A Dreamer Walking

Ikiru – Film Analysis – Part 1

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Scene Analysis, Screenshot Series by Jacob on April 1, 2019

NOTE TO READER:

This is going to be more messy than usual. I want to be clear, these film analysis’s are made so I could understand these films better. If you end up benefiting from them I simply consider that a added bonus. These will be long and at times grammar will be a problem. I am not going to show a frame from every shot of the film and at times I will use multiple screenshots from the same shot in order talk about movement or lighting change. If you do end up checking these out please let me know if something is really confusing you. I am also totally up for hearing what people think of my analysis. These simply are my thoughts on what I am watching. Hope you enjoy!

Titles

Interesting start to the movie. Loud music playing, as if this may be an epic rather than a intimate tale of one man’s journey.

  • All of the titles seem to have a combo of soft and intense music. Hmmm…

Scene 1

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Unique first shot of the movie. This is not beautiful, it’s actually as far as you can get from it. We see this and are immediately told by the Narrator that our protagonist doesn’t know he has cancer. Kurosawa doesn’t care to be subtle about it, he wants to get to the point.

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Talk about a boring way to introduce a story. No big bang and no quick action. Simply a shot of a x-ray and then this static front on shot. The lens is long making our protagonist, Kanji Watanbe, feel extremely boxed in. Kurosawa is not interested in forcing entertainment on us, he is interested in communicating his story. This is a perfect projection of all the issues Watanbe is facing in this story. 

  • We see his low energy.
  • We see his work literally consuming him.
  • The image is even finished off by the title of “Public affairs Section Chief”. One of the most dull protagonist someone could think of.

Kurosawa does not wait too long to introduce some of the main narrative threads of our story. We see a woman talking about her kid being sick. We also hear her speak about the playground being something that would be great for the kids if they filled it in.

I love the demeanor of all the characters in the “Public Affairs” section. They all reek of being unmotivated. They reflect Mr. Watanbe, and maybe Kurosawa’s views on big government.

This is very interesting. First off at the beginning of this shot you can see the desk clerk is speaking to Mr. Watanbe without him even looking up to acknowledge his presence. Then we see the first camera movement in the movie. Kurosawa has cinematographer, Asakazu Nakai, do a slide into this medium shot.

  • The reason the camera movement in such a dull setting feels motivated is due to the narrator. The narrator is not burdened by the sad life of the government officials, thus when he speaks the camera is allowed to be more fluid.
  • The Narrator is also acknowledging the boring life Watanbe is living right now. “He’s not even alive”. Gosh Kurosawa, why don’t you just tell us everything!

First time Watanbe looks up is when Toyo Odagiri laughs. She is the only life in the whole building. Of course she reads a quote making fun of how worthless the department is. She shows a lot of energy and is clearly highlighted to be the most interesting aspect of the scene. Interesting that she is also the only woman in the group of a bunch of men. Why does she remind me so much of Shirley Temple?

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This is such a brilliant shot. The energy seen in the previous shots dies right down with this shot. You can tell Kurosawa most likely moved things from behind Watanbe, out of the way to achieve it. (One of my favorite directors, Peter Weir, would say you are cheating authenticity of the environment by moving things out of the way). Watanbe is the center piece. You can tell Kurosawa is going for some deep focus (like usual). Also, the lens looks to be pretty long. I am not very good at guessing these things but I am thinking between 50mm to 100mm.

  • Although we just switched access from the last shot (top right corner). Kurosawa does a good job keeping Toyo in the shot. She is distant from Watanbe right now, not yet really infecting him with her energy for life.

Narrator, “He’s been worn down completely by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness of breeds.” Kurosawa is not trying to be subtle here… :/

  • Narrator, “The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all.” Geesh… talk about a statement!
  • So in the first 6 min of the story we are told the Thesis of our story. We know our main protagonists conotical state and even given a strong hint of what is to come.
  • Honestly I don’t know what to think about the narrator right now. He is basically telling us what to feel about the situation we are seeing. I  think most of that is communicated without hearing the Narrator. That being said the Narrator has some personality and he does give a much needed energy to the scene.

