Judge Dan Mancini once trod on a poodle's tail...and paid dearly for it.
"Sugata was my first film as a director, but in films like [Kajiro Yamamoto's] Horses, I had been so much in charge of production that I felt like the director. Somehow I didn't feel as though it were the first time. I thought I knew what it was all about. Still, those around me told me that when I first shouted camera, action my voice sounded quite strange."—Akira Kurosawa, quoted in The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie
The Criterion Collection's release of The First Films of Akira Kurosawa as part of their Eclipse series of more obscure arthouse titles is a banner moment for North American fans of Japan's most celebrated director: All 30 of Kurosawa's feature films have now been released on DVD in North America. Sure, the movies in the set were previously released as part of Criterion's massive 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa box set, but now fans of the director can pick up these obscure early works without re-buying the director's classics.
Facts of the Case
The First Films of Akira Kurosawa contains the first four movies of the director's career, all made during World War II:
The Most Beautiful
Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail
Akira Kurosawa began his film career in 1935 at Photo Chemical Laboratories (later renamed Toho) as an assistant director to Kajiro Yamamoto (Hawai Mare Oki Kaisen). Under Yamamoto's tutelage, Kurosawa honed his skill at all aspects of the filmmaking business: direction, screenwriting, film and sound editing, cinematography, and even set and costume design. By the beginning of World War II, he was ready to assume control of his own directorial career. After scouring Japan for source material worthy of a film adaptation, he purchased the rights to Tsuneo Tomita's 1942 novel, Sanshiro Sugata. Kurosawa's movie adaptation is a straight-up bildungsroman, focused on the developing character of his young hero. It's also the best movie in this set. Kurosawa would experience some early-career misfires soon enough, but Sanshiro Sugata is an amazingly sure-footed piece of work. First films, from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane to François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, are often distinguished by a youthful verve absent in their directors' more mature works. While taut and precisely paced, Sanshiro Sugata isn't a movie propelled by its director's youthful excitement. Instead, Kurosawa's direction is assured and confident. One can see him employing all of the skill and artistry that he learned from Yamamoto—whether in a perfectly edited scene early in the film in which he marks the passage of time with a series of shots of Sugata's discarded shoe, edited together with languid dissolves, or in the surprisingly gentle beauty of the climactic showdown between Sugata and Higaki in the tall grass of a wind-swept marsh. Little about Sanshiro Sugata looks or feels like a debut film. Many of the hallmarks of Kurosawa's later style appear nearly fully-formed in the film. Sugata is the sort of strong-willed yet innocent protagonist that Japanese movie star Toshiro Mifune would play in later Kurosawa movies such as Stray Dog and Seven Samurai. The movie's action—consisting of martial arts throws—is presented with the director's distinct rhythm of tension-building pregnant pauses followed by short, explosive, and decisive moments of combat. And the film is assembled using the tools that would eventually distinguish Kurosawa as a unique and powerful cinematic stylist: axial cuts, wipes, dissolves, and the careful use of mise en scène. Sanshiro Sugata isn't as elegant and artful as the movies Kurosawa made throughout the 1950s, but all of the building blocks of his unique style are on display.
Kurosawa's next movie, The Most Beautiful, is a propaganda film commissioned by Toho to help with the war effort. As propaganda films go, it is artful and surprisingly disinterested in politics. In his early 20s, Kurosawa flirted with communism and was even involved in a workers strike a PCL, but became more and more apolitical as he aged—most likely because he tended to avoid anything that would distract from film (people who knew him well say that he only ever talked about two things: the film he was making or the film he was going to make next). Moreover, Kurosawa absolutely hated working under the authority of the Japanese wartime censors (portions of Sanshiro Sugata were cut by the censors for not showing Japanese culture in a sufficiently positive light; that footage has never been found). He actually preferred his experience working under the American censors during the occupation because they let him get away with just about anything short of openly criticizing the occupation. Though utilizing professional actors, Kurosawa shot the movie in documentary style at a real factory. The movie provides an incredible glimpse of the Japanese homeland effort during World War II. Light on plot, the picture is mostly interested in the beauty of Tsuru Watanabe's patriotic spirit—not expressed through jingoist sloganeering, but in her willingness to sacrifice her own comfort (to the point of missing her mother's funeral) on behalf of the soldiers fighting on the frontlines. The Most Beautiful paints a moving portrait of the Japanese values of community and self-sacrifice with nary a mention of the politics of war. It is an amazing demonstration of Kurosawa's ability to take something as utilitarian as propaganda and to turn it into art.
