Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Countries & Regions: Japan
Studio: British Film Institute
Length: 523 mins
Region: Region 2
Released: 28 March 2011
Cat No: BFIVD905
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Cast: Takashi Shimura , Masayuki Mori , Setsuko Hara , Kenichi Enomoto , Haruko Sugimura , Eiko Miyoshi , Chieko Nakakita , Susumu Fujita , Yukiko Todoroki , Denjiro Okochi , Soji Kiyokawa , Isao Numasaki
Six early films by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa. The films included comprise: ’Sanshuro Sugata’ (1943), ’Sanshuro Sugata No 2’ (1945),... Read More
One of the reasons director Akira Kurosawa is so highly regarded is that, like all true auteurs, you can recognise those things that were important to him – both technically and thematically – in all of his films. The BFI’s release of his first six films – the first time these films have been available on DVD in this country – is therefore a highly anticipated and love overdue boxset for his many fans.
Kurosawa’s debut Sanshuro Sugata would be surprisingly professional if one didn’t know that he had been working as a second unit director for the legendary Toho studios for several years at that point. Prefiguring the likes of Yojimbo, Sanshuro Sugata concerns a young man called Sanshiro (played by Susumu Fujita) who wishes to learn judo – but teaching judo to a man without humanity, his master informs him, would be ‘like giving a knife to a lunatic’. Interestingly, the film already demonstrates Kurosawa’s use of the techniques – wipes, fast cut editing, shots of the weather – for which he would become famous.
The Most Beautiful was the product of the Japanese Government’s desire to get directors producing films for the war effort – and though Kurosawa was not the kind of director to get swept up by nationalistic fervour, his intimate and personal tale of life in a factory for a group of teenage girls tasked with producing lenses for targeting scopes becomes a paean to those who were willing to give themselves up to a higher ideal. The film’s mock-documentary style prefigures the look and feel of late classic Dersu Uzala. Look out for team leader Tsuru, played by Yoko Yaguchi, whom Kurosawa would later marry.
In some respects, and perhaps oddly, it is with films such Sanshiro Sugata Part Two that Early Kurosawa boxset really comes into its own. By anyone’s definition (including his own), the film is a lesser Kurosawa that suffered as a result of everything from the fact Kurosawa was pressured into making it through to the fact that on its release there weren’t many cinemas left standing in Japan to show it – and in many ways wouldn’t warrant an individual release. As part of a boxset, however, you can find much to appreciate here ranging from Sanshiro’s artful conversations with his sensei through to the nascent call for the Japanese to stand up to Western abuse.
Prefiguring the majesty of golden age Kurosawa movies like Seven Samurai and particularly The Hidden Fortress by combining comedy and drama, They Who Step on a Tiger’s Tail – which came from a script Kurosawa bashed out in a couple of days – tells the tale of a group of samurais led by longtime Kurosawa collaborator Takashi Shimura (who would still be working with Kurosawa twenty years later on Red Beard) who must outwit border guards into letting them pass. An early sign of Kurosawa’s interest in Shakespeare can be seen in the role of the porter (played by Kenichi Enomoto) who is straight out of Macbeth, a play Kurosawa would successfully adapt as Throne of Blood.
No Regrets for our Youth is the kind of Kurosawa film that bears little resemblance to the work for which he is celebrated but is yet at the same time thoroughly Kurosawan in thought and execution. Inspired by the Takigawa incident in 1933 when the Government suspended a teacher and led to widespread walkouts and political activism, No Regrets for our Youth is told from the point of view of Yukie (played by Setsuko Hara) who is torn between two suitors, one of whom goes to prison and one of whom becomes a lawyer. The film is particularly fascinating as a result of being the only Kurosawa movie told entirely from a woman’s point of view and Hara’s performance is mesmerising.
The boxset concludes with One Wonderful Sunday, a bewitching, curious little film that is in some ways the closest Kurosawa got to a romantic comedy even as it’s more playful and arguably experimental than Kurosawa was known to be. Concerning a young couple, Yuzo and Masako (played by Isao Numasaki and Chieko Nakakita), as they attempt to have their once weekly Sunday date despite having little money to enjoy themselves with, One Wonderful Sunday manages to convey how difficult life would have been in postwar Japan even as it encourages the couple to realise that if they have each other most problems can be overcome. The film is worth watching for the most peculiar moment in all of Kurosawa’s films when Masako breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly.
All told, Early Kurosawa is an essential purchase for Kurosawa fans as well as an interesting and thought provoking introduction to one of the grand masters of cinema.