Scene 2 – montage

This montage is going for comedy, the music blaring, with more and more chaotic tones. Kurosawa uses sweep transitions (a transition he is known for) with each character saying basically the same thing, “We can’t help you. Take it to _________.” I like how the characters all say the same thing in slightly different ways. Kurosawa uses different angles at times but they are usually shot flat.

  • The montage may go a little long but it does communicate the point Kurosawa is trying to make about his frustrations with government offices and their lack of productivity.

Kurosawa does a great job punctuating the montage with this smooth slide and pan he does revealing the disappointed woman trying to get help from the officials of each department.  Observe how the official character is boxed in like most of the others, the box in front of him taking up a third of the screen. His glasses loose on his face and body language pretty dower. The slide reveals the woman who are higher in frame than the man. They are given prominence in this shot, our connection with their frustrations already well established.

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The scene looks like it’s going to end in defeat and then we transition into this blocking. The woman come roaring back, criticizing the official for the whole institution’s poor services. Kurosawa is doing a lot in terms of setting up the need to “get that stinking cesspool” of a location cleaned up. But it will pay off in spades later on in the story.

  • Fantastic framing here. Yes the man is now higher than the woman, but he is almost completely boxed out of the frame and his body language clearly submissive. He actually does a great job keeping us focused on the woman; his gaze directs our eye right to the woman speaking.
  • Also, the woman coming back and the clerk standing up is when the fun quirky music is abruptly stopped. Another great way to emphasis this moment.

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This is the same shot, it simply transitions into a pan following the official as he goes to his superiors. This shot takes up about a minute of time and communicates so much!

  • I LOVE the the expression of the man on the far right. He has the perfect sad face to communicate the surprise from the berating the woman and the depressing nature of the work they are participating in.

A good note is Kurosawa is not trying to make any of these frames “pretty”. He simply is interested in communicating the story through how he frames and lights his shots. Paperwork takes up so much of most of the frames, taking even more prominence at times than the actors. Actors are important, but they sure aren’t everything.

Scene 3

This is a very short scene where the colleagues talk about Mr. Watanbe’s absence for the first time in 30 years. Of course Kurosawa and Nakai frame everyone with paperwork consuming them. The paperwork actually is used as great framing devices all the way through the scenes in Government buildings.

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I really liked the last cut in the scene, we go from Toyo making a joking comment about Watanbe dying to a anomalous shot of the empty desk with two clerks in the distance highlighting the empty space through their gaze. This simply takes a “joke” and transcends it into something much more potent.

Scene 4

We get a very short montage of Mr Watanbe walking away from the x-ray room. Diegetic sound and the smooth moments of actor and camera really make this feel serious.

This is a brilliant series of movements. Composition #1 focuses the eye on the man in the middle of the frame. We had just run into him before when Watanbe was washing his hands. The Man with the Cane actually is seen moving from frame right to left to set up this first composition. The man in the middle moves out of frame and we transition into composition #2. The Man with the Cane takes prominent focus, Watanbe intentionally pointing away from us so we can easily concentrate on what the man is saying. This is when the real dialogue begins. The man begins to talk about the symptoms of stomach cancer that he thinks the man in the first composition most likely has. Little does The Man with the Cane realize Watanbe is dealing with the same kind of symptoms. He then warns about the way the Doctor will dismiss the symptoms if a man actually has stomach cancer.

  • Now, I think it is fair to criticize Kurosawa for using such a clear exposition device. The Man with the Cane’s soul purpose is to give both the audience and Watanbe a hard dose of reality, telling is EXACTLY what Watanbe is in for. Is this realistic? Would someone just randomly get this blunt in front of a man waiting to be seen by his doctor? Likely not. However, Kurosawa makes it work. The drama is just too good.
  • Honestly Kurosawa doesn’t seem to mind giving exposition when it seems to fit. He gets away with it because he makes the characters who are giving exposition feel real and usually the exposition is simply adding to a much more cinematic truth. The core of this scene is not spoken, it’s simply seen on Watanbe’s face in Composition #3.

As we transition into composition #3, all Kurosawa’s cinematic techniques flow to the surface. Music starts to come in; hitting the perfect dreadful tone. We get this extremely strong staging, with Watanbe in a close up his emotions being clearly communicated to the audience. Also, look at the relaxed body language of The Man with the Cane, he shows a wonderful contrast to Watanbe, Which only seems to add to the horribleness of the diagnosis he is giving.

  • Of course we see Kurosawa’s common use of deep focus, the set probably very hot in order to make that work.
  • One of my issues when I first watched Kurosawa films is what I felt like was “overacting”. However the more you study old Japanese theater, especially the style of ‘Noh’, the more these broad performances make sense. A great benefit is the body language is so clear in almost every one of Kurosawa’s frames. In this scene everyone’s heads are fallen down and the shoulders all loose. This is not a fun place to be at. The audience immediately gets the essence of the scene before a word is spoken.
  • Another brilliant little detail in these shots is how Kurosawa transitions the shots from feeling like a ‘hospital” to a much more personal moment in the last shot, as if we’ve been transported into Watanbe’s psyche. For the last composition look how Watanbe blocks out the lady you see sitting on the couch in Composition #2. The Man with the Cane does a good job blocking out the people behind him.
  • Also a striking note is the wardrobe choice. In the first scene we see Watanbe with a white\gray coat. In this one it’s black, most likely to reflect the coming bad news.
  • Honestly, this 2 min and 20 second shot does wonders. I look forward how often Kursawa simply uses staging to change the Mise-en-scène of his compositions to communicate deeper and deeper truths.

Scene 5

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This is such a brilliant shot. Talk about everything in the frame working to communicate the storyteller’s objective. Our protagonist is feeling completely defeated right now, scared to death at what news he might be receiving. We also know his impact on society is minimal and he is super isolated from everyone else. Having no other people in the frame might communicate that, but this does also. Kurosawa uses the door to isolate Watanbe from the citizen on the right and uses the pillar to further separate him from the citizens on the left of frame. Having people in frame but distant communicates the point in a more potent way if you ask me.

  • The distance is also communicated through the use of a wider lens. Kurosawa usually uses lenses that make the foreground and background feel closer to each other but in this one we can clearly see that Watanbe is much farther away then the others.
  • Wonderful use of lighting here. Look at the gray scale. Kurosawa is able to concentrate the eyes directly onto Watanbe with his lighting; leaving the man on the right in shadow and darkening all of the left side of the frame in order to pull the eye right to Watanbe in the back. Another thing that could of done this is the use of shallow focus, so Watanbe is sharp and the others much less. However Kurosawa seems to think seeing detail through out the frame is more useful.
  • Another great aspect of this shot are the lines. Everything frames our main character. Everything seems to be adding to his dower mood. I mean, look at the painting right above Watanbe! Why in reality would that painting be so crooked? But for the purposes of this framing it works brilliantly. It looms over him, as if looking down in sadness, reflecting his posture. Of course the doors are the most helpful focus device, literally opening right up to Watanbe.
  • At this point the music is at it’s most dreadful tone. I also like how the voice from the speaker echoes through the halls waking up the frame a little. The beat where he doesn’t hear his name get called at first also works.

Scene 6

First thing you notice, the music has stopped. There simply is eerie diegetic sound; Some kind of CLANKING being the most prominent (very artificial and cold).

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I find this shot to be an interesting intro. Kurosawa is intentionally putting a object in front of the entrance to the room. Right away it’s being communicated that this is an ugly place and Watanbe is literally being sliced up into several pieces. Yikes!

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This is a composition from the same shot. I have seen Kurosawa use the technique of a slide and then pan a few times now. He has maybe six feet of track laid out and then he uses the middle nurses movement to justify the pan, now completely moving away from Watanbe.

  • At 17 seconds I think this is the longest shot of the scene. Kurosawa will start to use rapid cutting to heighten the tension.
  • Very distinct difference between screenshot #1 and screenshot #2. The nurses white outfits really stick out here.
  • Watanbe is screen right, notice how no one is looking at him as he comes into the room.

We go from a medium close of the Doctor looking at x-rays to Composition #1 above. We can see the Doctor is caught off guard and then we see Composition #2 of Watanbe. We immediately go back to the Doctor. There is a fair bit of subtle acting but more than anything Kurosawa is using the Kuleshov effect based off of what we have already learned. In other words, Kurosawa knows less is more here and the core of the emotion in these three shots comes from the audiences projection.

