Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Sound of the Samurai

Donald Richie calls YOJIMBO (1961) "the best-filmed of any of Kurosawa's pictures". But the sound track is worth studying as well. I have compiled two videos that demonstrate the interaction of sounds and music.

Even though Japanese sound tracks at the time often suffered from fidelity issues, Kurosawa was very conscious of the power of sound design (a term that was yet to be invented). In YOJIMBO there are several percussive sounds that fulfill important narrative functions:

In the beginning, when Sanjuro meets the angry farmer and his son in a tele-photo close-up, the only indication that there is some sign of civilisation around are the steadily repetitive sounds of a hand loom. Kazuo Miyagawa's camera then follows the farmer to the nearby house where his wife is weaving equanimously. This rhythmic sound is accompanying the whole scene (which I have shortened) and gets across the subtext that this is a monotonous life.

Later, the inn-keeper Gon tells Sanjuro about all the people in the village. Some of them are introduced by sounds: We only meet the coffin maker by the sound of his hammer which annoys Gon considerably. The sake brewer who rarely leaves his home is characterized by the drumming of his prayers.

Finally, the town crier Hansuke announces the time by beating two xylophone-like sticks. You can hear all four of these sounds in the clip below:

Masaru Satô picks up many of these sounds in his jaunty and rumbling score. Reportedly, Kurosawa did not want a chambara score in any conventional sense and asked for music in a voodoo idiom.

Satô, a composer who liked to incorporate western popular music and jazz in his film scores, wanted to pay homage to Henry Mancini. Miles away from the lightness of "Moon River" or "Meglio sta sera", his succession of short cues was most likely inspired by Mancini's score for Orson Welles' film noir TOUCH OF EVIL (1958). Given that YOJIMBO is partially based on film noir characters, this assumption is not so farfetched.

In the following clip I have juxtaposed excerpts from both soundtracks:
1. "White Horse Lodge" (YOJIMBO): Here the percussive sounds are easily recognizable within the music
2. "Main Title" (TOUCH OF EVIL): There are similar percussion patterns and low brass and woodwinds.
3. "Ronin Arrives" (YOJIMBO): This is a good example of another characteristic trait that might have been influenced by TOUCH OF EVIL - melodic lines arranged in a very low register throughout.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

First Shots: YOJIMBO (1961)

In a recent post about the first shots of Leone's "Dollar" films I have hinted at his great indebtitude to YOJIMBO. As an addendum (and advertisement), here is the first shot of Kurosawa's great samurai farce.

YOJIMBO is photographed by Japan's greatest cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and it certainly ranks among Kurosawa's strongest widescreen efforts. Although mostly obscured by white title characters, the single two and a half minute shot that opens the film draws us into the world of the samurai with no name (he only adopts "Sanjuro (thirty) Kuwabatake (mulberry field)" when he sees a mulberry field outside the window) so memorably played by Toshiro Mifune.
The shot opens on a mountain landscape that is largely obscured when Mifune enters the frame from the right. One could say that he blocks the camera's view and we only see his back for much of the shot. His standing in our way is a nice way of preparing us for a story that is entirely told from his point of view.

It is no secret that Kurosawa was inspired by American westerns, especially those by John Ford and George Stevens. So it comes as no surprise that Mifune is entering the frame in a similar way to the protagonist of SHANE (1953):

At about 12 seconds in, the samurai's mannerisms are introduced: he often arranges his shoulders and scratches his stubbled chin and unkempt hair. And even from behind we can tell that he keeps his hands under his clothes.

When he starts to walk to the left at 21 seconds, the camera follows his every move, keeping him tightly framed within the scope frame which in this film emphasizes narrowness instead of opening up the screen. We do not really see Mifune's face yet because it is still turned towards the mountains.

We follow the silhouette of his head until the camera pans down at 1:40 until we only see his feet and the ground he walks on (passing a few stone idols). 20 seconds later, a camera pan up his body ends up in a horizontal composition not unlike the first one with Mifune still walking until he reaches the visual center and is visible from head to toe. He then throws up a stick to figure out which way to go.

The last minute up until he picks up the stick are paraphrased by Leone in the first shot of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Moreover, his unexpected opening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) could be traced to the opening of the shot. In both cases we first see a distant mountain landscape. In both cases a character moves into the frame at very close range. Leone, however, makes sure that Al Mulloch's face is imprinted on our minds while Kurosawa draws the attention towards the character's behavioral pattern.

Screening Advertisement
On the 23rd of September I am introducing trigon-film's digitally restored print of YOJIMBO at the cinema Gotthard in Zug (Switzerland). The screening will be followed by a 20 minute lecture on how Sergio Leone transformed Kurosawa's masterpiece into his first catholic Italian western.
Mirror images: Mifune enters from the right (top) as Eastwood enters from the left (below).

There is certainly more to Leone's adaptation than re-arranged widescreen compositions.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Miyazaki's homage to an imperturbable St. Bernard

Now that Miyazaki's retirement plans seem to be more definite than ever (unlike the three times before), it is a good point in time to dig deeper into what made his storytelling so different from mainstream animated features and yet so universally appealing.

His 1989 children's book adaptation KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE is a film that grows on me everytime I see it. Recently I have started to compare it to another blockbuster that came out in 1989: THE LITTLE MERMAID (Clements/Musker). As soon as I have figured out how to organize my thoughts and analyses, I will write a series of articles about these two films. But more on that later.

For the moment, I would like to guide your attention to a significantly more superficial observation that always makes me smile: The imperturbable St. Bernard.

If you have ever seen Takahata's ARUPUSU NO SHOJO HAIJI (HEIDI - GIRL OF THE ALPS, 1974) you will remember the grandfather's sleepy St. Bernard called Josef (or "Josefu" in Japanese). In the beginning the five year old girl does not know what to make of him as you can see in the following clip from episode 2:
I have chosen this clip because Josef's musical leitmotif (more like a fully rendered theme) is heard for the first time. To me, the dog's character is as much defined by this lumbering tune as it is by his cumbersume and phlegmatic appearance.

In episode 4, after it is implied that Josef is naturally chasing birds, he unexpectedly saves Heidi's pet bird Pitchi:

St. Bernards used to be called "Saint Dogs" because they were traditionally used for Alpine rescues and often depicted with a barrel of brandy around their necks in contemporary paintings. It is therefore only natural for Josef to be in the life-saving business as well.

Most often however, we see him dozing somewhere (see below).
St. Bernard Josef does not seem to be attentive but never misses anything that goes on around him.
15 years later, Miyazaki pays homage to Josef in KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE: Kiki's sidekick Jiji is forced to substitute for a stuffed cat that Kiki lost on the way to a boy called Ketto. Now Ketto not only has a pet bird that goes by the name of Pitchi, there is a sleepy family dog as well. Of course, the black cat Jiji is instantly afraid to be alone with the large dog. But Ketto's dog does not seem to be interested in following its instincts to chase the cat.
Ketto's family dog in KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE shares most of Josef's characteristics.
Although this dog is drawn much more realistically and does not really look like a St. Bernard, it shares most of Josef's characteristics in personality and appearance. Joe Hisaishi even paraphrases the recurring musical theme albeit more sophisticated as you can hear in the following montage of the three dog scenes:
Josef's reincarnation finally (1:11) saves the heroine's pet in a similar way. Here, however, it is not played for suspense but for laconic humor that derives from the dog's imperturbable motion.