Postwar Kurosawa Collection Review
In modern times, a view has gained ground that Akira Kurosawa's work lacked conviction and looked too much to the west in both its subject matter and technique. Compared to compatriots like Ozu, Naruse and Mizoguchi, latter day writers have decried the supposedly American influences on Kurosawa's work when compared to the distinctly Japanese subjects and techniques of those directors. The allegation goes that Kurosawa concentrated too much on a western audience and that he forsook his early beliefs in creating films that were accepted well internationally.
This simplistic writing off of Kurosawa as both not Japanese enough and too influenced by the west is rather shown up as the nonsense it is in Criterion Eclipse's Postwar Kurosawa Collection. Taking five of his more minor films made between 1946 and 1955, the collection illustrates Kurosawa's complex approach to changes wrought in Japanese society by the war defeat and American occupation. These films are not as great as other movies made during the period by the director like Rashomon, Seven Samurai or Ikiru, but they do capture his evolving confidence with his style and his subjects. With the possible exception of The Idiot, they capture Kurosawa's growing concern of the new world of nuclear weapons, modern media, Americanised culture and real poverty. The films also show the director experimenting with method as he plays with Capraesque romance, polemics and disparate influences from neo-realism to early Soviet cinema. This set of films show how the director found his own style through trial and error with the accepted "modern" forms required by American censors in Japan at the time, but also how he responded to the social problems of a Japan under cultural occupation. It is simplistic to concentrate on the mode of these films as "western" if their subject matter is critical of the broader process of cultural imperialism. In fact, I believe that the whole point of Kurosawa's humanistic approach was to approach a global audience with very Japanese concerns.
First up in the set is the post war propaganda of No Regrets for Our Youth which celebrates the radicalism of those who fought to undermine the militarism and conformity rife under the previous Japanese regime. Told as a love triangle, and, almost uniquely in Kurosawa's cinema, featuring a female lead, the romantic choice faced by Setsuko Hara mirrors the political choices faced by ordinary Japanese under the old regime. Hara becomes politically alive and sees that the concessions and gentle dissent of her professor father are not enough when fighting fascists and chooses a subversive husband for his desire to fight injustice.
Kurosawa illustrates how dissent was stifled by accusations of communism and exposes the polite acceptance that the majority of Japanese showed to their political masters in wartime. The occupying Americans must have welcomed such a treatment from the director, and, for him, the movie must have been a didactic release after his half hearted efforts during the war. Symbolism abounds with a story that repeats settings and scenes, and the director uses very low angle shots and Eisenstein like editing for a number of key moments. Hara tries hard to flesh out her role but her character is nothing more than a symbol of quiet resistance and sacrifice, the rebel's wife, and her earlier bourgeois politics are shown unsubtly as the opinions of a spoiled brat. Simply as a polemic the film is successful, and it is emotionally powerful too as Hara's example of taking the right path, despite the efforts of evil policeman Takashi Shimura and her former beau, the prosecutor Itokawa, is celebrated for the values of endurance and commitment.
Much more easily identified as an US inspired vehicle is the romantic comedy, One Wonderful Sunday. Taking as its subject the efforts of a young couple to make their Sunday together memorable, the story is a mere device for showing the poverty of Tokyo and the growing exploitation and sleaze created by the black market. The two lovers have no money to spend together and the spectre of moral corruption is present throughout in the sleazy nightclubs, the dishonest cafés, and the ticket touts ruining recitals. Wherever the two lovers go, they are thwarted and the man finds himself humiliated and desperate to prove himself whilst his lover holds on to her virtue.
Kurosawa leads the story down dark avenues with sordid settings, and the easy pastime of loveless sex an ever present danger. Still, the two lovers find happiness and reconciliation through dreams of the house they can't afford, the café they may never run, and the concert they can only remember. If the mode is decidedly Hollywood-like, the treatment is darker and more socially aware as Kurosawa succeeds in creating a story which highlights the corruption and the poverty of life under occupation, and one that still got past the US censors as both modern and hopeful.
Watching these films in chronological order creates somewhat of a culture shock when the first part of Scandal seems to be a tale of celebrity romance after the oppressive poverty of the previous protagonists. Toshiro Mifune's rich artist and Shirley Yamaguchi's famous singer are snapped enjoying each other's company and a scandal magazine makes up a tale of illicit love. Mifune gets handy with his fists and a war of words turns into a greater media sideshow, and, backed into a corner by sleazy journalism, he threatens to sue. Enter Takashi Shimura as his alcoholic gambling lawyer who becomes the subject of corruption by the evil journos, and the story shifts focus from the wealthy Mifune and Yamaguchi to the failing counsel.
Writing about the film in Something like an Autobiography, Kurosawa admitted that he lost focus making the movie as he became compelled by Shimura's character and his performance. If Mifune had taken the spotlight in Drunken Angel away from his older colleague, here Shimura returns the compliment in spades with his pathetic lawyer shown as a gambling drunk, whose infamy could kill his sick daughter and whose eventual redemption is celebrated more than the fate of his rich clients. Shimura only equaled the quality of this performance in Ikiru and he is mesmerizing here, but the film becomes incoherent because of its growing fascination in him. If Kurosawa initially had been motivated to make the film to show up the the growing influence of the gutter press, he becomes far more interested in the process of Shimura's corruption, and the result is the proverbial game of two halves - one soapy, and one intensely moral. This interest in corruption, bodily and cultural, would appear again and again in the director's work but it is this early period where it appears most often in films like The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog and Drunken Angel.
After his success with Rashomon, Kurosawa had opportunity to adapt one of his favourite novels, Dostoevsky's The Idiot with Daiei. The film itself is one of the director's longest works, and in fact was cut down from an original cut of well over four hours, and in line with his interest in the moral state of modern Tokyo the film is adapted into that milieu. Masayuki Mori plays a former POW returning to his family after a mental breakdown leading to fits and apparent dementia, he has become a "simple man" in the eyes of others due to the trauma of a deferred execution. His vulnerable nature is seized upon by all around him with his relatives taking advantage of his inheritance, and many of his local community happy to ridicule his overly earnest words. He finds himself drawn into the sadness of Taeko Nasu, again played by Setsuko Hara, a fallen woman gaining retribution for her poor lot in life by destroying the men who adore her. Unable to save her and motivated to save her hopless lover Genkichi from her, Kameda is out of his depth in an inevitable tragedy.
For a film that has not been recognised as one of the director's best, The Idiot is powerful and very true to the spirit of the novel. Kurosawa's careful preparation and flawless realisation of technically and dramatically complex scenes is first rate, as is his casting with Mifune as the desperate Genkichi, and Hara truly magnificent in a very unusual vampish role. Whilst others are angry at their fates, or starved of their heart's desire, Kurosawa's Kameda is compelled to empathy and naive understanding that draws him into the centre of the maelstrom he tries to prevent. Along his way, the envious learn humility and the condemned feel sympathy and kindness for a change, Kameda offers an alternative to the greed and games and the amorality that the world is mired in. His goodness and his compulsion can only lead to his own demise in an ending which shames the cynics.
The Idiot reaches levels of genius in the intricate compositions that Kurosawa searches for, and it shows the director at his most emotionally intense in many of the scenes. Examples of this artful use of image to copy story are shown in the two captures above, but the film is peppered with brilliantly arranged frames and thematic lighting illustrating the shades of this moralistic tale. Mori is perfect as Kameda, and Fumio Haysaka's music never lets go of the viewer's heartstrings until the closing titles have rolled. The sheer care that the director shows to the project, and the flair he shows for bringing such a well respected work to film, are illustrative of the heights he would reach in his shakespearean adaptations. The Idiot may drag a little in its middle third but it is never less than magnificent in its passion and admiration for the openhearted and the compassionate Kameda. Yet again, the innocent of heart and the kind of spirit are celebrated in a world that has lost its way.
I Live in Fear is the latest of these five films, made in 1955, and the poverty and recession that exists as a backdrop to the other films is replaced this time by the shadow of the holocaust. In an intriguing piece of casting, Mifune is greyed up to play an elderly patriarch who is determined to make his family emigrate to Brazil in order to avoid what he sees as the inevitable onslaught of nuclear warfare. His family don't want to follow his lead and so they try to have him declared mentally incompetent which is where mediator Takashi Shimura appears as the matter goes to the courts. With the old man unwilling to negotiate, the family is soon trying to take control of his assets and the court grants their motion. Desperate and powerless, the old man will not give up and is willing to lose everything for the safety of his family, legitimate and illegitimate.
The nature of a post nuclear world, and more generally the threat of human devastation was a topic that Kurosawa would turn to again and again in his later film-making. Much as Mifune's paranoia here would ostracise him from his family, the same would happen for the director after he made the nihilistic Dodes Kaden, a film about social destruction, and images of isolation and a deadly reckoning would recur through Dersu Uzala, Ran and Dreams. Here the fear of the patriarch in a post Hiroshima Japan, would contrast itself with the money grubbing attitudes of his modern offspring. If his mode of film-making was very un-like Ozu, here at least the inter-generational conflict is driven by similar concerns about the newly westernised younger generation and their rampant materialism. In essence, the film offers a three way choice for its family - materialism and disrespect, or fidelity and fear, or madness. Eventually, this choice splits the once comfortable Nakajima clan.
The film creeks a little under the weight of its ideas, and the central performance is at turns brilliant and excessive. Kurosawa enjoys exploring how real the fear of nuclear conflict is, but he rather overplays the eccentricity of the principal character advocating this position by having Mifune be a bundle of anxiety and gestural energy. Mifune's great talent was his ability to explode and to be physical, but here I don't believe he convinces as a very old man, and his hunched over twitchiness dissipates the sympathy we are supposed to feel for him by making him too bonkers. The sensible voice of Shimura is not utilised enough and the family of hangers on, fools and mercenaries lacks detail and dimension. Dramatic qualms to one side, the visual skill is formidable and Kurosawa's ability to direct a group of 15 actors sat in a circle as they move in and out of shot and shadow is exceptional. As the last film in this collection spanning the ten years after the end of the war, I Live in Fear shows how far the director had come from experimenting with other's cinematic tricks to becoming one of the best and most versatile visual storytellers in the history of cinema.
Kurosawa may have been a more manipulative film-maker that Ozu or a less precise one than Mizoguchi, but he shared with both the concerns of a Japan where traditional virtue is lost to modernism. Given the opinion that he is more westernised than contemporaries, his own unmatched ability to communicate on a global level about a very national perspective has been used against him to say he made films for tourists. This set of films, and I believe his whole body of work, prove that he tried to make his films so that everyone could understand and empathise with the homeland he saw. Such an intention makes his best films masterpieces which will continue to move people everywhere throughout the ages rather than empty polemics and misplaced finger wagging.
The set comes on five discs, four of which are dual layer, which are housed in slimline cases and further housed in a thin dust sleeve for the five films. There are no extras, other than liner notes which may lack an acknowledged author but are splendid introductions to each film in terms of giving context to each film's production. Each disc has a still menu offering scene, play and subtitle options.
I have previously seen these films on R3 HK discs, a BFI release and the two Masters of Cinema releases in the UK and can say that these transfers easily surpass the R3 discs in their lack of mastering problems and their English subtitles. The Idiot and Scandal do not seem to have as high a contrast level as the MOC discs, but I would guess they are largely the same transfers with wear obvious on both prints and some images soft because of the quality of the source print. Both of these transfers are very acceptable, and the same can definitely be said of the treatment of I Live in Fear which has excellent detail and sharpness. The two earliest films have far weaker base materials and both transfers are less impressive with black levels more grey, and damage more prevalent. These two films also have the weakest soundtracks with quite a few clicks and pops and a lot of background hum. As none of these films have undergone restoration for this release, the audio tracks for all the films do show their age, but are still clear and lacking excessive distortion. All of the transfers feature good quality English subs and this in the case of the early two films is a real godsend.
Overall, this is a very well priced set which offers a good opportunity to own good English versions of all five films, but for two of the films this is the first quality release of them. Kurosawa fans willl find a lot to admire here.