Watching the Akira Kurosawa films at Film Forum's Centennial -- a whopping six-week-long tribute to the the first East Asian director to achieve international recognition -- is typically overwhelming, especially if you have (like me) been trying to see as many as possible and also binging on the offerings on Netflix watch instantly. There are various elements that tie these films together and more again that set them apart, but for me one of the most strikingly weird Kurosawa signatures is the wipe cut.
In his autobiography, Kurosawa seems to explain his use of the wipe as a deliberate turn away from classical editing techniques, those invisible cuts that would render scene transition invisible: "Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back to the past." Transitioning with wipes in early cinema would have shown finesse with new technology ("Why eat hamburger when you can have steak?" asks Homer Simpson, rationalizing to Lisa his exclusive use of "star wipe" in post-production). At the height of his career, Kurosawa looked back to the silent era for inspiration, and saw beauty and novelty in telling a story this way.
James Goodwin wrote a book about Kurosawa that, at one point, tallied the critical opinions on the wipe. Semiotician Christian Metz, for example, places the wipe cut within the code of "trucage, which includes optical effects that constitute visual but not photographic material," and is an instance of "intervention by the filmmaker into a story, whereas a film's photographic material alone simply implies the filmmaker's point of view through the development of a story."
Noel Burch, who wrote the book on Japanese Cinema, assesses Kurosawa's employment of the wipe cut as a "deliberate anachronism." According to Burch, "by manifestly causing the frame-line to cross the spectator's field of vision, Kurosawa's wipe cuts expose elements that otherwise sustain the illusion of reality. Kurosawa thus acknowledges discontinuity and the screen's two-dimensionality as conditions of filmic representation, while conventional Western codes conceal these formal limitations." The wipe cut does expose the scaffolding of cinema -- not only "the screen's two-dimensionality" but the typically-subsumed hand of the editor, and the artificial nature of the splice that glues two scenes together.
With a more whimsical take, philosopher Gilles Deleuze imagines that the wipe cut "constitutes an imaginary Japanese character that serves as Kurosawa's cinematic signature... composed of a thick vertical stroke that extends from top to bottom of the screen and is joined by thinner, variable horizontal strokes that move screen right to left and left to right, which are the photographic components of whatever images are involved in the wipe cut." Donald Richie, who wrote great pieces on Kurosawa and compatriot Yasujiro Ozu, compares the wipe cut to pre-cinema: "a 'puncutation mark' in Kurosawa's cinema through which a new image pushes off the old, as one lantern slide pushes off the other." Travelling across the screen, the wipe spotlighs cinema as a highly temporal art, "a finality that appeals, this single stroke canceling all that went before, questioning it, at the same time bringing in the new."
Though Kurosawa influenced scores of filmmakers, perhaps the most well-known acolyte is a certain George Lucas.
Lucas was deeply influenced by Kurosawa (we have 1958's Hidden Fortress to thank not only for the basic plot of Star Wars but for its compellingly headstrong princess character) and his enthusiastic use of wipe cuts was a shout-out to both the Japanese director and Flash Gordon-style television serials.
Transitions like these -- both from the first fifteen minutes of Star Wars: A New Hope -- bring a fast-paced continuity to the film's beginning (the adventure serial: "Meanwhile, back on Tatooine..") and also a sense of levity. In 1952's Ikiru, the maze of bureaucracy a post-war Tokyo citizen must navigate is conveyed through shots of various department heads, wiped together from alternating sides, each directing the supplicant to another bureau. The wipe technique makes it funnier -- images of bureaucrats are stacked like cards, each more punctilious than the last.
Kurosawa at Film Forum runs until February 18, culminating in a two-week run of the director's Lear, Ran. For more on A.K., see Bilge Ibiri in Moving Image Source.