The following series of posts is the reason why I've been so scarce lately At the start of Fall semester my International Film class laid out that a research paper on a non-American filmmaker would be due towards the end (November 29). I chose Akira Kurosawa after my initial choice, Hayao Miyazaki, proved to be lacking in scholarly literature. Until than I'd never seen any of Kurosawa's films so it was a learning experience for me as well. I'm really glad this happened since Akira Kurosawa is probably one of the most influential filmmakers of the past 60 years. I'm not writing this to put myself over but for context. For the sake of read ability I've cut this into three parts looking at one of the three films used in my paper, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran. Also consider yourself warned for spoilers. My focus was on the much talked about editing of Akira Kurosawa. In particular the idea of narration through editing.
Of all the technical things Akira Kurosawa did with his films, from a near obsessive need for the mise-en-scene of his films to be perfect to the his storytelling. It has been noted across multiple texts that editing was one of the best things Kurosawa did. Editing is the synthesis point for all the extraneous parts of filmmaking, all the loose strands that individually don’t make a movie. In the editing room Kurosawa is able to turn the strands into a rope. It is for this reason that the editing of Kurosawa is where the narration and is found. It is all focused into a single cut of film.
Akira Kurosawa was born March 23, 1910, coming of age in time to fully experience World War II. His father was Isamu was a descendant of a Samurai and worked as the director of Army's Physical Education Institute's lower secondary school. Isamu was open to western traditions taking a young Akira and his older brother Heigo to the theaters. Heigo would later become a benshi, a live narrator for the silent films. Akira had training as a painter and enjoyed the works of Shakespeare. In 1935 Akira answered an advertisement from Photo Chemical Laboratories, the future Toho studio, looking for assistant directors. The twenty something Akira was eventually accepted into the program and was on his way to becoming one of Japan’s great filmmakers.
With an original cut of 207 minutes Seven Samurai actually has some missing, but not truly vital pieces. In watching these three Akira Kurosawa films it has become apparent that he, along with his crew, are trying to be incredibly efficient in their story via execution. In the recruitment of samurai, all that matters is the introduction and eventual answer from the perspective samurai most of the time split into two scenes separated by a cut. When the farmers bring over Gorōbei and he sees through Kambei’s test Kurosawa uses a wipe, cutting to Gorōbei simply thinking over the proposition. Audiences do not need to hear Kambei’s business proposition again. The only thing that is important for the film and audience is Gorōbei answer, which is yes having found a charismatic enigma in Kambei. This two scene recruitment is also shown in the recruitment or lack thereof, of Kyūzō. After introducing the stoic samurai via a duel, where Kurosawa once again uses slow motion footage to heighten a death, Kurosawa cuts to Kambei and Katsushirō walking down the town road. As with the recruitment of Gorobei the film does not need to see the proposition. All that matters is what the answer is, which becomes apparent the minute the film cuts to the master and student alone on the road, becoming even more clear once Kambei mentions letting a fish get away from him. Kyūzō does not return until later that night when he returns to accept Kanbei's offer. His reasons for helping the farmers is ultimately a mystery to everyone but himself. His reasons though do not matter. All the matters is he has become one of the seven samurai. These two scenes are compressed even more when looking at the recruitment of Kambe’s old friend, Shichirōji. The audience is never shown their meeting, they just happen to return to the hut and catch up. Once these pleasantries are over Kambei makes his offer, warning his friend that this might be the one to finally kill them both. Shichirōji reply is so fast that a jump forward in time is unnecessary as he gladly accepts the offer.
Kurosawa shows much proficiency in his first chanbara, swordplay, film. Having stuck mainly to contemporary dramas. This was Kurosawa’s first chance to try his hand at directing and editing an action film. Early on in the film one of his chief tools to show this chanbara is slow motion footage. In two scenes, the introduction of Kambei and the duel that introduces Kyūzō slow motion footage juxtaposes the zen like qualities a samurai should aspire towards with the warrior classes ability to deal death. Showing the beauty and skillfulness of the samurai in what is typically an adrenaline filled moment.
You do not directly see the gracefulness that Kambei dispatches the bandit who has kidnapped a child. Like the recruitment of samurai Kurosawa has cut out the unnecessary parts. All the matters is the slow motion decline of that bandit, proof of Kambei’s abilities. Once the rice balls are thrown in Kurosawa cuts to the shocked onlookers as we only hear the struggle occur. Than the sound cuts out and the slow motion run of the bandit is brought in. Kurosawa rightfully doesn't stay on the slow motion footage for more than a few seconds, otherwise it would slow the film down literally and add more time overall. He plays off the tension created by a man trying to run for his life very fast but is shown in slow motion with the crowd who is normal but utterly still. On the fourth cut to the bandit he finally falls gracefully to his death with no sound of the impact. Sound finally returns with the trampling feet of the crowd as they rush over to see the dead villain. Kambei is never really shown doing much killing compared to the other samurai.
