What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.

Extra Credits- Sengoku Jidai

Tonight I stumbled across the amazing collection of videos that is Extra Credits, specifically their excellent short video series summarizing the events of the unification of Japan at the end of the Warring States period. Six very entertaining videos of 5 minutes each that are totally worth your time if you have any interest in Japanese history.

Then, once you’re done those, start to check out the other Extra Credits videos on a wide variety of topics. I’m astounded I never noticed these things before, but that’s the nature of the Internet!

Rob

Benshi and Macross 7

Silent films were an international language. Taking advantage of the fact they had no natural soundtrack, they were designed and produced to be understood through purely visual storytelling. Even when dialog cards were later introduced to add key pieces of dialog, the core of the films were still visual. This allowed them to be watched and understood by audiences the world over, or world audiences which lived right next door, since this was the great age of immigration and your neighbour may not speak the same language you did.

When these silent films were exported to other countries, they were adapted to the local customs, and in the case of Japan they took on narrators who were there to help the audience with the points of the film that local audiences might not understand. These narrators, called Benshi, would introduce the film to set the story and context, and then narrate the story as needed for the audience to help them get over jumps or occasionally missing pieces of film. While in the Western tradition, organs were used to accompany silent films for music, the Benshi worked alongside traditional Japanese Kabuki orchestras to produce a very Japanese movie-going experience from 1910 until the mid-1930’s. It worked so well this system was also adopted into early Taiwanese cinema, with the narrators called Benzi.

water-magician-benshi-poster-

The Benshi also shaped Japanese cinema, as the producers of Japanese films of the time knew that a Benshi would be there to narrate their films and so they started to script their films with the expectation that the Benshi would not only narrate, but do all the voices for the characters (of both sexes) as well. This made the Benshi truly part of the drama, and different Benshi became major stars based on their styles of acting and narration. People would even go to see the same film again if narrated by a different Benshi because it was said that in the hands of a different Benshi the same film could become a comedy, a romance, a thriller, or take on different levels of drama as the Benshi would add their own improvisations and style to the film’s story. You might even say that the Benshi became the reason people went to see the performance, and that the films themselves become a backdrop for the Benshi!

According to Wikipedia, “in 1927, there were 6,818 benshi, including 180 women.” This was likely their peak, as it was around this time that the first American “talkies” appeared and sound was introduced to movie-going audiences. So, while Benshi did continue on for a time as translators for foreign films, their services were less and less required, and they slowly became a rare cultural tradition. Today, there are still Benshi like Midori Sawato who do performances when silent films are played in art houses and on special occasions, but they are a rare experience.  Here is a series of short clips showing a Benshi in action from the above performance at the Sydney Opera House:

I personally find Benshi fascinating as a concept, and think it would be amazing to watch one perform, although technically I already have. Back when I was the president of Anime London in the 1990’s a group of us would meet on the second and fourth Monday of every month and watch anime from my fairly large (at that time) collection. One of the shows we watched was a series called Macross 7, and I had the whole series on videotape with only one problem- it was still in Japanese and wasn’t subtitled after the first two or three episodes. This was in the days before internet video was really big (or possible in any quality), but I did manage to find translation scripts for subtitlers to use online. However, I didn’t have the equipment or ability to subtitle all 49 episodes of Macross 7, so what to do?

My not-all-that-innovative solution was to become an audio subtitler, and read the scripts alongside the dialog while the rest of the group watched the show. (Holy Benshi, Batman!) However, after a few episodes one of my friends, a talented young man named Glenn Jupp offered to take over audio-titling for me for reasons I’ve forgotten. (I think I couldn’t do it one week for some reason.) Glenn was a natural Benshi, and would have done these Japanese masters proud. I never did it again because Glenn spent the next 44 episodes giving Macross 7 his own personal spin by doing his own inflections to all the voices, and showing incredible timing and dramatic flare. It worked perfectly, because Macross 7 is an over-the-top mecha anime musical, and having a wild dramatic reading of the lines just fit perfectly.The highlight of each meeting became watching Glenn perform, and while new members to the club took a bit to get used to our unusual way of doing things, they soon came to appreciate Glenn’s talents.

It made watching Macross 7 a unique experience that took the show to a whole other level, and even today I can’t watch it subtitled without hearing Glenn’s voice narrating the character lines. (“Listen to my song!!!”) The day we finished the series, I think we gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, and when they released some direct-to-video episodes of Macross 7 we got scripts and asked him to narrate once more. Watching it without Glenn just wouldn’t have been the same, and I can appreciate how audiences in Japan felt about their Benshi, because Glenn was ours.

Arigatou, Jupp-san. You would have done the masters proud!

Rob

Samurai vs. Shadow

Wow. Now that is some seriously amazing choreography!

Daikaiju Sushi

As many may know, I’m a huge Giant Monster fan, and today I discovered that one of my favorite blogs, Giant Monsters Attack!, has been reborn on Tumblr as Daikaiju Sushi after being dormant for a while. Check it out for all sorts of new and fun giant monster goodness!

 

Choudenshi Bioman- The First English Dubbed Sentai Series

Contrary to popular belief, the first Sentai completely dubbed into English wasn’t Zyuranger (Power Rangers Season 1, in 1993), it was 1984’s Bioman! A Filipino TV network dubbed the whole series in English in 1987, and released it to some success on the local TV stations.

