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page added: 2/5/10
updated: 2/12/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Sanshiro Sugata (AK100)

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Sanshiro Sugata (AK100)
1943 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/None Available


Released in Japan in 1943, Sanshiro Sugata represents the debut of Akira Kurosawa as a director. It tells the story of a young man named Sanshiro (played by Susumu Fujita) who arrives in town one day hoping to study jujitsu. But while watching a scuffle between disciples of jujitsu and a practitioner of the new martial art, judo, Sanshiro discovers the latter is his true calling. Sanshiro is incredibly strong and loves to brawl, but quickly learns that physical gifts alone are not enough to master judo. He must also have an appreciation of humanity. As his master scolds him one day, teaching judo to a man without it would be "like giving a knife to a lunatic." It's only when Sanshiro realizes the truth of these words that he finally begins a life-long journey to understand judo... and also himself.

Sanshiro Sugata is surprisingly sophisticated for a directorial debut, but it's worth noting that by the time he got the chance to make it, Kurosawa was clearly ready, having honed his craft for several years as a second unit director at Toho. The film features many cinematic and storytelling techniques that would become common in his films, including the use of wipes and fast-cut editing, the use of weather, music and other symbolism to reveal emotion and meaning, the changing of camera speed to create emphasis, etc. Thematically, the film is also typical of Kurosawa, who would return again and again throughout his career to examine notions of sacrifice, self-fulfillment, self-improvement and the struggle to find meaning and purpose in one's life.

In order to fully appreciate the quality of Criterion's DVD presentation, you have to understand that many of these films were in very poor condition prior to being restored. There are a variety of reasons for this. First, in the case of this particular film, some 17 minutes of footage were excised by Japanese wartime censors and subsequently lost (text cards summarize the missing scenes). Second, the simple fact that the film was made and released in World War II-era Japan means that its care and handling was less than optimal. And finally, it's only in recent decades that the Japanese have come to fully appreciate the need to restore and preserve these films as part of their cultural heritage - something that remains a financial struggle even with major Hollywood films. This has finally been done, however, in part with the assistance of Janus Films, Criterion and The Film Foundation. The resulting DVD presentation is about as good as one could reasonably expect. Yes, you're going to see occasional age-related print artifacts, from scratches and repaired breaks to bits of dust and the like. Still, contrast is mostly excellent, with deep blacks and generally good detail. Perhaps even better, while the film has been physically and digitally restored, it hasn't been so completely scrubbed clean as to lose its filmic character and charm.

Available on this DVD in its original B&W/1.33 aspect ratio (with Japanese mono audio and optional English subs), Sanshiro Sugata on disc makes for a pleasing viewing experience - its first appearance on the format in the States. Note that there are no extras on the disc, as is the case with all of the films in the AK100 box set. The film is intended to speak for itself here, and it does so admirably indeed.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Most Beautiful (AK100)

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The Most Beautiful (AK100)
1944 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: B-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/None Available


Like many directors in both the U.S. and Japan during the Second World War, Kurosawa was tapped by his government's "Information Bureau" to create a film meant to inspire the national war effort. He was originally asked by the Japanese Navy to make an actioner about Zero fighter pilots - but by that point in the war, Zeros were scarce and unavailable for filming. So Kurosawa chose instead to tell the story of a group of teenaged girls working in a factory on the home front to manufacture lenses for targeting scopes. Their team leader is young Tsuru (played by Yoko Yaguchi, whom Kurosawa would later marry), who pushes her charges to overcome their "natural weaknesses as girls" to meet the same production quotas as the men in the factory.

