In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other...and him.
The story follows two greedy peasants in feudal Japan, Tahei and Matashichi, who are returning home from a failed attempt to profit from a war between neighboring clans. En Route they encounter the remnants of the defeated tribe that consists, most notably, of a famous General and a Princess who are hiding out in a fortress in the mountains. General Rokurota Makabe and Princess Yuki need to escape into allied territory with their large supply of gold so that they can rebuild their shattered clan. To do this the Peasants are tricked into helping them, with the promise that they will receive a large share of the gold when the destination is reached. Along the way, the General's prowess is put to the test as he must guide the 4, and later 5 with the inclusion of a freed slave, through close encounters with the pursuing enemy, and out of difficult situations the bumbling peasants manage to get them into.Written by
Any Kurosawa film is worth watching, but the focus of interest shifts from project to project. This time around, his concern is the new aspect ratio of 'cinemascope' copied and renamed by Toho. Kurosawa is first a visual storyteller who scripts in pictures, each one dramatically framed. All his life until here, that frame was the same, but all of a sudden it changed.
It is a matter of there being three territories where there was formally one. The new territories are on the left and right, which in the original cinerama were actually two additional cameras. One really needs to study his framing in the old format to understand how significant this challenge was. He was master -- indeed largely the creator -- of a visual grammar and the rules had changed.
As with all his scripts, the story reflects his own challenges. So we have a story about three territories and a journey that spans them all. The 'middle' territory is under attack, and our characters must leave their fortress and go all the way from left to right to survive. (Notice the symbols he uses for these three klans.) The two hapless peasants represent to the story what actors represent to the 'real' enterprise of film-making: relatively ignorant, gold-chasers, likely to turn on each other, and liable to go where they are not supposed to. The story is told from their perspective. The gold in the story is hidden in sticks. The gold in the film is hidden in similar harvesting of nature by the eye.
(Mifune's pride and Kurosawa's control were much like that shown here between Mifune's samurai and the peasants. Mifune would eventually run away from Kurosawa's -- probably much needed -- overbearing command. Mifune would end up wealthy and celebrated in Japan. Kurosawa not so.)
At the end of the story, the peasant-actors are on a grand stair that mirrors a similar stair we saw earlier which was the scene of a huge conflict (in turn mirroring the battle on Eisenstein's Odessa steps in 'Potemkin'). But this second time, we are at peace, the frame is serene. Kurosawa has wrestled this new eye and mastered it.
Kurosawa did not respond to the wide format like his American peers who preferred awesome panoramas. His approach to framing had always been layered, usually three layers of activity in fore, middle and background. Here, he was able to relax the axis so that the layers did not have be so much on top of one another. And he reinvented his strategy of panning of motion: compare a running sequence here to the famous woodcutter's running in the beginning of 'Rashomon.' Look at how he panned the General's attack on horseback. He still does diagonals, but fewer, less steep and with less static import. He now has more natural horizontals in his greytone/greystone arrangements so has to create more artificial verticals.
Obligatory Star Wars comment:
I am sure Lucas' film school professors would have explained the relationship of story and visual challenge this way. So that is the real template Lucas took in conceiving his project. His goal was a similar marriage of the visual (space) with story (Joseph Campbell inspired myth). His hidden gold is that miraculous alchemical element in Jedi blood.
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