Video Essay: How Akira Kurosawa Used Geometry to Visually Create Tension

Akira Kurosawa was a master in so many aspects of filmmaking, but his ability to stage a scene and tell stories visually would give his knack for editing, what some would say was his greatest talent, a run for its money.

One of our favorite video essayists Tony Zhou breaks down a scene from Kurosawa's 1960 thriller The Bad Sleep Well and in doing so reveals just how skilled the director was at visual storytelling. Zhou points out the geometric patterns formed in order to create tension -- the triangles made with eyelines and props, as well as the squares made to form frames within frames. 

Check out the video essay below:

Aesthetics was not only my favorite subject in college, but it proved to be supremely and uniquely helpful to me as not only a teller of visual stories, but as a consumer of visual stories. I feel like I say this constantly, but understanding the language of film and becoming more visually literate can not only transform the meanings behind key scenes in your films, but deliver them with a bigger, stronger punch. Like they always say, in film, it's better to show than to tell.

Take the section of the scene where Moriyama corners Shirai -- ask yourself, does he really get cornered? Take a look at the frame below:

A lot of words come to mind during this part of the scene: constriction, trapped, claustrophobic, imprisoned, etc. However, it's not like Moriyama has Shirai pinned up against a wall, though it certainly feels like that's what's going on. The approach taken by Kurosawa and his cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa for this shot creates feelings of oppression and confinement, because the frame is split by the piece of wood in the center of the frame. This creates a "frame within a frame", a popular technique used by many, many cinematographers.

This frame (within a frame) is used to visually (instead of spatially) decrease the amount of room Shirai appears to have while Moriyama approaches him -- giving the illusion that he's being cornered, that he's being trapped, that there's nowhere left for him to go. Now, if you want to understand how effective this technique is, imagine if Moriyama literally cornered Shirai. Sure, we'd understand that Moriyama's onto Shirai, but the subtlety that creates the tension in this scene would be completely lost.

The brilliance of this composition is this: In the physical world, the world in which Moriyama lives, no space is lost -- literally. However, in the emotional world, the world in which Shirai lives, space is dwindling. Moriyama is unaware (though suspicious) of any wrong-doing, while Shirai is fully aware, which is why the composition reflects the world inside his head, because that's where the tension is coming from -- Shirai's fear that he's going to get caught.

Keep an eye out for the longer version of this video essay, because Tony says he's prepping by watching all 30 Kurosawa films. I think we can all agree that we simply cannot wait.     

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Your Comment



February 14, 2015 at 1:11PM, Edited February 14, 1:11PM

Ryan O'Rourke
Cinematographer & Editor

These Tony Zhou videos are finally being noticed. And the things he's talking about are finally being appreciated.

February 14, 2015 at 1:47PM

Josh Wolf

I don't know why this is getting thumbed down, but I totally agree these are really informative videos :D

February 24, 2015 at 4:39PM

Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor

Seriously, I think No Film School should post or create more content like Tony Zhou's, or maybe make a subcategory for this level of film/visual language analysis. He just does it so well that I feel enlightened every time I watch a video from him!

February 15, 2015 at 10:02AM

Miko Jacildo

Tony kills it. I needs to subscribe to his paid videos one of these days.

February 16, 2015 at 3:38PM


This video piece is excellent and gave me a glow of excitement at the possibilities in my own work. Thank you for this and the associated links.

February 22, 2015 at 2:02PM


When the video opened by knocking the standard coverage of The Imitation Game, I thought of this quote: The are maybe 20 amazing directors in the world, and the rest just do coverage. -Bruno Delbonnel

March 10, 2015 at 3:58PM

Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op

Sensei kurosawa. Thanks Tony for pointing this one out. Akira is really a master of visual storytelling. I love his works so bad.

March 22, 2015 at 9:19PM, Edited March 22, 9:19PM


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