How Akira Kurosawa films command the weather

Rain, wind, fog and heatwaves – few directors marshal the weather like Akira Kurosawa marshals the weather. 

Jasper Sharp

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)
Credit: Toho Co., Ltd

Lots of things make Akira Kurosawa’s films unique. There’s the dynamic action sequences shot from multiple camera angles, the striking compositions and staging, and, perhaps above all, the preference for on-location shoots, with the landscapes and locales emerging almost as characters in their own right.

But there’s also lots and lots of weather. His movies are full of mud, dirt, rain, fog and the effects of heat, which help to define the mood, heighten the action or reflect the emotional and psychological states of his protagonists. Indeed, his former continuity assistant and later assistant producer Teruyo Nogami even named her memoirs of her years working alongside him Waiting on the Weather.

Here’s how Kurosawa directs the elements in four of his greatest films.

The heat in Stray Dog (1949)

This gritty policier unfolds within the lawless, rubble-strewn setting of occupation-era Tokyo during a high-summer heatwave, as Toshiro Mifune’s rookie police detective Murakami hunts for the killer who stole his pistol. In combination with the use of the light and shadow of film noir, Kurosawa uses heat and humidity to evoke the claustrophobic desperation of the chase.

The credits unfold over shots of a panting dog, introducing the air of stifling, steamy intensity that pervades the film

The credits unfold over shots of a panting dog, introducing the air of stifling, steamy intensity that pervades the film

The story begins when Murakami’s Colt is pickpocketed on a crowded streetcar. He is overwhelmed by the suffocating heat, the sounds of a baby crying and the odours of sweat mingled with cheap perfume

The story begins when Murakami’s Colt is pickpocketed on a crowded streetcar. He is overwhelmed by the suffocating heat, the sounds of a baby crying and the odours of sweat mingled with cheap perfume

Kurosawa conveys the sweaty, high-pressure atmosphere throughout by way of characters continuously wafting themselves with fans or mopping their brows

Kurosawa conveys the sweaty, high-pressure atmosphere throughout by way of characters continuously wafting themselves with fans or mopping their brows

In the baking oven environment of an interrogation room, an early suspect evasively tugs at her clothes during her ineffective grilling under Murakami

In the baking oven environment of an interrogation room, an early suspect evasively tugs at her clothes during her ineffective grilling under Murakami

Murakami’s more experienced colleague Sato adopts an altogether cooler approach to gathering information, plying the suspect with an ice

Murakami’s more experienced colleague Sato adopts an altogether cooler approach to gathering information, plying the suspect with an ice

Sweat glistens on the bodies of the nightclub floorshow performers, among whom lies a key informant, while the audience continuously fan themselves in the background

Sweat glistens on the bodies of the nightclub floorshow performers, among whom lies a key informant, while the audience continuously fan themselves in the background

The rain in Seven Samurai (1954)

Kurosawa’s most celebrated film centres on the eponymous samurais’ efforts to protect a village subjected to regular pillaging from a horde of bandits. Often drenched in rain, it’s also noted for its dynamic action sequences, with the ever-active camera thrusting the viewer right into the dirt and confusion of battle.

Portentous clouds loom overhead in the introduction, as a group of bandits ransacks the countryside

Portentous clouds loom overhead in the introduction, as a group of bandits ransacks the countryside

In this scene with the samurai sheltering in their hut in the village, the rain emphasises the sense of disquieting stillness in the run up to the inevitable raid

In this scene with the samurai sheltering in their hut in the village, the rain emphasises the sense of disquieting stillness in the run up to the inevitable raid

With the rest of the village weathering out the downpour, the love-struck Katsushiro takes the opportunity to surreptitiously sneak out for a clandestine tryst

With the rest of the village weathering out the downpour, the love-struck Katsushiro takes the opportunity to surreptitiously sneak out for a clandestine tryst

Rain doesn’t appear for much of Seven Samurai’s epic runtime, but when it rains, it pours, with a sudden deluge extinguishing the fires of the evening’s revelling the day before the final battle

Rain doesn’t appear for much of Seven Samurai’s epic runtime, but when it rains, it pours, with a sudden deluge extinguishing the fires of the evening’s revelling the day before the final battle

The bandits invade the village the following morning, appearing through the torrential curtain

The bandits invade the village the following morning, appearing through the torrential curtain

The driving rain brings a heightened tension to a final battle that is brutal, chaotic and very muddy

The driving rain brings a heightened tension to a final battle that is brutal, chaotic and very muddy

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

The fog in Throne of Blood (1957)

Fog is an omnipresent element in Kurosawa’s brooding reworking of Macbeth within a medieval Japanese setting. It’s used to express the inner turmoil of Mifune’s central character, Washizu, and to obscure and conceal the forces that steer his fate.

