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The Influence and Imagery of Akira Kurosawa

Part I: Understanding Kurosawa and Lucas 

A constant thread found throughout The Secret History of Star Wars is the undeniable influence of one of the greatest directors to ever work in the art of motion pictures--Akira Kurosawa. Lucas drew upon Kurosawa's style, characters, visuals and content when writing all of his Star Wars pictures, stewing them into a melting pot of sources that gives the films their power. The specific characters and plot elements that Lucas harvested for use in his Star Wars saga are mentioned throughout the book, but now I wish to delve into this issue in further detail, and especially address the visual components. In order to understand Lucas, and understand him as a visual storyteller, it is vital to first understand Kurosawa.

Kurosawa had a fascinating childhood, recalled vividly in his autobiography--which itself should be examined and dissected as another narrative story in Kurosawa's repertoire--and, like Lucas, had a strict upbringing that was later shed for liberalism and the arts. Kurosawa himself was from a samurai family, and his father was a strict disciplinarian with strong military ties--tradition was honored in the Kurosawa family, and one could say that Kurosawa very early developed an intimate reverence for the noble warrior class of Japan's past. He was made to study calligraphy and martial arts at an early age, and recalls many days trekking the miles and miles to practice Kendo at 5:30 AM, stopping to pray in a Hachiman shrine along the way as is tradition, before exhaustingly going to school afterwards at 8. As he grew older, he emerged as a talented painter, and hoped to pursue a career in this field. He also became increasingly involved with Japan's tumultuous political scene. He championed humanism and equality, and joined the socialist movement, actively taking part in demonstrations and secret underground rebel groups before police raids dissuaded him. This is essential insight into the cinema of Kurosawa--his was a social cinema, one politically motivated, much like Lucas' (although that is another discussion). His earliest films are mostly absent of the medieval setting and majestic pageantry of his famous samurai films--they were contemporary dramas concerning the social ills of post-war Japan. What is lost on many casual viewers, and especially Star Wars fans, who mostly look at his later samurai epics as "mythic" storytelling adventures, is that they were primarily something entirely different--they were extensions of his earlier, contemporary-set dramas. In searching for a way to comment on the state of modern Japan, Kurosawa retreated into the past, using it as a mirror. Ikiru feeds into Seven Samurai, High and Low is a modern-set reflection of Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo, for all its exaggerated action and melodrama, seen mostly as a chambara "swordplay" flick, really is a comic exaggeration of Kurosawa's own times.

Lucas himself set out to do this with his earliest cinema. His student films usually had a strong social or political message, not surprising given that he was strongly involved with the liberal college scene of the mid-60's, and his first feature, THX 1138, was a pessimistic--or, perhaps realistic--reflection of the anxiety that gripped Watergate-era America. It used the future to comment on the present. Lucas bounced backwards with his next film, this time using the past, utilizing a bygone era as a means of showing what the present generation had lost. Lucas' cinema had undergone a fundamental change here, however--the bleak cynicism that characterized THX was now replaced with warm optimism. His next film, however, would take the heroic character model that he had instigated in THX and developed in Graffiti and now transpose it into the world of pure fantasy. Star Wars , as he would call it, was meant to be a challenge to the gritty Watergate-era cinema of New Hollywood, a story meant to inspire and move, to thrill and excite.

Kurosawa too, had attempted this. Most of his films were of a rather serious nature, and with a dark undercurrent forebodingly coursing through them--but, once in a while, he would make a conscious choice to craft a commercial tale, designed to please audiences and make back some money so that he could continue his other, more "art house"-oriented cinema. He had previously in 1945 made an adventure tale based off medieval Japanese plays and legends, and, in 1958, when he was Japan's most powerful director, finally had the professional muscle to remake it with the scope and grandeur that he had initially wanted. The result was a frivolous, fairy-tale-like adventure film that remains as one of Kurosawa's most entertaining: The Hidden Fortress .

Thus, it is no surprise that the two paths of Lucas and Kurosawa inexorably crossed at this intersection. To make his own commercial fairy-tale, Lucas set about remaking Hidden Fortress, changing the landscape from post-medieval Japan to one that was based in science-fiction. This is what his 1973 synopsis was. Following this, he altered and expanded it quite considerably, resulting in the 1974 rough draft, and then made even more drastic changes for the 1975 second draft, which laid the basic groundwork for the final film, and which also contained influences from other Kurosawa sources (a frequently cited one being the cantina brawl, taken from Yojimbo ).

The scope and range of Kurosawa's influence on Lucas is wide and varied. Elements crop up in Lucas' films in regular pockets, the frequency and consistency of which suggest that many of them are less to do with willfull copying but more with subconscious absorption of the whole of Kurosawa's work. Kurosawa is cited by Lucas as being one of his primary cinematic influences, and part of Lucas' respect for Kurosawa, I think, stems from the fact that Kurosawa himself was forged out of the exact same influences that Lucas was. He was a traditionally-raised icon for his country, with a strong interest in painting and history, a passionate liberal who was interested in social and political change, and one who was heavily oriented in visuals, and especially silent cinema. In many ways, Kurosawa sums up all of Lucas' defining characteristics and influences into one neat package.

