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Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata / The Most Beautiful / Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two / The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) (The Criterion Collection) (2010)

Susumu Fujita , Takashi Shimura , Akira Kurosawa  |  NR |  DVD
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata / The Most Beautiful / Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two / The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) (The Criterion Collection) + Eclipse Series 7: Postwar Kurosawa (No Regrets for Our Youth / One Wonderful Sunday / Scandal / The Idiot / I Live in Fear) (The Criterion Collection) + Drunken Angel (The Criterion Collection)
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Product Details

  • Actors: Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura, Denjiro Okochi
  • Directors: Akira Kurosawa
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Black & White, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: Japanese
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 4
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • DVD Release Date: August 3, 2010
  • Run Time: 305 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B003N2CVQ8
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #74,627 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata / The Most Beautiful / Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two / The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

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Product Description

Years before Akira Kurosawa changed the face of cinema with such iconic works as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, he made his start in the Japanese film industry with four popular and exceptional works, created while World War II was raging. All gripping dramas, those rare early films—Sanshiro Sugata; The Most Beautiful; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two; and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—are collected here, including a two-part martial arts saga, a portrait of female volunteers helping the war effort, and a kabuki-derived tale of deception. These captivating films are a glorious introduction to a peerless career.

Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshiro): Kurosawa’s effortless debut is based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita about the rivalry between judo and jujitsu. Starring Susumu Fujita as the title character, Sanshiro Sugata is a dazzling martial-arts action tale, but it’s also a moving story of moral education and enlightenment that’s quintessential Kurosawa.

The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku): This portrait of female volunteer workers at an optics plant during World War II, shot on location at the Nippon Kogaku factory, was created with a patriotic agenda. Yet thanks to the director’s groundbreaking semidocumentary approach to the material, The Most Beautiful is a revealing look at Japanese women of the era that anticipates the aesthetics of Japanese cinema’s postwar social realism.

Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro): Kurosawa’s first film was such a success that the studio pressured the director into making a sequel. The result is a hugely entertaining adventure, reuniting most of the major players from the original and featuring a two-part narrative in which Sanshiro first fights a pair of Americans and then finds himself the target of a revenge mission undertaken by the brothers of the original film’s villain.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi): The fourth film from Kurosawa is based on a sacred twelfth-century incident in which the lord Yoshitsune, with the help of a group of samurai, crossed enemy territory disguised as a monk. The story was dramatized for centuries in Noh and kabuki theater, and here it becomes one of the director’s most riveting early films.

Some directing debuts are tentative and unformed, as though searching for a voice--but other filmmakers have their signature style from the get-go. Ample proof of the latter is given by The First Films of Akira Kurosawa, a four-disc Eclipse set that collects the quartet of movies that kicked off the master's career. Any fan of Seven Samurai or Yojimbo would need all of 10 minutes' worth of the 1943 Sanshiro Sugata to recognize it as a Kurosawa picture: the visual attack is already there, the dynamic movement within the frame, the charged compositions, the feeling for weather and outdoor locations. Even Kurosawa's ear for ambient noise (wind or insects, for instance) is in place.

The story is a marvelous martial arts saga about a young practitioner of judo who challenges the hidebound tradition of jujitsu, a tale of action and humor. Because it was a big hit, Kurosawa was forced to make a sequel, Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two. Susumu Fujita (in retrospect, a sort of prototype for Kurosawa's discovery of Toshiro Mifune) returns to his starring role from the first film, and the sequel comes alive in the martial arts scenes, including an eerie climactic battle in the snow. The movie is marred by crude anti-American propaganda (Japan was losing the war at the time) and also has the poorest print quality of these four titles.

In between those films, Kurosawa was given an out-and-out propaganda project, The Most Beautiful, which was meant to promote worker productivity in the doomed war effort. The setting, an optics factory staffed by young women, inspired Kurosawa to take a documentary-like approach; seen today, the film seems even more melancholy and heartsick than it probably did at the time (when its message could be taken as a stoic call to sacrifice). Not one of Kurosawa's important works, it nevertheless played an important part in his life: he married actress Yoko Yaguchi shortly after shooting.

As the war ended, Kurosawa shot The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, based on a popular and oft-performed stage classic about a group of 12th-century samurai trying to sneak through a guarded mountain pass by dressing as monks. Kurosawa expanded the central situation and added the character of the nervous, talkative porter (played by the antic comedian Kenichi Enomoto)--changes that lift the material from a formal exercise into a living, breathing vision of life. The print quality here is the best in the set, even if the movie itself is limited by the studio-bound shooting, thus robbing Kurosawa of his gift for locations. But all four films were shot under difficult circumstances, and Kurosawa still managed to put his eye and his spirit into each, in unmistakable ways. While not the place to start an appreciation of this towering figure, First Films is an exciting revelation for fans. --Robert Horton

Customer Reviews

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
This set serves a valuable service in providing Akira Kurosawa's first four films as a solo director (he had worked on a number of films as assistant director, even providing the screenplay for some of them). What is remarkable is how very good three of the four films are. They are also the four films that he made that were begun under the guardianship of the military censorship board (THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER'S TAIL was begun before the end of the war, but was largely shot after its end, making it one of the first films released after the end of military rule in Japan).

SUGATA SANSHIRO is an astonishing film, with Kurosawa showing a complete mastery of his craft from very nearly the first day he walked onto the set. Kurosawa was not a supporter of the Japanese military adventures abroad, but as he pointed out in his (almost) autobiography, he also did nothing to protest the agenda of the military. He was passively accepting of the status quo, happy when it came to an end, but willing to acquiesce in order to survive and have a job. As an artist he was frustrated that severe limitations were placed on what he was able to write about and what kinds of films he was able to direct. Usually a degree of anti-Western sentiment and especially anti-Americanism was expected, along with the celebration of Japanese martial values. The challenge for Kurosawa was to find films that did not offend the Japanese military authorities while being somewhat interesting to him. In three of the four films included in this set he was successful; in one he most decidedly was not.

The first SUGATA SANSHIRO was satisfying to him as a director because it was at heart a story of humanity while still having a superficially pleasing message to the military.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kurosawa completists: are there any other kind? July 30, 2010
By Owen
Criterion's Eclipse series rises to the occasion once again after issuing several of the master's lesser-known works in the "Post-War Kurosawa" set. This time coming out with the director's first 4 films-all of which are very hard to come by in America, and all on DVD for the first time (if you don't count the giant "AK 100" box set from last year). While these early films might have a tough time competing with epics like "Seven Samurai" and "Ran", it's an important look at a master developing his craft. As even the "Post-War" set showed, Kurosawa very gradually changed and tried different things with every film and didn't always hit one out of the park (he followed up his breakthrough, "Rashoman" with the ill-fated adaptation of Dosteyevsky's "The Idiot", and even considered retiring after the intensely personal "Dodes-Ka-Den" flopped). As with most people who love Kurosawa, I can't wait for this set. And yes, you either love his films or you don't. But you could say that about Hitchcock. Or Truffaut. Or John Ford. Any director. So for those who enjoy the chance to see how a master became a master, this is very good news indeed.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful collection February 22, 2014
Verified Purchase
Well-made, well-organized. You can't have to much Kurosawa. A good collection, especially for the completist.

We have a VHS of "The Men Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail," and it's cut slightly differently. The bead-prayer scene is seen through the legs of soldiers, rather than close in. Some of the additional scenes are scratched.

We're keeping them both. It's what film geeks do.
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