Tag Archives: Japanese Cinema

The Tyranny of Geometry

Anuj Malhotra

Hideo Gosha's 'Three Outlaw Samurai' (1964)


Hideo Gosha’s 1964 debut, Three Outlaw Samurai, is similar to a number of other chanbara films from the era: they use a narrative full of incident and event as a mechanism to distill, instead, a discussion of themes and ideas – the use of an emphatic set of visible values (surfaces, textures, locations, gestures, costumes, weather, wounds, text) to throw into sharp relief the invisible, looming ones (hierarchy, politics, injustice, depravity, hunger, loyalty, insult). This interplay between the tangible and the intangible, the material and the spectral, the present and the absent constitutes the central idea of samurai cinema. The character of the masterless samurai operates in a universe full of murder, ammunition, whore-houses, martial symbols, monetary exchange and physical oppression. There is brutal violence of definite consequence : a slit or a gash causes a physical body to spill blood and collapse like a pathetic ragdoll, and for men who fail at warfare, there is a sexual proxy: recede to a brothel and restore masculine self-esteem by raping a woman. And yet, upon this world of casual, corporeal vulgarity, a second spiritual layer constantly exerts itself – one that enforces an invisible set of rules, a code-of-operation. This complicates the situation for the various drifters in the debauched universe of the samurai film: they may do as they please, but not without toll – their very existence is in jeopardy from the imminent danger of spiritual impoverishment and the mourning that will result from it. The dynamics of the samurai film are enriched by this complication – simplistic plots of villainous clan-leaders and the warriors who defy them are actually about much else and perhaps, much grander.

Gosha heightens the contrast between these two realms – as the film progresses, it is consciously emptied of any possibility of a spiritual discussion. The narrative evolves rapidly; it twists, turns and distracts us from any lingering, private thought. Its plea to us becomes more and more persuasive as we are made to invest solely in its central premise, with our moral loyalties declared for us. The characters themselves never indulge in lament or regret, they aren’t self-reflexive: they are merely conduits of event, of gesture, of expression, of action, purveyors of verbs, nothing less and nothing more. But this is a clever strategy – by continuously shifting the focus away from the ‘unspoken code’ or the ‘truth-ether’ that permeates through the universe, felt but never seen, mentioned but never witnessed, Gosha renders any discussion of it (whether within the film or outside it) self-generating. This means that the heavy atmosphere of spiritual compulsion is a fact of the universe, just like any other, and therefore, unlike in other, lesser samurai films, the themes prevalent in the film do not become the point of its existence.

In order to first declare and then codify his emphasis on the ‘visible’ in Three Outlaw Samurai, Gosha adopts a rare visual strategy: he takes the film-frame and splinters it. He uses the most radical, insistent features of Japanese architecture: harsh verticals, geometry, sharp cuts, repetitions, patterns – that manifest in Japanese interiors in the form of sliding doors, plywood partitions, walls that do not reach the roof, columns, narrow corridors – to effect a style where the frame disintegrates and then recomposes into a smaller, proportional fragment of the original frame-area.

21 161761519


Gosha and his cinematographer Tadashi Sakai (who worked on four films in total, three of them with Gosha) shoot individuals and objects with long-lenses to achieve a compressed, flattened image so that the mid and the foregrounds of the image now reside on the same two-dimensional plane. This is an interesting decision, especially considering that many Japanese directors of the day preferred images with greater depth-of-field and the resultant three-dimensionality (so to say). In Three Outlaw Samurai, Gosha substitutes depth with emphasis. A character’s face is often shot through the opening in a object in the foreground – a common plan to induce the illusion of depth – but Gosha/Sakai undercut the effects of this strategy by committing themselves to an image whose depth has been squeezed out of it to a pancake: the result is that characters as well as objects now exist on the same surface, and characters that would traditionally seem to rise from behind an object now emerge from it.

14 9 20


Gosha further heightens this sense of a surface with no thickness/curvature by composing or blocking a number of major scenes in a frontal or planimetric fashion – the characters move therefore as if in a side-scroller video game: up, down, left or right (the assassination attempt inside the brothel is the scene most symptomatic of this strain). This assists Gosha’s larger visual scheme – when Gosha quarantines a single area of the image through sustained frame-fracturing, the two-dimensional composition further amplifies the dramatic effect of such emphasis. Remember, this strategy exists in order for Gosha to underline the visible and in effect, articulate a certain psychology or occurrence that will eventually bear heavily upon the story. This device therefore, that helps highlight a certain gesture, a revelation, a facial expression or a feeble movement – is similar to say, the iris-in of the silent films (there is a literal tribute as well, see: screenshot), an on-location ‘Bonnardising’ of the composition that helps the director illustrate (and isolate) disgust, pleasure, surprise, gratitude or just plain camaraderie by guiding the audience’s attention towards it.

Silent night...

Silent night…

...he senses a presence,

…he senses a presence,

...and the assassins rush in.

…and the assassins rush in.


The strategy is taken to an extreme as Gosha renders the frame itself part of the architecture within the scene – at significant points in the film (notably, in the opening itself), a character struts into the diegesis and others turn their heads to look at him, but the dramatic effect of the basic event of his entrance is underlined by having the frame contain his form only partially.

