Today, I'm going to talk about how Kurosawa mastered the use of widescreen framing using the example of High and Low. A film that ranks alongside Rashomon as one of his best.
High and Low is about a wealthy industrialist played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifine, whose family becomes the target of a kidnapper. Originally a book by Ed McBain, Kurosawa experimented with the structure going beyond the ending of the novel to create another section that allows High and Low to morph into a game of cat and mouse into a police procedural.
The first half takes places in a Gondo's (Toshiro Mifune) hilltop mansion. It's important to note the location as Kurosawa would later shoot the mansion as a house over looking all the villages below it. A place of wealth and importance. Throughout the first half, the frame is filled with up to eight to ten characters. How does one take that and turn it into something that isn't complete chaos? Blocking and choreography. A great director is also a great blocker and choreographer of character movement within the frame.
Yet none of these shots call attention to themselves. They are not flashy like the tracking shots in cinema that would later become masturbation material for film nerds later on.
Take a look at this frame and how Akira sets it up:
The protagonist, Gondo, is receiving a call from the kidnapper. This takes us into the heart of the film's first section. Thus, Gondo is centered in the frame as to being to most important to this section. Gondo's wife to the right and one of his associates to the left. Structurally, the location of these shots are confined to the house because it becomes an expression of Gondo's isolation to society.
Now let's take a shot when the police arrive:
Detective Tokura (dressed in black) is at the center of the frame. The frame is densely packed and is congested. This takes into account the suffocating pressure Gondo is feeling. Notice Gondo all the way to the far left of the frame sitting down. His place in the social hierarchy is also altered. He is now being used by the police to solve this crime. These compositions continue throughout this section and are used to show how he is responsible to everyone else in the room. No longer is he the powerful industrialist. He is constrained by the demands of everyone else.
Notice how the kidnapper in the second half is shot unlike anyone else in the movie. Shot in tight closeups and is hemmed in. Or how the lower class is depicted throughout the second in contrast to the upper class. The dynamics of the frame and the importance of who is in it and how they are represented through their location inside of it are all traits that you want in a good film.
These widescreen compositions are used to express the ideas of the film. High class and low class. Grand and mundane. Heaven and hell.