Exploring the expert cinematic movement in the films of Akira Kurosawa
“Man is a genius when he is dreaming.” – Akira Kurosawa
“When you’re judging a shot, what’s the first thing you look for?”, asks Tony Zhou of Every Frame A Painting. In an eight-and-a-half minute-long video essay, Zhou conducts a masterful analysis of a crucial cinematic element: movement, specifically referring to the works of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – Akira Kurosawa. “A Kurosawa film moves like no one else’s,” Tony claims. “Each one is a master class in different types of motion, and also ways to combine them.”
The video breaks down the on-screen movement into three distinct categories. First, it studies the movement of nature. Anyone who has seen a Kurosawa film already knows that the forces of nature play an important part in adding a kind of dynamism to many scenes. Set against the backdrop of rain, snow, fire and wind, Kurosawa’s cinematic universe becomes volatile even when the characters themselves are not moving.
Next, Zhou moves on to the movement of characters: either individuals or groups. Kurosawa beautifully choreographs movement in groups to structure reactionary emotions into an orderly “ripple-effect”. This makes the audience understand how they are feeling and also draws their attention toward specific directions. In the case of individuals, Kurosawa employs “exaggerated blocking” in order to amplify their thoughts, feelings and actions.
It also examines how Kurosawa moves the camera, pointing out that there is a clear beginning, middle and end of a Kurosawa shot. A classic example of this is going from close-up to wide to over-the-shoulder shots in a single, fluid motion. Kurosawa’s editing is also vital in creating a sense of movement, often cutting on movement to make the transition from one scene to the next appear seamless.
We only realise how important movement is when Tony compares Kurosawa’s camerawork to a scene from the popular 2012 Marvel movie, The Avengers. After watching so many beautiful shots from Kurosawa’s films, the relatively lifeless camera in Joss Whedon’s movie suddenly seems to be detracting a lot from the shot. Zhou rightly states, “If you combine the right motion, and the right emotion, you get something cinematic.”