Akira Kurosawa: deepening your emotions

Akira Kurosawa was the first person to directly shoot the sun. He did it not as a scientific researcher or because he wanted to do something new and interesting. But because he wanted to show how it looked when sunlight filters through the trees. He was directing the film Rashomon in 1950. And he coated his camera lens and daringly directed it straight at the sun.

Rashomon is a movie about different people giving radically different versions of the same event: the assault and murder of a samurai. Throughout the movie, Kurosawa uses sunlight to symbolize good and thoughtful reasoning, and darkness to symbolize bad and impulsiveness.

This was not the only innovation. Kurosawa also used mirrors to reflect sunlight from the actors’ faces. And he also tinted the raindrops with black ink for a scene. Because the black and white cameras were not capturing rain water well enough.

Despite these innovations, Kurosawa was extremely surprised when Rashomon won the highest prize at the Venice film festival. Why? Because he wasn’t even aware the film was submitted to the film festival!

Giuliana Stramigioli was a professor teaching Italian in Tokyo University after the war. She had started a side hustle: she imported Italian movies to Japan. She had seen and loved Rashomon and had recommended it to the Venice film festival! Surprising everyone, the movie won the critics award as well as the Golden Lion award!

After the movie was dubbed and shown in America, it also won the Academy Award for being the most outstanding foreign national film. 

What made Kurosawa so amazing?

Take your favourite director and ask them who their favourite director is. And the answer inadvertently will be Kurosawa. George Lucas to Steven Spielsberg to Francis Ford Coppola to Quentin Tarantino – all rave about the influence Kurosawa has had on them.

In fact, Tarantino’s controversial blood spraying during fight scenes is copied directly from Kurosawa’s mistake. While Kurosawa was filming a sword fight for his movie Yojimbo, there was a mechanical error. And blood sprayed out like a fountain. But Kurosawa retained the error because it deepened the mood of the scene.

That’s the entire modus operandi that makes Kurosawa great. He looks at what layers he can add to deepen the mood of a scene. How can you add colour and details to amplify the mood?

  • Kurosawa uses weather to amplify the mood. There was no sword fight shown without showing the movement of wind. 
  • Kurosawa hired more people than is required for a scene. Because he wanted to show crowds. Because he could use the crowd’s reaction to amplify the mood. Why merely show a conversation, when you could show a conversation and the crowd’s reaction to it?
  • Kurosawa asked his actors to create a signature gesture for their character. A tick or a specific movement that they could continue throughout the film’s shooting. It was a small thing that amplified the differences between different actors.

Before filming Rashomon, Kurosawa showed a jungle film to the two main protagonists of the movie: the bandit and the wife of the samurai. He wanted the bandit to act like an animal. And he wanted the wife to show fear one would show to a lion.

For every frame that Kurosawa directed, he asked: how can I amplify the mood of the scene? What details can I add?

It’s this usage of details that makes his movies iconic. People love the scenes without truly understanding why.

How can you amplify the mood?

Its a 3 step process:

  1. Ask yourself: what mood do you want to convey?
  2. Find the symbols and the details that deepen that mood.
  3. Stack as many of them together as you can.

Obama had done the impossible and defeated Hillary Clinton to become the democratic nominee for US president. He wanted to deepen the mood that he was presidential. And so, when he was to give his acceptance speech for the Democratic party nomination at Denver’s Invesco football field, he got a unique stage built over there. The backdrop with huge columns was made to resemble White House’s portico. Boom! He amplified his image as being presidential for the people seeing him on TV!

It’s a joy to read Tolkien not because the story is fast paced. But because he has created elaborate back stories for every character in the book. He has created maps and a whole new language. Every detail amplifies the adventure.

Tony Robbins is amazing in front of large audiences because he pays attention to every detail to amplify the mood of the room. Sound and lightning is obvious. But he pays attention to the temperature of the room too. And he jumps on a trampoline before going on stage to get to the right energy levels!

Every. Detail. Is. Paid. Attention. To.

Kurosawa made movies with unoriginal stories. In fact, his stories were often adapted from Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. But what he did better than anyone else is add details that amplified an emotion. Which made his movies more satisfying to watch than anything else made till then! 

When Japan was down after the world war, he became a shining light and gave hope: that Japan could become world class again!

Action Summary:

  • Stacking details to amplify a mood can be time consuming. But it pays off because they help in deepening an emotion. Which helps in making you a lot more memorable.
  • Focus on one mood. And stack as many details to amplify the mood.