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.
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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.
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.
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.
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’.