Early Kurosawa Review
Since the days of their Connoisseur Video label, the BFI have been the main provider of Akira Kurosawa’s films on home media in the UK. Classics such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have been mainstays in their back catalogue and over the course of various VHSes and DVDs the vast majority of his works between 1948’s Drunken Angel and 1965’s Red Beard have earned themselves one or the other or both. (The Lower Depths has yet to make the jump to disc in the UK; the gaps of The Quiet Duel, Scandal and The Idiot have been filled in by Yume and Masters of Cinema.) In light of this continued support of Kurosawa - which has yet to extend to Blu-ray, though hopefully this will rectify itself soon, especially as some of the early DVDs really do need improving upon - it comes as no surprise to discover this particular BFI boxed-set collecting all of the director’s six solo directorial efforts prior to Drunken Angel.
I mention solo as Kurosawa also co-directed Those Who Make Tomorrow in 1946 (and then effectively disowned it) and is rumoured to have handled some scenes on 1941’s Horse for which he also received a writing credit (snippets of the film can be seen in Chris Marker’s A.K. documentary); prior to moving into direction there were also other writing assignments as well as editing jobs throughout the forties. Of course, their inclusion amongst the films on Early Kurosawa would no doubt have been welcome, yet Those Who Make Tomorrow is rarely screened, even at comprehensive retrospectives of the director’s work, and has yet to appear on DVD anywhere suggesting issues over rights or sufficient existing materials would be the most likely cause for its omission. (Kurosawa’s disowning of the work has arguably compounded such issues.) Nevertheless, this particular release still makes for interesting viewing, offering up a half-dozen features which can be approached in a number of ways: as forerunners to Kurosawa’s later, more critically acclaimed works; as examples of 1940s Japanese cinema, especially in light of the effects World War II had on their production and approach; and as a collection of disparate examples in genre filmmaking in which their director attempted to find and form his own voice.
The common claim amongst those who have written about Kurosawa over the years is that his career effectively started after the films contained within this boxed-set. Choices vary, but generally it is between Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon as to which title marks the commencement of Kurosawa as a great director or auteur. The fact that there is no unanimous decision arguably points up how much of a grey area it is, although many would agree that Stray Dog is superior to Drunken Angel and that Rashomon is a step up from Stray Dog. If placed on this scale of gradually improving works, the films included on Early Kurosawa all undoubtedly fall below Drunken Angel. I would argue that the boxed-set doesn’t throw up any unexpected or previously unheralded masterpieces and, indeed, could have been renamed Minor Kurosawa without anyone batting an eyelid (other than it being a particularly awkward alternative). Yet the two films made just before Drunken Angel - No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday - exist just a few notches below the 1948 feature and demonstrate a growing maturity on Kurosawa’s part both in terms of their cinematic handling and their approach to narrative and character. Furthermore there’s a temptation to see the same scale which moves upwards toward Rashomon as extending right back to Kurosawa’s directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata, had the outbreak of war not prompted the more propagandist entries to dirty the waters somewhat.
To explain a breakdown of the individual films and their respective qualities and flaws is required. The first, Sanshiro Sugata is effectively a martial arts movie set in the late 19th century. The eponymous hero (played by Susumu Fujita) is a young pupil to Denjiro Okochi’s sensai, learning the art of judo. As is standard for the martial arts film it tracks his education and progress (complete with requisite ups and downs) leading to the inevitable showdown with the villain of the piece. In-between times various other set pieces abound, making this Kurosawa’s first action film and a clear precursor to the likes of Seven Samurai and Sanjuro. Sanshiro Sugata was successful enough that it prompted remakes in the fifties, sixties and seventies and a government-commissioned sequel, also directed by Kurosawa, two years later. Given that this was 1945 the air of propaganda hangs around Part Two more abundantly than its predecessor. The plot here revolves around a somewhat crass Japan vs. America sentiment in which our hero must take on the crude “entertainment” that is boxing and break the highly held Japanese rules of principle and honour. Unsurprisingly, the film comes across as more than a little cartoon-ish, its villains reduced to simple stereotypes and nothing more; the opening scene in which Sanshiro Sugata throws a loudmouth US sailor into the sea to much applause and cheer is typical.
In-between the two Sanshiro Sugatas, Kurosawa worked on another piece of blatant propagandising in the shape of The Most Beautiful, an “Information Bureau ‘Movie of the People’”. Here we move to a modern setting and follow the female workers of a munitions factory as they attempt to increase their work quota by two-thirds in order to aid the war effort. With this comes plenty of individual drama, but it’s far outweighed by the flag-waving: renditions of patriotic songs; talk of “honing your fighting spirit”; even a volleyball game that serves as an explicit lesson in “giving your best”. The wartime factory setting may prompt comparisons to such British productions as Two Thousand Women and Millions Like Us, but the contrast is pronounced - any nuance is firmly erased by its far from subtle message. Indeed, the narrative is not so much the story of its various female workers as it is of the quota graph which punctuates proceedings; we’re expected to cheer the work-rate, not the women.
Post-war, Kurosawa made his first samurai film, the brisk (less than an hour in length) They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail, and two politically engaged titles that go much further than the narrow wartime propaganda works in addressing Japan’s pre- and post-war landscapes, respectively. No Regrets For Our Youth does so through Setsuko Hara’s central character, charting her progress over the years from naïve young student to socially committed activist, taking the 1933 Takigawa Incident (in which students protested the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) as its starting point. Big speeches arise, with talk of fascism, communism and militarism, but - in stark contrast to The Most Beautiful - the presence of Hara, alongside other strong performers and characters, allows for a much more concerted human angle. One Wonderful Sunday, meanwhile, tackles the post-war situation via a poor couple (employed but penniless and living with either a friend or family) during the single day of the title. Needless to say that title is somewhat ironic as we realise their pre-war dreams have disappeared. Even the ending, though it could be called ‘positive’ in inverted commas, has a slightly bitter aftertaste as it refuses to shirk away from the realities of this couple’s existence.
In general terms, Sanshiro Sugata and They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail are best described as good, The Most Beautiful and Sanshiro Sugata Part Two are pretty poor, whilst No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday stand out as the best of the bunch albeit without quite encroaching on the more rounded qualities of those films which immediately followed. However, The Most Beautiful and Sanshiro Sugata Part Two shouldn’t be simply dismissed as they also stand as fascinating social documents of both the time and a particular strand of propaganda cinema. Indeed, their crude characterisation of their ‘villains’ and the simple adherence to their message is simply the flipside of the US equivalents, especially wartime animation with its similar reliance on offensive stereotyping (consider the buck-toothed caricatures who pop in the Looney Tunes flag-wavers or the Private Snafu films) or titles like Japoteurs (in which Superman joins the war effort and destroys most of Japan single-handedly). Such an approach continued through to the Cold War and, essentially, Sanshiro Sugata Part Two isn’t that far removed from Rocky IV in its east-versus-west framework. Furthermore, the western villain has prevailed in the Hong Kong martial arts film, oftentimes to similarly crude effect. And so whilst this doesn’t make for good cinema, it nonetheless makes for fascinating viewing from a historical perspective; all the more so, perhaps, given Kurosawa’s attachment.
Yet whilst the war is felt most obviously in the two government commissioned films, its effects are present on all six of Early Kurosawa’s inclusions. The first Sanshiro Sugata was drastically cut down due to wartime codes and it is this modified version which exists today (some of the excised footage has since been found and appears on the set as an extra); even a pre-war production couldn’t escape its influence it seems. Similarly They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail was subject to the censor and didn’t see the light of day in Japan until 1952. Here the issue was with ‘feudal subject matters’, which the US censor active in the country at the time had declared forbidden. (Despite the brief running time, however, there is no indication that is an incomplete version.) More obviously, we also have the respective pre- and post-war looks at Japan courtesy of No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday, each informed by World War II as seen through the eyes of ostensibly ordinary citizens. Their relationship with the war years, its aftermath and the sentiments it provokes are clearly more complex than the likes of Sanshiro Sugata Part Two and The Most Beautiful had allowed for. So much so, in fact, that both films could be seen, in some part, as correctives by Kurosawa for his earlier unashamedly propagandist pieces. More than anything, their greater emphasis on the human cost makes them both more engaging - and engaged - than the simplistic approaches of those two earlier works.
With this humanity also comes a dose of sentimentality (less so in No Regrets For Our Youth’s case, which is understandably tough in its treatment of its main characters), and it’s just one of the Kurosawa traits that comes through whilst watching six films back-to-back. Though bittersweet, One Wonderful Sunday’s closing scene shares its director’s taste for the slightly lachrymose coda, as seen in Rashomon right through to his final works Rhapsody in August and Madadayo. Interestingly, the effect of this isn’t so much that it provides another reason to consider the film a lesser entry in Kurosawa’s filmography, but rather a jolt of recognition. Part of the appeal of Early Kurosawa is that we see this early foreshadowing of what was to come. In his booklet essay Philip Kemp notes various examples found solely in Sanshiro Sugata: the use of the horizontal wipe; the theme of discipleship; the climax which bears a strong resemblance, in terms of setting, to that of Sanjuro. And there are plenty more besides, whether it be the taut action sequence - whether the judo bouts in both Sanshiro Sugata films or the baseball game in One Wonderful Sunday - or the presence of Takashi Shimura (the most regular performer throughout Kurosawa’s films, appearing in all but nine) in four of the six inclusions. In each case it’s a welcome sign of recognition, a reminder that these are Kurosawa films after all, even if some may be in embryonic form or from a genre in which he would never work again. Indeed, the lack of Toshiro Mifune throughout Early Kurosawa’s titles is barely even noticed. He may be the key signifier of a Kurosawa picture more often than not, but hardly the only one.
