Judge Clark Douglas once wanted to be a samurai, but he couldn't find six friends with the same career goal.
"Human beings share the same common problems. A film can only be understood if it depicts these properly."—Akira Kurosawa
Famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa offered his directorial debut in 1943 with the reasonably well-regarded Sugata Sanshiro. From there he went on to make a couple of mediocre dramas and government-requested propaganda films, none of which he felt very happy with. Kurosawa did not experience much creative freedom until the censorship restrictions were removed at the end of the war. Many fans of the director know and love some of his works from this postwar era well: Rashomon, Ikiru, and The Seven Samurai are landmarks of foreign cinema. However, this latest entry into Criterion's Eclipse Collection features five lesser-known films from the decade immediately following World War II, films which chronicle the rise of Akira Kurosawa as a great artist. Are these long-forgotten Kurosawa efforts mere curiosities in the mighty director's canon, or is there more hidden greatness waiting to be found in this collection?
Facts of the Case
The first film in the collection is No Regrets for Our Youth, the very first film Kurosawa was able to make without severe government-imposed restrictions. Kurosawa shows his true colors in the film by offering a very thoughtful and passionate look at the life of a young woman from the early 1930s to the end of the war. The wonderful Setsuko Hara (best known for her work with Yasujiro Ozu) stars as Yukie, the cheerful young daughter of a wealthy upper-class family. She is content in her place as the daughter of a conservative professor (Denjiro Okochi), and generally disapproves of the rebellion taking place among the leftist students at her father's college. However, Yukie's opinions about life and politics slowly begin to change when she falls in love with a liberal young activist (Susumu Fujita). Yukie undertakes a decade-long emotional and political journey, and begins to ask herself a question: What does it mean to live "a life without regrets"?
One Wonderful Sunday was Kurosawa's first and only foray into the realm of shomin-geki, the genre centered on "the drama of the common man." In this film, he presents us with two down-on-their-luck lovers. The relentlessly sad and quiet Isao Numasaki plays the male lead, a veteran who has recently returned from the war. He only has a few yen, but his relentlessly cheerful and optimistic girlfriend (Chieko Nakakita) insists that it should not ruin their Sunday together. After all, it's the only day of the week they have together. As the day progresses, the two lovers meet increasing obstacles and grow increasingly despairing. Will these two young innocents be able to find hope in the midst of despair?
There's also a romance at the center of Scandal, but it's not a real one. A tabloid newspaper has concocted an outlandish story about a supposed love affair between a painter (Toshiro Mifune) and a famous starlet (Shirley Yamaguchi). When the painter reads the story, he is outraged, and determines to sue the tabloid for libel. Things take a problematic turn when Mifune's lawyer (Takashi Shimura) gives in to the temptation of playing both sides, accepting bribes from the tabloid to throw the case. As the court case progresses, tension mounts as the court deliberates over the validity of the lawsuit, and the lawyer deliberates over the morality of his actions.
The longest and most curious film of this collection is The Idiot, Kurosawa's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous novel. Curiously, Kurosawa takes Dostoyevsky's very Russian tale and attempts to set it within the world of postwar Japan. The novel's Prince Myshkin is replaced by Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a war veteran who lost his mind when he was condemned to death and then released. Kameda is a kind, gentle soul who can think no evil of anyone, and only does what he feels is honorable. The film tells the story of his tortured journey as he is pulled, pushed, manipulated, and befriended by the more complicated ordinary human beings of the world. These people include the volatile Akama (Toshiro Mifune), the femme fatale-like Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara), and the sweet young Ayoko (Yoshiko Kuga).
The last film in the collection is 1955's I Live in Fear, which stars Toshiro Mifune in yet another dynamic performance. Mifune plays a paranoid old man named Kiichi Nakajima, a wealthy patriarch who is squandering all of his money on underground bomb shelters and ridiculous protective measures. Why does he do this? To protect himself from nuclear attacks, which he is certain are coming soon. His latest idea is to take his entire family (and his two mistresses and numerous illegitimate children) to Brazil, which he assumes is the safest place on earth. Because of this, Nakajima's children take him to family court in an attempt to have his money stripped away on the basis of mental incompetence. What follows is a wise examination of the thoughts and feelings of characters living in a turbulent and frightening world.
