Did he really use telephoto lenses? A Study of the Focal Lengths Used by Akira Kurosawa

Seriously, what focal lengths did Akira Kurosawa really prefer?

Akira Kurosawa is my favorite director. There’s a lot of missing information on the cinematography of his films, and lots of unsubstantiated hearsay. Most books or google searches has 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 Frameforge Studio (Amazon, B&H) 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 more, but it took too much time, and I already had the information I needed with this bunch. After shooting for so many years I don’t really need to check every frame. You sort of develop an eye for it.

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’.

Important: I will be presenting the focal length assuming a sensor with an 18mm vertical height.

Tip: 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.

Read more about crop factors here.

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:

  • Focal lengths were derived based on a sensor the height of which is 18mm.
  • 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:

FilmProcessOriginal Aspect Ratio25mm35mm50mm
Sugata SanshiroAcademy1.375  1
RashomonAcademy1.37511 
Seven SamuraiAcademy1.375 418
Throne of BloodAcademy1.375  4
YojimboTohoscope2.35 11
High and LowTohoscope2.35 11
Red BeardTohoscope2.35  2
KagemushaSuper351.85:1  2
DreamsSuper351.85:1  1
Film75mm100mm150-200mm200-300mm
Sugata Sanshiro    
Rashomon    
Seven Samurai102  
Throne of Blood2   
Yojimbo11  
High and Low2   
Red Beard4  1
Kagemusha1   
Dreams 211

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 where he must have grappled with the idea of carrying forward his compositional style from a spherical Academy format to the stretched anamorphic Tohoscope format. You can see he did admirably well.

By the way, for the actual focal lengths in Tohoscope, you might want to divide by 2.

Later, 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.

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5 Comments

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  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.