The beauty in samurai death dealing returns with the introduction of Kyūzō. Once again with a crowd of onlookers for Kurosawa to watch as they watch the duel. This time instead of random faces in the crowd he focuses his camera on master and student, Kambei and Katsushirō. After the first duel with bamboo the other samurai challenges Kyūzō to one with swords. They draw and the crowd backs off but soon returns. Everyone, including the duelist, stand still except for Katsushirō who doesn't already see that the angry samurai is about to die. The nervous Katsushirō adds instability to the frame with his twitches. HIs master already knows what will happen but only he and Kyūzō know that. The angry samurai charges and they both strike. Only a slight gurgle can be heard. Before the samurai can begin to fall Kurosawa cuts to the crowds reaction with everyone physically jumps in reaction but Katsushirō, who has become transfixed by Kyūzō. With the necessary reaction out of the way Kurosawa returns to the duel with the soundless slow motion fall of the defeated samurai. Kyūzō is the ultimate stoic samurai in the group, something that a young Katsushirō admires. He shows nothing but determination to master his swordsmanship.
This stylization of the action is thrown to the side once the final battle begins. Having lost three of their comrades it falls to Kambei, Katsushirō, Shichirōji, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō to kill the remaining bandits. The final battle, the largest set piece in the film does not have the luxury of slow motion to show the gracefulness of the samurai. It devolves into a montage of action and death with pounding rain covering everything and everyone in mud.
His greatness was that he never gave up trying to heighten the reality of each scene. He never made compromises. He never said that something or other ‘would do.’ Instead, he pulled-or pushed-everyone along until he created the feeling which matched that of his inner image. (Richie 97)
This push for heighten reality shows through with the quick deaths of Kyūzō and Kikuchiyo. Everyone is numbed and in shock after Kyūzō is cut down by a gunman off screen.
In this montage things are not pretty. It is pouring tons of rain and everyone is covered in mud. The cameras can hardly keep up with the action at times. A dominant image in this montage is the feet of all the combatants. Everything is in motion horses are bucking and turning, villagers are jabbing with spears, Kikuchiyo madly charges at the bandits swinging wildly. It is all a mess like a real battle would be. Yes the plan is largely working of surrounding the horses and defeating them through attrition but is nowhere near as pretty as the previous duels. Adding to the unstable nature of the battle is the sudden death of Kyūzō, who is shot by the bandit leader off screen. In his last act he definitely throws his sword at the bandit, showing his friends where to go next. Katsushirō is about to charge ahead but is thrown down by Kikuchiyo. Kikuchiyo is shot seconds later by the leader but manages to finally kill him ending the battle. A young Katsushirō becomes despondent when it is all over wanting more bandits to kill to avenge his fallen friends. Kambei and Shichirōji make it through another losing battle.
On the surface level Seven Samurai can be seen as a call for unity across the classes, something a young Kurosawa would have agreed with. By the end of it there is no unity. The farmers go back to doing what they always do, endure. Leaving the three remaining samurai left live on and continue wondering. In the end Kurosawa kills the samurai as a class, in a defining movie about the greatness of the samurai.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Third Edition, Expanded and Updated: With a New Epilogue By Donald Richie: Richie is one of the few western authors to write extensively about Kurosawa and has mainly written about Japanese cinema and culture. The third edition has some expanded content and new material written by Joan Mellen. The book itself is a bit unwieldy (Product Dimensions: 9.9 x 0.6 x 9.9 inches) since it is built more like a coffee table book than well a normal book. It's a complete run through of the Kurosawa filmography with various subsections looking at the production, treatment, story, characterization and a couple of other film specific ones. Amazon
Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema By Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto: Yoshimoto was a Associate Professor of Japanese, Cinema, and Comparative Literature ar the University of Iowa and a Professor of East Asian Studies at New York University. Like Richie he dose a complete run through of the Kurosawa filmography as well as a over view of his views on the state or lack there of film criticism concerning Japan, using the work of Kurosawa as a base. He applies a range of theory from auteurism and genre among other things. His journey through the films isn't as systematic as Richie, more essay like in nature. There is a certain amount of prior knowledge Yoshimoto expects from the reader but nothing a quick google search shouldn't solve. Amazon
Akira Kurosawa: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers) Bert Cardullo (Editor): As the title suggests the book is a series of interviews with Kurosawa. Editor Bert Cardullo includes a short biography of the filmmaker. The current going price on Amazon is really pricey but my local schools had a copy in the libray so hit up your local library. Amazon
There are also several short essays on the Criterion Collection page for Seven Samurai. In general I recommend getting the CC version of the film, in Blu Ray if you can it’s a beautiful transfer.