How Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai Perfected the Cinematic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

Jonathan Lethem knows a thing or two about sto­ry­telling as well as about caped com­ic-book char­ac­ters, and on a recent pod­cast appear­ance he accused films about the lat­ter of an inabil­i­ty to do the for­mer: “I think one of the least sat­is­fy­ing film gen­res I’ve ever encoun­tered is the con­tem­po­rary super­hero movie, which just seems to me kind of dead on arrival. I can’t even get into the hair-split­ting about, ‘Oh, but there are three or four good ones.’ I just don’t see any life there.” How can such big pro­duc­tions filled with so much action play out so life­less­ly on the screen? Per­haps the work of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, known in his day as the “Emper­or” of Japan­ese film, can show us the answer.

“Would­n’t scenes that dis­play the pin­na­cle of phys­i­cal­i­ty work bet­ter,” asks video essay­ist Lewis Bond over images of the Avengers bat­tling tow­er­ing mon­sters in the cen­ters of major cities, Spi­der-Man swing­ing huge arcs through some kind of smoke-and-spark fac­to­ry, and Bat­man beat­ing up Super­man, “if they also con­veyed an emo­tion­al inten­si­ty to match this? Action and emo­tion need not be sep­a­rat­ed by a chasm as they so often are, and this is where the great­ness of Sev­en Samu­rai lies.” He shows us in “Dra­ma Through Action,” a study of how Kuro­sawa’s best-known pic­ture deliv­ers its action with impact, which appeared ear­li­er this month on Chan­nel Criswell, pre­vi­ous­ly the source of video essays on such mas­ters of cin­e­ma as Yasu­jirō Ozu and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Bond points to sev­er­al dif­fer­ent fac­tors that make the action in Kuro­sawa’s 1954 epic adven­ture of the Sen­goku era, despite its tech­no­log­i­cal impov­er­ish­ment com­pared to the super­hero block­busters of the 21st cen­tu­ry, feel so much more mean­ing­ful. A focus less on the action itself and the pro­tag­o­nists per­form­ing it than on the con­se­quences of that action mean­ing that “death car­ries sig­nif­i­cance.” A “sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness” and clear por­tray­al of “the char­ac­ters’ short-term objec­tives” means that the audi­ence can fol­low, and thus feel, their suc­cess­es and fail­ures. A clear estab­lish­ment of geog­ra­phy enables view­ers to place the com­bat­ants, and them­selves, on the bat­tle­field. A spar­ing use of cut­ting and slow motion keeps emo­tion­al­ly charged moments charged.

These and oth­er tech­niques skill­ful­ly employed by Kuro­sawa and his col­lab­o­ra­tors ensure that, in Sev­en Samu­rai, “every moment of action com­mu­ni­cates a sense of urgency” — exact­ly the qual­i­ty lacked, in oth­er words, by the expen­sive and furi­ous yet strange­ly dull super­hero spec­ta­cles of today. “To me, Sev­en Samu­rai is still the most for­ward-think­ing piece of cin­e­ma ever cre­at­ed,” says Bond. “What it did for the way action is pho­tographed can still be seen today. And when it isn’t seen, it prob­a­bly should be.” Take heed, young direc­tors slat­ed to take on the next wave of super­hero-fran­chise cin­e­mat­ic reboots: to make your entries stand out, you have only to learn from the Emper­or.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How Star Wars Bor­rowed From Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Great Samu­rai Films

The Geo­met­ric Beau­ty of Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wes Anderson’s Films

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

What Makes Yasu­jirō Ozu a Great Film­mak­er? New Video Essay Explains His Long-Admired Cin­e­mat­ic Style

Watch a Video Essay on the Poet­ic Har­mo­ny of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film­mak­ing, Then View His Major Films Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Pierre says:

    I like your use of com­par­i­son to illus­trate and sup­port your points. I had­n’t noticed what was going on in mod­ern action genre. What it does is remove the con­se­quence and make vio­lence com­mon­place. Immu­niz­ing or numb­ing us to it?


  • Bob says:

    Or maybe, just maybe, peo­ple take movies too damn seri­ous, can’t just appre­ci­ate them for the light enter­tain­ment that they are. You’re talk­ing super­hero movies which are based off com­ic books which are for chil­dren, even if adults choose to par­take. How are you seri­ous are you going to take them? Nobody said they were Shake­speare.

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