Those who know Kurosawa only from his exciting action films and samurai epics may be surprised at the gentle and introspective tone of No Regrets for Our Youth, a film that finds Kurosawa at his most Ozu. Part of that feeling may come from the casting of Ozu regular Setsuko Hara in the lead role. Another part of that feeling may come from the fact that No Regrets for Our Youth is the only Kurosawa film centered on a female protagonist. Hara carries herself wonderfully in the role, and is very credible as she portrays the character over the span of an entire decade. Thanks to her convincing performance, the Yukie of 1933 doesn't resemble the Yukie of the early 1940s in almost any way. The supporting cast is strong as well, particularly Denjiro Okochi as Professor Yagihara. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura also shows up in a very small role as a government agent.
There are a few strong pieces of camera work here and there, but in general you can tell that Kurosawa had not yet fully bloomed as a filmmaker. However, you can sense his growth and potential in this film. In its free-spirited politics, the film feels youthful, but in the wise, reflective tone, this does not feel like the work of a younger man (Kurosawa was 36 at the time). It's not a great Kurosawa work, but it's a very good one, and a gentle one. Unfortunately, the film isn't in the best condition. The picture has lots of scratches and flecks, some rough jump cuts, and an odd flickering effect from time to time. Sound isn't any better, with the dialogue and the score sounding quite poor most of the time (which may not be as much of an issue for English-speaking viewers, depending on the subtitles).
Critics of the more sentimental efforts of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg are likely to reject One Wonderful Sunday, a film that practically oozes hopeful sentiment during its magical conclusion. The ending features a very ambitious sequence that involves a monologue passionately delivered directly to the camera and a performance by an imaginary orchestra. While I realize that many may find this sequence to be mawkish and over-the-top, I like it very much, and feel that the movie earns it on the basis of what comes before.
One Wonderful Sunday has a great deal of sadness and despair hanging over it, as we watch two happy people slowly sucked into the cruelty of the world. There is a torturous sequence in which the two discover that they have just enough money to attend a Schubert concert. As they are standing in line, two scalpers buy up all the tickets and start selling them on the streets at higher prices, ruining the young couple's chances of getting inside. Kurosawa contrasts the hopeful optimism of young love with the economic despair of postwar Japan, and truly makes us feel for these two people.
There's also a great deal of early filmmaking talent demonstrated on Kurosawa's part in this film, as he stages some wonderful lengthy set pieces. The most impressive of these is arguably a long scene that takes place in complete silence inside the young man's apartment. The young man seeks comfort in the arms of the young woman, but the young woman wants to preserve the only thing she has left in the world. It's a masterful piece of body language and camera work, conveying with small, silent gestures things that could not be so eloquently expressed in words. Unfortunately, video quality is pretty weak on this film as well, with nearly as many scratches as No Regrets for Our Youth. Even more troublesome is the audio, which is a key element in One Wonderful Sunday. The music during the film's climactic sequence sounds very poor; stronger sound quality would boost the effectiveness of that scene immensely.
One Wonderful Sunday is the film that gets all the comparisons to Frank Capra, but I think that Scandal is the even more Capra-esque film of the collection. The main plotline somewhat echoes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as the suave, handsome Toshiro Mifune (rarely more subtle and understated) goes to court to defend his honor. Kurosawa makes some interesting statements about freedom of the press, and the abuse of that freedom. It's a little surprising to hear Kurosawa delivering this message, as he is one of the artists who benefited most from having artistic restrictions removed after World War II. However, Kurosawa also had a great deal of compassion for humanity, and recognized the need to preserve human rights as well as artistic rights. The tabloid editors are portrayed as the villains, but Kurosawa offers them a few small scenes that humanize these would-be monsters a little bit.
Indeed, Kurosawa's compassion for his characters soon begins to outweigh the external drama of Scandal. The film starts to lose focus of Mifune, and begins to center on Takashi Shimura's wonderful performance as the poor, troubled lawyer. There is an intensely sad and tender sequence midway through the film, as Shimura hangs out with a crowd of drunken bar patrons. Shimura begins to bemoan the troubled moral state of his life; relentlessly berating himself for being a failure at everything he has ever tried to do. The scene manages to echo the late, bleak moments of It's a Wonderful Life, and the weight of Shimura's emotional burden begins to outweigh the courtroom story.