Composition 1 of 7

Composition 2 of 7

Composition 3 of 7

Composition 4 of 7

Composition 5 of 7

Composition 6 of 7

Composition 7 of 7

This is a series of potent beats. The camera pans, following Watanbe into composition 1. Notice how he is yet again cut into several pieces by the shelves in front of the camera. We then hear the news, “it looks like you’ve got a mild ulcer”. These are the very words we heard the Man with the Cane say about the other guy who had cancer. The quick cut to the coat dropping tells us everything we need to know. It’s the shortest shot in the whole scene, but along with the music coming in the shot makes for an extremely strong emotional beat. From here on out there is a steady music beat, very much emphasizing the sad emotion of the scene. In this way Kurosawa is not trying to be subtle.
       After that we have Composition 3, a medium wide shot of both the Doctor and his assistant looking at the coat and then up at Watanbe. Deep focus is really strong here, Kurosawa is fine with us deciding whose emotions to concentrate on. Then we cut to Composition 4. Kurosawa uses the assistant and nurse as reflections of what we are feeling right now. The assistant is turned away from us, his little head movement toward the conversation, from 4 to 5, communicating volumes.
The last shot is extremely well composed. Kurosawa cuts the bodies off of both Watanbe and the Doctor. This is not supposed to feel comfortable, they are intentionally being squeezed into the frame. The nurse is positioned in the middle breaking up the frame. The Doctor lies to Watanbe but as his head is bowed the Doctors look to the nurse, in Composition 7, tells us the truth. There is nothing too flashy in any of these shots, just great beats.  

  • It’s interesting how the nurse and the assistant’s body language communicate very different things. The assistant is very empathetic, the nurse cold.
  • The last shot has stuff piled in front of the camera, blocking our view from our main character and the Doctor. This further crunches the shot, making it all the more uncomfortable.
  • I think these are longer lenses than the scene before. The last shot especially feels like it’s making the nurse and characters on the sides feel closer than they really are (I may be wrong).

I really like how the Doctor acts throughout the scene. He embodies a balance between the assistant and the nurse. He is blatantly lying to Watanbe, but you can tell he doesn’t feel good about the deception. This doesn’t excuse his actions but it adds to the sadness of the news.

Scene 7

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I will be honest, I am not a huge fan of this scene. I kinda feel like Kurosawa is trying to push the message a little too much. Is this really needed? It’s about a minute long and basically conforms that the Doctor was lying to Mr. Watanbe. His dialogue of, “What would you do if you had only six months left to live, like him?” is a bit on the nose… don’t you think?

  • Like usual Kurosawa knows what he is doing in his composition. So much is communicated simply through the body language. Kurosawa has the, angel and devil on your shoulder theme going – The assistant representing the angel and the nurse the devil. Again, deep focus so everyone could be ready clearly.
  • Kurosawa is also known for having few woman in his story and when he does most of them are very cold, like the nurse. Toyo is the exception, not the rule. The nurse might have the coldest line in the film. After being asked what she would do with a six months to live diagnosis she states, “The barbiturates are over there.”. YIKES!

Kurosawa punctuates the nurses comment by cutting to a medium close of just the assistant. He looks at the x-ray and then we leave on a close up of the x-ray. The sound of the x-ray machine being very eerie. Kurosawa really does know how to use sound.

End of Part 1: (17 min into movie)

The Frame – Restriction’s Power

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 20, 2017

blog exampleSo often I find what students of film think they need in order to make a good film are more resources. If only I could have the new GH5 camera to shoot slow motion. If only I had a drone to create scale. If only I had the after effects program to perfect my shot. Naively, we tend to believe more resources will allow us to make a better movie. Yet, in many ways I have found they do the exact opposite.

To understand where I am coming from you need to realize who my heroes of cinema are. Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa are all filmmakers I aspire to. They created films even at the time of conception were considered far less technically advanced than the other films of their time. Yet, today they stand heads and shoulders over their peers. Chaplin’s lack of sound, Bergman’s square aspect ratio, and Kurosawa’s black and white pictures are not signs of weakness in their storytelling, but rather strength.

