Traditionally, red is often seen as a color that represents love, passion and affection, which is why it is often used in romance movies. However, those are not the only emotions that are frequently conveyed in films through the color red. Red is truly a unique color that can deliver a wide range of emotions, such as love, fear and guilt, and while these emotions might seem like polar opposites, they are similar in a sense that they are all very intense and bold emotions.
In Love Letter by director Shunzi Iwai, Hiroko Watanabe visits the hometown of her fiancé Itsuki Fujii, who died due to a mountain hiking accident two years prior. There, she finds a girl who looks exactly like her and shares the same name as her late fiancé. As she communicates with female Itsuki through letters, Hiroko discovers that Itsuki was her late fiancé’s first love. Naturally, doubts and confusion form inside Hiroko. Did he actually love her? Did he only date her because she looks like his first love? With such a complex situation and a question that nobody can give clear answers to, it would be easy to assume that Hiroko formed some sort of hatred or disappointment towards her late fiancé.
However, through the use of color red, the viewers are able to understand that she still loves him very much. Towards the end of the movie, we see Hiroko with an orange red sweater on, looking at the snowy mountain where her fiancé died. The warm red color of her sweater reveals that she still passionately loves her late fiancé. If another color was used for this scene, such as blue, we might have focused on other emotions she is feeling at the moment, such as sadness or confusion. However, by choosing a very warm red, the director conveys that even though Hiroko is crying, it is not because of overwhelming sadness or hatred towards Itsuki. She is crying because she still truly loves him and misses him, despite what she has discovered.
Moving on, in Kagemusha by director Akira Kurosawa, an unnamed thief becomes a political decoy (kagemusha) for Takeda Shingen, a powerful and fearsome feudal lord. However, after the feudal lord’s unexpected death, the unnamed thief is forced to act full-time as Takeda Shingen. One night, after the unnamed thief made a critical decision about what action the clan should take against Oda Nobunaga, Takeda Shingen’s rival, the unnamed thief has a nightmare. In the nightmare, the unnamed thief meets the dead Takeda Shingen.
This particular scene has lots of different colors, which highlights the mixed emotions that the unnamed thief feels about acting as the late feudal lord. However, one can see that the dominant color in the scene is the dark, bold red that seems to hover over all the other colors. Such intense red color combined with the distorted space makes the viewer feel anxious and scared, conveying that the main emotion that the unnamed thief feels is fear. While there are parts of acting as a decoy that he enjoys, he is very afraid that he might be making poor decisions or might be committing a sin against the late feudal lord and his family by lying to them.
Additionally, the color red can also be used to highlight the guilt and the anxiety that the character feels. For example, in Helpless (Hwacha) by director Byun Young-Joo, the female protagonist Cha Gyeong-Seon kills a woman to assume her identity and escape from a debt that she has inherited from her parents. Before we are shown this particular scene, Gyeong-Seon is often seen wearing bright colored clothes with patterns (she also often wears white), which makes her look like a young, innocent girl. Her image helps the viewers feel empathy as we see how she suffers from a huge amount of debt that she can’t escape from. She is also often placed in an unsaturated background, displaying how her situation is hopeless.
However, everything changes when we arrive at the scene where she kills Kang Seon-Yeong. In the sequence, the protagonist, covered in blood, clumsily cleans up the blood on the floor as she panics. The blood color combined with the light coming in through the orange red curtain mimics the look of an emergency light/sign, highlighting the panic and the guilt she feels at the moment. The dimly lit orange red curtain also imitates the color of fire, which indicates that the protagonist is now on a path to hell with no redemption. Additionally, her white clothes stained with the blood also symbolizes her loss of innocence.
Overall, through these films, we can see how color red can deliver and imply various emotions, from love to guilt. While I felt and observed these particular emotions while watching these films, you might have perceived the scenes and their use of color differently. I believe that there is no one, absolute analysis of a scene or a film. I am always looking to learn more about different approaches to these films. If you have a different understanding of these films and their use of color red, leave a response down below!
By: Sarah Chang