One may look at Kurosawa's themes and draw many parallels: the master-student relationship, frequently expressed in Kurosawa's early films through the powerful and brilliant pairing of Takeshi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, the dichotomy of illusion and reality, the division of classes and the rise of the peasant, government corruption, and the journey and awakening of a hero. Like Lucas, Kurosawa was also a student of history, and he went to meticulous lengths to research his "jidai geki" or period epics--Seven Samurai's greatest contribution to the genre of samurai-oriented films was its depiction of the class and environment in realistic and historically correct terms, often shattering myths and misconceptions held (ones which were undone and re-popularised by the post-Yojimbo onslaught of tired chambara flicks).

But I want to focus now on a particular aspect of Kurosawa and his connection to Lucas, and that is his style and use of visuals. Lucas is not a filmmaker whose strengths lay in writing or directing actors--his films work mainly because they speak to us at a direct, and perhaps more primal, level, which is visuals. Lucas is above all else a visual storyteller. His sense of camera, of movement, of editing are what define his cinema and what elevates it to greatness. And all of these elements can be traced back to Kurosawa. Lucas' is a cinema of action, and the same can be said of Kurosawa. It is in the visual aspect that we must understand Kurosawa above all else if we are to fully appreciate the films of George Lucas. As I mentioned before, some of these aspects are not due to direct copying per se, but more due to the fact that Kurosawa himself sources the same influences of Lucas. We shall examine these elements first.

It has been said that Kurosawa, despite being Japan's most revered and popular cinematic artist, is decidedly "unjapanese." Many of his influences were western, and his films definitely reflect this. Standing in stark contrast to "traditional" Japanese masters like Ozu and Mizoguchi, Kurosawa's cinema is a much more visually dynamic one, his frames filled with details and his lens frequently moving, his editing quick and lively. Kurosawa was, perhaps more than anything, a product of the silent age of cinema. Growing up in the 1910's and 1920's, these were the first films he was inundated with; every week, his mother would take him to the local cinema, and the young Kurosawa quickly absorbed the entire pivotal silent era. His father too frequently took him to the movies where he saw mainly American and European ones, such as those by Chaplin, and the imported American action serials. His older brother, Heigo, the prototype mentor figure in his films, worked in the silent cinema business in a sense, as a "benshi": in Japan, "benshi" were a sort of storyteller, actors who would narrate the silent cinema projection and embellish the life of the images through running commentary. It was Heigo's love of silent cinema that bequeathed unto Akira the same passion. "I think he comes from a generation of filmmakers that were still influenced by silent films, which is something that I've been very interested in from having come from film school," Lucas notes. Kurosawa was likely influenced by the subsequent development of German expressionism, and his films often attain the same cinematic beauty and visually-driven emotion that masters such as F.W. Murnau achieved in films such as Sunrise. Kurosawa's breakthrough work, 1950's Rashomon , is constructed as if a silent movie--the opening sequence runs for nearly ten minutes, bereft of any dialog, and the spoken word is only used to convey expository information; the film looks and feels as if it were the born from the fusion of Murnau and John Ford. Ford, perhaps greater in influence than silent cinema, is evident in most of Kurosawa's work as well. One of the reasons Kurosawa has been deemed to be westernized is its similarities to the cinema of John Ford and Hollywood's golden era. He idolized John Ford and studied the American western genre. His use of camera, with its long tracking shots, efficient construction, widescreen composition, and dynamic movement, recalls the style of directors such as Ford and Hitchcock. Although much of it is assuredly direct influence, Ford and Hitchcock also share the same prime influence as Kurosawa--silent cinema, for both of the above-mentioned western directors began their careers in that medium.