11 7 1


The top-edge of the frame decapitates the actor’s figure, revealing his gait, stride, weapon of choice and athletic ability, but his identity is still a secret. A line or two is exchanged, his voice is dangled in front of us as a clue – but before we indulge in speculation, he is made to effect a vertical squat and identify himself through inclusion. This is a peculiar blocking schema, where the actor must respond to a frame that refuses to adjust itself to accommodate him, but completely natural in the universe of Gosha’s film, where figures, shapes, silhouettes and outlines are captives of a world with a tyrannical geometry that cuts and slices through them.

The Domestication of Antonio Gaudí

Anuj Malhotra

Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí is as great a film on architecture as it is great architecture on film; either way, one man’s great art seems to facilitate another’s. With his pet obsessions (patterns, textures, shapes, designs, material – and how film can alter them) in place, Teshigahara studies Gaudí’s work with great feeling for it. Gaudí’s arches, walls, pillars, columns, windows, benches seem to evoke feelings of extreme wonder, curiosity, humility, overwhelming surprise and gratitude at different points of the film within Teshigahara. These, he then attempts to transmit to his viewers through a corresponding physical (or optical, in certain cases) routine of the camera – for instance, the scalar grandeur of Sagrada Família seems to demand static appreciation, but Gaudí’s ceilings have low-angle Sacha Vierny-type tracking shots assigned to them.

One would imagine that it is but natural that for an architectural film to be successful, the fundamentals of cinema, the sound and the image, must attain their fullest potential. For a building is a real physical structure, it is an erected symbol of permanence and intransience and as such objects go, they can often seem devoid of any real emotion. Their eternality seems to grant them a certain arrogance – no matter who you are, a monument wouldn’t bother with you. Conversely, a building is also a very willing subject, unflinching and immovable, it will wait with endless patience for the filmmaker to set himself up.

With these attributes of his subject so firmly entrenched, it is up to the cinema-man to then make the building still seem like the work of a human hand (or conversely, let the structure sustain its coldness – like in Tati’s Play Time or Scott’s Blade Runner). In order to infuse the concrete with sentiment, therefore, the filmmaker will be compelled to think in terms of cinema and cinema alone. Antonio Gaudí is, if I may submit that the cliché is unavoidable, full of such moments of genuine cinema. Teshigahara overlays his precise but intuitive camera maneuvers with the guttural, cavernous sound of Toru Takemitsu, which seems to rise forever from the basement of an abandoned house or the recesses of a human soul.

The greatest accomplishment of Antonio Gaudí is its ability to assimilate Gaudí’s unique fin-de-siècle architecture into contemporary (1984) Barcelona life. In a very significant moment of the film, the camera admires the ceiling design of an unknown structure. Up till this point in the film, Teshigahara has taken us from one Gaudí to another – refusing sternly to supply us with a textual (supers, intertitles) or verbal (vox-populi, narrations) identification of any of the structures. As such, a viewer may imagine our this present location to just be one of the many, but slowly, the camera pans from one corner of the ceiling to another and then slides down the wall gradually to reveal a family sitting there, conducting their day-to-day chores, unperturbed entirely by the presence of the two great artists in their midst. This shot is a significant introduction to an agenda that the film will pursue diligently through the rest of its duration: the domestication of Gaudí’s sensibility. Or if the film exists outdoors, then its assimilation into the Barcelona city-scape (assimilation into the mainstream is again, a pet concern of Teshigahara’s). It is a significant achievement for Antonio Gaudí, for unlike other great films on artists, like Mystery of Picasso (1956) by Henri-Georges Clouzot which is shot entirely inside a closed dark studio somewhere; this film doesn’t make a systematic refusal to acknowledge anything apart from its subject’s work.

Throughout the film, Teshigahara includes shots of Gaudí’s architecture as part of a larger city – and even more significantly for an artist, a part of the city that its inhabitants accept as routine. Therefore, there are shots of the Sagrada Família framed in the background of a series of images where the foreground is littered with symbols of ordinary everyday life: a family on a picnic, a red-light crossing and clothes drying on a line on a Barcelona rooftop.

Antonio Gaudí ties into the rest of the Teshigahara filmography also via the theme of metamorphoses – his work seems to delve perpetually into this metamorphoses of an object (in Teshigahara, it is crucial to view the human body as a material, a thing) from one form to the other; therefore, a number of his films situate themselves in the middle of this mutation. As a filmmaker, Teshigahara’s pre-occupation remains not the end result of this process, but the process itself – if presented therefore with a ‘work in progress’, he is bound to focus on the ‘progress’, rather than the larger ‘work’. In Antonio Gaudí, Teshigahara devotes the final third of the film to a very material study of the Sagrada Família, not arguably Gaudí’s most famous accomplishment, and yet, incomplete or unfinished. The film contains several shots of the structure surrounded by construction cranes, cement, workers, safety helmets, wooden framework and other modern architectural framework – it is essential therefore, that it is seen as a work-in-progress and a structure built of brick, mortar, ceramics, stained glass and wrought iron. It is also not entirely untrue that the film can sometimes make the site of the church building resemble the laboratory from The Face of Another, where throughout most of the film, a man’s face is the site of a formidable architectural ambition.