In the realm of the sensei

This is the kind of thing I might try to teach in a class if only there were time.

Akira Kurosawa had an unconventional attitude to exposition: he liked it. He would cheerfully stage long scenes where the characters draw a map in the sand and make their battle plans, as in THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Kurosawa felt the audience liked to know what was going on and what was going to happen next (though drawing a plan also creates suspense: WILL things go to plan?) and would enjoy watching the characters explain it. As long as one character has motivation to exposit to another, the scene can set up plot points without trampling character credibility.SANJURO opens with a very long sequence of exposition to get its plot going. First, a group of very Earnest Young Men explain to one another what they think is going on. This gets a little dull, beautiful though the staging is, but boredom is not altogether Kurosawa’s enemy. He has HIGH AND LOW open with ten minutes of discussion about the shoe business just so we can be more surprised and excited when the movie abruptly turns into a gripping kidnap drama. Here, the tedium generated by the Very Earnest Young Men is upturned by the arrival of Toshiro Mifune, who is inherently not boring. Better yet, he’s playing the title character, previously seen in YOJIMBO, who is very far from earnest. Though he takes certain things seriously, and can get quite cross about some of them, he has an overall ironic attitude to life.The throng of VEYM have barely been characterised. They have a leader, but other than that they’re all dopey youths in kimonos and tonsures. If we were meant to be able to tell them apart, we’d be somewhat sunk. But they are basically just one character. The reason for having so many of them is contrast: their multiplicity contrasts with Mifune/Sanjuro’s singularity, just as their seriousness contrasts with his irony. So this exposition — which continues, albeit in a new direction, now that he’s joined us — is also an opportunity to show how unique he is.

And so from here on, when the VEYM stand up, he sits down. When they kneel, he stands. When they tense up, he relaxes. When they bow, he picks his toes. Very good work. Kurosawa is the true teacher.



6 Responses to “In the realm of the sensei”

  1. 1) Tony Zhou did a great video on Kurosawa’s staging, touching on the exaggerated character gestures and character tics that you mention here to maintain visual interest.

    2) Any other great practitioners of doling out exposition in an interesting way? I know Hitchcock said he repeated a piece of information twice in The Man Who Knew Too Much so that audience confusion could be avoided (and confusion is the enemy of suspense)

    3) Watched Throne of Blood recently, and it deserves some kind of award for the best staged film of all time. Especially love the meeting with the spirit and the dress rehearsal for the severed head scenes in Ran.

  2. This is an excellent opportunity for me to put in a plug for Kurosawa’s last film “Madadayo” — the best movie ever made about a cat.

  3. I started watching Madadayo — got interrupted. Not enough cat in early scenes. Must return and watch it properly — ideal for Late Movies Blogathon.

    Hitchcock is a great visual storyteller, and the opening of Rear Projection makes a great joke out of how much dry info he can impart while drifting around the apartment.

    Sidney Pollack’s rule of exposition — “Let the boring crap BE boring crap” — is not a bad one.

  4. Matthew Clark Says:

    “They have a leader, but other than that they’re all dopey youths in kimonos and tonsures. If we were meant to be able to tell them apart, we’d be somewhat sunk. ” For western audiences this is mostly true, but I do seem to recognize the actor in the center back as having played the eye patch wearing scientist from the first Godzilla film, Akihiko Hirata as Dr Serizawa. And, to the right, is the farmer in Seven Samurai whose wife had been taken by the bandits, Yoshio Tsuchiya. Who would later play the head alien in Invasion of the Astro Monster. Toho studios had a stable of actors who were cast in all sorts of films, and these young men would be familiar to Japanese audiences. I’m guessing, that for domestic viewers this movie would kind of be like Young Guns meets The Man with No Name. Of course in an asian film, young people are rash and need to learn from their elders, and in American films, young people are rash but always turn out to be right and don’t need to listen to their elders.
    Getting back to the composition, right from the start, the young men always line up in the same order. I recall that a couple of the young men are killed along the course of the movie, and by the end of the movie the young men still line up in the same order, but they leave a space for their fallen friends as if they were still there.

  5. What’s doubly interesting about “Madadayo” is the relationship between the Japanese and their American occupiers. The Americans are trying to rid the Japanese of societal values that made them a threat to world peace. They don’t interfere with the men’s annual dinner for their old professor because to them it seems uttery benign. Yet at heart it’s very Japanese.

  6. Thanks, Matthew! You know your Japanese actors better than me. I see the same faces again and again in Kurosawa movies of the period but I can name very few of them.

    Having the actors always in the same order is another way to make them identifiable without really differentiating them…

    I’ll be curious about Kurosawa’s portrayal of the post-war period. That seems to be when he turned against his original left-wing ideas and became very alienated by what he saw as political censorship, not so much from the Americans as the Japanese.

    Though his later positive experience making Dersu Usala turned him into a big apologist for the Soviets. Not the most politically coherent guy, for all his genius.

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