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Slashing Samurai in the NY Times

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    Ugetsu

    A nice little essay here in the New York Times on the joy of Samurai films.

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    lawless

    Thanks for posting that. I hadn’t heard of Sword of Doom before. It sounds like it owes something to Yojimbo and, especially, Sanjuro.

    There’s an even more important reason why four of the seven samurai in Seven Samurai died of gunshot wounds, though: the change in technology spelling the end of the samurai way of life. Now that I think about it, that might have been part of what Kambei was talking about at the end when he said it was the farmers, not the samurai, who had won.

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    Ugetsu

    I haven’t seen Sword of Doom in a few years – but I was blown away by it when I saw it first. That article reminded me that I should have another look, now that I know a bit more about Japanese film. It has amazing fight scenes but a very confusing story (I think it was meant to be part one of a trilogy). Nakadai is superb in it.

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    Ugetsu

    I just realised that the article has a little video clip to go with it. Interesting contrast to Kurosawa’s use of quick edits in most of his fight scenes.

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    lawless

    The absence of quick edits makes the scene less dynamic. I get what the writer means about it being more “honest” when editing and camera work are not used to add oomph or make the scene look more realistic, but it doesn’t have the same impact in a less-tight tracking shot such as this.

    Of course, not all of Kurosawa’s work involved quick edits. If I remember correctly, the swordfight at the end of Sanjuro was done in a single shot without cutaways, but it was done with a much tighter focus than this.

    As an aside: I thought Nakadai’s name was pronounced differently than that.

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    Ugetsu

    As an aside: I thought Nakadai’s name was pronounced differently than that.

    Nah-Kay-Die – lol, I thought the New York Times would be a bit more precise than that! No real excuse these days for getting the prononciation so badly wrong. Oddly enough, I just read that while listening to the radio and admiring the fact that the Irish newscaster had got the ‘hgrrrr‘ sound in ‘Bahrain’ right when the BBC person I was listening to last night, didn’t. Maybe I’m being prejudiced, but I suspect the Fox newscasters haven’t got their tonsils around that one yet.

    The absence of quick edits makes the scene less dynamic.

    The marvel about Kurosawa’s fight scenes is that you don’t even notice how much editing there is, the rhythm is so perfect. I can’t recall who said it, but I read somewhere an interview with a director who said he watched the fight scene in Red Beard a hundred times to try to work out how to do a proper fight scene, and still couldn’t work out how Kurosawa had done it. He could replicate the cuts, but just couldn’t get that perfect flow.

    And as another aside, I wonder if this is what Kurosawa meant when he implied that Mizoguchi couldn’t do a good fight scene – maybe he was indirectly implying that you need a mastery of editing, not flowing camerawork, to do one.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu: That seems like a plausible explanation.

    I agree about the pronunciation wobbles! It’s a little hard for me to accept someone who butchers the name of an actor he’s praising and mispronounces “samurai” as a stalwart fan of samurai movies. Considering that he’s an editor for the Times and the clip is on their website, I’d expect him to doublecheck.

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    Ugetsu

    I was looking through the essays in the book ‘Rashomon‘ edited by Donald Richie and there is a description of the enormous amount of technical work involved in shooting a fight scene in the way Kurosawa shot the final one in that film. The particular essay, by Stanley Kauffman (a long time film critic I think), pointed out that it is only possible to film a fight scene with multiple tracking shots and edits if the director has an absolutely firm idea in his head what the final work will look like – this is unlike a theater or dance director, who can allow a scene to develop over time. So it may be that Kurosawa’s great strength as a director of action was that he knew exactly in his head what the final scene would look like, so was able to instruct the set designers where exactly to put the dollies, tracks, etc. Lesser directors use single tracking shots, long shots, or shakeycam work to allow them to construct the scenes like a theater director, or later in the editing suite.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: The particular essay, by Stanley Kauffman (a long time film critic I think), pointed out that it is only possible to film a fight scene with multiple tracking shots and edits if the director has an absolutely firm idea in his head what the final work will look like – this is unlike a theater or dance director, who can allow a scene to develop over time.

    Kauffmann is indeed a great critic, but I’m actually not sure if I understand his argument here. Knowing Kurosawa’s habits, they probably rehearsed the fight scenes quite extensively before anything was filmed or the camera even brought to the set. Therefore, I don’t see how Kurosawa’s choreographic work would have been much more difficult than that of a theatre or dance director.

    Kauffmann also talks about Kurosawa using multiple cameras, but I’m not sure if that was done with Rashomon. I could be wrong, but I think that it was really only with Seven Samurai that Kurosawa started using multiple cameras simultaneously for shooting a single scene?

    On a somewhat related note, I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan yesterday, and it has some quite lovely camera work to accompany the dancing.

    Anyway, thanks for the NY Times article and video! The pronunciation may not have been one hundred percent, but I have heard worse. 🙂 Actually, even Stephen Prince has some quite interesting ways of pronouncing things on his commentary tracks…

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Kauffmann is indeed a great critic, but I’m actually not sure if I understand his argument here. Knowing Kurosawa’s habits, they probably rehearsed the fight scenes quite extensively before anything was filmed or the camera even brought to the set. Therefore, I don’t see how Kurosawa’s choreographic work would have been much more difficult than that of a theatre or dance director.

    If I understand his argument correctly, he is saying that because of the physical limitations on a director – primarily the need to lay tracks across a set in such a way that they do not become visible in other shots, any fight scene involving tracking and editing must be pre-planned, with only limited scope for altering things during rehearsals. There is also the factor that there is more than one ‘perspective’ on a film set, as opposed to a theater, and all these have to somehow merge into one coherent whole. I suppose theoretically, this can be overcome by repeated reconstructions of a set, and constant reshots as patterns become apparent after editing, but few films would have a budget sufficient to do this. So essentially, Kaufman is saying that the fight scene has to be firmly in the directors head before the set is even constructed if it is to work.

    Kauffmann also talks about Kurosawa using multiple cameras, but I’m not sure if that was done with Rashomon. I could be wrong, but I think that it was really only with Seven Samurai that Kurosawa started using multiple cameras simultaneously for shooting a single scene?

    I think Rashomon was made using conventional methods – i.e. one ‘shot’ at a time – I think you are right that Seven Samurai was the first time AK used multiple cameras, but i could be wrong about that one.

    On a somewhat related note, I saw Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan yesterday, and it has some quite lovely camera work to accompany the dancing.

    I saw it a few weeks ago – some of the dance scenes are spectacular, although I found the use of CGI to be very jarring and poorly judged. The photography was great, although it seemed to me to that the scenes were too obviously designed to distract from the lack of dance skills of some of the dancers.

    The pronunciation may not have been one hundred percent, but I have heard worse.

    I’m sure I’m guilty of terrible pronunciation too! I once asked for where the Ozu movies were when in the Kinokuniya Bookshop in New York. The young hipster assistant looked at my blankly for a moment, and I repeated myself twice. ‘Oh, you mean ozzzthhuuuuu‘ he said, with a rumbling set of zzzz’s worthy of a bass tenor. I was very embarrassed 😳

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    lawless

    FWIW, I also remember that Seven Samurai was the first movie which Kurosawa filmed using multiple cameras simultaneously.

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