Every Frame a Painting is back, and in this installment Tony Zhou examines Akira Kurosawa’s unique ability to craft dynamic, engaging movement on screen. As with any master there are a billion tiny elements that blend together for the final effect, but Zhou does an excellent job coaxing out key components like exaggerated blocking, helpful rain/dust storms and scenes that all have a distinguishable beginning, middle and end.
Also helpful? Thousands of people shooting flaming arrows at your protagonist.
As Zhou points out, it isn’t that all of The Emperor’s scenes featured movement, but the ones that do carry a grand dramatic weight to them and build a complex, enjoyable structural flow (sustained directly due to Kurosawa’s insistence on editing his own films). For scenes where people are mostly still, there are often external elements of motion – however small – that keep the eye entertained. Wind on the grass, background extras crossing the street, dust swirling up and away.
I hadn’t thought of it until watching this video, but what I find particularly fascinating is that my sole experience with Kurosawa’s films has been as a subtitle reader. We tend to think of subtitles as somehow limiting the cinematic experience because dialog naturally keeps eyes glued to the lower tenth of the screen, but even as I’ve had to read what’s being said, Kurosawa’s images always came through and made an impression. Granted, that’s partially because he often includes sequences that feature zero talking, but even when characters get chatty, it’s somehow still easy to revel in the visual artistry being shared on screen. I have to wonder if native Japanese speakers have an even richer, uncluttered appreciation of Kurosawa’s visuals.
Obviously the standout moment in “Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement” features The Avengers sitting static at a table as an example of how not to maximize the use of movement in a film. Its presentation here actually makes me think the scene would have been more powerful if the camera hadn’t moved at all. Instead of arbitrary, cosmetic motion-for-motion’s-sake, the stillness of the scene (including the background) could have been amplified by staying put.
See it as a knock against Joss Whedon if you must (as if comparing any filmmaker to Kurosawa is a fair fight…), but it’s even better as an illustration of how a modern blockbuster with a chaff spray of interesting things to look at can still be less visually interesting than a man stabbing a sword into the dirt as shot by Kurosawa and DP Asakazu Nakai.
From a fan standpoint, this video is candy to enjoy over and over again. From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of lessons to take home here. If you like it, check out Zhou’s other videos and maybe even take a look at our list of filmmaking tips from Kurosawa.