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Miyagawa is arguably the most important cinematographer in Japanese history, having worked with a who’s who of Japanese auteurs, including Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He is perhaps most famous for his work on Rashomon, where he was the first person to point a camera directly into sunlight (utilising years of study on light exposure). He was also known for using multiple camera setups for scenes, and acclaimed for his contrast of sweeping tracking shots and sharp close-ups. Other innovations on the film include using mirrors to reflect natural light and using dyed black water as rain, to make it appear more vivid on camera. He was also a master of genres, working on comedies (The Rickshaw Man), samurai films (the Zatoichi films), as wells as overseeing 164 cameramen and using over 234 different lenses for Tokyo Olympiad, often compared with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia as one of the greatest Olympics documentaries.

Some of Miyagawa’s stunning work on Rashomon can be seen in the clip.

‘Miyagawa, nicknamed “the comic cameraman” for his years of work on slapstick comedies… began to invent techniques in tracking and crane shots in early films through the special demands of Hiroshi Inagaki. Inagaki had several short sections of track on his sets which Miyagawa used for leisurely shots. When he began to work with Kurosawa on Rashômon, Miyagawa had to lay out longer sections of track along which he had to roll his camera at great speed, in contrast to Mizoguchi’s films, which always employed long crane shots. In Mizoguchi’s films, traditional Japanese painting strongly influenced Miyagawa’s work. The emakimono or long horizontal scrolls were used to illustrate important works of literature. The emakimono were ‘read’ sequence-by-sequence, as the viewer unrolled the scroll in his hands while rolling up the portion that had been viewed. This narrative technique in painting inspired Mizoguchi’s one-scene-one-shot style of shooting a film.

Of all the directors with whom Miyagawa has worked, Ichikawa gave the least direction to the cinematographer. He seemed more concerned with his actors and provided little information as to how he wanted scenes photographed. It was for Ichikawa’s ‘Enjo’ in 1958 that Miyagawa first used Daieiscope, one of the new widescreen formats. In experimenting with it he frequently fragmented the screen, filling half the space with a sliding door or even darkness. Ichikawa was impressed with the technique because it seemed to make the camera one of the actors.

The ideas for using the new process came from Miyagawa’s early training in sumi-e, a Japanese artistic technique of ink-painting. The sumi-e painter creates a subtle atmosphere with only black, white and gray. One of the tenets of the sumi-e style which Miyagawa enjoys quoting holds that there is an infinite variety of color in the range of ‘gray’. The sumi-e painter does not fill the entire surface of the paper, nor does he arrange his composition symmetrically. Instead, he uses the borders of his surface to create separate planes within the space.

This technique has earned Miyagawa the title ‘master of framing‘ by his associates. The framing is rarely symmetrical, but is perfectly balanced. The creation of a pattern is often based upon objects or people, and with an unusually deep focus he brings the very near and the very far into visual alignment.’

TRue Japanese Legend



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