Akira Kurosawa is my favorite director. There’s a lot of missing information on the cinematography of his films, and lots of unsubstantiated here-say. Most books or google searches would result in someone quoting he used ‘telephoto’ lenses. But did he?

It was obvious the writers never bothered to probe further, possibly due to ignorance of cinematographic techniques, lenses and so on. I searched for years but couldn’t find any definitive information on the subject.

So, as a personal exercise, I did the study myself, using a 3D modeling program to recreate scenes from 9 different movies, about 60+ shots in total. Here are the movies I picked:

  • Seven Samurai
  • Rashomon
  • Yojimbo
  • Kagemusha
  • Sugata Sanshiro
  • High and Low
  • Dreams
  • Red Beard
  • Throne of blood

I would have loved to add a few more, but it took too much time, and I already had the information I needed with this bunch. My goal was to:

  • Find the family of focal lengths he used (not find the exact numbers, that I didn’t care about).
  • Find the T-stops he typically worked with.

The conditions of the study

Before we go ahead, you need to read about the terms I use in the video and article:

Kurosawa used multiple formats in his career, from Academy to Super35 (1.85:1) to anamorphic (Tohoscope). Every time the format changes, the lens choices will change – to the get the same ‘look’.

I will be presenting the focal length assuming a sensor with an 18mm vertical height. You will need to use a crop factor to arrive at the focal length for your camera sensor. To find the equivalent focal length corresponding to the sensor you’re interested in, divide the vertical height by 18, and multiply with the focal length I’ve presented.

The lenses used by Akira Kurosawa

Here’s a video of the lenses used by Akira Kurosawa:

Important: My process is not scientific or academic. These are just simple tests I did for my personal benefit and I’m sharing as-is. Do not use it in any study or material claiming educational value. It has no educational or historic value, or informational value.

Notes:

  • Image copyrights belong to their respective owners. I’m using low resolution stills only for educational and informational purposes.
  • Focal lengths were derived based on a sensor the height of which is 18mm.
  • To find the equivalent focal length corresponding to the sensor you’re interested in, divide the vertical height by 18, and multiply with the focal length I’ve presented.
  • The formats Kurosawa predominantly shot in were Academy (1.375:1), Tohoscope (Anamorphic, 2.39:1) and 1.85:1 (which I just refer to as Super 35 for brevity).

Here are the frames and focal lengths one by one:
1SugataSanshuro
2Rashomon
3SevenSamurai
4ThroneofBlood
5Yojimbo
6HighLow
7RedBeard
8Kagemusha
9Dreams

To make things simpler, here’s a table of each movie, and focal lengths used for the frames I’d selected:

Film Process Original Aspect Ratio 25mm 35mm 50mm
Sugata Sanshiro Academy 1.375 1
Rashomon Academy 1.375 1 1
Seven Samurai Academy 1.375 4 18
Throne of Blood Academy 1.375 4
Yojimbo Tohoscope 2.35 1 1
High and Low Tohoscope 2.35 1 1
Red Beard Tohoscope 2.35 2
Kagemusha Super35 1.85:1 2
Dreams Super35 1.85:1 1
Film 75mm 100mm 150-200mm 200-300mm
Sugata Sanshiro
Rashomon
Seven Samurai 10 2
Throne of Blood 2
Yojimbo 1 1
High and Low 2
Red Beard 4 1
Kagemusha 1
Dreams 2 1 1

Don’t let the absolute numbers fool you! The key takeaway is that Kurosawa used wide to mid range lenses early in his career with Academy, possibly because of the limited number of lenses available at the time. Then he moved on to anamorphic were he must have grappled with the idea of bringing his compositions from a spherical Academy format to the stretched anamorphic Tohoscope format. You can see he did admirably well.

In his later state, when he adopted 1.85:1, he went more telephoto, and used Panavision lenses for his last movies. He took what he could get, and created masterpieces nonetheless. There’s a message there, you know.

So, did Kurosawa really use telephoto lenses?

Not really.

As the video shows, his bread and butter lens was the 50mm on a 18mm-vertical sensor. The 75mm comes a close second. Here’s how the 50mm would relate to some common formats:

  • Super 35mm: About 35mm
  • Academy: About 40mm
  • Cinemascope: About 52mm spherical equivalent, about 62mm anamorphic equivalent (1.2x)
  • Full frame 35mm: About 66mm equivalent

Kurosawa tended to use longer focal lengths over wider lenses. But he never shied away from using wide lenses whenever it fit in with this compositional vision. The bottom line is he used mid-range lenses for most of his brilliant work, not telephoto.

What do you think? Did you find this study useful? Let me know in the comments section below.

4 replies on “Did he really use telephoto lenses? A Study of the Focal Lengths Used by Akira Kurosawa”

  1. I think you have proved the opposite.  Overall and certainly when he had control (later in his career) he mostly went long. Anything over 35 is long (US)  and Europeans over 42mm but  50 and over definitely. 

    Not as nutty long as Angelopoulos but definitely not a normal lens or wide specialist.

    What I like (overall – as you point out he evolved) is having flattened depth he then used composition and particularly shadows in a very painterly way. None of that hollywood – chuck in lights till there are no harsh shadows BS. Though he wasn’t above using diffusion (mostly smoke I think).

    I’ve got a dozen odd books on K one I remember went largely about cine and several have interviews including regarding cine. I have to clean out a lot of paper books this year so will try and review them before tossing. 

    If I remember I’ll shout back then what I find.

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