From Kurosawa to Evangelion: Ma –or– Leaving Space for Thought

By Michael W. Harris

Author’s Note: This is probably, by far, the longest post I have written for this blog. There is a lot to discuss so please, just stick with me. It will be worth it, I promise! For those who make it through, there is a special treat waiting for you at the end. Also, see the end of the post for a disclaimer about the videos (or lack thereof in one case) in this post

Part I: By Way of Beginnings

It has been a while since I turned my critical lens on Japanese cinema and culture in this humble blog space, so let’s dive back into the realm that constituted so much of my dissertation research.

At the recent 2016 edition of Music and the Moving Image, I was chatting with a good friend about future projects we might collaborate on. As is want to happen when two Japanese film music scholars talk, the subject of Kurosawa’s use of sound bubbled to the surface and I remembered two scenes from his early post-war films (No Regrets for our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday) that had always intrigued me. While these films are not all that highly regarded in the Kurosawa oeuvre, I do find many aspects of their treatment of music and sound (both on- and off-screen) interesting, and I mentioned these two specific scenes to my friend as ones that she might want to take a look at.

Fast forward a few days and a notion pops into my head: not only is Kurosawa probably playing with the Japanese aesthetic principle of ma (literally meaning “space” or “the space between”), but also by looking at these Kurosawa scenes through the lens of ma we might give ourselves a new way of looking at two rather infamous scenes from the 1995-96 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Scenes that are infamous for their lack of movement and are usually pointed to as examples of the production’s rather constrained animation budget.

So with that in mind, let’s dissect the concept of ma, watch some Kurosawa, and then talk some Evangelion.

Part II: Ma

Put simply, ma mean space, or negative space, or the space in between. According to the principle, it is the gap between something that helps give that something definition or meaning. It can be a pause between words or actions. It can be a blank spot on a painted canvas. But in the end, it is the ma, the space, that gives form to the object, action, or words.

You can look up the Wikipedia article on ma and get a sense of it, but back when I taught the World Musics – Asia class at CU Boulder, I always found a comparison to be the best way of getting the concept across.

Let us consider two scenes from classic ‘60s cinema and how they handle a very similar situation: a standoff between armed parties.

The three-way standoff in Sergio Leone’s 1966 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is one of the seminal examples of the marriage of film editing and music to ratchet up tension in a scene. Also called the “Mexican Standoff,” a situation in which the question is who will flinch first and shoot (or draw a sword), Leone’s presentation of the situation is a masterclass in filmic technique. Using editing that not only accelerates in pace along with shots that also draw in tighter on the fighters’ hands, guns, and eyes, the viewer is made to feel the tension, and the score by Ennio Morricone score just send the whole sequence into the realm of “epic.”

But consider this: if you happened to be standing off to the side during that standoff, it would just be three guys staring at each other, slowly moving their hands towards their guns. There would be little to no movement at all. Because of this, Leone uses the language of film to “move” the scene (through editing, shot choice, and music). But he could have done it much differently, as if the film viewer was that person standing off to the side. This is exactly what Kurosawa did in a very similar scene (though with only two fighters, and a bunch of people looking on) in 1961’s Sanjuro (the sequel to Yojimbo, which Leone copied/borrowed/plagiarized for the first of his “Man With No Name” films: A Fistful of Dollars).

This is a video I had to find a replacement for. Sorry for the non-English subtitles.

Notice how there is around 90 seconds with no camera movement, and even though the two men are talking, there is also very little movement by the actors except to move their hands and arms into position. And then, there is over 20 seconds of complete stillness, and Kurosawa even fades out the diegetic bird noise for that very long 20 seconds in which we are waiting for the men to draw swords.

Also notice the beautiful framing and staging of the audience around the fighters, perfectly positioned like they were in a painting. THIS is why I love Kurosawa.

The pauses in Sanjuro, both visual and aural, are examples of ma. And while this concept is by no means exclusive to Japanese film or aesthetics, you do see it more often in them. And considering we live in a time where our cinema has seemingly forgotten how to hold a shot for longer than a few seconds (BAYHEM! Seriously, watch this linked video…it is amazing.), it is almost unnatural to imagine that tension could be built by doing nothing more than standing still and holding a shot. But there it is in Kurosawa. The ma found in his standoff is the negative space that shapes the fight and builds the tension, whereas Leone did it by accelerating his editing and using music to accentuate it.

Part III: Kurosawa’s Post-war Era

Let’s rewind to 15 years before Sanjuro. It is 1946 and Japan is taking its first tentative steps to emerge from its defeat (emotional, economical, and physical) in World War II, and Kurosawa is still at Toho Studios and is working on his first film under the watchful eye of the American occupation censors. He co-writes and directs the film No Regrets for our Youth, which tells a fictionalized account of young college students living under the increasing militarist and ultranationalist government during the war era (though the film does depict some very real events in Japan’s then recent past). It is a condemnation of the politics that morphed Japan into the aggressive state that helped devastate east Asia, and also a celebration of the triumph of humanity and individuality against the forces that would oppress it.

