In the films of Akira Kurosawa, there has often been mentioned in writings about his works that identify dynamic camera movement, or how his lens expresses constant change and progress towards conveying effective action within the narrative. One can only imagine how much effort this team of filmmakers executed, for Kurosawa and his crew to capture the images that we experience in this three and half hour epic film (Seven Samurai) must’ve taken a tremendous amount of work. Yet like all great directors of cinematic works, Kurosawa’s camera movement, placement, and decisions reflect upon his unique and never dull storytelling methods.
“Like the Russians (Eisenstein, Dovshenko) to whose epics Seven Samurai has often been compared, Kurosawa—here perhaps more than in any other single film—insisted that the motion-picture be composed entirely of motion. The film opens with fast pans of the bandits riding over the hills, and ends with the chaos of the battle itself, motion so swift we can almost not see it at all” (Richie 103). This is certainly an astute observation, as this film by Kurosawa seems to move even in instances of static action in the midst of hectic chaos. Especially during the final battle against the bandits, there are sequences of hyper-stylized action—constructed by sweeping camera movement, rapid editing, and meticulous choreography—and then suddenly, the camera remains still to show a fallen samurai. In these instances of interrupted action, Kurosawa forces our emotions and anticipation to move along with the characters shown onscreen. Even in the film’s last still shot, the image of the graves atop of the hillside, the flag made by Heinachi waves ferociously amidst the mourning gusts of wind. However, it is the dynamic camera movement, simultaneously revealing and concealing action, which precedes these static images and makes them “move” themselves in moments of emotional resonance.
Kurosawa does something very interesting with his camera movement during scenes in which the characters exchange dialogue with each other inside interior locations. Typically in most commercial films, the camera is already positioned in a close-up to the actor’s face, and when the actor says something intense or extremely significant to the narrative, the camera will track or zoom in a little closer to emphasize the magnitude of the scene. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, there is a scene in which Kambei and Heihachi are discussing military strategy inside of their sleeping quarters in the famers’ village: the camera frames them both in a medium shot, from the waist up, and when they end their discussion, another samurai enters from another side of the room. Kurosawa tracks his camera back and left from the two strategists, in one sweeping motion, to reveal that the room is actually larger than was previously thought to be, and at the same time, follows the action with the arriving samurai. This type of decision to move the camera in this particular way gives a sense that Kurosawa is concerned with showcasing spatial relations within his shots. What this does is provide a sort of “geometrization” for the location in which he shoots, invoking realism and spectral transcendence all at the same time.
Any intelligent viewer that has experienced Seven Samurai can properly state that Kurosawa’s “use of the camera is devastating—dazzling close-ups as the village deputation, overawed and desperate in their quest for samurai, scan the crowded street, or wild tracking shots as the drunken Mifune stumbles after his assailant” (Richardson 28). The “wild tracking shots” certainly seem to be utilized when following Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo in integral points within the film. After Kyūzō is shot and killed by the bandit leader, Kikuchiyo runs ahead of Katsushirō to exact vengeance for his fallen brethren. Just as Kikuchiyo approaches the hut where the bandit leader is located, he is shot by the head of the clan and falls to the ground. In his final renegade moment, Kikuchiyo manages to stand up and stumble into the hut with the intention of destroying the bandit leader in his last instance of life; the bandit leader backs away from Kikuchiyo inside of the hut as Mifune’s character staggers towards his enemy, and the bandit leader does not shoot Kikuchiyo again either because he is out of ammunition or is shocked by this samurai’s last effort. Instead of placing the camera in the interior of the hut to follow all of the action more closely amidst the frightened female villagers that are also inside, Kurosawa keeps his camera outside of the hut, tracking and filming the action inside through the disorienting viewpoint of the sizeable holes within the wall’s wooden and haphazard structure. As the camera follows them from outside, the bandit leader backs out of the hut’s exit, finds himself directly in front of the camera in the same camera shot, and Kikuchiyo lunges forward from the hut to plunge his long sword into the primary oppressor and end the battle. There is an unspoken rule in cinematic filmmaking: it is not necessarily effective to show the entirety of a pivotal and intense moment in a film, but rather it may be tremendously effective to position the camera in a way that almost shows all of the action. Kikuchiyo must surely be physically bewildered as he stumbles towards the enemy that has just shot him; it is only appropriate and extremely efficacious to show this action from outside and framed in a fragmented, yet fluid motion. It is clear that Kurosawa realizes the potential for cinematic delight by refusing his audience the totality of the occurrences conspiring within his film.
By constructing thought-provoking dynamics through camera placement and movement, Kurosawa harnesses his cameras as forceful captors of filmic motion. Whether the motion in his films gives a determined sense of adventure or a melancholic sense of poignancy, the result is always marvelously captured. One only needs to experience a few of Kurosawa’s most acclaimed films to realize just how much of a pertinent director he has become in the vast and versatile realm of cinema—another director’s canonical filmic work may never match the degree of his firmly established supremacy.
Curator: Joshua Ballas