The First Films of Akira Kurosawa: Eclipse Series 23
Sanshiro Sugata/The Most Beautiful/Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two/The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 79/85/82/59 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: August 3, 2010
Review Date: July 22, 2010
One of the world’s greatest cinematic artists, legendary director Akira Kurosawa joined the Toho studios in 1936 and worked there first as an assistant director and screenwriter as he learned his craft. In 1943, he was allowed to direct his first film Sanshiro Sugata which he also wrote, establishing a precedent with his work which would mark his greatest achievements in the years to come. The four films contained in this new Eclipse box set represent some of his earliest work as a director, and all of them are crucial pieces of the Kurosawa puzzle leading up to his first true international success Rashomon.
Sanshiro Sugata – 4/5
It’s 1882 Japan and a war is raging: no, not with another country but a war between wrestling communities. It seems the new jujitsu movement believes its moves and traditions to be superior to the older, more formal judo. Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) is a judo master who’s able to defeat an entire troupe of jujitsu students one night. So impressed is the young, strong Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) by Yano’s display in the street that he immediately begins to study the art with him. Sugata is strong, but he tends to bully others and is headstrong, but after some stinging life lessons from his demanding master, he’s ready for his first test: a fight with a worthy jujitsu opponent whom he ends up killing. Having established his fierce fighting credentials brings him lots of challenges, especially from the menacing man in black Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata). But before that fight takes place, the master of the jujitsu house, Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura), issues a challenge. With youth and strength on his side, Sugata should be able to defeat him, but Sugata has become obsessed with Murai’s daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todorki) and worries he might end up hurting the father of the girl he loves.
Though the story is rather trite, Kurosawa’s treatment of it is anything but. At this early stage of his career, he’s already a master of pacing and of interesting and variable camera placements to milk the maximum effect from a scene. The fight between Sugata and Murai is one of the film’s centerpieces, and with a combination of close-ups, medium shots, and shots from on high, the fight is electric. Instead of a noisy crowd whooping and cheering, it’s deathly quiet except for the occasional gasp when an opponent does something remarkable or a body hits the floor. Also remarkable is the climactic face-off between Sugata and Higaki in a field with wheat waving in the breeze and partially obscuring the action (all the more to pique audience interest wanting to see over those wheat stalks). Though the film lost seventeen minutes from its running time in a late 1940s edit, intertitles explain the action of the missing footage which was subsequently lost. Susumu Fujita is a mesmerizing fighting presence and also a subtle, appealing actor; no wonder a sequel to this adventure was forthcoming two years later.
The Most Beautiful – 3/5
During the heat of battle during World War II, Japanese manufacturing plants were duly expected to increase production in support of the war effort. At East Asia Optics, the men are expected to increase their production rate 100% and the women are given a goal of 50% increase which they greatly resent. Female spokesperson Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi) implores her bosses to set the women’s goal at 66% increase, and for a while, it seems that their genuine enthusiasm and innate patriotism will make reaching that goal a snap. However, over the long months of work, illness besets several workers, on-the-job accidents occur, family tragedies ensue, and the exhausting pace they’ve set for themselves starts to take its toll as strength flags, nerves fray, tempers flare, and it seems their six month goal just won’t be achieved.
Blatant propaganda even tempered with the writing and directing skills of Akira Kurosawa can only be made somewhat palatable. The ebb and flow of the ladies’ spirits and fervor are directly tied to a series of melodramatic exits and entrances by a number of the most popular women, and copious tears are shed each time something interrupts their latest burst of occupational zeal. Kurosawa attempts to quell the emotional extremes with short bursts of quick cutting at staff volleyball games and fife and drum corps practice to break the monotony of the rather turgid drama he’s directing. But despite this early style of docudrama celebrating the working heart of the Japanese war effort, the movie can’t help but seem dated and of interest now only to see Kurosawa’s attempts to turn this dross into something of merit.
Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two – 3.5/5
It is now 1887, and Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is still the most renowned judo wrestler in all of Japan. However, new types of fighters now challenge his superiority. First, from America, comes the brutal sport of boxing with an American champion challenging all types of Japanese fighters and wiping the ring with them. Also challenging Sugata’s fighting superiority are the two brothers of his nemesis from the first film, Tesshin (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) and Genzaburo (Akitake Kono) Higaki, both tenants of the dangerous new martial art karate. As always, Sanshiro lacks confidence in his abilities, but the sage master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) does what he can to help his talented pupil overcome his anxieties.
