve never seen any director leveraging blocking to the extent and perfectionism that Kurosawa does. He blocks the characters such that you could instantly glean their relationships, who has the upper hand, who holds power, and what’s their emotional state. Further, through blocking, he creates specific geometries and maintains them throughout the movie, like circles in Seven Samurai or triangles in The Bad Sleep Well. The first half of High and Low might be his most exemplary work in terms of blocking and staging, one of the scenes of which I have explained in detail later on. The following scenes are not ordered in terms of quality or superiority, nor are they actually his best works; rather, they are an excuse to celebrate one of the most influential artists in cinema’s history.
Before delving into the top scenes, I would like to offer my honorable mentions, all of which could easily replace the following top ten.
Stray Dog (1949), the showdown scene
Rashomon, the scene where the spirit of the husband is summoned to testify
Seven Samurai, the final battle scene
Throne of Blood, the ending (arrow scene)
The Hidden Fortress (1958), the duel scene
The Bad Sleep Well, the ending
Yojimbo, the confrontation between the two parties as Sanjuro watches in delight
Sanjuro, the opening scene
High and Low, the chase scene
Red Beard (1965), the scene between the doctor and the madwoman
Kagemusha (1980), the assassination scene
Ran, the ending
Dreams, the Vincent Van Gogh scene
The gauntness of poverty and the looming threat of the bandits have led the villagers to seek summaries. So far, for one reason or another, every samurai they’ve beseeched have rejected them. Amid the altercation over their next move, their attention reverts to a crowd following a samurai. Kurosawa keeps the samurai at the center of the frame, filling the background with the crowd who, just like us, are wondering about his intentions. The atmosphere is curious, laden with clamorous anticipation. Without any murmuring, the crowd is elbowing each other as they peep cautiously. The absolute silence accentuates the ambient sound contributing to the brilliant visual storytelling. The wind is whisking, sweeping the dust, bending the trees, and flapping the clothes. Combined with the roaring sound of the river, the wind lends itself to the foreboding atmosphere. As the samurai cuts his topknot and shaves his head, Kurosawa takes a few ensemble shots of the crowd who are beaming with anticipation. Through a well-placed exposition, we learn that a thief has kidnapped a child, and the samurai has asked for two rice balls and a monk robe, agreeing to help the family. Still, neither the crowd nor we are privy to his scheme. Kurosawa brings another samurai into focus: Kikuchiyo. He blocks Kikuchiyo at the center of the frame in the foreground with the samurai in the background, hinting at their relationship through mere looks, glances, and the insinuation of the eyes. So far, the shots have been wide, encompassing the crowd moving from one frame to another with cuts occurring with the movement, creating a smooth transition. Now we get three medium shot-reverse-shots of the samurai and Kikuchiyo as the strained silence between the two lingers. Disguised as a monk, with two bowls of rice, the samurai heads towards the thief’s hideout with the crowd following him. Upon introducing himself as a monk to the agitated, nervous thief, he tries to calm him down. The thief keeps letting out a shrill wail of anger as the samurai attempts to coax him into submission. He gives the bowls of rice to him, then seizes upon the short window and pounces. The next shot is of the crowd and Kikuchiyo reacting to the sudden attack. Then, Kurosawa shows the thief in slow-motion as he descends to the ground. The samurai throws his blood-tainted sword into the ground, and we know the thief is killed. The villagers know this fierce, hard-boiled, gruff samurai is the guy, hence their desolate, doleful demeanor turns gleeful as they get ready to beseech him. They know he is the anodyne for their anguish, and so do we.
This five-minute scene beams with Kurosawa’s mastery over his craft. It’s a fantastic character introduction that sears into one’s mind the whole character of the samurai Kambei. We glean he’s a methodical, ruthless ronin whose identity goes beyond being a samurai. He’s willing to look like a monk, the antithesis of a samurai, for a sheer act of compassion. Further, the scene introduces another key character. It hooks you on Kikuchiyo, the wild, idiosyncratic samurai with his sword slung over his shoulder that will entrance you for the rest of the movie. Finally, the scene is a testament to Kurosawa’s excellent use of movement to create smooth transitions and aesthetically pleasing frames.