While No Regrets doesn’t have the visual ma I described above, it is notable for an extended scene towards the middle of the film in which there is no music for around eight minutes, an aural ma. While this is not remarkable in and of itself, when taken in context of the film as a whole, it is. The rest of the film features almost non-stop music, except for this key scene in which Kurosawa drops out all music and also includes numerous pauses with no dialogue and just camera movement and cuts to convey the emotions of the characters. So there is a musical ma along with periods of intense silence in dialogue that gives form to the rest of the scene and sets the whole sequence apart from the rest of the film.

I will not post the video of this scene here, though if you are a fan of Kurosawa but have not seen his post-war films, do check them out. They show a director slowly honing his craft and will really inform your viewing of his later work.

Kurosawa’s second film after the war (not counting a film he co-directed in 1946), was 1947’s One Wonderful Sunday. Much has already been written about this film’s bizarre ending which features the male lead conducting an imaginary orchestra and the female lead breaking the fourth wall and pleading with the audience to cheer on her fiancée in his conducting, a la Tinkerbell. However, I want to again consider a scene towards the middle of the film that is remarkable in its lack of music and sound.

In the film, this scene occurs right after the two leads, a young engaged couple who can only get together and spend Sundays together, though they have very little money, are shut out of buying tickets for a concert featuring Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (which is what the man conducts at the end) by scalpers. So they instead return, dejected and walking through the rain, to his small, depressing, and dilapidated apartment.

What follows is a twenty-minute sequence set entirely in the man’s apartment.

After around two minutes of music setting up the scene and the mood (depressed!), the music ends and we only hear the sound of the rain and the dialogue. The man is sad that he cannot provide more for his fiancée, and she, in turn, tries to comfort him. There are long shots with almost no movement by the actors, and long periods with no dialogue, the only sound coming from the rain outside and the slow drip of a roof leak into a pan. These spaces give the scene its shape and serve to outline the man’s sadness and his sense of failure.

A little over nine minutes into the scene, the man makes a move to possibly force himself on his fiancée physically (possibly rape, though his exact intentions are never made clear). She forces him away and she rushes out of his apartment, leaving the man alone with his depression. What follows is around six minutes of the man alone. There is some action, the man at first walking around then laying down, but he says nothing at all. The only sound coming from the oppressive rain.

After two minutes of this, music starts to drift into the room from an outdoor speaker. It is a jaunty tune that puts the man’s mood in stark relief (much as Kurosawa would do a year later in Drunken Angel). But it is the first music in over ten minutes! The tune lasts for around three minutes while the man slowly walks around, finding that his fiancée has left her purse. She eventually returns, soaked from the rain, but there is the six-minute stretch between her departure and return in which there is not a single line of dialogue. Only movement, rain, and the tinny music. Yes, the space is technically not empty, but the lack of dialogue creates a negative space into which every camera cut, every movement, every sound, is given even more meaning.

Eventually, non-deigetic music returns as the man comforts his crying fiancée, and not counting the on-screen music, the film has a roughly eighteen-minute stretch without underscore. Like in No Regrets, the rest of the film is so stuffed with music that this eighteen-minute dead space really stands out, framing the scene with a flashing neon sign marking it as important.

I will not post the entire scene (which is over twenty minutes, nearly 20% of the final film’s runtime), but here is a snippet from the sequence after the woman leaves and eventually the outdoor music starts.

Of course, this whole scene is “problematic” in many ways, attempted assault against the woman and she returning, crying, to her assaulter. But I must set those issues aside as outside the scope of this (already lengthy) post. So with that said, let’s go to…

Part IV: The Case of Neon Genesis Evangelion

Okay, so this is what we have been building towards: confronting the issue of Evangelion. Rightfully praised as a landmark not only in mecha anime, but also in anime as a whole, Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion is not without many noticeable flaws, among them being an uneven quality of animation. Besides the ridiculed ending in which the animation becomes line drawings at one point, there are two scenes that are usually brought up as examples of Anno and his animation studio Gainax cutting corners on animation by having static scenes with absolutely no animation.

The first of these is in episode four (“Hedgehog’s Dilemma”) when our “hero,” Shinji Ikari, has decided to leave NERV, the secret government program that is humanity’s last line of defense against monstrous invaders called “angels” and which also happens to run by Shinji father (yeah…don’t ask too many questions or else you fall into the bottomless pit of philosophy and psychology that is Evangelion…which is also part of the show’s appeal). He is about to board a train to take him home, but at the last minute decides not to leave, at which point his handler Misato shows up and is evidently shocked into silence and stillness by seeing him still there…

This whole sequence lasts barely a minute, and yet it is proffered as a classic example of Anno’s budget woes on the show.