Kurosawa also, very much like Lucas, was interested in abstract visuals. It took him a long period of exploration to reach this point, with his earlier films displaying an emphasis on wide-angle photography with the camera placed close to actors, in order to bring out the emotion in the most subjective and direct ways. However, a curious crossroads passed in his content and storytelling--just as his films began to drift away from subjective emotional identification and into a colder, intellectualized distance, he found a way to visually convey this. Seven Samurai is the transitionary film of Kurosawa's career--it is constructed in the vein of his earlier cinema, being more straightforward in its story and presenting strong, good-natured characters that the audience is urged to identify with. For this reason it is often the favourite of the many samurai pictures that Kurosawa made, for his others would lack this perspective. The audacious production of the film, however, necessitated a certain practical camera technique. Because the action was immense in scale and involved many actors, stuntmen, animals, extras and special effects, the set-ups were not easily repeatable. Thus, the traditional method of filming a scene--of using only one camera and filming an action again and again from different angles--could not be practically adhered to. Instead, Kurosawa was forced to use the multiple camera technique. This allowed him to film a complicated action sequence in one or two takes, since the cameras would be positioned to capture all the shots at once. In the most complicated sequences, for example the final rain-soaked battle, Kurosawa used up to five cameras shooting simultaneously. To accommodate this, however, one is forced into certain lens and camera placement options: because it would be seen by the other cameras capturing the wide shot, for example, the cameras which captured the close-ups and medium shots, instead of using wide and medium length lenses and placed close or mid-range to the action, were instead forced to be placed far, far away so as to avoid being seen, and the action was then captured using telephoto long-lenses. The effect of this was unplanned, but it would change--and define--Kurosawa's visual style.

When one is shooting with a wide angle lens, the distance between objects is exaggerated, and a more three-dimensional space is captured--objects close to the lens really do appear close, and they curve away and taper off into the horizon, where distant objects truely do appear distant.

 

(wide-angle shots from Seven Samurai and Ikiru)

Long lenses, or telephoto lenses, have an opposite effect: they compress space. They create an image that is flat and two dimensional. Objects that are distant do not look as if they are very far away from objects in the midground, and perspective and planes of geography are skewered. Space relations can be maintained however, since one's area of focus--or depth of field--is highly compressed and shallow as well: objects in the background go into a complete blur and foreground objects are fuzzy and indistinct, and hence the area in focus regains its geographic perspective. In other words, the area that is in focus is very narrow or shallow, and thus some semblance of normal space relations are maintained. However, this can broken--if you are shooting at high light levels, one is forced to shoot at a smaller lens aperture, which destroys the shallow depth of field. Thus, objects in the far distant are sharp and distinct, while foreground objects do not become as blurred. When combined with the compressing aspect of telephoto lenses, this effect is sometimes striking: the planes of geography get skewered and objects in the background can appear to be stacked on top of those closer, and space relations disintegrate. Foreground and background are compressed together into a single image where the space relations are rendered indistinct. Because Seven Samurai was mostly photographed outdoors in high light levels, the deep depth of field was able to be maintained while shooting with telephoto lenses, and the striking visual skewering noted above was the result.

Here we see a shot of the villagers in Seven Samurai gathered in a group. This is a normal looking shot, without much depth compression or perspective skewering, and it lays out what the geography of the environment actually is. However, when we cut to an intersecting shot using telephoto lenses...

The result is this. In the previous shot you can see the real geography of the villagers--now, however, they are compressed together with a long lens. They become visually stacked on top of one another in a flat, two dimensional manner. Another, extremely fleeting example in the film is the following shot:

Here we see the main appeal of the telephoto lens: everything is rendered into flattened geometric patterns that take on an abstract quality. The fenced wall closests to the audience is quite a ways in front of the woman kneeling inside, and the back wall, with its geometric slats, is even further away--but now they loose their space relations and all become compressed together into a two-dimensional image that has a geometric design quality. Perspective is eliminated; even the ground between the woman and the audience is rendered into a solid block that acts as another shape in the aesthetic design of the shot.

In this shot we see the result in an action scene. The distances here are quite great: the villagers on the right hand side are some distance away from the two villagers by the hay-stacks on the left, and the wooden barricade is some yards away from them in turn, while the hillside behind that is a good half kilometer into the distance. Now, however, they are all compressed into a single two-dimensional image. Each object becomes stacked on top of one another in a bold graphic, and perspective is skewered.

For Kurosawa, this was a marvellous discovery. He had been hinting at trying to achieve this effect in his earlier works--for example, in Ikiru he uses wide lenses but with such a deep depth of field that background objects become just as sharp as those in the foreground ("deep focus" it is known as, much like Orson Wells put to iconic use in Citizen Kane). However, with the use of long lenses in Seven Samurai, he found an additional effect, which was the distortion of space. The result was a total visual abstraction of image. From here on Kurosawa would shoot almost exclusively with long lenses and multi-camera set-ups. A by-product of this method was that it often placed the audience at a distance, foregoing emotional identification in favor of visual formalism. This was perfect for Kurosawa because the content of his films was undergoing the same transformation: the optimism and character-based subjectivity of his earlier period was being replaced by dark pessimism and a detached distance characterized through abstract visuals (for a good parallel, Lucas' own THX 1138 utilizes these same techniques, which we will soon see). This reached its peak with 1985's Ran , a film utterly crushing with its bleak despair and visually functioning in parallel: the shots are at their most telephoto and distant in all of Kurosawa's career, and there is a complete lack of close-ups. The film is photography at high angles, from above and at a distance--- as Kurosawa put it "a Buddha in tears," filmed from the perspective of divinity as it weeps at the hopeless violence on Earth below.

