I’ve now arrived at an important transition in Akira Kurosawa’s career. In my project of watching all (or all available) Kurosawa films in chronological order, I’ve completed his pre-widescreen work.
Every film I’ve watched so far, from his first, Sanshiro Sugata, to his 17th, The Lower Depths, was shot in the old Academy Ratio of 1.37×1—almost exactly the same shape as an old, 4×3 television. (That isn’t a coincidence, by the way. Television engineers replicated film’s aspect ratio for compatibility. Film studios then switched to widescreen to be better than television.) But starting with his 18th film, The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa went wide.
The Hidden Fortress was the first of six films Kurosawa made in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, Tohoscope. He used the format aggressively, boldly, and brilliantly.
Curiously, he eschewed the other major format change of the time: color. All six of his Tohoscope films, even the extremely big-budgeted Red Beard, were in black and white.
In my one chance to ask Kurosawa a question (when he received the San Francisco International Film Festival’s first life achievement award for directing), I asked him why he embraced scope so quickly but waited so long about color. He said he avoided color until he felt the stock was good enough—a reasonable answer. Not so with scope. He said he liked scope for big epics set in the 16th century, but not for contemporary, intimate films. A strange answer, considering that he shot the intimate and contemporary High and Low in scope, but not Kagemusha (his latest film at the time), an epic set in the 16th century.
I found a more believable answer when I read Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. According to Galbraith, Kurosawa didn’t like what anamorphic lenses (the key component to scope photography) did to color film.
That makes sense. When Kurosawa finally accepted color, he dropped scope and never used it again. Only one of his color films, Dersu Uzala, is presented in scope, but it was actually shot in 70mm, which gives a scope-compatible aspect ratio without the anamorphic lens. (It also provides a clearer, more detailed, and less grainy image.)
With the exception of Dodes’ka-den, for which he returned to the old Academy Ratio, the rest of his color films were all shot in standard, 1.85×1 widescreen. That’s wider than Academy, but not as wide as scope. And it doesn’t require an anamorphic lens.