After The Most Beautiful, Toho put a full-court press on Kurosawa to make a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata, which had been a rousing financial success. Kurosawa had no interest in the project, but took it on anyway out of a sense of duty. Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two is an unmitigated disaster—even worse than Kurosawa's wooden adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. The entire movie screams of his disinterest and boredom. It has none of the style or sense of aesthetic control on display in its predecessor. Instead, it plays like the sort of cheap but competently made melodrama that Sanshiro Sugata would have been if made by a journeyman director. The movie opens with pandering to wartime audiences as Sugata defends a rickshaw driver against a violent and overbearing American sailor. It doesn't improve all that much across the rest of its run. It's obvious that Kurosawa found Higaki, the villain from the first film, a more compelling character than Sanshiro Sugata, but the movie is too stuck in a genre rut to do anything more than provide a glimpse of Higaki's psychological and spiritual turmoil. Instead, we get Sugata's battle against Higaki's brothers, who are uninteresting genre types rather than actual characters (considered as actual human beings, they're entirely insane). The combat sequences range from embarrassingly conventional to outright laughable. Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two is easily the worst movie that Kurosawa ever made.
The fourth film in the set, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, is mostly interesting because it is Kurosawa's first samurai movie—the genre with which he would become most associated around the world. The picture's story of Minamoto no Yoshitsune's flight from his powerful brother during the Kamakura period is an immensely popular, historically based piece of folklore in Japan that has been told again and again in literature as well as both Kabuki and Noh theater. Kurosawa's version is fascinating because of the hints it gives of his future forays into the world of the samurai: the staid group of skilled and dignified samurai are similar to those we meet more intimately in Seven Samurai; the buffoonish porter is nearly an exact copy of the fool in Ran, Kurosawa's loose adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail was made during the waning months of World War II, a time of great privation for the Japanese people. Kurosawa's budget limitations are apparent—not only does the film run a scant 59 minutes, but it is flatly staged as though he were filming a Noh drama. His compositions are tight and perfect, but camera movement is minimal and uninteresting. The brief running time left no opportunity for Kurosawa to establish individual personalities for the team of traveling samurai. Only Benkei, Lord Togashi, and the porter stand out as memorable characters, though none of them exists in three dimensions. Still, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is a lean, artful telling of an age-old tale. Kurosawa even injected a modern wit (the comic porter doesn't appear in either the Noh or Kabuki plays) that angered the Japanese wartime censor board that essentially forced Kurosawa to make the movie against his will (he reportedly wrote the script in one day).
The four movies in The First Films of Akira Kurosawa look quite good for Japanese pictures made during World War II. Admittedly, that's a substantial qualifier considering the scarcity of movies that survived the era and the careless storage to which they were subjected over the years. Criterion's transfers display plenty of source damage, both minor and major. Contrast is frequently murky, with black levels bleeding around the edges. Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two is the worst looking of the four movies, its image sometimes so fuzzy and dark that it's difficult to discern what is happening onscreen. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail looks surprisingly good. It still sports some source damage, but its rock-solid contrast and mostly exemplary detail is an obvious improvement over Sanshiro Sugata and The Most Beautiful, which are solid enough but certainly won't win any accolades for transfer of the year. Understand, Criterion has done a fine job bringing these films to DVD. It's possible that they could look even better were they worthy of stand-alone Criterion releases, but I found them a pleasant surprise for the most part considering when and under what circumstance they were made.
Audio for the films is similarly flawed. Cleaned up significantly for this release, I'm sure, the Dolby Digital mono transfers of the original analog recordings are sometimes shrill and almost always plagued with hiss. As with the video transfers, Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two's audio is a significant step down from the tracks for the other movies, while The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail sounds cleaner and more subtle than the rest.
As with all Eclipse box set releases, the only extra is a page of liner notes for each of the movies.
The First Films of Akira Kurosawa is strictly for the serious Kurosawa collector. Such collectors will be pleased with the impressive (given the limitations of the source materials) presentations of these rare films by the Japanese master.
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