  

 

(less extreme telephoto compression in Red Beard and Yojimbo )

  

(more exaggerated examples from Red Beard )

This is how Lucas himself forged his visual design. THX 1138 is often misunderstood by many as an attempt at emotional storytelling that ultimately fails--quite the contrary, it actually is a piece of intellectual formalism that succeeds so greatly that it often becomes emotional. It is one told through design and through camera, and Lucas, like Kurosawa, is attracted to a particular type of visual: one that is interesting because it becomes abstracted. How fitting then that Lucas, in contrast to most of his other films which use normal and wide lenses, photographs the film in the exaggerated manner of Kurosawa: with telephoto lenses and all the abstracted space compressions that they bring (partially, this was also the fusion of the other side of Lucas' visual influence--documentary technique). For a cameraman--as this was Lucas' main profession and area of influence at the time--the technique of Kurosawa was all-pervasive. Lucas speaks in explicit terms of the photographic influence of Kurosawa:

"It's really his visual style to me that is so strong and unique, and again, a very, very powerful element in how he tells his stories...he uses long lenses, which i happen to like a lot. It isolates the characters from backgrounds in a lot of cases. So you'll see a lot of stuff where there's big wide shots, lots of depth, and then he'll come in and isolate the characters from the background and you'll only focus on the characters...you can't help but be influenced by his use of camera."

It is in this way that THX 1138 is shot and told. Almost without dialog, it is a film told in and through visuals. Characters are scarcely developed; dialog is at an absolute minimum; exposition is non-existant; emotional subjectivity is mostly denied. It is a film of intellectual formalism, expressed in visual design, specifically through photography. This is where the power of the film stems from. The camera is kept at a distance, and we are rarely encouraged to identify with the protagonist on a truely emotional level--things are kept formalized and abstracted. Lucas here uses close-ups more frequently than in any of his other films, even his greatest character successes of Graffiti and Star Wars , and the reason he often frames characters so tightly is because they are rendered into abstractions through the power of the telephoto lens. Converse to Kurosawa, however, he embraces the shallow depth of field that long lenses bring, and emphasizes the out-of-focus abstractions. Without much in the way of character and narrative, Lucas instead builds his film around the visual exploration of action, rendered into abstract visuals through the power of the telephoto lens.

 

 

 

 

 

Here we see the flattening effect of long lenses, rendering the image graphically and accentuating the geometric design of the environment (the last two stills show Lucas' use of telephoto lens to create shallow depth-of-field and thus render abstractions; the lizard shot has a depth-of-field, or area in focus, of approximately one inch). In the very rare instances where Lucas does use wide-angle photography, it is extreme wide-angle, fisheye in some cases, so that the image maintains the graphic distortion and abstract quality that his shallow-depth-of-field and telephoto photography brought; see below:

 

With the story told exclusively in visuals we thus also see the parallel to Kurosawa's cinema: action. Perhaps stemming from the shared influence of silent era--which truely was an action cinema, a cinema told exclusively by visuals and thus actions--Kurosawa's and hence Lucas' cinema are ones both defined by action; movement through the frame, quick editing and abstracted visuals render the events in a dynamic excitement.

It may be argued that THX 1138 is the best and truest example of the cinema of George Lucas, uncorrupted, uninfluenced by outside forces, undiluted and without regard for audience. Lucas frequently speaks about how he is truely an esoteric and experimental filmmaker at heart, but his films betray this assertion--they are traditional character vehicles and Hollywood blockbusters. Except THX 1138. In this film we witness pure George Lucas, including brief flashes of the quirky humor that would be put to great use in his later efforts (ie., the malfunctioning police robot who bumps incessantly into a wall, symbolizing the useless technology of the government). However, much like Kurosawa, Lucas' cinema would undergo a drastic change. Annoyed by the rejection and failure of THX 1138, Lucas instead turned his attention to the opposite direction: he deliberately set out to make a commercial film. With this was born American Graffiti, a warm and funny character piece, one which left behind the abstract formalism of THX (though not completely) and embraced subjective identification. The film was a hit and it encouraged Lucas to set his sights even further down this path: to make a film that was even more commercial, even more traditional--to emulate the studio pictures of Hollywood's golden era. With this, his visuals changed accordingly--the telephoto lenses turned into medium and wide-angle lenses, and he brought forth the more traditional Ford-like method of photography. This was encouraged by the fact the film was not being photographed by Lucas himself and documentary cameramen (as THX and Graffiti were respectively), but by an "old boy" from the studio era of Hollywood, Gil Tayler (though it is true that Lucas chose him because he liked his documentary-like technique in Hard Days Night ). Here, Lucas' technique underwent the opposite metamorphosis from Kurosawa's, going from formalism and abstraction to traditional and subjective.

CONTINUE TO PART II

 

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