The film opens with a blasted, barren landscape punctuated by a solitary monument marked ‘The site of Cobweb Castle’. The swirling fog thickens and then parts again to reveal the once-great castle as it was at the beginning of the events depicted

The film opens with a blasted, barren landscape punctuated by a solitary monument marked ‘The site of Cobweb Castle’. The swirling fog thickens and then parts again to reveal the once-great castle as it was at the beginning of the events depicted

Returning victorious from battle, generals Washizu and Miki stray into the gloomy forest beyond the gates of Cobweb Castle, where they encounter the mysterious spectral force that foretells their fates before it vanishes into the ether

Returning victorious from battle, generals Washizu and Miki stray into the gloomy forest beyond the gates of Cobweb Castle, where they encounter the mysterious spectral force that foretells their fates before it vanishes into the ether

On their way back to the castle, Washizu and Miki become lost in a dense brume in a sequence that demonstrates Kurosawa’s mastery at using atmospheric conditions to accentuate or attenuate screen depth. The pair repeatedly disappear into and reappear from the murky background

On their way back to the castle, Washizu and Miki become lost in a dense brume in a sequence that demonstrates Kurosawa’s mastery at using atmospheric conditions to accentuate or attenuate screen depth. The pair repeatedly disappear into and reappear from the murky background

A funereal atmosphere pervades the courtyard of Cobweb Castle as Washizu rides among the inhabitants mourning the death of its ruler, Lord Tsuzuki, whom Washizu’s wife Asaji has persuaded him to murder

A funereal atmosphere pervades the courtyard of Cobweb Castle as Washizu rides among the inhabitants mourning the death of its ruler, Lord Tsuzuki, whom Washizu’s wife Asaji has persuaded him to murder

As prophesied, the forest creeps towards the castle (now overlorded by Washizu), in haunting slow motion

As prophesied, the forest creeps towards the castle (now overlorded by Washizu), in haunting slow motion

The chilling moment when Washizu realises his wicked deeds have caught up with him. It’s a standout shot that’s characteristic of Kurosawa’s meticulous deployment of a vast array of extras within the castle sets, and his powerful use of staging in depth

The chilling moment when Washizu realises his wicked deeds have caught up with him. It’s a standout shot that’s characteristic of Kurosawa’s meticulous deployment of a vast array of extras within the castle sets, and his powerful use of staging in depth

The wind in Ran (1985)

Wind is the all-pervading element of Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear, his second take on Shakespeare. It’s a force that expresses the turbulence contained within the word ‘ran’, meaning ‘chaos’ or ‘rebellion’.

Having set up camp following the opening boar hunt, Lord Hidetora feigns sleep, overwhelmed by anger after his third son, Saburo, insultingly questions his judgement. The silence is accompanied by the rustling sound of wind picking up on the soundtrack, expressing his discontent before he banishes Saburo to live as an outlaw. Toru Takemitsu’s score, consisting predominantly of traditional woodwind instruments, such as fue, sho and shakuhachi, is conspicuously absent in the film’s first 20 minutes

Having set up camp following the opening boar hunt, Lord Hidetora feigns sleep, overwhelmed by anger after his third son, Saburo, insultingly questions his judgement. The silence is accompanied by the rustling sound of wind picking up on the soundtrack, expressing his discontent before he banishes Saburo to live as an outlaw. Toru Takemitsu’s score, consisting predominantly of traditional woodwind instruments, such as fue, sho and shakuhachi, is conspicuously absent in the film’s first 20 minutes

The motif of shifting cloud formations recurs throughout Ran, such as in this ominous shot after Lady Kaede, the wife of Hidetora’s eldest son, Taro, expresses her own political ambitions, which ultimately lead to the downfall of the castle

The motif of shifting cloud formations recurs throughout Ran, such as in this ominous shot after Lady Kaede, the wife of Hidetora’s eldest son, Taro, expresses her own political ambitions, which ultimately lead to the downfall of the castle

The sequence in which Hidetora is driven from the castle in which he has taken refuge, his entire army slaughtered, is among the most remarkable in any of Kurosawa’s films. The howling wind tears at his hair and robes while black smoke billows from the castle’s burning remains

The sequence in which Hidetora is driven from the castle in which he has taken refuge, his entire army slaughtered, is among the most remarkable in any of Kurosawa’s films. The howling wind tears at his hair and robes while black smoke billows from the castle’s burning remains

Driven beyond the brink of insanity, Hidetora roams solitarily across a windswept landscape where he is discovered by Saburo’s former vassal and Kyoami the fool

Driven beyond the brink of insanity, Hidetora roams solitarily across a windswept landscape where he is discovered by Saburo’s former vassal and Kyoami the fool

Hidetora hides out in the barren wilderness of a volcanic plain, haunted by visions of the destruction he has caused throughout his life’s quest for power. The wind billows through his hair as he is approached by Lady Sué, the wife of his second son Jiro, and her brother Tsurumaru

Hidetora hides out in the barren wilderness of a volcanic plain, haunted by visions of the destruction he has caused throughout his life’s quest for power. The wind billows through his hair as he is approached by Lady Sué, the wife of his second son Jiro, and her brother Tsurumaru

Wind manifests itself throughout the film via the frequent shots of rustling flags and military banners, most conspicuously in the climactic battle scenes and this sequence in which Hidetora returns to his former castle with Saburo

Wind manifests itself throughout the film via the frequent shots of rustling flags and military banners, most conspicuously in the climactic battle scenes and this sequence in which Hidetora returns to his former castle with Saburo

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