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Watch: Video Essay ‘Akira Kurosawa — Composing Movement’

Watch: Video Essay 'Akira Kurosawa — Composing Movement'

“Can movement tell a story? Sure, if you’re as gifted as Akira Kurosawa. More than any other filmmaker, he had an innate understanding of movement and how to capture it on screen. Join me today in studying the master, possibly the greatest composer of motion in film history.” Lofty words from Tony Zhou at YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting. In this new 8.5 minute analysis of master filmmaker Kurosawa’s work, Zhou breaks down the five primary types of movement Kurosawa employs, and then compares his classics to “flat” modern blockbusters.

“A Kurosawa film moves like no one else’s,” the video professes. “Each one is a master class in different types of motion, and also ways to combine them.” So what movements comprise the quintet of motion in a Kurosawa picture Tony discerns?

First the study explores the movement of nature. As Tony astutely points out, few Kurosawa scenes take place without the backdrop of some mobile element. Be it rain, snow or wind, even when characters on screen are sedentary, the weather isn’t. This background motion draws the eye, creating compelling images even when no one is moving or even on screen.

Next, the video examines both the movement of groups and that of individuals. Kurosawa employs group shots to perfectly convey reactions and to draw attention in multiple directions (as when a group splits in two and heads in separate directions). For individuals, Tony claims the director makes use of “exaggerated blocking,” thereby heightening characters’ emotions, thoughts, and actions. He also emphasizes how the movement behind them — often of natural elements — further emphasizes their moods and desires.

Lastly, the video delves into Kurosawa’s movement of the camera and of the cut. Rather self explanatory — though in no means less important — the camera movements in Kurosawa’s films are often near constant, going from close-up to wide to over-the-shoulder shots in a single, fluid motion. Combine those with the cuts — Kurosawa often cuts on movement — and the director crafts nearly seamless films, ones in which the viewer often barely registers a cut, due to the way the movie has been edited together. A moving shot cut on a movement can take the audience to an entirely different and unexpected next scene, or flawlessly transition to the next shot within the same scene.

Zhou’s point, however, isn’t just that Kurosawa employs five different types of movement. No, that would be too simple. The argument, which the video handedly conveys, is that he employs them in conjunction with one another. A group moves against a rainy backdrop, while the camera tracks with them. Or an individual remains stationary, while a group moves behind him and the camera cuts along with the movement. The study pointedly breaks down a scene from “Seven Samurai” by way of example, highlighting all the various forms of on-screen movement. It then a compares that to a (rather stagnant) scene from “The Avengers,” calling out the ways in which Joss Whedon could have infused a table-side discussion with active motion, because as Zhou claims, “If you combine the right motion, and the right emotion, you get something cinematic.”

Watch the eight and a half minute video study on Kurosawa below, and then, as Tony says, “pick any of his films, go to any scene, and watch how everything moves together.” 

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