by Matthew Hardstaff
American Cinematographer caters to, if not American, at least Western cinematographers and their ilk (hence the name). A typical issue is filled with articles detailing the technical aspects of Hollywood fare, patting each other on the back for a job well done. However, they do occasionally attempt to try and woe the more artistic, worldly crowd, by throwing in something that would typically pass under the radar of your average American film industry work horse. March’s issue features a small, but rather interesting and informative article about "Tokyo Sonata" (as well as a blurb about Criterion’s release of "Chungking Express". Go Asia!)
While most of the larger articles do appear online at their website, smaller ones like this are only available in the magazine, so you’d have to purchase it in order to partake in all the Kiyoshi Kurosawa goodness they present. But rest assure, it is indeed goodness. While corresponding only via email, it contains some interesting points not only about the film itself, but also about how Kurosawa likes to work in general. Kurosawa is known for instilling his films with a sense of unease and dread, and although "Tokyo Sonata" is a family drama, that sense of dread is still present. Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa (above left), who worked with Kurosawa previously on "Retribution" and "Loft", goes into great detail about how she worked with lighting designer Tokuju Ichikawa and Kurosawa, to capture the sense of tension and unease within the family dynamic, much of the time through lighting. Instead of balancing the colour temperature of the household so the lighting all gave off the same colour of light, they ensured that each room’s interior lights gave off, in some cases, vastly different colour temperatures, ranging from cyan, tungsten and green, to express the ‘clashing relationships within the family’.
Another subtle technique employed to ground the film, creating a humanistic tale with characters that exist in a world we know, regardless of culture, was to shoot it almost voyeuristically. As Ashizawa explains, “The camera was placed where we could ‘peek’ at the family. We placed it on the very edges of window frames, the dish cabinet, the handles of the staircase, and even behind bars and wooden beams – places where one would usually avoid placing the camera because there are so many distractions. By including all those intrusions, we hoped to portray the family within society, as well as the individuals within the family, in new ways.” It contains other great details about how Kurosawa creates these small, subtle details that are present in all his films, which bring to life the rich atmosphere he’s known for. It also ends with a great quote from the master filmmaker, about the inherent, universal nature of film.
“I think the story of 'Tokyo Sonata' is particular to Japan, but even a strictly localized story can be accepted by everyone around the world as a global expression once it is transformed into film. That is probably an inherent trait of cinema.”