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Pressured to contribute to the war effort, Kurosawa instead chose for his first directorial outing an historical subject that champions the Japanese character. 1943's Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshirô) looks back to 1885 and the development of the martial art judo. Sanshiro Sugata is played by Susumu Fujita, an immediately likeable actor who later specialized in stern military characters; Fujita rubs his hair to convey the common spirit much the same way that Toshiro Mifune does in The Seven Samurai. The idealistic Sugata aims to join a sanctioned jujitsu school, only to realize the superiority of the experimental judo practiced by his mentor Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi). Yano shows Sugata a spiritual path beyond his youthful pride. The young man spends a night of protest standing chest-deep in Yano's lily pond, and learns the meaning of humility. Susumu is impressed by the blooming of a lotus flower, an image that he later uses to center his thoughts during martial arts matches.
Sugata soon becomes a celebrity martial artist, and children sing his praise. But he has two major conflicts. To prove the superiority of the judo form, he must fight elder jujitsu master Hansuke Murai (Kurosawa icon Takashi Shimura). A conflict of interest rises, for Murai's daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki) is a beauty that Sugata worships from afar. Murai's aggressive pupil Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is determined to win Sayo by destroying Sugata in a no-hold-barred match.
We're told that the villain Higaki's western garb was intentionally chosen to associate him with Japan's present enemies. But the most interesting surprise about Kurosawa's first film is the editing of its martial arts sequences. The expressive use of cuts from quick action to isolated bits of slow motion is first seen here when Sugata throws an opponent across a room and into a wall. That simple but effective cutting pattern combines with slow build-ups to fast violence to form the core of Kurosawa's dynamic action editing style. Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah would later imitate and adapt parts of Kurosawa's distinctive style for their genre-changing westerns.
Sanshiro Sugata's prescription for Japan is to put older ideas to an honorable rest, embrace the new and continue to oppose foreign evil. Strict wartime censors cut seventeen minutes from the film and almost denied it a release. But the esteemed director Yasujiro Ozu intervened, and Sanshiro Sugata became a big wartime hit.
1944's The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku) is an unapologetic war effort morale builder, filmed when most Japanese citizens believed victory was still possible. The left-leaning Kurosawa takes the assignment in earnest, fashioning a film that resembles Soviet-style "let's all pull together" collectivist propaganda.
The film promotes the harsh conditions in a war factory as almost a Utopian situation. Dozens of unmarried young women work long hours grinding, calibrating and testing lenses for war instruments. They sleep in communal dorms, march to work singing military songs (about evil Asian enemies) and have no personal lives whatsoever. The women try too hard when their work quota is radically increased. One even complains that they aren't being asked to be as productive as the men. Problems from overwork and unforeseen emotional crises also affect production on the assembly line. Personal sacrifice is trumpeted as the way to victory: the workers consider themselves soldiers as well. Girls apologize when they fall sick, working in an unheated factory. A maternal "den mother" leaves for a couple of days, but only to encourage a family to allow their daughter to return to the factory. The "number one best" working girl is the spirited Tsuru (Yoko Yaguchi), who remains true to her duty even when her peers criticize her. Upset that she may have mistakenly passed a flawed lens, Tsuru stays up for two days straight to personally check an entire production run.
Kurosawa openly uses classic Soviet editorial patterns. In one dialogue scene two girls embrace. The camera cuts several times to views of the same composition only slightly reframed, endorsing the emotion of the scene as communally desirable, "worthy". Kurosawa's screenplay repeatedly condones actions taken for the good of the group. With their den mother away the dorm girls fall into bickering and accusations of favoritism. When the charges are proved wrong, the girls engage in a tearful "group apology". Personal emotions are seen as destructive; the only good comes from surrender to the group effort. Tsuru's dying mother writes to tell her not to come home, but to stay on the job.
Viewers curious about former enemies' wartime attitudes should see movies like The Most Beautiful: after marching to work singing about treacherous Huns of ages past, the girls cheerfully chant, "Death to America and Great Britain!" Insulated from outside information and misled by propaganda, the Japanese saw America as brutal aggressors.
With the war going badly for Japan, Kurosawa wrote and directed an upbeat sequel to his first hit, Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro). The first film ended on a rather open-ended note with Sugata on a train to his future, so Part Two confects a new pair of conflicts. The first is a series of fights with loutish American boxers, which surely pleased the Japanese audience. Sugata first defends a man on the street, being beaten by a Yankee sailor (the film is again set in 1888). Although Sugata condemns boxing as a barbaric and sadistic display -- no argument there -- Sugata reluctantly steps into the ring to show the Westerners the superiority of the judo way. What interests us now, is where exactly Kurosawa obtained the Anglo extras for these scenes.
With the first film's villain Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) now a broken, sick and regretful man, Kurosawa invents a pair of vengeful brothers to challenge Sugata to a death match. Brother Tesshin (Tsukigata, in a double role) is a spiteful hothead, while brother Genzaburo (Akitake Kono) is a madman. With wild hair and a crazed look in his eye, Genzaburo resembles a stylized demon from a formal Japanese stage play.
1945's Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi) is Kurosawa's first Shogun-period tale dressed out in full samurai regalia. A bit of history passed down through eight centuries, it deals with a royal personage betrayed by his brother. Under threat of death, lord Yoshitsune disguises himself as a lowly porter and his retainers as itinerant monks, to pass through a guarded enemy frontier. Teaching the lesson that stealth and wits are sometimes more useful than physical force, the story sees Yoshitshine's vassals pulling off a masterful deception at the expense of the gatekeeper at the frontier (Susumu Fujita).
The brief (59 minute) film concerns itself with little more than the one incident at the frontier, yet presents a number of compelling situations and a commentary on the feudal class system. The group's talkative porter (Kenichi Enomoto) is a talkative pest, but he saves them again and again, by checking ahead on the trail and suggesting ways that the highborn Yoshitune can pass himself off as a menial. Kurosawa would turn to this yokel character many times in future adventure sagas. The border guard becomes convinced that the porter can't be Yoshitune in disguise because of the way the priest beats him. The worst offense in the feudal system is for a vassal to strike his master. Later on, the priest throws himself at the mercy of his lord. Considering that it has no action scenes or violent conflict, Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is as surprisingly satisfying little story. Filmed as the country was collapsing under the American firebombing raids, the film uses just one set, a modest but effective forest hill leading to the hilltop checkpoint.
Eclipse's DVD of The First Films of Akira Kurosawa presents these four pictures in impressive transfers. The Sanshiro Sugata movies look better than I remember them from 16mm prints, although they're not in the best shape. The last reel of #1 is very contrasty, as if sourced from an inferior dupe print. A version prepared for reissue in 1946, it comes with a disclaimer card up front explaining that censor cuts could not be located.
The other movies appear to be intact, with perhaps a frame missing here and there. Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail looks much better than copies that circulated in the past. Eclipse's improved subtitles help as well. Of special note are Stephen Prince's informative, concise liner notes. As the only extra, these authoritative mini-essays read like old-fashioned museum screening notes.
For more information about The First Films of Akira Kurosawa, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The First Films of Akira Kurosawa, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson