Early Kurosawa Boxset Review
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While there is no question as to the importance or phenomenal talent that is Akira Kurosawa, this boxset is unlikely to challenge the dominance of his critically acclaimed Samurai Collection; but is nevertheless an enjoyable and eye-opening insight into one of Japan's greatest film-makers...
Following the release of the Samurai Collection last year, the BFI are now releasing a new DVD box set of films by legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa. Featuring six of his early films – all of which pre-date his 1948 Drunken Angel – the box-set offers a range of genre and content, providing a fascinating insight into Kurosawa’s development as a director and the influence of wartime propaganda on Japanese cinema.
Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
The first film of the set, Sanshiro Sugata is set in 1882 and follows the eponymous Sugata (Susumu Fujita) as he joins sensei Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi) to learn Judo; a controversial decision, as the new martial art was seen to be supplanting the older art of Jujutsu. During the course of his training, Sugata must learn to control his ambition and temper, as well as to respect others, if he is to master judo and defeat the jujutsu followers desperate to prove that their form of combat is superior.
Based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, the story – at least for modern audiences – is predictable, but the film is enjoyable nevertheless, and carried by the immensely likeable screen presence of Fujita. He is supported by a host of colourful supporting characters, with Sugata’s final adversary, Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), foremost amongst these. Incidentally, Higaki is the only character to dress in western clothes (which appears to be an allusion to its wartime release), and walks the line perfectly between pantomime villain and sinister adversary.
Already in this film we can see some of Kurosawa’s directorial trademarks – such as screen-wipe transitions between scenes – as well as wonderfully artistic, almost painterly compositions of shots. He also employs pathetic fallacy to reflect his characters' emotions, building to a fitting climax in a wind-swept field. The period setting is confidently utilised and, while the martial arts encounters lack the spectacle of Kurosawa’s samurai films, they are comfortably filmed and well paced.
The film’s main flaw is revealed in a pre-credit title (dated 1952), informing that the movie was edited ‘to comply with the government’s wartime entertainment policies’. Although the DVD includes a ‘Deleted Scenes’ special feature, much of the original footage has been lost, a further example of a government's censorship. It is likely that this footage would have gone further to explain the growth of the characters and their interactions, which currently feel slightly underdeveloped; indeed, mid-way through the film a title card appears, announcing that Sugata has learnt new lessons and grown as a person, rather than showing what caused him to change.
Despite its flaws, the film exemplifies Kurosawa’s eye for composition, action, movement, and his attention to creating different and identifiable characters. Along with an ever-present sense of humour, they make the movie a thoroughly enjoyable watch. Furthermore, we see clearly in this film the origins of the mentor-student theme that is so prominent in Kurosawa’s later films.
Sanshiro Sugata: Part 2 (1945)
The commercial success of Sanshiro Sugata encouraged Toho studios to persuade a begrudging Kurosawa into making a sequel. Although not chronologically subsequent, Sanshiro Sugata: Part 2 is presented in this collection alongside its predecessor on Disc One, although the comparisons are not always favourable.
Reuniting much of the original film’s cast, Part 2 sees Sugata again searching to understand himself while simultaneously faced with two new opponents; the first are the brothers of Sugata’s previous rival, Higaki, who champion an aggressive form of karate, while the second takes the shape of an American boxer. As with many modern Hollywood sequels, the action is more dramatic and over-the-top than its predecessor, but at the expense of character development and story. Again, Fujita carries the film and remains a likeable character, but the Higaki-brothers verge on becoming comic-book villains, while the subplot involving the American boxer is a clear piece of propaganda.
The westerners in the film are depicted as bullies and bloodthirsty caricatures, and the exhibition fights pitting Japanese martial arts against the American boxer have no value within the film’s story. Instead, said scenes are simply a biased attack at our Western values, full of propaganda and present only to transmit a message that Japanese skill and honour is greater than the brutality of America.
Sadly, the transfer of the film on the DVD is relatively poor compared to the others in the set, which makes the final fight sequence (which is very similar to its predecessor) on a snow-covered mountain side quite difficult to watch. Surprisingly, Kurosawa’s qualities as a director do not shine through in this movie, which seems to lack the passion and dedication to the project that were evident in the earlier film. Often regarded as Kurosawa’s weakest film, Sanshiro Sugata: Part 2 is an unnecessary sequel that has little merit outside of its historical interest as a piece of propaganda.
The Most Beautiful (1944)
The first feature on Disc Two is a propaganda film following a group of female workers in an optical instrument factory as their production quotas are increased to meet the demands of the war effort. Somewhat unusual for a Kurosawa film, the principal characters are all women (although some Kurosawa regulars also appear, including Takashi Shimura), but the agitprop motivation behind the film limits the dramatic and emotional space that can be explored with the characters.
To meet the high demands of their quota – and spurred on by a sense of pride, duty and honour – the women must overcome exhaustion, illness, family tragedy and personal differences. For the majority of the film Kurosawa transmits these features with conviction, using documentary style filmmaking rather than his own artistic vision to create a sense of reality. Apparently, Kurosawa required his actors to live like the characters they were portraying to give their performances credence; a requirement that adds to both the look and feel of the film.
However, this ultimately means the film feels less like a Kurosawa work, and the clear propagandist message of the film idealises the women and their constant, almost superhuman, dedication to their work. Posters displaying motivational messages are present throughout, and in the end the film lacks dramatic believability. While still interesting as a historical piece, the film is not classic Kurosawa.
They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)
Also on Disc Two is this intriguing and, in my opinion, superior film. Made during the Japanese surrender, They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail was Kurosawa’s final wartime film, although it was not actually released until 1952 owing to US authorities restricting period films. Set in the late twelfth century, it is arguably the closest film in this collection to Kurosawa’s iconic samurai movies.
Based on a kabuki play, the film follows a group of samurai disguised as monks as they attempt to transport their master – a general who has fallen out with his older brother, the Shogun – through a checkpoint manned by enemy soldiers. The samurai, led by Benkei (Denjiro Okochi), must use their wits and, begrudgingly, the assistance of a lowly porter (comedian Kenichi Enomoto) if they are to fool the commander of the checkpoint (played by Sanshiro Sugata’s Fujita) into letting them pass.
While the comic posturing of Enomoto clashes with the seriousness of the piece, the film is so enjoyable it becomes hard to begrudge his overzealous performance. Shot largely on location, the film is classic Kurosawa, and the formality and behaviour of the ‘monks’ and samurai are fascinating to watch. The film is primarily built around a single scene – the checkpoint – and Kurosawa handles the sequence with confidence, drawing out the tension and suspense masterfully.
Personally, my only criticism of the film is its length. Coming in at under an hour, and with a somewhat unsatisfactory ending, the film felt half finished and underdeveloped. Nonetheless, seeing Fujita and Seven Samurai’s Takashi Samura (who also appears in Sanshiro Sugata) is always enjoyable, and the film as it appears is well directed, constructed and performed, and a tantalising glimpse at Kurosawa’s early experiments into the samurai genre that would so define his later career.
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
Disc Three's No Regrets for Our Youth is a film of two halves and, as Philip Kemp notes in the booklet that accompanies the set, this is arguably Kurosawa’s most political film. Taking place over the years 1933–1945, the first half follows three characters who become embroiled in a fictionalised version of the Kyoto University incident of 1933. In the film, student Noge (Fujita, again) leads a protest against the dismissal of his professor, Yagihara (Sanshiro Sugata’s Denjiro Okochi). Noge, like his friend Itokawa, is in love with Yagihara’s daughter, Yukie (Setsuko Hara), who doesn’t share Noge’s passion for politics. Each character’s life takes its own course, until they encounter each other again in Tokyo. However, Yukie has now married Noge, who is later arrested as a spy before the outbreak of the Second World War, and all changes when he dies in prison.
The film then changes tone – possibly as a result of script changes due to a similar rival project – as Yukie leaves the city and seeks out Noge’s peasant parents in a rural village. Abandoning her upper-middle class lifestyle, she joins her in-laws and helps them work the land under constant prejudice and harassment from the villagers who regard them as a family of spies and traitors.
The action, drama and pace of the first half of the film maintain a steady momentum, with generally good performances and strong direction from Kurosawa, although the script is somewhat awkward and unbelievable at times. The weakest element of the first half is Hara’s performance, which is often erratic and melodramatic, and clashes with the subtlety and reality of Fujita’s portrayal of Noge. However, her performance – much like the film – changes totally in the second half, and she plays Yukie’s physical and emotional turmoil beautifully.
Although they are stark contrasts, the two halves of the film ultimately complement each other through an interesting, if melodramatic, story. Often compelling, this is a fascinating and unusual contrast to some of Kurosawa’s other work.
One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
The final film in the collection is a heartfelt, if at times depressing, study of a young couple in post-war Tokyo – Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) – who, as you may have guessed, meet each and every Sunday. Financially crippled and with little prospects for the future, they cannot afford to be extravagant in their dating, but try to make use of their only day free from work to be together. Set on a single Sunday, the film sees the ever-optimistic Masako try and help an increasingly depressed Yuzo look to the future with hope; something that at times seems difficult when their attempts to have a pleasant day end badly, further trying the emotions of the lovers.
Seemingly built on an idea similar to It’s A Wonderful Life, the negative experiences that threaten to drive the couple apart and into misery build into a life-affirming finale, that, if predictable, make for an emotional and enjoyable watch. Kurosawa’s direction generally balances the moments of levity and misery to emphasise the emotional journey of the characters, although at certain moments the film dwells on the said couple's sadness slightly too long. The finest scene comes when the couple role-play working in their dream café amidst the ruins of post-war Tokyo, and is handled brilliantly to create a memorable and moving set-piece. However, the film would have benefited from some editing, as some scenes – such as one in an amphitheatre towards the end – drag and lose emotional impact because of it.
The script is excellent, and the two leads turn in perfect performances, encouraging empathy and emotional attachment. As with most Kurosawa films, they are supported by a series of colourful supporting characters that, along with the director’s visual portrait of the city, create a rich depiction of late-1940s Tokyo.
At times tough, this is ultimately a life-affirming and moving piece. It also includes numerous elements of Kurosawa’s directorial style, especially his framing, deep focus and composition. Unusual in style and content, it is a refreshingly different viewing experience and arguably the highlight of this set.
Although an interesting and at times enjoyable collection, this is ultimately one for die-hard Kurosawa fans or students studying the iconic auteur. For those with only a passing interest in the director, or those new to his films, his Samurai Collection would be a superior introduction or essential purchase. The films here lack the originality, vision and intensity of his later, more iconic films, but they do give a tantalising insight into the development of his art and the effects of wartime restrictions and propaganda on filmmaking. The transfers to the DVDs are generally very good, with Sanshiro Sugata: Part 2 the main exception. Personally, I believe the set would have benefited greatly from some additional special features, such as a documentary on Kurosawa, although Kemp’s short booklet is excellent at putting the films into context.
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