Yes, sequels are not a modern movie occurrence. Coming two years after the original with all of the main players from the first film repeating their roles, Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two doesn’t have the freshness of its predecessor, but there is more action in the sequel even if the characters haven’t moved much forward emotionally from where we left them in the last film. More obviously propagandistic than the original movie, Kurosawa has his title character defeat both a bullying American sailor and the U.S. champion boxer (neither man looking particularly western) in an obvious sop to nationalistic honor. The boxing match isn’t filmed very creatively (and definitely not in period: the boxer wears trunks of 1940s vintage), but the climactic encounter with the vengeful Higaki brother (played by the same actor who played the original brother in the first film and in this movie in a dual role) is a magnificently atmospheric achievement: shot during a raging snowstorm with the brother’s screeching attack sounds and the howling wind (along with some obtrusive music) as an eerie accompaniment. Kurosawa films the fight in four stages: first in medium long shot in silhouette, then moving in for medium shots of the fighters from the waist up, then to close-ups of their contrasting expressions: Sugata’s intense calm and Higaki’s twisted insanity, and then back to a mixture of medium and long shots for the final moves. Once again, Susumu Fujita’s still authority is impressive (he’s allowed to grin much more broadly in this film), and Ryunosuke Tsukigata’s handling of his dual role of the older and middle brothers shows great versatility.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – 3.5/5
In twelfth century Japan, the warrior Yoshitsune (Tadayoshi Nishina) must cross through enemy territory to get to friendlier tribes in the north country. He enlists six samurai retainers as bodyguards to do what they can to get him through safely though the trek seems hopeless and the company vastly outnumbered. Led by the samurai Benkei (Denjiro Ookouchi) who decides to use his brain rather than his brawn, Benkei must finesse the troupe’s way through the enemy checkpoint guarded by the suspicious and cunning Togashi (Susumu Fujita) who puts the seven through a series of tests.
Filmed theater – Kurosawa style: that’s the essence of The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, a set-bound theatrical piece influenced by kabuki and Noh theater techniques. The backdrops may be obviously painted, and the small set gets constantly redressed to suggest forward movement, but Kurosawa does everything he can to keep the talky piece moving (including a camera that hovers around and above the group) and the audience’s interest levels from flagging (by adding an outrageous comic figure of the porter played in broadly farcical style by Kenichi Enomoto). There are songs chanted on the soundtrack that comment on the story as it stands, and there is even a dance number by the porter near the film’s conclusion. Denjiro Ookouchi rivets the attention as the samurai leader, a stylized kabuki-like performance which requires a great deal of talking masking the murderous power underneath the priest’s robes he’s wearing. While Kenichi Enomoto was likely greeted with glee at the time for his outrageous antics, the performance now seems tediously overdrawn, Kurosawa’s fondness for catching all of his grimacing and popped eyes in close-up the likely culprit for his quickly wearing out his welcome.
Sanshiro Sugata – 2.5/5
The film is framed at its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and has not been windowboxed. A series of title cards alerts us that this is the edited version of the film, but regardless, it shows its age throughout. There are numerous scratches that run through the frame and quite a lot on the right of the frame. Debris is fairly constant, and print damage is also present. Black levels are pretty weak with lots of details lots in the darkness of the nighttime scenes. Sharpness levels are average. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 10 chapters.
The Most Beautiful – 3/5
The framing is the expected 1.33:1 and does not feature windowboxing. This is a marginally better image than the previous film with somewhat less print damage. Still, there are plenty of dust specks, scratches, and debris to be seen. Sharpness is adequate, but contrast is milky and black levels aren’t notably strong with shadow detail once again being limited. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two – 2/5
Framed in 1.33:1 with no windowboxing as are the other films in this set, the image quality here is poor. Contrast is erratic throughout the movie leading to shots which are sometimes blown out or otherwise too dark. There are scratches galore and lots of age related artifacts, missing frames, and print damage. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the movie has been divided into 11 chapters.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – 3.5/5
The 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio without windowboxing is delivered in a transfer that’s by far the best in this collection. Grayscale rendering for a change is well above average, and black levels are fine. Contrast has been well delivered resulting in a rich looking black and white image. Stray scratches and some print damage do appear at random intervals, but the film nevertheless remains the best looking of the set’s four transfers. The white subtitles show up beautifully, and the film has been divided into 9 chapters.
Sanshiro Sugata – 2.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix is unremarkable. There’s constant low and medium level hiss (though the volume level of the music at the beginning disguises it somewhat), and you’ll hear some flutter and crackle on the track as well. The Japanese dialogue comes through strongly enough, but fidelity is quite limited and the music sometimes has a shrill, unpleasant quality.
The Most Beautiful – 2.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track has hiss that comes and goes but some crackle and a fair amount of flutter being more prominent than in the previous film. Limited fidelity means the film easily sounds its age though dialogue is transmitted adequately.
Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two – 2/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is the worst in the set with continuous hiss and crackle which sometimes overpowers the dialogue. There is distortion from the upper reaches of the music (which is sometimes too loud even though the dialogue is often too low pitched in contrast to it).
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – 3/5
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track does contain some hiss throughout, and there is also crackle in some sections, but once again, this is the best of the set’s four soundtracks. There’s less distortion in the music (luckily since there is a goodly amount of it) than in the other discs, and the dialogue is nicely and accurately recorded.
The Eclipse releases have no bonus features, but each of the slimline cases housing the films has excellent liner notes written by film scholar Stephen Prince.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Naturally, anyone who cares about the history of world cinema is going to be very curious about these early films in the career of one of the world’s greatest directors. Though their age clearly shows in the transfers of three of the four included movies, the films in The First Films of Akira Kurosawa Eclipse set are all so historically important that one can overlook their visual and audio shortcomings. Recommended!