Kurosawa and Geometry

I can't un-see things.

Do you see it? Kurosawa uses clear staging and clean composition to build shapes within his shots. Wada, the character at the top of the frame, serves as a point for two triangular layouts in this shot. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Do you see it? Kurosawa uses clear staging and clean composition to build shapes within his shots. Wada, the character at the top of the frame, serves as a point for two triangular layouts in this shot. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

This is the problem I have with my self-imposed education in film. I learn about a new technique, a new approach, something woven into the film itself that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. For example: I keep seeing shapes in Akira Kurosawa's movies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in The Bad Sleep Well, the director's 1960 film about corporate corruption and revenge. Immediately, my eye was drawn to triangles made by the blocking of the actors, their eyelines, and how they move in a frame.

Granted, I was aware of Kurosawa’s use of shapes before, but I wasn’t aware of how extensive he made use of this idea. The Bad Sleep Well opens with a wedding reception where just about everything goes wrong. The press show up, as this is a notable wedding – Nishi, played by Toshiro Mifune (big surprise there), is marrying the daughter of Iwabuchi (who also happens to be his boss), a land developer whose company is embroiled in scandal and accusations of corruption.

Nishi, on the left, and Wada, on the right, create another triangular shape with their eyelines, and the viewer's own eye is drawn to the shrine in the distance. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Nishi, on the left, and Wada, on the right, create another triangular shape with their eyelines, and the viewer's own eye is drawn to the shrine in the distance. From The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Right away, two police inspectors arrive ahead of the wedding party, followed immediately by a gang of reporters. People are taken for questioning, and as the camera moves about the reception, we continue to see triangles formed by the bodies in the room. Eyes and eyelines, too, become massively important, forming the invisible connections between characters, creating yet more shapes.

It makes for remarkable viewing. Mifune is incredibly subdued as a diligent and stoic secretarial worker, but it’s his clear glances and pointed looks that tell the story. It isn’t until a third of the movie is done that he starts to speak and we realize his role.

Explaining this is a challenge. Seeing is believing, after all, and it’s difficult to convey just how much Kurosawa adds to each scene by focusing on simple compositional tricks like these. There’s a beautiful scene (check it out below, with added commentary by Every Frame a Painting's Tony Zhou) where Mifune's eyes alone create a sense of tension.

The dramatic irony this builds works brilliantly – it’s a search for a mole, and though we know Mifune is the man the others are desperate to find, they’re sorting through the chaos of it all, and he just misses being caught red-handed.

Perhaps more so than the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen, The Bad Sleep Well has truly cemented his reputation for strong form and composition.

But now I can’t stop seeing triangles everywhere. 


ben filipkowski

Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.