Archive for Akira Kurosawa

Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns


Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.


Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”


A Lesson from Kurosawa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 10, 2016 by dcairns


The Great A.K. filmed a fight scene in a wind storm for SANSHIRO SUGATA. Normally the wind would have been produced by wind machines, traditionally aircraft propellers, but this was wartime, and the propellers were all in use, keeping planes in the air to kill us, so he had to wait for real storms. He wrote later that the trouble with filming in inclement weather is that your mind tricks you into believing you’ve got all the coverage you need before you really do. He really struggled to cut the sequence together.

The way I described it today, after filming in rain, snow and icy winds, with no shelter and no toilet facilities and clothing that proved less waterproof than I’d hoped (including the footwear), is that your brain tells you to prioritize getting somewhere warm ahead of all other considerations. The trouble is you then have the rest of your life to look at your film and ask, “Why didn’t I spend five more minute on that?”

Kurosawa says that when you are tired and uncomfortable, the solution is just to carry on and film twice as much material as reason tells you is needed. He applied this lesson to the battle in the rain on SEVEN SAMURAI and his toes turned permanently black from frostbite. Kurosawa was a tough S.O.B. Unfortunately, I am a wimp.


What came to my rescue is another feature of the Scottish climate in January – dawn isn’t until 8.45 a.m. and it gets dark at 4 p.m. So a long day isn’t an option. We filmed as fast as possible, having to make up a new plan since the original wasn’t workable under such conditions, and stopped when we absolutely had to. If we’d had more daylight I wouldn’t be typing now.

My cast and crew are heroic. More than one person remarked that I seemed completely unbothered by the discomfort — that I seemed comfortable, in fact. I am still in agony now, but it’s much easier for the director than for anyone else, because a director is always distracted from the physical conditions. The camera crew are the next busiest, but they have to touch cold metal with bare hands. Anyone who has off-time but no shelter is going to suffer, and this team of stoic, good-humoured young folks, a mixture of pros and students, bore up amazingly well.

Without a Sound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2016 by dcairns


Looking at LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE and SAMURAI WOLF, and am blow away by the use of sound in these 60s and 70s Japanese samurai flicks. What’s impressive is not so much the steely clashes as the silence around them.

SWORD OF VENGEANCE director Kanji Misumi uses one particularly lucid technique to heighten his swordplay. Much of the film consists of flashbacks depicting how jowly protagonist Tomisaburo Wakayama became a masterless ronin. These flashbacks tend to feature water — rain, a rushing weir. But the water makes no sound. An eeriness is created, from which the shrill clang of blades emerges with alarming clarity. There’s basically no atmos whatsoever, so that the sound mixer’s golden rule — always be having something going on — is abandoned. The audience is always quieter when the film is quiet. We fear our movements will give us away, revealing our position to potential enemies elsewhere in the auditorium, or to the giant, godlike figures on the screen. Heaven help you if you attract their attention.


Of course, Misumi’s choice also helps distinguish flashbacks from present tense.

Hideo Gosha’s slick SAMURAI WOLF uses silence as the sound of death. Normal sound is cut off with the swipe of a sword — we lose the whistling wind sound, the cries of the dying victim continue for a second, and then get flicked off as with the throw of a switch — this seems to follow the advent of slomo, as a kind of delayed after-effect. As with Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Peckinpah after him (THE WILD BUNCH) slomo is the speed of the dying man, that adrenalin shot of death-trauma putting your last moments into a slurred timescape, a last chance to put your thoughts in order before oblivion reels you in. And with no sounds to distract you — how thoughtful of someone.


The last great repository of silence may be the anime, where, since every sound is added afterwards anyway, Japanese filmmakers still occasionally withhold an effect. Miyazaki does neat things with the SIZE of sounds too — in TOTORRO, the titular nature spirit is big and noisy, but in an extreme long shot he can alight with a comical PLOP, like a fat raindrop. In Otomo’s AKIRA, Tokyo blows up in the opening shot, a black bubble of destruction which spreads and bursts without a single sound, the audio vacuum somehow suggesting a roar too great for any cinema’s speakers.