Given Kurosawa's personality (he was not much a believer in nationalistic fervor), one suspects that his heart simply wouldn't have been into making a typical "beat the drums of war" story, so it's probably no surprise that he focused on a more personal, human tale. If you separate out its propagandistic elements (not to mention child labor issues), The Most Beautiful is actually a touching story of devotion to a higher ideal, and ultimately a story of individual self-sacrifice. (Notions of the individual would become a common theme in Kurosawa's later work.) Not only do we see the girls toiling selflessly on the production lines, we also see them trying to build some semblance of a normal life in their free time, even as they sacrifice their health (and in at least one case, the chance to visit a parent's death bed) in order to do what they believe is their duty. What's more, the factory leaders are never shown as cruel task-masters, but actually care for the girls' well-being, even as they struggle to meet their goals. Kurosawa shot the film in a semi-documentary style, adapted from earlier Russian and German films he'd seen previously. Once again, he uses quick cutting, wipes, flashbacks and montage editing to move his story along deftly and with great efficiency. It's worth noting that this film features Kurosawa's second collaboration with actor Takashi Shimura (here playing the factory chief - he also appeared in Sanshiro Sugata), who would go on to appear in several more of his films, including The Seven Samurai.

As with Sanshiro Sugata, the film is presented on DVD in its original B&W/1.33:1 aspect ratio. Audio is Japanese mono with optional English subtitles. A/V quality isn't optimal due to the condition of the original negative (which features much dust and scratches), but the restoration has created a good viewing experience with deep blacks and adequate detail. There are no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (AK100)

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Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (AK100)
1945 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: C
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C/None Available


The commercial success of Sanshiro Sugata was great enough that Kurosawa's superiors at Toho pressured him to produce a sequel. So a sequel he obligingly made (Kurosawa's 1962 Sanjuro was the only other of his career), though even a single viewing of Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two leads one to believe that the director had little interest in the project. (In his own autobiography, Kurosawa later admitted as much: "I feel I was unable to put my full strength into it.") The story picks up young Sanshiro five years later and a bit wiser. He is now a somewhat more reluctant warrior, who understands that his great fighting skills carry with them great power to inflict pain, and have consequences beyond the dojo. The story is almost two films in one, the first in which Sanshiro confronts a pair of American brutes (a bit more wartime propaganda is clearly in evidence here), and the second a tale of revenge sought by the brothers of the villain from the original film.

While Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two does have its moments (including a couple of particularly good scenes between Sanshiro and his sensei), the film is surprisingly uninspiring - almost completely average in both its style and production. The action scenes are flat, with little of Kurosawa's trademark energy or style (though one does appreciate his use of montage editing to show the progression of a young judo student). The story itself feels a bit disjointed, expanding little upon the themes of the original. What's more, the dramatic finale (a fight scene in the snow, which is almost a copy of the one from the first film) feels like the conclusion of a different story altogether.

It also doesn't help that the film elements are in somewhat worse shape here than with the previous two films, again possibly due to its production late in the war. (To give a sense of the desperate situation in which the film was released, Part Two failed to achieve commercial success because there were few theatres left standing in Japan at the time in which to exhibit it.) The print reveals a host of age-related problems, including crushed blacks and blown-out whites, as well as a multitude of scratches, nicks and jumps. The audio is also of lesser quality, occasionally muffled sounding with abundant hiss. Still, the restoration has done what it can, and the result is a serviceable viewing experience on DVD. The disc once again offers the film in B&W/1.33:1 with Japanese mono audio, optional English subs and no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (AK100)

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The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (AK100)
1945 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/None Available


The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is unique among Kurosawa's wartime films, in that there's little about it that one could consider propagandist. In fact, its period story is such that you'd almost think Kurosawa was seeking an escape of sorts in the project from the suffering and devastation around him. Toho only allowed the film to be made because it was cheap. It was shot at the very end of the war, mostly on location with just one set, and so required little in the way of props and other materials that were then in short supply. Kurosawa wrote the script himself in just two days, based upon a real historical incident, in which a small band of samurai and their lord attempt to sneak past an enemy border crossing dressed as monks. But when a lowly porter they've hired sees right through their ruse, they realize they're going to need more than just disguises to see their plan succeed.

With its intriguing Noh and Kabuki theatrical influences, and strong but simple characterizations, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail manages to be quite entertaining. Takashi Shimura again stars as the lead samurai, who must outwit the enemy border guards into letting his lord and men pass. Also particularly good is the comic performance of Kenichi Enomoto as the aforementioned porter - a bumbling, cartoon-faced fellow who gets by in life in spite of himself. Kurosawa's direction and camera choices move the action along well (surprising for such a dialogue-heavy story), and the film never feels hamstrung by its limited sets and locations. An interesting side note: Though Kurosawa only learned of it many years later, the Hollywood director John Ford - whom he greatly admired at the time - visited the film's set with a group of Allied military officers during the production.