We forget the essence of cinema is found in restraint. Throughout it’s history we have needed to deal with the unrelenting constraints of the frame. And yet, it is in this very restraint we find an endless number of possibilities. The frame is what creates the possibility for the vast majority of language we have developed for cinema today. Without the frame there would be no shot. The shot represents the filmmakers canvas.  We need those four edges to go from a wide to a close-up. The difference between a character who resides on the edges of the frame compared to the middle is extremely significant. The frame allows us to focus the eye through blocking all but the most important aspects of the story, out.

Now there is a movement coming. VR (virtual reality) breaks from the “restraints” of the frame and allows the audience to look anywhere they please. This is not a post trying to bash on this new technology. Even Chaplin, Bergman, and Kurosawa started to explore the power of sound, widening the frame, and color. Infact, some of their greatest masterpieces came from these newer cinematic resources. Yet, understanding the value of their perceived limitations is what helped launch their storytelling into another stratosphere. These were artists who if they were not provided with a paint brush, they would bask in the joy of being able to use their hands.

Less resources force us to value the tools one has. I can say this is extremely true for my current career. I have never owned a camera, lead a large crew, or owned any complex editing/effects software. However, I do not consider myself or the people who work with me any less capable of creating great art.

The resources we have at our disposal will all be inadequate soon. Luckily nobody cares about the chisel Michelangelo used when carving David or the pen Shakespeare wrote with for Romeo and Juliet.  When we have unlimited resources we are allowed to avoid looking into ourselves; we can hide our shallowness behind bells and whistles. However, the greatest measurement of an artist’s worth will always be time and it is the soul of one’s art time will reveal.

 

Akira Kurosawa – Director – Kagemusha

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 1, 2014

Kurosawa #1

This might be the most beautiful shot I have ever seen of Akira Kurosawa’s. And believe me there have been plenty of beautiful shots in this old legend’s career. Kagemusha (1980), which means “shadow warrior”, is chock full of great shots. The movie is Kurosawa’s third venture into filming with color and I believe his best. It is pretty amazing this is only his third film made in color since it was made in 1980 and Kurosawa had been making movies since the 1940’s. Those who don’t know Akira Kurosawa is a director from Japan and considered one of the greatest filmmakers to grace this earth. His movie Seven Samuri (1954) is hailed by many to be the greatest movie ever made.

With the movie Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa was able to put the cinema of Japan on the map after the movie won Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. The movie was one of the first time a filmmaker ever shot with the lens looking directly at the sun. Before this many thought film would burn up if you shot directly at the sun. However, after Rashoman the sun became a big theme in Akira Kurosawa’s work.

Getting Kagemusha made was extremely difficult. Kurosawa painted hundreds and hundreds of storyboards. He knew almost every shot of the movie before he even started shooting. He was just waiting to get backing for the project. Sadly at this time in his career the film industry in Japan was at a all time low and many considered Kurosawa to be passed his prime as a filmmaker. Thankfully however two successful young filmmakers from America, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, stepped in and helped finance the picture. This might have suggested to Akira Kurosawa there was some hope for the next generation. Though his industry might have given up on him, there was dedicated group of young filmmakers from the 60’s and 70’s who considered Kurosawa a legend in the realm of filmmaking.

In some ways I feel this shot is melancholy in nature. The troops in shadow look tired and defeated. Where during 1950’s Rushomon Kurosawa shot directly up into the sun that was in the middle of the sky, the sun now is setting representing and end of a way of life. Yet, the picture’s beauty is overpowering and the image of troops marching onto battle is quite inspiring. The deep oranges you see in the picture don’t feel like they represent doom as much as it represents a sort of beautiful momory Kurosawa wants us to keep a hold of.

