There are just a handful of filmmakers since the birth of the medium that can be considered indisputable masters of the art form. Prolific, innovative and vastly influential, the true masters earn their reputation by entertaining audiences throughout an entire career, their names being recognizable by even those who are unfamiliar with their work. Spielberg falls into this category, maybe a few others of the past few decades, but the grand masters would have to be Hitchcock in The West and Akira Kurosawa in The East.
Influencing later directors as diverse as George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino, Kurosawa proved adept at creating films of widely varied genres, be they crime (Stray Dog), action (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo) or Shakespearian epic (Throne Of Blood, Ran), of which any could be named as a classic.
A great many of his celebrated films have been readily available for viewing since the art house cinema revolution of the 60s, right through the VHS movement and into the current DVD and downloadable era. However, Kurosawa himself sights 1948’s Drunken Angel as his directorial debut, though he had been directing films since 1943. This was due to the fact that the government rules of the time didn’t allow him to explore his ideas to their fullest. As such the early films of his career have been largely ignored for any kind of distribution, robbing fans of the opportunity to see The Master grow as an artist…
Until now that is, as BFI have packaged all of Kurosawa’s pre 1948 films into a single comprehensive box set, the contents of which are as follows:
Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
Kurosawa’s debut chronicles the early life of the titular judo practitioner as he learns life lessons of humanity and maturity while mastering his art and fighting duels.
It must be stated that this version of Sanshiro is a 1952 re-release and, as the opening caption card states, has significant sections of the film missing due to footage being lost after a 1944 re-cut of the film by the Japanese wartime government (the missing plot points being summarized in caption cards). That being said, Kurosawa’s earliest film still sees him well before his prime. The screenplay, written by Kurosawa, makes huge leaps in character and narrative logic, that at times makes the plot awkward to follow. Also, he seems to be finding his feet pulling off visuals, which, offered here, are sometimes too dark. However, the film remains brisk and entertaining throughout, and, like Hitchcock’s early films, illustrates an ambition of visual and narrative flare that would be later fleshed out.
Rating – C
Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945)
Following on directly from the first film, part 2 sees Sanshiro Sugata suffer a crisis of confidence, as the possible futility of combat weighs heavy on him.
Learning from his errors of the first Sanshiro film, Kurosawa here uses a more streamlined narrative, with more emphasis on the title character. The story’s quite thin though, and even at 79 minutes seems a little drawn out. The direction however is slick and dynamic looking, for its time.
Rating – C
Disc 1 hosts the now found cut footage from the first film as deleted scenes, which is nice, but why they didn’t re-incorporate them back into the film is beyond me.
Reviewers note: For a greater exploration of the themes touched on by Sanshiro Sugata I would recommend the Toshiro Mifune starring, Hiroshi Inagaki directed Samurai Trilogy (Mushashi Miyamoto, Duel At Ichijoji Temple and Duel At Ganryu Island), or if old films aren’t your thing, David Mamet’s Red Belt is also excellent.
The Most Beautiful (1944)
A group of female workers face the trials and tribulations of working in a wartime lens factory… Seriously, that’s it.
Before the Toho company logo or title card get to appear, the caption “Attack and destroy the enemy” is displayed, followed by “An information Bureau ‘movie of the people’”, making it obvious from the beginning that The Most Beautiful is a propaganda film of the highest order, and as such should not be viewed necessarily for its thematic content, but for its craft, which is fortunate, as one finds it difficult to believe that even audiences of the time didn’t view this plotless tosh as totally transparent, its point amounting to “Work hard and enthusiastically for your country”. Ironically, this makes the film an intriguing watch, from an historical standpoint, and for the first forty minutes or so, until it gets old. Its visuals are wonderful, generally consisting of large, beautifully framed shots, a great number of which containing dozens of characters. Truly this is Kurosawa flexing his compositional muscles.
Rating – C-
They Who Step On The Tiger’s Tale (1945)
Seeking evasion from his suspicious brother, a young lord and his private guard disguise themselves as monks to flee the area.
This, Kurosawa’s first feudal period film, is based on a popular kabuki theatre staple, which for the intended audience must have been comfortably familiar viewing, but those of us on the outside looking in are left treading water for a short while as the film opens in the middle of the action (so to speak). We get our bearings soon enough, and what unfolds are a handful of very theatrical, very Japanese encounters that are quite clearly a practicing ground for a number of later classics exploring similar themes, such as the influential The Hidden Fortress.
Rating – C+
No Regrets For Our Youth (1946)
As young mavericks fight for educational freedom, a privileged young woman is pushed through several walks of life during the rise and fall of fascist Japan.
As Kurosawa’s first post-war film, No Regrets For Our Youth is an altogether more honest film than his previous ventures. So far away from its origin, both geographically and chronologically, the film has lost much of its resonance, but using a bit of imagination one could see how affecting it would have been in its day. Worrying less about visuals, and putting more emphasis on drama, Kurosawa draws fine performances from the cast, most notably the female lead, Setsuko Hara, whose riveting and metamorphic turn in the role of Yuki, is absolutely fantastic. [Editor’s note: Highly recommended is Kurosawa’s other youth drama Madadayo]
Rating – C+
One Wonderful Day (1947)
On their regular Sunday date, a young couple will find out if their relationship will survive the day when they have to make do with the measly thirty-five yen they have between them, and when grim reality keeps peeping in its ugly head.
Richard Linklater’s 1995 indie classic, Before Sunrise, was hailed as revolutionary on its release, with its fresh concept of a film that follows a single date. As it transpires, Kurosawa beat him to the punch by about fifty years. Certainly his most accomplished film up to this point, Kurosawa keeps the tone of this high concept film darkly humorous, expertly weaving between the tragedies of being poor and the joy of hope and self-reliance. It’s a little too long, but why he ranks One Wonderful Day amongst his lesser output I’ll never quite understand, as in every respects it is charming and entertaining.
Rating – B-
First off, unless you have a firm love for the work of Akira Kurosawa, or vintage Japanese cinema, this set really isn’t for you. The films themselves are relatively unexceptional and would hold no interest for the average viewer. Those curious about the hype surrounding Kurosawa would be better served by starting with some of his classics.
Regarding the transfers, they vary in quality from crisp and fine to dirty looking with fuzzy sound. Kudos must be handed to BFI for sourcing the best possible original prints, but little effort has been (or perhaps could be) used to clean the images and sound up. This apparent lack of quality may be off putting for those unused to films of such age.
All that being stated, to those fans that don’t mind the shaky quality of old movies, Early Kurosawa, as a whole, is more than the sum of its parts. Aside from the enjoyment of seeing these films, in most cases, for the first time, you take with you the bonus of seeing The Master develop his style, very noticeably, film by film, which I guarantee will add layers of fascination.
Overall rating – B
Early Kurosawa is released as a 4 disc, region 2, DVD box set, courtesy of BFI, and will available from March 28th 2011.