Slow Motion

This post would have come a lot sooner had I not been locked in mortal combat with YouTube; it’s getting harder to find clips I can comment on or post without being blocked.  (I’ve appealed and hopefully “fair use” will prevail.)  Nonetheless, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

I love this sequence in Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai because it accomplishes so much, while also containing my all time favorite shot from the movie.  I will never forget seeing this scene, and this shot, for the first time – it was so shocking to me.

I’ve read that this sequence gave birth to the convention of introducing the hero by way of an action event that is outside the main story to come. That is, in Seven Samurai, the kidnapped baby has nothing to do with the farmers that we’ll be spending the rest of the film with. Apparently this was the first time it was done, one of many influences this great movie has had.

As set up, I’ll explain: Our main samurai played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura, comes to the aid of a village where a desperate criminal holds a small child at sword point in a small shack.

In preparing for his attack, Shimura shocks the villagers by cutting off his topknot, a great symbol of honor for samurai, so that he can convincingly disguise himself as a monk. This tells us so much about his character; I’m ready to follow this guy anywhere.

(In lieu of video, here are captioned images…)

Our hero, whom we’re just meeting, approaches the shack disguised as a monk offering rice balls for the hungry child and bandit.

Kurosawa

The angry bandit screams belligerently for Shimura’s character to throw them to him.  Mind you, all we can hear is wind, the screaming bandit and the crying baby. (In that great, 50’s, mono soundtrack kinda way.)

Kurosawa

He throws them. This whole time we have only our vivid imaginations of what’s happening off screen in that dark shack.  A baby held at blade-point, rice cakes landing at the bandit’s feet, his guard momentarily down to pick up the food…

Kurosawa

The samurai leaps into action…

Kurosawa

The crowd, and the movie-viewing audience, leans forward, desperate to see what’s happening…

Kurosawa

The empty doorway… what could be going down in there?!  We rely on our ears … the baby cries, violent grunts under gusts of wind. (So begins the shot which is the star of today’s post.)

Kurosawa

Finally, someone smashes through the doorway.  The bandit.  Shockingly in SLOW MOTION…

Kurosawa

Spectators stand, hold their breath, like watching an accident in slow motion…

Kurosawa

Still in slow motion, the bandit teeters…

Kurosawa

The crowd takes in every little moment, watching in slow motion as the fates of this bandit and the child are revealed…

Kurosawa

And then he falls dead.  The woman and child cry off camera under the sounds of the violent wind.

Kurosawa’s Samurai Skills

After seeing this moment, as a viewer I now think this samurai is a GOD – his actions so skillful, elegant, and effective. (Which mirrors how I feel about Kurosawa at this moment, by the way). Also, very importantly, this sequence speaks to the themes of the whole film – that in a world where might makes right, brains and elegance are more mighty than brute strength.

What’s the most thrilling to me is how unexpected the moment is – both the fact that we’re not shown the actual act of violence, always more powerful, and that time has slowed for this crucial moment, like holding your breath and seeing glass fly in slow motion in a car accident.

That’s to me what great direction is – presenting a moment, capturing it vividly in a single shot or sequence, in such an unexpected, cinematically unique way.  A subjective way, a daring way that jolts the audience and illuminates what’s happening thematically.  It lets us viscerally experience it, and understand or take it in on a deep, emotional, primal level. As an art form, that’s what cinema’s best at.

My bellwether of if I’m on the right track designing a shot (and I’ve got a long way to go on pushing myself on this front) is if it starts to make me a little nervous, I know I’m on the right track. Because bold moments are what it takes to find these truths, and for the really bold moments there’s sometimes no safety net – you’re really committing to shooting it in a unique, even weird way. And that’s when it can work the best sometimes. But like with any reward, there’s risk; it could fall flat, or worst of all, be perceived as “pretentious.” But as Orson Welles said when asked if it was all worth it, he replied, “It is when it works.” (He was talking about raising money for his films, but I think it applies in this context, too.)

So, for me, this shot is a good reminder to push that envelope, because what we’re really after is instilling a kind of authentic, poetic shock. That’s what gets us to the truth of the moment, and this shot from Seven Samurai I think certainly achieves that.