Episode One Dubbed in English here on VEOH.com.

Bioman is the story of 5 young people (isn’t it always?) who become the agents of the Biorobo and are given superpowers to fight against the evil Doctor Man and his minions.

It was a big hit in it’s time in Japan, The Philipines, and France (where it was a megahit dubbed in French) and if you watch it, it’s not hard to understand why. It did many things differently than the Sentai series that would come before it and the ones that would come after it as well. It is unique, and just plain fun to watch.

A few examples of what made it different-

  • The Biomen’s mentor was also the mecha they piloted into battle, but it didn’t directly communicate with them, that was all done through Peebo, a C-3PO type robot that was clearly the inspiration for Alpha 5 in Power Rangers. (In fact, the first unaired version of what would become Power Rangers was in fact Bioman dubbed in English by Haim Saban! However the FOX execs wanted American actors, not Asian ones on the screen, so he came up with the Power Rangers we know today.)
  • The Biorobo was limited by the ability of it’s human pilots/partners, and as they got stronger so did it. There are actually training episodes of them trying to get stronger so that they can handle the mecha’s more high-performance abilities.
  • The mecha fights themselves are shot so that the mecha have a weight to them and seem big, unlike most shows where the mecha are shot like the guys in suits they are.
  • Doctor Man (I love that name!) had just a few lieutenants, and a few Beastnoids (monsters), and couldn’t make more. So the same bad guys kept coming back, and they had a chance to become characters in their own right.
  • Instead of a new monster each week, there was a new giant robot instead, piloted by one of the bad guy lieutenants.
  • The plots were generally fun and interesting, and rarely boring. They really tried to mix the stories up, and not just go for the same old thing.
  • The English dub is in Phillipino English, and done in a straight but playful way with odd dialect-isms that really add to it’s entertainment value. (They were dubbing it for kids, but not stupid kids.) My personal favorite is the bad guy’s “FOR THE MAN!” salute, which brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. (For those who were born after 1990, “The Man” was 1970’s street slang to refer to white authority figures.)

I actually get bored of Sentai series really quick (they’re too damn repetitive), yet for some reason I can watch Bioman with a big smile, even though it wasn’t part of my childhood. It’s just pure entertainment on a level which isn’t stupid or condescending, but pitched just right for any audience.

For the Man!

Rob

 

Bakuman

I buy very few manga these days, in fact, I can count the number I do buy on one hand without using all the fingers.

But if I had to pick just one manga from that very short list, that manga would be Bakuman.

How do I describe Bakuman to someone who hasn’t read it? Well, I guess the simplest description would be it’s about two Japanese teenagers who want to draw manga (comics).

But, like most things, that simple definition doesn’t even begin to cover what it really is. You see, Bakuman is funny, witty, and charming, but it’s also an in-depth exploration of the creative process, the Japanese manga industry, and even the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to be a manga artist. It manages to critique the industry and the art form itself while at the same time making us fall in love with a sometimes kooky, lovable and weird cast of misfits who inhabit that industry and live in the pressure-cooker environment that it produces.

And, it’s those characters that keep me coming back each time a new volume comes out (I refuse to read it online), because it’s like getting together with old friends with each new release. You become a part of their world, invested in their successes and failures and in them as people.

You also learn from them. Volume 10 just came out this week, and it reminded me of one of the most important things to remember as an artist- failure is good.

Not blind failure, but learning from everything you do even if you fail or if your work doesn’t measure up. The audience will never see the pile of failures that each successful story is built on, but they’re what make an artist’s craft what it is.

It’s so easy to forget that as a writer, and only want to do projects that you think you can do 100% or not do anything at all. But, those risky projects, those experimental projects, and those failures are what will make you that successful artist you want to be.

Bakuman reminded me of this, this week, and helped get me back on the right writing path. So I want to give it thanks.

If you’re curious, some fans did what they call a “visual comic” (a comic with voiceovers, music and sound effects) of the first couple of stories of Bakuman, here’s the first one-

There is also a Bakuman anime, which I’m told is quite good and popular, but I’m enjoying the manga too much to switch over.

Rob

Samurai Horses

As someone into Japanese history, I always wondered something- why didn’t the Japanese make more extensive use of horses during their wars? I knew they made some use of them, but nowhere near as much as people from other countries did.

Since there’s a horse element to this week’s part (and the coming parts) of my story “The Inuyama Rebellion” I thought I’d look up something on Japanese horses of the Sengoku (Warring States) period.

What I didn’t expect to find was the reason why Horses weren’t used much in Japan by the Samurai the way they were in many other parts of the world. They used them, but only in fairly small numbers, and I’d always wondered why. Well apparently the answer is that Japanese native horses are actually pretty small.

Text: Thoroughbred/Japanese Horse

This meant that they had a very limited ability to carry a Japanese Samurai (much less one in full armour) for long distances and thus were apparently only used by commanders and messengers in war. The Japanese apparently didn’t even bother to have actual mounted cavalry units per-se.

Here are pictures of Samurai and horses for comparison-

 

The last picture (painting, really) shows a clear-ish view of what a saddle of the period looked like too. (And this is likely the style of saddle Masato would be using in the story.)

Rob