High and Low
High on his lofty mansion, Gondo, a suave, ambitious man, is entangled in a dilemma. As one of the shareholders of a lucrative shoe company, he has hatched a scheme to raise his shares above everyone else. The scheme has come to fruition, but one thing keeps pecking at his brain: to save a child’s life for whom he feels responsible. Low in the stifling heat, cooped up in a stuffy room, is a mysterious man hell-bent on kneading Gondo into submission. He is threatening to kill the child – who is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur.
Kurosawa dominates the first half of the movie with his revealing mastershot. Thanks to informative composition, one can simply glance at the frames and glean what’s going on. For instance, in this scene, Kurosawa has Gondo and his assistant blocked at the opposite end of each other, with a vast free space departing them. It gives the impression that Gondo steers clear of his assistant who’s pushing him to make the last move. When the two are alone, there’s nothing there to stop Gondo to finalize his scheme. As the story goes on, however, more people fill the empty space, assailing Gondo’s conscious. First, it’s the chauffeur who kneels in front of him; then, his wife enters the frame; and finally, his son, who proves to be the last straw. Every time the phone rings, chaos ensues, in one of which the mysterious man makes it clear the child is alive. During this phone call, Gondo is in profile, and we can’t read his mind. The chauffeur, however, is looking directly at him, and the detectives are just in the middle of the story. The composition speaks volumes of what’s going on in the minds of the characters: Gondo is conflicted, the chauffeur is hopeless and desperate, and the detectives are clueless. The next frame has the chauffeur, who is in the throes of the dreary outlook for his son, besieging Gondo relentlessly, forcing him to the edge of the frame. Gondo, with his back towards the others, is trapped at the edge of the frame with conflicting ideas chasing each other in his mind. Knelt before Gondo is the chauffeur who keeps begging, hoping that he might penetrate through his guard. The greedy assistant, who has already made up his mind, is standing upright at the other end of the frame, waiting for Gondo’s call. And finally, the clueless detectives are in the middle, waiting to see what will transpire.
The dark clouds obscure the sun as all hell breaks loose. Streams of soldiers along with galloping horses march towards the castle, catching off-guard the men of the forsaken lord. The air is dim with dense mist, piercing through which is the red glare of the rifles that never cease firing. The lord is in a frenzy, bolting in panic as he tries to fend off the mass of men thronging the castle by the order of his sons. The dead pile on and the defense wears thin as one by one his men are drenched with blood, suffering the sheeting rain of arrows. Finally, the lord gives in to the tsuris of his own making. Shell-socked, he sits with his eyes bulging as the slings and arrows abound the facade and interior of the castle. Outside, a few soldiers are escorting one of his sons who fills in the static, low-angle shot of the castle. The son’s picturesque shot on his horse lingers as he relishes the triumph only to face a roaring bullet besmirching his yellow gear red. “What happened?” the viewer wonders.
Kurosawa flaunts his mastery over color and visual storytelling in this five-minute, harrowing montage that brims with bleak imagery. The vexatious music tugs at the heartstrings as every wide shot sears into your mind the bleak, hellish atmosphere. The colors white, red, and yellow not only contrast the shots, embellishing them aesthetically, but also tell the story of the lord in white along with two of his sons, Jiro in red and Taro in yellow. There’s a lot more to the montage than meets the eye, but no matter how many times I watch it, I revel in its sorrow, mayhem, and sheer horror.
Away from the stagnant, meaningless decay that is his job, the slouched, meek Kanji Watanabe is waiting for his turn to visit the doctor about his stomach, during which, someone strikes a conversation with him. The guy starts joking about his stomach, elevating the mood of the scene for a few moments. Then he starts delineating the agonizing symptoms of stomach cancer, painting a dismal fate. Upon hearing them one by one, Watanabe grows frightful while his once neutral facial expression slowly morphs into a hopeless, desolate one. What I found fascinating about this two-minute scene is how Kurosawa opts for a mastershot and leverages blocking to reflect the inner turmoil of Watanabe. First, he moves the guy closer to him; then, once the symptoms start to seep into his consciousness, he blocks him so that he gets closer and closer to the camera and away from the guy. It’s as though Watanabe is running away from the truth and the foreshadowed fatality. Extending the idea further, I see the guy as the personification of death looming over him. Kurosawa also draws upon the brilliant performance of Shimura to complement the blocking. The revealing body language and facial expressions of Watanabe culminate in the last shot that shows him clasping his coat, shuddering with horror as the inevitability of death grips his heart.
