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Kimura Daisaku Cinema Memorandum #1 – Kurosawa and the Telephoto –

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PHOTO: 貫井 勇志 / Yuji NUKUI

“Yojimbo”: the pinnacle of the telephoto

The movie where KUROSAWA used the telephoto the most was on “Yojimbo” (1961).
I was 22. Mr. KUROSAWA used an 800mm or 1000mm back then.
If you’re shooting from the same angle, then a telephoto will have more impact. But with a telephoto, you need space to pull back so the set has to be bigger, and it costs money.

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We filmed that entire post station set using no less than a 200mm. Back then there was a “Kurosawa lens”, which was a 200mm.
That shoot was at the shortest a 100mm, so when they tried using a 35mm or 50mm, I often shouted “Use this one!” at the cameraman.
Mr. KUROSAWA used multiple cameras on set, and on “Yojimbo” the A-camera operator Kazuo MIYAGAWA had 100mm, the B-camera operator Takao SAITO had 200mm, etc., a longer telephoto.
I was under Mr. SAITO, focusing his telephoto.
It’s said that “Citizen Kane” is the first pan-focus movie because it’s wide-angle.
The true pan-focus production was probably Mr. KUROSAWA’s. In fact, he had to close down to F32 or the focus wouldn’t be sharp enough because you had pan-focus with a telephoto. That’s why you had to have light, the set was flooded with lights.
It was so hot that Mr. Toshiro MIFUNE’s wig started steaming.

“Yojimbo”: the pinnacle of the telephoto

Mr. KUROSAWA favored the telephoto because if he stood near the camera, it affected the actors’performance.
He said with a telephoto he could stand far enough away to capture their natural expression.
He didn’t want actors to be aware of the camera.
Another reason was the atmosphere on set.
The atmosphere on set looked better when you used a telephoto, like when something emerged from the fog.
When we had heavy rains or a lot of smoke, we always had a huge fan blowing on set. With Mr. KUROSAWA, there was no such thing as just filming. He always added something to the frame.

Master something

When I was an assistant cinematographer for Team Kurosawa, I thought it was uncool to use a tape measure to gage the distance between the camera and the subject.
I wanted to be cool and be able to judge it visually, so I trained myself when no one was watching to eye the distance and calculate how many feet it was.
Especially because we used the telephoto a lot.
If you were off by just 1mm using a 500mm, the focus would be wrong.
Eventually I received recognition as the focus guy, and because I was a cocky assistant back then, I wasn’t popular among the cameramen (laughs).
But it became useful later on.
I don’t want to lecture the youth of today, but one piece of advice I can offer is “master something.”
“He may not be great at other stuff, but this guy can nail his focus!” is what directors Akira KUROSAWA and Kihachi OKAMOTO said about me.
You can adjust the color contrast or tone later on, but you can’t do anything about the focus. Directors were afraid of out of focus shots.
Which is why so many directors asked for me by name after that.