How Akira Kurosawa Used Movement to Tell His Stories: A Video Essay

The his­to­ry books say that there were three Japan­ese film­mak­ers to emerge in the 1950s – Ken­ji Mizoguchi, Yasu­jiro Ozu and Aki­ra Kuro­sawa. Nev­er mind that Mizoguchi and Ozu made many of their best movies in the 1930s. Nev­er mind that mas­ter­ful, inno­v­a­tive direc­tors like Mikio Naruse and Keisuke Kinoshi­ta have been unfair­ly over­shad­owed by the bril­liance of these three greats.

Mizoguchi was an ear­ly mod­ernist who by the end of his career made med­i­ta­tive movies about how women suf­fer at the hands of men. His mas­ter­pieces like Uget­su and San­sho Dayu feel like Bud­dhist scroll paint­ings come to life. Ozu, “the most Japan­ese” of all film­mak­ers, made qui­et­ly mov­ing dra­mas about fam­i­lies, like Tokyo Sto­ry, but did so in a way that dis­card­ed such Hol­ly­wood prin­ci­ples as con­ti­nu­ity edit­ing and the 180 degree rule. Ozu was a qui­et rad­i­cal.

Com­pared to Ozu and Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s movies are noisy, mas­cu­line and vital. Unlike Ozu, he didn’t chal­lenge Hol­ly­wood film form but improved on it. Born rough­ly a decade after the oth­er two film­mak­ers, Kuro­sawa spent his youth watch­ing West­ern movies, absorb­ing the lessons of his cin­e­mat­ic heroes like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. At his cre­ative height, in the 1950s and 60s, Kuro­sawa pro­duced mas­ter­piece after mas­ter­piece. Hol­ly­wood would remake or ref­er­ence Kuro­sawa con­stant­ly in the years that fol­lowed but few of those films had Kurosawa’s inven­tive­ness.

Tony Zhou, who has made a career of dis­sect­ing movies in his excel­lent video series Every Frame a Pic­ture, argues that the key to Kuro­sawa is move­ment. “A Kuro­sawa movie moves like no one else’s,” Zhou notes in his video. “Each one is a mas­ter class in dif­fer­ent types of motion and also ways to com­bine them.”

Kuro­sawa had an innate under­stand­ing that there is inher­ent dra­ma in the wind blow­ing in the trees. Like Andrei Tarkovsky and lat­er Ter­rence Mal­ick, he liked to place human dra­ma square­ly in the realm of nature. The rain falls, a fire rages and that move­ment makes an image com­pelling. He under­stood that graph­ic con­sid­er­a­tions out­weighed psy­cho­log­i­cal ones – he sim­pli­fied and exag­ger­at­ed a character’s move­ment with the frame to make char­ac­ter traits and emo­tions easy to reg­is­ter for the audi­ence. His cam­era move­ments were clear, moti­vat­ed and flu­id. Zhou com­pares Sev­en Samu­rai with The Avengers. You might have thought that The Avengers was unin­spired and soul­less but after watch­ing Zhou’s video, you’ll under­stand why – aside from the sil­ly plot and char­ac­ters – the movie was unin­spired and soul­less. The piece should be required view­ing for film­mak­ers every­where. You can watch it above.

And below you can see anoth­er video Zhou did on Kuro­sawa, focus­ing on his 1960 movie The Bad Sleep Well.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon Free Online, the Film That Intro­duced Japan­ese Cin­e­ma to the West

David Lynch Lists His Favorite Films & Direc­tors, Includ­ing Felli­ni, Wilder, Tati & Hitch­cock

Andrei Tarkovsky Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Films (1972)

Stan­ley Kubrick’s List of Top 10 Films (The First and Only List He Ever Cre­at­ed)

Lis­ten to François Truffaut’s Big, 12-Hour Inter­view with Alfred Hitch­cock (1962)

Aki­ra Kuro­sawa & Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la Star in Japan­ese Whisky Com­mer­cials (1980)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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