From Or Shkolnik, Israel:
We see a beautiful mountain landscape, a dramatic music starts playing while the name of the movie appears in big letters:
Suddenly a stiff samurai enters the frame, wind blows in his wild grown hair, and than a hand pops out from within his kimono neck collar in a charming way that looks as if his hands are still in their sleeves at the sides of his body. He scratches his head in a very un-samuraish way, and than the hand goes back from where it came from and disappears as if only to visually express what's going in this man's head: He has no direction. Then the credits start to roll and the camera follows the man (in a single shot) while he is walking, but we can't see where because the angle is very low and frames only the back of the man's head over a grey empty sky. Like the samurai, we can see no direction. After the credits end, a caption appears that unfolds the historic background of how in 1860 the Tokugawa dynasty lost all power and many samurai found themselves without a master to serve, including this samurai who was left with "no devices other than his wit and sword."
We then see the samurai walk to a crossroad, stop, look around, pick up a stick and throw it in the air. The Camera frame the stick when it falls, and we see the samurai's feet walk to it and than changes their direction to where the stick points, the camera tilts up and the sequence ends with the samurai walking away from the camera.
I think this sequence is absolutey perfect in the way it makes us feel disoriented and how it tells us everything we need to know about how to "read" the story: It's not about heroic samurai warriors and it's not an epic historical drama. It's about desperate times and desperate people who are without higher goals or ideals, they lack direction and like the stick they are thrown to the winds.
From Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Glendale, CA:
The samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, themselves heavily influenced by the films of John Ford, were subject to reinterpretation several times themselves, the most famous examples being John Sturges’ refashioning of "The Seven Samurai" into "The Magnificent Seven" and, more profoundly, Sergio Leone forging not only a remake, but the foundation of his entire directorial style, out of the discoveries he would make as he twisted new shapes into "A Fistful of Dollars" out of the original clay of Kurosawa’s "Yojimbo." Leone’s film follows Kurosawa’s template closely, but even by looking just at the opening shot it’s possible to see some of the parallels, and the differences, between Kurosawa and Leone. The film begins on a close-up of a mountain range. A man, seen from behind and shot from a low angle, moves into the frame and observes the range which looms spectacularly before him. Leone might stage this shot to emphasize the landscape dwarfing his human figure by placing the figure low and small in the frame against the mountains. But Kurosawa achieves the same effect by giving the man roughly the same amount of graphic weight in the frame, but by shooting him from a low angle and keeping his face hidden from us. The man, dressed in the clothes of a samurai (the clothes themselves are ragged, worn and dirty), holds himself with dignity, adjusts his shoulders, and then, in a gesture that will find echoes throughout Leone (particularly in the opening of "Once Upon a Time in the West," reaches up under his robe and unceremoniously scratches his head—with a single scratch, the deflation of the image of this dignified samurai warrior is underway.
The warrior looms in the frame, the mountain range but a background, and begins to move off to the left as the credits roll. We’re still seeing the man essentially only from behind, and he has now moved away from the mountain range, and Kurosawa still shoots him from that low angle—he is framed now only against the white, clouded sky of the afternoon. With the range now receded into absence, the man now seems to tower over his surroundings, greater than all he surveys—though nothing that he surveys is visible at this point in the shot. He looms large even as he moves deliberately along, adjusting his collar. Upon the appearance of the credit “produced and directed by Akira Kurosawa" the camera tilts down and we see the man’s raggedy sandals as he pads along on a dirt road—the landscape has been brought down to the level of this man moving silently through it. The visual strategy here is the inverse of close-ups and lone figures against the landscape that would mark Leone’s adaptation of "Yojimbo," and then eventually his entire style—in the opening of "Yojimbo", as the samurai moves along the road, the surrounding landscape dwarfs him by creating not a sense of its expansiveness, but instead of the claustrophobia created the tall grass alongside the road and the way the director angles the perspective on the man to exclude a sense of anything but the immediate space surrounding him.
The mountains have long since disappeared behind the tops of the grass as the samurai encounters some stone markers along the road and turns past them, as if to examine them. A series of title cards reads: “The time is 1860. The emergence of a middle class has brought about the end to power of the Tokugawa Dynasty." The man’s observance of the markers is but a momentary distraction and he is soon heading back down the road. As he moves along, the mountain range returns to the top of the frame, only it too is dwarfed graphically by the expanse of grassy field the man finds himself moving through.
More title cards: “A samurai, once a dedicated warrior in the employ of royalty, now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive… and no devices other than his wit and his sword." The man has encountered a fork in the road, each trail leading he knows not where, and his preference of destination is nonexistent. His next move, like the momentary, alternating allegiances that he will assume later in the film, will be left to chance, as will his own fate. He takes in the surrounding space of the divided road, still surrounded by tall grass, and comes upon a large stick, which he picks up and tosses in the air. Where it lands will determine what direction he goes, what road he takes…
JE: Thanks, guys -- I thought both your accounts of this shot were well worth including. I believe somebody else -- and, for the life of me I can't find the e-mail or comment now -- made mention of how, when the samurai throws the stick in the air, he's reminded of the ape and the bone in "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- which I thought was a brilliant association (and now I'll never be able to see "Yojimbo" without thinking of it). It works, too: This samurai may be the last of a certain breed, but he's also evolving into something new.
Dennis does a fine job of detailing the funny games (Michael Haneke foot-level shot reference) Kurosawa is playing with scale here. You both mention how, in the first part of the shot, the samurai is equated with the mountain, and the shot is close to him from a low angle, presenting him as a towering figure. The first thing that undercuts his "stature" is that goofy little head scratch. After a stretch where he seems to be walking into nowhere (we can only see his head and the clouds above), we tilt down to his feet and he executes a little aimless footwork around some small ancient idols/markers. So far, Kurosawa seems to be taking us into the past, and then plopping us down to earth. The titles explain the specifics, the historical background. When the samurai walks away from the camera he is transformed. No longer a legendary, abstract figure, he becomes an individual, human-sized one, seen in the context of a particular historical landscape that we have now entered with him. He throws the stick in the air. Let HIS story begin...