No generic close-ups, no bland shot-reverse-shots, and no hasty cuts, just a simple mastershot with a perfect composition that draws upon effective blocking and the profound performance of Takashi Shimura.
Dersu Uzala might be Kurosawa’s most underappreciated work, in which he depicts a memorable friendship between Dersu, an old, stout hunter who’s in harmony with nature, and the tall, slender Capitan who’s fascinated by Dersu. Throughout the movie, we see a medley of shots framing Dersu with fire as Kurosawa attempts to show the relationship between him and nature. The connection between the two pays off in two scenes: at Captain’s home, where he’s staring at the fire as he longs to reunite with nature, and in the final scene. Dismayed, Captain is waiting for the burial of his beloved friend in the bone-chilling weather. Kurosawa opts for silence to accentuate nature. He has four shots here, two of which are wide, framing Captain, the workers, and Dersu’s body, and the other two are medium, capturing the aghast Captain. Here’s the touch I’m enamored with: in the first wide shot, Kurosawa frames fire in the bottom-right portion of the shot, then he shows Captain in medium, and once he returns to the wide, the workers have finished burying Dersu. In the second wide shot, there’s no fire. Dersu is buried, and so is the fire.
Yojimbo is neither bleak like Ran nor an epic behemoth like Seven Samurai. It’s a lighthearted, action-adventure where Kurosawa portrays a cunning, dexterous ronin who stumbles upon a city, tangling up inextricably in its web of politics. The final showdown is a funny, suspenseful scene with the ronin, Sanjuro, going against the established characters of the movie, each of whom has their own peculiarities. My favorite is Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), with his devilish smirk, distinguishing stripes, and a revolver that, given the context, feels quirky.
Synching music with movement, Kurosawa frames Sanjuro in a wide-shot as the wind sweeps up dust, spicing up the frame. Stern and steadfast, Sanjuro slowly approaches as Kurosawa frames him in the background, filling the foreground with guards keeping an eye on the old man, whose life he’s trying to save. I love how he keeps the momentum by not cutting. He moves the camera while the guards flee to let others know of Sanjuro, fixes it on the old man whose forehead is sweating like hell, then moves it as the other men swarm the deserted street. Now the showdown officially begins. He lingers in anticipation for two minutes, taking a myriad of shots with different angles and sizes, while the payoff is over within 20 seconds as Sanjuro slashes through them with ease. This stark difference between the build-up and payoff works on suspense and story levels. The former is evident as suspense is all about the dopamine rush, and the latter adds to the comedic tone of the movie, showing what utter windbags the thugs are. Another nice touch of the scene is Sanjuro’s shoulder swing – which is established already – that comes with his scornful smile at Unosuke’s intimidation. Finally, the payoff comes to an end when Sanjuro accepts the screaming man’s plea and spares his life “children shouldn’t play with swords,” he says in a resolute tone, “Go home to your mother and live a long life eating gruel.”
Kurosawa ramps up the humor and dilutes the gruesome intricacies of politics in Yojimbo’s sequel, where our reticent ronin is having a field day bestowing his wisdom upon the rookies. Throughout the movie, he outmaneuvers the lofty antagonist Muroto who, notwithstanding the utter embarrassment, has challenged him to a duel. In a wide shot, Kurosawa frames the duel in the foreground, filling the background with the rookies holding their breath like we the viewers. He stretches the scene for just the right amount to make it nail-biting, letting the silence accentuate the suspense. In a rather peculiar move, Sanjuro outmaneuvers Muroto yet again as the deafening music lends itself perfectly to the blood spurting like a coffee machine. Then, Kurosawa frames the stunned rookies in three medium shots to convey the gravity of what has transpired. The move fills me with admiration for Sanjuro, and when one of the rookies voices my accolades – “That was brilliant!” – Sanjuro casts him off with a harsh remark, leaving the rookies and me in recoil. Sanjuro has learned a lesson and imparts it upon the rookies and me, leaving the city as he swings his shoulder upward for one last time.