As presented on DVD by Criterion, the film is actually quite good looking. Though there are still age-related artifacts visible, the negative is in far better condition that Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two. This MAY be because it was so disliked by the prideful Japanese censors, that they deliberately failed to submit it for approval to the occupying U.S. Army's General Headquarters (G.H.Q.) for approval. It was therefore banned by the G.H.Q. until 1952, when one of the American officers finally saw it, enjoyed it and lifted the ban. Nothing preserves quite so well as an unreleased film! In any case, the DVD features excellent contrast, with deep and detailed blacks and good overall texture. As with the previous discs, this one offers a B&W/1.33:1 image with Japanese mono audio, optional English subs and no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



No Regrets for Our Youth (AK100)

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No Regrets for Our Youth (AK100)
1946 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK100 set.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C+/None Available


Even if you weren't aware of the fact that this was an Akira Kurosawa film, No Regrets for Our Youth would still be a fascinating look at post-war Japan. Made in 1946, the film takes a surprisingly explicit look at the country's then-recent political history. But with Kurosawa at the helm, the film becomes more than a mere historical snapshot. It's a poetic, lyrical movie that intertwines ideology and emotion in a way few other filmmakers could.

The story opens in 1933. Yukie (Setsuko Hara) is the daughter of a leftist professor at Kyoto University. Her father is forced into retirement by the increasingly repressive government and the students protest for academic freedom.

Yukie is torn between two prospective suitors among the student protestors: Noge (Susumu Fujita) leads the revolt and is sent to prison, while Itokawa (Akitake Kono) gives up the fight and returns to school, eventually becoming a prosecuting attorney. Yukie is repulsed by how easily Itokawa sells out his ideals, moves to Tokyo alone and is finally reunited with Noge. They become lovers, but the outbreak of World War II marks the end of their happiness.

As the notes for this film (in the book packaged with the AK100 set) point out, No Regrets for Our Youth is the only Kurosawa film told from the perspective of a female protagonist. Not surprisingly, Kurosawa treats her with the same sensitivity and respect that marks all of his best work. Setsuko Hara is remarkable as Yukie, beautiful, strong and intelligent. The film requires her to age more than a decade, but even more impressive is how she matures before our eyes. (Notable are a couple occasions where this is accomplished through the use of montage editing.) Yukie transforms from a young, carefree, somewhat selfish girl into a responsible, strong-willed woman. Through her eyes, Kurosawa shows us a wide spectrum of Japanese life, from the academic world of Kyoto to a rural, agrarian village. More importantly, we come to understand how our beliefs define our character.

As is typical of the AK100 discs, there are no extras and the print is in acceptable but not pristine condition. The B&W/1.33:1 presentation features adequate contrast, but detail is often soft or lacking due to age and lens focus issues. Still, Kurosawa's images remain indelible.

No Regrets for Our Youth may be considered a minor entry in the Kurosawa library, especially compared to such epics as Seven Samurai and Ran. But I would describe it as a major minor. Kurosawa and Hara create a vibrant, unique female character and the film is worth seeing simply for her alone. Like so many of Kurosawa's films, it's a movie about courage, strength, maturity and freedom. But the specific political context, coupled with the woman's point of view, stand it apart from his other work. It's unusual for a director to make a film seemingly so atypical but still instantly recognizable as their own. But then again, few directors can approach the mastery of Akira Kurosawa.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com



No Regrets for Our Youth (Eclipse)

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No Regrets for Our Youth (Eclipse)
1946 (2008) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 15th, 2008 in the Eclipse Series 7: Post-War Kurosawa set.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/C+/None Available


Kurosawa's No Regrets for Our Youth was also released on DVD by Criterion in 2008, as part of their five-film Eclipse series Post-War Kurosawa collection. With the exception of different packaging (Thinpaks with an outer slipcover) and menus, the disc is essentially the same as the version included in the new AK100 box set. The transfer is identical, sourced from the very same restored master, and there are no extras included on the disc. (You do, however, get brief liner notes on the film printed on the case's cover art insert.)

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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