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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)
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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
- MPAA rating : s_medNotRated NR (Not Rated)
- Product Dimensions : 7.5 x 5.35 x 1.1 inches; 11.2 Ounces
- Item model number : CRRNECL104DVD
- Director : Akira Kurosawa
- Media Format : Multiple Formats, Box set, Black & White, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
- Run time : 5 hours and 5 minutes
- Release date : August 3, 2010
- Actors : Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura, Denjiro Okochi
- Subtitles: : English
- Language : Unqualified (DTS ES 6.1)
- Studio : Criterion Collection
- ASIN : B003N2CVQ8
- Number of discs : 4
- Best Sellers Rank: #15,212 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
- Customer Reviews:
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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.
I could go into detail regarding the themes, cinematic style and editing in these films, but Kurosawa does that just fine in the rest of his films. SO, here are the 4 films with one sentence from me.
Judo saga/sanshiro sugata... Even a child knows, not to mess with Sugata.
Judo saga 2/sanshiro sugata 2... Didn't you hear what those kids are singing?
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail... Oh Benkei, LOL!
The Most Beautiful... The most strong willed.
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. The film tells the story of the triumph of judo over jujitsu in the late 1880s in Japan . The villain in the film is a practitioner of jujitsu who sports a Western mustache and wears Western clothes, and engages in the American vice of smoking (one of the most telling moments of the film comes when he deposits the ask of his cigarette in a lotus blossom). But as a story teller, Kurosawa is in control from beginning to end. There are many memorable segments, such as a beautiful transition where the title character removes his wooden shoes to pull a rickshaw and then the camera notes the passage of time by focusing on the fate of one shoe, eventually following it down a stream, which eventually links the narrative back to Sugata. Also of note is the use of Takashi Shimura in an important supporting role. While Kurosawa is most famously associated with Toshiro Mifune, he in fact worked far more frequently with Shimura, from this first film, all the way through KAGEMUSHA, in which Shimura played a rather small role due to his declining health (he would die shortly after completing the film). Shimura frequently played supporting roles, but he often played lead roles, such as the title role in Mifune's first film with Kurosawa DRUNKEN ANGEL (although Mifune is superb in it, Shimura actually steals the picture as a drunken doctor trying to save Mifune's character from TB), the amazing IKIRU, and as the head samurai in SEVEN SAMURAI.
From a technical standpoint, one thing that makes SUGATA so interesting is the immediate establishment of his preference for the somewhat unusual transitional wipe, instead of the more usual fade. Eventually he would utilize it in a variety of ways, wiping in some films from upper left to bottom right or from far left to right or top to bottom. He never lost his preference for the wipe rather than the fade.
Kurosawa, like many directors, preferred to work with the same actors as often as possible. Susumu Fujita appears in three of the films in this set, and would go on to work with Kurosawa in NO REGRETS FOR MY YOUTH, and then several other films in the late fifties and early sixties. An intelligent and honest actor, he is excellant in the title role in the two Sugata films, and plays the crucial role of the inspector Togashi in THE MEN WHO TREAD ON TIGER'S TAIL (in traditional Japanese theater, the heart of the play the film reproduces is the encounter between Togashi and the chief guard Benkei - one of the things that makes Kurosawa's version so interesting is the deeply nuanced performance by Fugita, who transforms him from a simpleton to an intelligent interlocutor, and perhaps sympathizer).
Kurosawa's second film (which begins with a speech from factory head Takashi Shimura) is a propaganda picture, about a group of women at a lens factory during WW II. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL refers not to a physically beautiful person, but to one who is productive because they live life beautifully. Although blatantly propagandistic (much of the film's content was decreed by the military), Kurosawa is able to transcend his subject matter to produce a fascinating film with a group of women at the center (he would marry one of the actresses after completing the film). There are a number of interesting segments centered on the relations of the women with each other. Interestingly, while the film deals with a group of workers, Kurosawa typically reveals them becoming individuals. Kurosawa loathed the group mentality that was at the center of Japanese life, always instead showing in his films people breaking from the herd mentality to become genuine individuals. That is certainly true here.
The second SUGATA SANSHIRO film is without question the worst movie in Kurosawa's career. He made it under direct orders from the government, who in the closing year of the war wanted an inspirational film about the Japanese fighting spirit. The film explicitly exploited Japan versus West, using a number of expatriot Europeans to play Americans. The film centers on two fights Sugata has to undertake, one against an American boxer and another against the two brothers of the villain from the first film. There are some blatantly offensive Americans, like an American sailor in the opening scenes in the film who physically abuses his rickshaw driver. It is all rather embarrassing, especially given how deeply Kurosawa was influenced by Western literature and film. Kurosawa admits to being bored throughout the production, giving it scant attention and making it as quickly as he could. He would never make a film as uninteresting and as uninspired again.
THE MEN WHO TREAT ON THE TIGER'S TAIL is a retelling of a loosely historical incident that has inspired a large number of Japanese plays and stories over the centuries, that of Yoshitsune fleeing (eventually unsuccessfully) from his brother Yoritomo, who was convinced that he was a rival. Yoshitsune is the great tragic hero of Japanese history and this story of his guards leading him to safety from his brother is at the heart of N'oh drama. Kurosawa retells the story here, adding a comical character (played by one of the great Japanese comedians of the era) to enliven the story. The story is deeply ritualistic. Because it was shot under American occupation, he shot it under stringent conditions. He was allowed only one set, so that much of it had to be shot on location in forests.
These are important films to understand Kurosawa's career and to see how he was from the very beginning an immensely talented director in control of his craft. They also provide a fascinating contrast to the films that came immediately after. NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, DRUNKEN ANGEL, and STRAY DOG are impressive for their chronicling of the struggle of Japan in the wake of WW II, but these films made during WW II are just as important for understanding his development. They are crucial for understanding both the development of the most famous of all Japanese directors as well as the state of Japanese cinema in the closing years of WW II.