Battle at Kruger and Akira Kurosawa: Watching the Watchers and the Origins of Storytelling

Battle at Kruger is an 8 minute 24 second long YouTube video with 80,156,648 views. Perhaps one of those views is yours. About 6 or 7 of them are mine, having watched it repeatedly with various friends and family members over the years.

Battle at Kruger is one of the most extraordinary nature videos you could ever hope to see, and if you haven’t watched it, I suggest you do. But what I want to focus on in this essay is not what we see when watching it – namely an astonishing battle between five lions, a herd of huge water buffaloes and a massive crocodile, all fighting over a single baby water buffalo – but rather what we hear when watching Battle at Kruger, which are the voices of the invisible tourists who watched and filmed these events.

And what is so interesting about what these tourists say is how perfectly they distill the action that occurs onscreen. In fact, their words, the words of the 3 people closest to the camera, spoken breathlessly at intervals, are so perfectly concise and to the point that the entire scene could be recreated from them. In other words, they are a sort of verbal storyboard.

I have always believed that the greatest filmmaker ever, Akira Kurosawa, employed the same sort of verbal storyboard, at least in his thoughts if not in his scripts. Every single shot in every movie he directed can be distilled to a concise description of an action. Not feelings or situations, which arise from actions for Kurosawa. But actions themselves.

They rush in.

The castle burns.

They fight.

They walk through the forest.

The soldiers stand guard.

They hide.

Action impels the characters, advances the narrative and concretizes the cinematographic intent in every single frame of every Kurosawa film. Each specific action informs the lighting, the costuming, the soundtrack and more. By so clearly defining the action in every scene, in every shot, Kurosawa ensures that every ounce of dramatic potential is realized in his films. And at the heart of it all is the common understanding of the essential action taking place.

The reason I bring up Kurosawa when discussing Battle at Kruger, is that what happens organically in Battle at Kruger is that the tourists, utterly enthralled by the remarkable and primordial spectacle unfolding before their eyes, offer a stream-of-consciousness commentary on the battle that narrates and narratizes the action with the same incisive concision that lies at the heart of Kurosawa’s perfect cinematic storytelling. Here is a transcription of the words of the tourists watching, one of whom is videotaping the battle:

They’re headed towards the lions, who are right over there, very intently watching the buffalo, who are moving right over there.

This could be very interesting

Look at the size of that one.

That is a huge buffalo.

That is a huge buffalo.

That’s a huge buffalo!

The lions, they’re crouching.

It’s an attack position.

Uh-oh

What’s the bull gonna do?

Oh my god

They’re gonna get the baby

She’s getting the baby

She’s going for, she’s going for her…

She caught him!

the buffalo are coming to help this one

they’re too late

is he still alive do you think?

Yes he’s still alive

they’re trying to drag him out

it’s on its back

i hope they kill it quickly

oh it’s still alive

there’s a crocodile there too!

The croc’s trying to grab the baby

the crocodiles taking the baby away

they’re going to lose it

oh they’re going to fight over it

the lions have won

the lions have won

yeah but look at all those buffalo coming

they’re going to come and try and chase the lions but i think they’re too late

ah they’re too late

oh look at the teeth

you’re too late

you’re too late

look at them all

whoa he swatted at him

look he’s kicking at him

oh they’ve got em surrounded

they’re chasing him

the calf is still alive!

it’s trying to get away

its standing up

they’ve got it back

they’ve got it back

they do have him back!

They’re still chasing them

gee they chased them away

ohhhh run!

There are other voices in the background, and a few things that are hard to hear, and a few recapitulations, but essentially that is it. And the amazing thing is that had you not seen the video you could easily recreate the entire thing from these minimal yet urgently action packed descriptions.

In his films, Kurosawa consistently employed the device of watching the watchers, of showing people watching events so as to distill the action and heighten the drama of those events. In his films the camera often spends as much time showing characters watching whatever action is happening as it does on the action itself. Why does Kurosawa do this so often? Because he knew that when we watch the action through the eyes of others the drama is amplified and distilled, just as it was by the tourists offering their perfectly distilled stream of consciousness commentary in Battle at Kruger.

As I said, Kurosawa did this all the time. Most famously, perhaps, we could point to the moment the villagers encounter Kambei (Takashi Shimura) in Seven Samurai. For almost a minute they hang around at the edge of a crowd, watching an unknown samurai calmly prepare for something of great importance, though we have no idea what. His action – cutting off his topknot and carefully shaving his head – shocks everyone present. And it shocks us too, but only because of the various shocked and alarmed reactions of those whom we are watching watch him.

kambei

As the scene reaches its climax, with Kambei about to save a kidnapped child by impersonating a priest, Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) rushes forward at the head of the crowd of watchers, watching with more intensity than any of them and thus establishing the depth of his character.

Elsewhere, for example in his delightfully entertaining and exciting film Sanjuro, Kurosawa constantly uses this technique of amplifying the drama by forcing us to see (or hear) through the eyes of others. Here are just a few screenshots from Sanjuro that show this in action:

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.11.34 PMScreen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.16.32 PMScreen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.18.57 PMScreen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.21.52 PMScreen Shot 2018-11-13 at 5.21.59 PM

The dramatic amplification that arises from this technique comes from our sense of identification with the watchers, who – even as they are part of the action – are asking themselves “what’s happening?” and waiting to see what will happen next, just as we are. And as they answer that question we feel we are part of these events. We not only respond as viewers of the action but we also implicitly put ourselves in their position so that we feel their reaction to whatever the events are. We become part of the chain of watchers, each with a stake in the action, each a lens telescopically compressing the essence of what is happening, until it is a diamond that shines with perfect brilliance.

And it is our ability – untrained, primordial – to turn to a stranger in a crowd, one who asks “what’s going on?” and to answer with perfectly distilled dramatic clarity (“He’s going to jump” or “a kid fell down a well” or “old man had a heart attack” or “the lions have won”) that makes this technique so successful and powerful.

And how is it that we can all do this? That a few tourists chattering can deliver the essence of a story with the same atomic clarity as could the greatest filmmaker who ever lived?

Because this sort of instantly distilled drama is the most fundamental form of language we have. A million years ago we spoke with the same perfect clarity not so very far from Kruger, in the African savannah, with our first words. Answering the most urgent question of all. “What’s happening?”

Watching the watchers, or listening to them for that matter, returns us to the origins of narrative, to the origins of story. It invites us – insists even – that we enact the meaning of the present. It is an imperative here and now that turns them into us while increasing the stakes, as we all – actors and audiences – await the uncertain outcome of each carefully observed action.

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