09 September 2010

Kurosawa's early films

Janus's Criterion Collection recently released a DVD box set of Akira Kurosawa's four earliest films, which had until this point been rather hard to find. I had managed to see The Most Beautiful, his second film, quite some time ago, but this recent release afforded me the opportunity to see the other three.

Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro, 1943)
This is Kurosawa's first film. The version that exists today is, unfortunately, not the complete version, as it was re-edited during a time of strict censorship and the footage that was cut has now been lost. The plot is held together using some intertitle cards that explain the missing scenes, rendering it easily watchable, if a bit short. And, of course, I remember at least one moment where I read the intertitle and thought to myself, "Well, that sounds like it would've been a great scene..."

Anyway, the film was obviously a bit amateurish compared to his early works, but far less so than I was expecting. Everything feels a little clumsier than usual, but not by much. Compared to many directorial debuts, it (perhaps not surprisingly) shows a lot of talent and skill. Really, I was impressed at how much it reminded me of his later samurai epics and the like.

The story focuses on a judo wrestler by the name of Sanshiro Sugata. Originally planning on becoming a student of jujitsu, he is impressed by Shogoro Yano's judo technique and asks to be his pupil. Much of the film revolves around the relationship between Sugata and his master Yano. Sugata shows great strength and skill, but Yano worries that he does not have the power to restraint himself. As his skills begin to surpass even his master, Sugata becomes feared by his peers and the townspeople alike. Ultimately, Sugata must learn compassion and the spiritual side of judo.

In some ways, I couldn't help but think of it a bit like a Japanese Rocky, but it definitely echoed a lot of the chanbara fuedal era stuff. The structure of the dojo can be compared to the feudal class system, and motifs of honour, humility, and the way of the warrior all make a presence to some extent.

Overall, the film was quite good. The actors performed well and the writing was pretty solid. The story was, perhaps, a little too formulaic at times, but not badly so. I really enjoyed it a lot.

The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku, 1944)
I will only mention this briefly, as I watched it quite some time ago.

The film was a bit weird given Kurosawa's entire body of work, as it's semi-documentary style was never really repeated (at least not in this fashion). Furthermore, the film was a bit too propagandist. It wasn't bad, but I'd definitely rank it as one of my least favourite Kurosawa films. It's biggest redeeming feature is it's focus on female characters, and interesting divergence from Kurosawa's more masculine filmic tendency. Given that, I think it could be a lot better and I could really like it, but the propagandist elements just hit a little too strongly here.

Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro, 1945)
Given how much I enjoyed the first Sugata Sanshiro, I had pretty high expectations for its sequel. It was certainly just as well made, but I feel like it was a little more formulaic and predictable. Something just didn't resonate with me as well.

The story, obviously, continues to follow Sugata as he learns yet more about himself and Judo. The primary conflict is, again, between Sugata and his master Yano. Sugata also has more physical confrontations through his matches with other dojos. The fights are, perhaps, a bit more impressive and interesting in this one, as it includes two more dramatic cross-disciplinary matches. One against an American boxer and another against two brothers who know karate who are seeking vengeance against Sugata.

The inclusion of the American boxer is quite interesting. For one, the fight is truly bizarre, as one man is trying to dodge and throw punches will the other is trying to grab ahodl of him and throw him. However, more interesting is how the film portrays the Japanese side of the exoticism of Asian cultures. Americans are seen shouting loudly in English to the matches and gaping in amazement at the "strange" and "foreign" fighting styles. Concerns are expressed within the dojo that the Americans fight merely for entertainment, rather than the loftier ideals of the Japanese.

The climactic fight occurs with the karate masters, and though less bizarre in its pairing, the fight is certainly a spectacular one. It must be the highest budget scene of both of the movies.

In the end, the film is still very good, and in terms of the fight scenes, it outdoes its predecessor. However, the rest of the plot feels a little less powerful to me than the original. In the end, I liked the first movie better, but I could see how other's might easily disagree.

Men Who Tread on Tiger's Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi, 1945)
This film is based on the kabuki play Kanjincho which is itself based on the Noh play Ataka. Given the highly theatrical origins, the film is, perhaps, a bit more "Japanese" feeling than many of Kurosawa's movies. The plot follows Japanese theatrical structure and thus feels a bit oddly paced and anticlimactic to American audiences.

I have not studied Japanese theatre enough to speak at length about how the film should be read. All I can say is that the film is best experienced without being too overly concerned with the plot itself. The entertainment comes more from the individual performances.

The first act of the film foregrounds the circumstances around which the rest of the film will revolve. A band of men are infiltrating enemy land in order to kill a feudal lord, and they must cross through a checkpoint disguised as a group of wandering priests soliciting donations. However, when they discover from their porter that their disguise has been compromised, they realize they will have to provide quite the performance to convince the guards that they are priests and should be allowed to pass. The first section features heavy comedic elements from the porter, played by comedian Kenichi Enomoto.

The second act takes place at the checkpoint itself, in which Benkei and the rest of his men must convince the guards of their disguise. The primary focus is a very beautifully delivered speech given by Benkei (Denjiro Okochi). The group is questioned numerous times, and must continually materialize proof of validity. Ultimately, Benkei strikes his master Yoshitsune, who is disguised as a porter, in order to keep up the ruse.

In the final act, Benkei begs forgiveness for striking his superior, which Yoshitsune freely gives. Messengers from the guard tower arrive to apologize for their suspicious behaviour and thereby present a gift of sake. The men get drank and the film ends in song and dance, with Kenichi Enomoto again taking the spotlight with his comedically drunken dance.

Honestly, this film is probably the most comedic and amusing of all of Kurosawa's films, and deserves some attention for that. It certainly isn't one of his greatest masterpieces, but it's highly entertaining if you're in the right mood for it.

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