How to Edit Like Kurosawa: An Analysis of the Final Battle in 'Seven Samurai'
It has been said many, many times: Akira Kurosawa is a master filmmaker -- perhaps the master. However, what skill did the Master master? The general consensus leans toward Kurosawa's incredible ability to tell stories through editing, the techniques of which are analyzed in this video by Phil Baumhardt. Here's how Kurosawa approached cutting the final battle scene in Seven Samurai, as well as the motivations behind his approach:
When taking a critical look at editing it's important to understand how editing is used to tell stories. Every cut made serves a purpose -- nothing is arbitrary. In the case of this battle scene, as is the case with the majority of action sequences, cutting for continuity is incredibly important to help the audience make sense of the story space. (One of the worst things you could do as an editor, especially an editor of an action sequence, is to cut great footage together in a way that is confusing to the audience.) Kurosawa makes cutting for continuity easier by filming the scene with multiple cameras.
Quick editing is another technique that Kurosawa uses to keep the aesthetic energy up in the sequence. However, he also uses sustained wide shots to ease the tension. In the end, Kurosawa crafts an incredibly subtle, nuanced scene that ebbs and flows to match the emotional energy of the characters, as well as the overall storyline.
If you're a student of film, chances are you've seen, or even made, many videos similar to Baumhardt's -- especially if you went to film school. As the scene plays out, notes are written that specify Kurosawa's chosen techniques and how they communicate the tone, mood, and plot.
Though this analysis is informative, giving great insight into the editing of the scene, it is by no means complete (it wasn't intended to be). So, if you want to do your own study of the scene to gain a greater understanding of Kurosawa's editing techniques, create a detailed shot list.
List every shot in the sequence, the length of each shot, the kind of shot it is (long shot,medium shot, close up, and everything in between), and what each shot does to communicate and add to the storyline. And if you really want to go above and beyond, storyboard the whole thing. Storyboarding a sequence has a way of helping you internalize each decision made. I did several shot lists as term papers while in school, breaking down some of history's greatest films, and it was absolutely the most helpful exercise I ever did to understand the motivations behind editing (aside from actually editing, of course).
What sequences do you think demonstrate Kurosawa-level editing? What helpful exercises do you suggest trying out for those wanting to understand editing (other than editing)?