Akira Kurosawa was a huge admirer of John Ford and Ford was known as the king of the master-shot. Ford told a very young Steven Spielberg that if he could learn why a shot is better when the horizon line is on the top of the screen or at the bottom of the screen instead of in the middle, you might just become a good filmmaker. As you can see Kurosawa places the horizon line at the top of the screen. There is no vast open space in this master shot. The world once full of possibilities is now coming to a close. This is an end of an age. In the movie it represents the ending of the Samurai. However, for Kurosawa I believe it means the moving on of an age in filmmaking. His light is about to go out, there are only a few more movies left in him.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Past

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on December 31, 2013

Akira 1One of the filmmakers I have been most reluctant to study is Akira Kurosawa. Not because he isn’t worth looking into, rather because he is considered such a legend in the great history of filmmaking. He is also the first foreign language director I have studied. The culture of Japan is much different then that of the United States. As a dyslexic who can’t read very fast it has been hard for me to watch some of his films. I hate reading subtitles because I need to pause at times and am hardly able to look up and cherish the visuals unless I do repeat viewings. However, with all these problems studying him has been completely worthwhile. Every movie I have seen is interesting. Three of his films, Ran, Red Beard and Ikiru, are among the greatest films I have ever watched.

Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He is hailed as a master of the craft of cinema. Many filmmakers have said he is a film school in himself. They say if you want to know about film study Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa would tell you to study the world. He studied the great artists– the filmmakers, poets, and musicians– and allowed them to inform his stories and the way he told them. He also used his personal life to push his storytelling.

As with many of the filmmakers I have studied, school was not Kurosawa’s strong suite. In his biography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa described himself as too honest and rebellious in school. He said when he did something bad and the teacher asked who did it he would always raise his hand. He talked about giving snarky answers on his exams, forging papers so he could get out of activities, and messing around with dynamite in school. He never got the best grades. He never really cared enough to apply himself in school. When it came to art Akira said the teachers gave the best grade to the student who could copy something the best. He found this incredibly dull. The more I read about his childhood the more I can resonate with it. Kurosawa wasn’t the greatest athlete. He was even sent away after his third year of middle school to his older cousin’s to, as his father put it, “be cured of his physical weakness”.

Cinema was chosen by Kurosawa out of an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. His movies for the longest time concentrated on the outsider, people breaking away from the system. In Japan movies were considered extremely questionable when Kurosawa was a child in the 1910’s and 20’s. Yet, his military father took him to see many films. This was one of the few things his farther broke from tradition to do. I believe there was a tremendous strain between Akira and his father. The strain was great because Akira so badly wanted to be like him and earn his respect. Kurosawa had three sisters. He said he could relate with them way more than his older brother. He played games with them and was much more emotionally vulnerable with them then his brother and father.  Akira lost one of his sisters to illness when he was in fourth grade. His autobiography reveals he had great feelings for this sister and it was a deeply painful loss.

In middle school Kurosawa began to grow up quickly. He observed the great earthquake of 1923. Though nobody close to him was killed his brother took him out to the city and both of them observed the mass damages. He said they went one place where as far as you could see there was, “every type of corpse imaginable”. Akira’s brother ended up committing suicide when Akira was in his early twenties. These things along with the great destruction of the atomic bombs in the 1940’s gives great insight to why Kurosawa’s stories so often revolve around destruction and war. Kurosawa needed to grow up quickly and he began to apply himself physically and built up an appreciation for athletics, military, and discipline.

Through the midst of all the destruction and war Kurosawa has been able to retain a powerful grip on his films emotions and the inner journey of his characters. The plots of his films are only used to dig deeper into his characters emotional conflict. This is what separates his work. Though Akira Kurosawa was forced go grow up at a very early age, he never lost touch with his emotions. This might be due to the fact he developed a relationship with his sisters. It might be due to wanting to reach out to his father. Akira said in his autobiography he believed his father was an sentimentalist at heart. One of the places where his father seemed to be willing to open himself up was in the movie theater. I can see Akira trying to reach that sentimental side of his father with his movies. I can easily say he did it with me.

The Films of Kurosawa touch on powerful inner conflicts. I am constantly stricken by how universal the themes in these conflicts are. Yet they originated from personal memories. It was Kurosawa who said, “Creation is memory”. He believed as artists we must hold on to the present and the past in order to inform our future. As with the great John Ford, in Kurosawa’s later films you see a tremendous desire to hold on to what once was. The great filmmakers have this desire because the past is where their great memories rest and where their greatest creations originate.