Before we begin to analyze, though, let’s turn to the second example, which comes from the late in the show, episode twenty-four (“The Beginning and the End, or ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door'”). I won’t try to explain the complex storyline that leads to this moment, but know that this scene involves Shinji having to choose between killing someone who he thought was a friend (and who has now betrayed him and poses a danger to all of humanity), and letting him live and the consequences that would come with it. As you can watch below, the majority of it is a static shot of Shinji, in his giant robot, literally holding the life of someone he called friend in his hand. All while the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays in the non-diegetic aural space.

[Here is where I would have put the one video that I cannot find a replacement for and that is blocked. But hopefully my above description will suffice for now.]

Hopefully, after over 2000 words, you can tell that the concept of ma is definitely in play during these scenes.

While not an aural ma, as we saw before in Kurosawa, there is a clear visual use of the aesthetic. Ma does not have to exist in any one way, it is just the concept of a negative space. For the first clip, we have the static shot of Shinji on the train platform, with the only sound being ambient noise and the train announcements. The visual ma here of non-moving animation is employed as a way of emphasizing Shinji’s decision to remain in Tokyo-3 and work with NERV, but also the slow realization that he is already “home,” as he says at the end—Shinji’s feeling like he is never at home anywhere is a recurring theme in the show.

Also note the similar intrusion of sound projected over a loudspeaker, much like the scene in One Wonderful Sunday.

In the second clip, what we have is a pregnant visual pause as Shinji wrestles with the psychological struggle he has been facing for the entire series: his ability to kill with his Eva (the name for his giant robot), and especially to kill one that he had considered friend (which echoes an early plot point in the series, where he was forced to kill a friend). The minute-long pause with Beethoven playing in the background builds the tensions around that decision and also makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and unsure about what might happen next.

Both of these are examples of how ma can be used in a narrative audio/visual format.

Now, does that mean that the “animation budget” argument is invalid? Not at all. The budget woes of the show are well documented and cannot be disputed. However, what I would like to argue for is a more nuanced and thoughtful approach to what Anno was going for in these scenes. He knew his budget was low and he had to strategically use it for certain scenes and cut back in others. These two scenes, though, are noteworthy for the length of their static animation. These are not just a clever hiding of a character’s mouth to avoid animated speech (which there is plenty of in NGE), this is a just a single cel of animation that is held in place for a minute or more. Which begs the question: why? Why might Anno choose these scenes for such a technique?

Without getting too deep into the plot of Evangelion, these are both key moments in Shinji’s psychological development, and by letting the series “breathe,” having these moments of space, it helps to define Shinji’s emotional turmoil and the decisions he has to make. Much like the clip from One Wonderful Sunday, these are both moment of distress and decision for the lead character, and by having the ma as part of the scene—be it visual, aural, or both—it helps to give the viewer a sense of that emotional distress. It is the technique that so many directors have forgotten: show, don’t tell.

But more than that, it is the tapping into this aesthetic concept of ma, I believe, that make them intriguing. The aesthetic decision to allow the space to define the story, the action, the thoughts, and the emotions of the character.

Part V: Conclusion

First off, congratulations if you have made it this far! I know that this has been a long post. Secondly, thank you for indulging me in my aesthetic and critical ramblings.

I hope that what this post and analysis has shown is that there are always different ways of thinking about art. The reductive arguments of the Evangelion scenes as just symptomatic of the budget woes always struck me as a bit…simple. Given the complexity of the series—and how you might feel about the series is a completely different matter—such “basic” criticisms seem lacking and unconsidered. But by viewing them through the aesthetic of ma, and the history of the concept via another artist, we can begin to think more deeply about them and also see them in the light of much broader aesthetic trends.

But this post is just a beginning of such a consideration. Many more Japanese filmmakers, and those influenced by them, have employed such techniques. From Kurosawa’s contemporaries of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu to modern day filmmakers both inside and outside of Japan, this concept of letting the work have space to help define it can be seen many places and is the exact opposite of our Hollywood trend of editing faster than the brain can comprehend.

Maybe it is because we are getting used to “Bayhem” that Anno and Kurosawa’s film language seems alien and “boring” to a modern audience, but this is exactly why we need to critically engage with them at this point in our cultural history.

And with that, I will leave you with a little reward for making it all the way to the bottom of this post…

Disclaimer: I have uploaded all the videos for this post to my own YouTube account, but two of the five have been blocked for copyright reasons, and two others are being allowed to play but may have ads to monetize them for the rights holders (which is perfectly okay with me, they should get paid). I firmly believe that all videos used in this post are being used in full compliance with Fair Use for scholarly, educational, and critical commentary purposes and do no harm to the rights holders. Sadly, it is hard to make that claim to YouTube when that analysis is not part of the video itself. For one of the blocked videos, I have found a replacement. For the other, you will just have to rely on my description.

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