How Akira Kurosawa films command the weather

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

16 August 2017

By Jasper Sharp

Seven Samurai (1954) © 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 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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 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’.

Ran (1985)
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 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
Ran (1985)
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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