The Bad Sleep Well
The opening wedding sequence of The Bad Sleep Well is laden with crucial information, and Kurosawa uses the knots of reporters to relay them. The culmination of it is the scene where the mysterious “rose cake” catches everyone off-guard, in which Kurosawa leverages the following to punctuate the air of controversy:
- Wide shots to show the reactions of people. My favorite is the one where the vice president is framed at the center with the cake behind him. You can see the whole crowd fixed their eyes on him, looking elsewhere the moment he raises his head. Further, in your first viewing, the shot signifies mystery, while upon rewatch, it becomes even more rewarding as you know the plot and the characters’ motivations.
- The body language of the key characters as they react to the succession of threatening events. In particular, Kurosawa conveys the inner turmoil of the guilty characters through their eyes as they flit nervously. Further, the scene exudes a higher level of subtext upon rewatching since you know about Nishi’s involvement in the plot
- The orchestral score to vibrate the scene, which crescendoes as the cake engulfs the frame. Right here, we get a meaningful cut to the assistant, which I interpret as the cake assailing his guilty conscious.
It’s no wonder why the movie is Francis Ford Coppola’s favorite Kurosawa and why he was inspired by this sequence in creating the wedding scene of his seminal work, The Godfather (1972).
Compared with his previous works, Kurosawa uses a different approach to shooting the climactic battle scene of Kagemusha. For instance, in one of the battle scenes of Seven Samurai, in which the sodden samurai are fending off the bandits under the sheeting rain through the morass of mud, Kurosawa shows the consequence of every single action: the spear piercing through someone, the sword slashing the other, and so forth. In Kagemusha, however, he doesn’t double down on the sheer action or violence itself; rather, he emphasizes the bloody aftermath. We get wide shots of the three primary forces of the Takeda clan – Wind, Forest, and Fire – marching towards the enemy, of whom we also get wide shots as they let fly the succession of bullets through slatted beams. Then, we get the sanguinary aftermath accompanied by a bleak score. Adding to the emotional weight of the scene, Kurosawa lingers on the slow-motion shots of the dying horses twitching their hooves or blood-soaked soldiers clutching to life. Further, his use of color contributes to the scene’s utter gore as the red, green, and black blend, culminating in striking imagery.
Another essential piece, or what one might argue the point of the whole scene, is the thief Kagemusha, or the Shadow Warrior. Amid taking wide shots of the battle, Kurosawa takes a few mediums of him as he, aghast and helpless, witnesses the clan’s eradication. His arc is one of the most profound aspects of the movie. At first apathetic, he resisted to abide by the wishes of the generals, but now, he feels a deep connection to the clan, acting as the embodiment of the lord Shingen. I would go as far as to say it’s as though Shingen is resurrected and witnesses how his incompetent, arrogant son orders his soldiers to march towards the slaughterhouse, and they go down like swathes of hay before the rows of roaring rifles. The scene ends with the fatally wounded Kagemusha running towards the sea where Lord Shingen is buried. His corpse floats beside the banner of the clan, which reads “Swift as the Wind, Quite as a Forest, Fierce as Fire, Immovable as a Mountain”.
The last scene of Kurosawa’s long, stellar run is a peaceful, serene dream of a frail professor. In a green, sleek landscape, behind which mountains are stretched away into the distance and sun is lying low, children are playing hide-and-seek. The back and forth between “Are you ready?” and “Not yet (madadoya)” stirs up in me the happy, innocent memories of my childhood. Hypnotized, I’m finding solace in this solemn dream as the child professor staggers to find a place to hide. Once hidden, the sun suddenly grows brighter, attracting the attention of both character and audience. As he stares at the sun, the camera pans upwards towards the clouds, and the frame morphs into a scenery straight out of a child’s painting. The somber score starts playing, the credits roll, and I find myself crying for some reason.
Besides my deep, personal connection with the scene, I love how it encapsulates the revered professor’s character. Throughout the movie, his students relish the care-free, jubilant company, and this scene reflects his inner world, showing how even in his dreams, he’s as jolly as a child. Further, given his dire health, one might argue that the scene is actually his last dream as he passes away.
I would like to imagine Akira Kurosawa’s last dream was akin to a child’s painting; innocent, tranquil, and peaceful.