A Dreamer Walking

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Past

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on December 30, 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.

Suspense 101: Technique

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 5, 2012

Creating good suspense requires many elements. One person can not possibly do it alone. You must have a good team around you. Steven Spielberg has one of the most gifted crews in the history of film and he has had most of them for his entire career. Just think what Jaws would be without John Williams iconic two note music, what Jurassic Park would be without Richard Hymns haunting dinosaur sounds, or how movies like Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, or Munich would be without Michael Kahn’s masterful editing? Suspense is working at its best when all the technical parts of cinema come together to enhance the tension.

I do not think there are many better people to study then Alfred Hitchcock in order to understand how to master the technical aspects of creating good tension and suspense in film. Hitchcock seemed to know exactly where to place the camera, when to bring in music, and how to stage his acting in order to create the greatest amount of tension on screen. Hitchcock would not blast his audience with quick editing, a bunch of music, and extreme close ups in order to get his point across. Rather, he was very calculated with what he used and what he kept out. Sometimes it was silence that created the most tension on screen. Sometimes to create strong suspense he even used the opposite of what one would expect.  Just look at his movie Rear Window and how Hitchcock has classical music playing while we see Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa sneak into potential killer Lars Thorwald’s apartment while he is just coming home.

To create great suspense you need to understand the elements of what makes great film. You need to gather a team around you who are masters at their craft. Don’t look for the composer who wants to be the next Mozart, look for the composer who knows how to handle the most complex score, where to place the most simplistic of themes, or when to use no music at all. Don’t look for the cinematographer who wants to put up a light show with dazzling colors and extreme compositions, rather look for someone who understands the importance of a single light and the kind of information the audience can get from the simplest of compositions.  With Spielberg the simplest objects were used to great dramatic effect. In E.T. Spielberg didn’t have a very functional puppet to represent the title character E. T. so what he chose to do was reveal very little of E.T. for most of the film. This created a sense of wonder and allowed the audience’s imagination to create a much more lively character then even the best of CGI could have done.  Spielberg was able to speak volumes by just shooting E.T.’s hands. In Jurassic Park one of the most suspenseful moments comes from a shot of ripples in a cup of water. We know what is coming when we see this and the reveal of the tyrannosaurus rex is that much more satisfying.

Good cinema has less to do with the ability to shoot with the latest camera or utilize the latest editing system. It has much more to do with being able to use what you are given to your advantage. Suspense is all about information–the information we reveal and the information we keep hidden.  We shouldn’t show everything, which is hard to enforce in the digital age we live in. Executives feel like we should show the audience everything. They can’t wait to introduce the villain. The plot needs to start right away. Action needs to be packed into every scene. This all adds up to a lesser dramatic effect. The technique of suspense is discovered through restraint. Let the unseen become just as entertaining as the seen. Relish in the anticipation rather than rush to the outcome. The term less is more speaks volumes when it comes to filmmaking. The reason why so many go back to the past to study suspense is because filmmakers like Hitchcock and Ford were forced to create a lot out of a little in film after film. They were technically restrained in the ways they could tell their stories. And, partly because of this they have become icons in the world of film.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning