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Madadayo: Stage Lighting

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    Vili Maunula

    If I had to pick two aspects of Madadayo that I least liked, lighting would be one of them. (Due to a strong personal dislike of Vivaldi, the music would be the other, but this is not something for which I would hold Kurosawa accountable.)

    To put it shortly, the lighting in Madadayo feels very artificial to me throughout the film. The actors’ faces radiate from the far too strong spotlights that were used — I swear I can at times even see them sweat because of this — and just about every scene (both day and night) has extremely sharp shadows, some of which seem to cast in unnatural angles.

    It may be just me, but isn’t there simply too much strong light in this film?

    Now, there are two possible explanations that I can think of for this over abundance of light. One is that it is simply a result of sloppy film making. In fact, I would say that there indeed is a slight tendency in Kurosawa’s colour films to over-light scenes. This is actually something that I have noticed many directors who move from black and white to colour (or the other way around) to have problems with, which is understandable considering the difference between the mediums. Yet, even when considering this, I feel that Madadayo is notably more over-lit than any other Kurosawa film.

    This has made me to think of the second possible explanation, which is that it is actually an intentional effect. Now, since it is not a feature of the film that I particularly like, I have tried to think of a possible reason for any such intentionality. And I find it fairly difficult to come up with any.

    But there is one, and it has to do with the film’s tendency not to show us reality, but rather to discuss it, like I mentioned in the Irony thread. In a way Madadayo is quite much like a stage play in this sense, and I would then say that this feeling is actually strengthened by the fact that the events in the film take place almost exclusively within one-room settings that are very stage-like in their sparseness and geography.

    Could it then be that the lighting in Madadayo follows this idea, and the strong spotlights are there to make the scenes more stage-like? If so, are there some special insights to be discovered if the film is approached as something akin to a filmed stage play?

    Or am I just trying to find justification for something that is a simple mistake, or isn’t there to begin with?



    Its an interesting point – I did notice the same thing about the lighting, but I assumed it was due to the colour transfer – quite a few movies from the 80’s seem to have that look. I don’t know enough about lighting to make any kind of informed comment, but I’d like to cast out a few thoughts:

    I’ve always had the impression that lighting was the technical area that Kurosawa had least interest in. Its difficult to be sure about such things, because the the colour transfers to dvd might be deceptive, but I’ve noticed that there is no real consistency in the lighting of his movies compared to some of his contemporaries, implying that this was something he was happy to delegate to his cameraman.

    One scene that puzzled me a little was where the pupils sing that advertising jingle, allowing the prof to make up his own verses. This scene seemed to me to belong in a musical rather than a Kurosawa movie – it all seemed too rehearsed. We know it wasn’t bad direction as he did masterful ensemble drunken scenes before (not least in Ikiru). I thought this is what Prince and Richie had in mind when they referred to bad acting. But perhaps Kurosawa was actually aiming for a more heightened, theatrical reality? I find it hard to think why he would do that, but it is one explanation I think for the somewhat garish colours and the way the party scenes are choreographed.


    Vili Maunula

    I watched the A Message from Akira Kurosawa documentary yesterday, and Kurosawa makes an interesting point in it about lighting in colour films. In Kurosawa’s view (which comes from the early 1990s), film makers don’t know how to light colour films properly, as colours on the screen tend to lack depth and look washed-out.

    As a result, Kurosawa together with Takeji Sano (who worked as the head lighting technician in all of Kurosawa’s films from Kagemusha onwards) developed a way to lit their films a little bit differently. They basically used spot lights with contrasting/complementing colours to enhance the quality of the colours on screen. Red was used to enhance black, blue to enhance red, purple to enhance yellow, and so on. The narrator makes the point that this may have been the result of Kurosawa’s background in painting.

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with why Madadayo to me looks a bit off, as my issue there is not so much to do with the colours but the shadows, i.e. the intensity of light rather than the quality of it. But it could explain why Kurosawa’s colour films have that slightly different quality to them, if compared to other colour films of the period. (Which I say looks like slightly over-lighting scenes.)



    I would point this movie more into the area of a mistake then a artistic.

    The key flaws I fine in Madadayo:

    An incorrect contrast ratio. -Possibly due to an B&W director, used to seeing the flatness of heavy lighted, that is soften and contrasted better on B&W, then color.

    Mixed lighting sources(natural and artificial)- an attempt to allow a natural light aid in the closeness, home-like atmosphere of the movie.

    Failure of the fill and back lighting sources, largely due to allowing not enough natural light, or not using a fast enough lens to be able to reduce the strength of studio lights, and not matching the color hue of studio lights with artificial lights, and allowing a too bright of a white, within the white-balance settings of the camera.

    This really is all one in the same.

    Throughout the film the background, foreground and subject have little variance in lighting. This points towards one over-bearing light source, this case the key light. The light is indeed too strong, overcoming the fill and backing lighting, and thus reducing the contrast ratio. If the key lighting is too strong, focused on the subject, and allowed to splash over the foreground and backgrounds. The end result of the this creates the hard shadows, that in return give harsh separation of the subject and background. Another elements that goes to bring this into further attention is the great(large) depth-of-field, in which all planes when in close proximity of the subject, are as focused, nearly the ratio of contrast between subject and surroundings.

    I see this as fundamental flaws from the Gaffer, and Cinematographer.

    To the defense of the Gaffer, the movie doesn’t allow for much play of lighting, while I do see areas that could be fixed, some scenes have little place to set up more ideal lighting.

    To the defense of the Cinematographer, if the movie required everything be focused, then you ability to maintain a natural look under harsh, one directional lighting is reduced. You tend to get a hard separation, making the subject seem to exist outside their enviroment.

    So, I would to lack of interaction between Gaffer and Cinematographer, for which the Director is largely to blame.

    My only solution would to quit with all the master shots-those wide angle, where everything is focused.

    Scenes like the party-come in closer, reduce the depth-of-field, allow the camera movement with the movement of many people show the scale of the scene.

    Tight scenes with many people-a few master shots for setup, then do close up, and cuts between characters. Arrange characters and camera so other character are partly in view.

    Reduce the lighting, soften imagery, use a faster lens to adjust, arrange the scene to allow proper 3-point lighting, all closeups would have slight changes in lighting,versus sharing the master shot lighting.

    And on this, I think Kurosawa has some fault, while I hate to criticize him, the directing in the movie is nowhere near the talent seen in his older works. For anybody the directing is largely inexcusable, for Kurosawa, I dont know what to say.

    There you have it, sure it’s easy to sit back and criticize, and I’m not claiming myself correct, or even an ability to do better-I’m just saying 😛

    An idea about 3-point lighting, you can find some info here-


    can’t speak for all the site(just found it) but the lighting part does give a fair idea. If you look at the photo “key light only” it’s give an idea, on the odd look, a one source light can produce, if what a over-bearing key light does.

    The odd separation of subject and background, I point to some photos I took. They’re bad photos, and it’s actually why I keep them as they help examples from time to time.

    I sharpened them to give them a over-processed look to help show what I speak of better. In this case the B&W vs. color doesnt play a big role, I just typically shoot B&W.

    ***Keep in mind these photo were not taking to illustrate anything, so they aren’t the greatest of examples, just the best I could find quickly, and I’m too lazy to look though old files. I was trying from something good, and something bad resulted.


    Strong light coming from one direction, depth of field extends well past the subject.

    If you stare at the photo, a tendency for the subject to look like it exist outside the environment starts to form. Even goes so far to look like via photo shop, the subject was artificially inserted into the enviroment.

    If this shot was in motion, like a movie, the growth of separation of subject and enviroment builds-a still shot has limitation in this. After awhile it would just look odd.


    This shot shares similar problems, the light source is more spread out, and I do believe I had a reflector in use at the time, but it still from one primary source. The problem is a light clothed colored subject against a darker enviroment, but sharing the same light exposure, and depth-of-field extending well past subject as well. She too, appears to be outside her enviroment-and again, with motion and time, would look rather artificial and odd.


    This guy, is really much the same as the girl above, as the white van, against dark shirt, is good enough in this example to equal the white dress and dark background in the girl’s shot.

    The one thing I did was simply bring in a shallower depth-of-field, blurring the background, allows the subject blend within his enviroment despite the less then ideal environmental light and general setup.


    Light background, light colored subject, largely single point light. While the subject does have some separation in their environment, the blurred background, allows this shot even if they were motion to “belong” while having the slight separation between focus and unfocused act as an attention drawer to the focused object-which is really what depth-of-field is for.

    I not saying shallow depth-of-field is the solution to this movie, but the lack of it’s use, strong largely one-directional lighting, creates problems.

    Many people are to blame for the odd look of this movie.

    Lighting is not the only problem here.

    Oh, dont buy everything I say, I dont know anything really, I just pretend I do. :-0




    By-the-way something I havent done in a many years, actually I’m not much in to still-life, but Harajuku,Tokyo, is a great place to get subjects for various experiments-these photos being the failures. I never had a problem getting volunteers to do whatever I need for awhile, as I messed around with different ideas. Most ideas in fact are theirs and I simply just try to see what I can do. And once you get one person, the others just fall in. Haven’t found too many other places that offer the free and willing subjects.


    Vili Maunula

    Here is a belated reply to Jeremy’s illuminating post.

    If I understood correctly, you identify as the main problem the fact that in a majority of Madadayo‘s shots everything (background, foreground, subjects) is both lit and focused on.

    This is probably true. I am actually tempted to take this observation and forcibly insert it into the tentative interpretation that I suggested earlier — that Madadayo is a “stage-like” film, purposely existing in a very artificial looking reality. It is, after all, not like Kurosawa would have been a stranger with theatrical films — we do, after all, have They Who Step on a Tiger’s Tail, The Lower Depths, Throne of Blood, Ran and Dreams. The last mentioned is especially artificial in its presentation.

    Or, I may be an apologist here. 🙄

    In any case, I doubt that there was a lack of communication between the cinematographer, the gaffer and Kurosawa. From what I have been able to gather, Kurosawa worked very closely with both (or all three, as there apparently were two cinematographers for Madadayo) not only here but in earlier films. All three had worked with Kurosawa since Kagemusha.

    Finally, while you may find your pictures technical failures, they are really interesting! My clear favourite is the last one — I could stare at that girl staring at me for hours on end (and there is nothing sexual about that).

    These pictures are very illustrative, too — reminds me of why I should make a greater effort at taking screenshots! Thanks for the effort, and sorry about the late reply.



    I would actually say the whole stage-like part is more correct, and what was presented was the look they were going for. I still think, even if this the case, the approach is rather poor. Or maybe it reminds me of the American and British soap-operas, with their very strong lighting, that makes film, look like was a cheap video cassette recording.

    As for the girl(Yuri, if my notes are correct). I think I was trying to light her eyes, but nothing worked out, despite her being rather helpful, just her eye were too dark. I know now, that actually better to maintain dark eyes on Asian girls, versus brighten Western girls’-I suppose that’s debatable, but I like dark eyes on Asians as it matches their smaller eye profile. Still, these are too dark.

    Anyways, here’s the rest.




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