The film isn't perfect, though. There's an unfortunate plotline involving Shimura's tuberculosis-ridden daughter that is as about as manipulative and shameless as anything you can imagine. When a movie resorts to having a young girl on her deathbed deliver courtroom advice to her father in an attempt to get him to change his ways, you know things have gone too far. The video and audio are also less than pristine here, though things are once again slightly improved over the previous film.
The Idiot is certainly the most ambitious film of the collection, and unfortunately the least successful. In part, Kurosawa's decision-making should be noted. The novel simply doesn't translate well to postwar Japan, and the main character feels like more of an allegorical figure than an actual human being. During scenes when Kameda is doing something noble or kind, syrupy angelic string-and-choir music plays to very grating effect in the background. However, I suspect most of the problems come from the way the film was handled by the studio.
Kurosawa originally made The Idiot as a 265-minute epic. The studio executives ruthlessly chopped 99 minutes off the running time, making the story only 166 minutes. The Idiot has some inherent complex plotting, that plotting is very near impossible to follow in this rather butchered version. The movie abruptly jumps from one place to the next at times, leaving rather obvious gaps unfilled. I don't know how much stronger Kurosawa's original version was, but one would have to suspect that it would be far superior.
Even so, The Idiot is not a film without merit. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as the volatile Akama, and there's a lot of superb set design and camera work. The film verges on greatness during the mysterious and creepy late sequences in Akama's desolate winter home, scenes of immense atmosphere and power. The picture and sound really start to improve on The Idiot, too. Scratches are kept to a minimum, and the dialogue sounds considerably less muffled than on any of the previous film.
Kurosawa was a great director, and as such, all of the films in this collection have varying degrees of artistic merit. However, I feel that the best film in the set is the very last one, I Live in Fear. Toshiro Mifune, sporting very good old-age makeup, gives a truly superb performance as the old man going mad. Many directors would have given in to the temptation to portray the character with self-righteous superiority. However, Kurosawa not only lends the old man humanity, he even gives him a dose or two of credibility.
The world was wracked with a sense of nuclear paranoia in the 1950s, and Japan perhaps felt that paranoia more vividly than any other country. Having witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Japanese citizens feared the day when they would also be wiped out by a massive bomb. I Live in Fear tends to side with the less panic-driven thinkers, but it raises an interesting question: Is the paranoid man crazy, or are those who refuse to acknowledge the potential threat the crazy ones? The answer may seem a bit more black-and-white from a modern viewpoint, but I think the film is much stronger thanks to its ambiguity on this matter. It would have been hard for a director of today to maintain such a balanced viewpoint of the issue. The transfer on this film is strongest, quite probably because it's the most recent film in the collection. Audio is also surprisingly sharp, presenting the theremin-and-jazz theme that plays over the opening and closing credits with pleasing clarity.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is where I would ordinarily complain about the lack of extras on the set, but that would be a bit self-defeating here. After all, these films are part of Criterion's Eclipse collection, which offers lesser-known films without extras for a reasonable price. Even so, we're only given a scant single page of information on each film. It sure would have been nice to hear a commentary illuminating the story behind the making of The Idiot, or some thoughts on the thematic content of these films in relation to postwar Japan. Even so, it's difficult to complain when you consider the price (the set is available for just over fifty dollars).
While the casual fan of Kurosawa action films who loves The Hidden Fortress and The Seven Samurai may find this set a little disappointing, it's absolutely essential for serious fans of the director. This collection fills some significant gaps in the director's resume, but don't look at these films as mere plugs. With the exception of the fascinatingly troubled adaptation of The Idiot, these are all very fine dramas that effectively showcase Kurosawa's gentle affection for his characters. Postwar Kurosawa not only gives us a compelling look at the state of a country recovering from World War II, but it also showcases us the artistic rise of one of cinema's greatest directors. This is quite possibly the strongest entry from the Eclipse Collection that Criterion has released to date.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, No Regrets For Our Youth
Perp Profile, No Regrets For Our Youth
Distinguishing Marks, No Regrets For Our Youth
Scales of Justice, One Wonderful Sunday
Perp Profile, One Wonderful Sunday
Distinguishing Marks, One Wonderful Sunday
Scales of Justice, Scandal
Perp Profile, Scandal
Distinguishing Marks, Scandal
Scales of Justice, The Idiot
Perp Profile, The Idiot
Distinguishing Marks, The Idiot
Scales of Justice, I Live In Fear
Perp Profile, I Live In Fear
Distinguishing Marks, I Live In Fear
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.