Furthermore, not only do we see Kurosawa grow into Kurosawa, as it were, but also as a talented filmmaker per se. Particularly noteworthy, even early on, is his ability to handle a tight montage sequence. The use of a geta to mark the passage of time in Sugata Sanshiro is a particularly adept piece of editing and by the time of a similar scene in No Regrets For Our Youth, in which Setsuko Hara almost, but not quite, plucks up the courage to meet up with an old flame over the space of a few days, he has easily deserved comparison with Don Siegel and those set-piece sequences he was putting together for Warner Bros during the early stages of his career. Arguably Kurosawa would get much more playful later - willing to take chances like the extended opening scene to The Bad Sleep Well or, conversely, the stunningly quick showdown which concludes Sanjuro - but the technical proficiency demonstrated here is not be ignored. Similarly we get a precursor to Rashomon’s manic tracking shots through the woodland in, again, No Regrets For Our Youth and wonderfully expressionistic moment in One Wonderful Sunday where the drunken state of a bar hostess is ably echoed by a series of odd-angled quick cuts.
In certain cases it’s fair to say that such standout moments remain just that, isolated examples of stylistic ingenuity amongst admittedly lesser films. Consequently I would argue that it makes sense for these six films to be released in boxed-set form as opposed to individually. Had The Most Beautiful, for example, been issued as a standalone disc, I’m not entirely convinced that I could muster up too much enthusiasm for it. Yet when placed alongside the other five, however, it becomes part of a larger picture and is able to play off and complement its companions, whether it be owing to the manner in which its blatant propagandising is made up for by the more honest realities of One Wonderful Sunday or its ability to standout amongst these other films as an example of a filmmaker working under conditions which he, presumably, didn’t expect - or want - to find himself. Moreover, certain titles are simply too slight to justify a single release either because of their running times (They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail, of course, but also the two Sanshiro Sugatas) or, if we’re being honest, their qualities. Yet such considerations pale when considered as a six-film whole and the collective interest provoked in sum is far greater than anything they can offer individually. The rating out of ten at the side of this review has to take into account their respective qualities, but Early Kurosawa is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. For those who have been picking up the BFI’s Kurosawa releases over the years - or instead opted for the Criterion alternatives - this should be considered an essential purchase. Of course it won’t compare to Seven Samurai, say, or Ikiru or High and Low, but as an insight into the director’s formative steps it provides plenty to get your teeth into.
Early Kurosawa spreads its films across four discs, the two Sanshiro Sugata efforts sharing a DVD, as do The Most Beautiful and the 57-minute They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail. Each disc is encoded for Region 2, in the PAL format and maintains the films’ original Academy ratios and mono soundtracks. As the booklet notes each of the inclusions has been sourced from the best available materials, and in high definition, courtesy of Toho. However, it should be noted that the quality does vary somewhat between titles with none of the films being in a pristine condition. Sanshiro Sugata Part Two is arguably the worst of the bunch being somewhat soft in places and demonstrating instances of heavy damage, whilst No Regrets For Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday stand out as the most superior examples. In each case, however, we are getting the best available and there is certainly nothing in terms of their transfer to further compound any problems or issues. Meanwhile the poor quality in some cases is such that those expecting, or hoping for, Blu-ray releases shouldn’t feel short-changed; arguably the differences wouldn’t be pronounced enough to justify extra expenditure on the BFI’s part. As it is we find perfectly acceptable presentations under the circumstances, both in terms of image quality and soundtrack. English subtitles are optional on all six films. As for special features here we find 11 minutes worth of excised footage from Sanshiro Sugata and a 22-page booklet. The former were supplied by Madman Entertainment and therefore appear in as good a condition as they did on their DVD handling of the film. Admittedly this quality is far from spectacular, but they remain a welcome addition nonetheless (and again of a quality which cannot be bettered until the unlikely situation in which superior materials are found). The booklet, on the other hand, contains an essay by Philip Kemp which addresses the films collectively (and doesn’t shy away from their various weaknesses) plus full credits for each of the titles, notes on the transfer and copious illustrations. Arguably less meaty than some of the other booklets which the BFI have offered up of late, but once again an inclusion worth having.
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10
5 out of 10