Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.1: Akira Kurosawa's First Films

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

The impact of Akira Kurosawa’s films on the world cannot be stressed enough. He borrowed from western masters, but later western filmmakers took even more from him. His masterworks served as the blueprints for films by John Sturges, Sergio Leone, and George Lucas. Most major action filmmakers worth their salt have cited him as an influences – Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill, John Woo – but also inspired the likes of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Roman Polanski to reach for new levels of moral inquisitiveness. Even his greatest contemporaries of the 1950s foreign film art house wave – Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini – held him in the highest regard, with Bergman referring to his great film The Virgin Spring as a “touristic, lousy imitation of Kurosawa.”

In short, the dude’s got clout. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be taking a look at the thirty films Kurosawa directed and exploring one of the truest masters of the medium. I’ve seen more than a fair of Kurosawa’s work, but there are still a number of early and late films I’ve missed, along with a few major titles here and there that I’m excited to finally catch up with. And good news for anyone with Hulu Plus accounts: 25 of Kurosawa’s 30 features are available, making it easy to follow along. So let’s dive in.

Sanshiro Sugata: 74/B+

Most avid filmgoers first encounters Akira Kurosawa through his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, but the director was working in film a full decade and a half before that. Kurosawa worked as an assistant director under Kajirō Yamamoto from 1936 to around 1941, also working on sets, editing, and scripts, as Yamamoto stressed to his pupil that a good director needed to master screenwriting.

Kurosawa soaked this information in like a sponge while searching for a project to make his directorial debut. He eventually found one in Sanshiro Sugata, a judo novel he found, read in one day, and asked the film studio, Toho, to buy the rights to it. All things went well until post-production: when the censors saw the film, they hated it, calling it “British-American” (keep in mind that in 1943 Japan, that’s a major offense). Fellow master Yasujirō Ozu stood up for Kurosawa, and the censors relented and released the film to major success, but not before lopping off 18 minutes of footage that is now considered lost. The film clearly suffers from it, but it’s nevertheless an impressive debut for the young director.

Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is a student under master Shōgorō Yano (Denjirō Ōkōchi). Brash and given to starting fights, he tests the patience of his master, but gradually grows as a student. When a rivalry gives way to a tournament between Yano’s judo school and a jujitsu school led by the villainous Gennosuke Higaki (Ryūnosuke Tsukigata), it tests Sanshiro, particularly after he falls for Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), the beloved of Higaki and daughter of Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura), an older jujitsu master Sanshiro must fight.

Sanshiro Sugata’s story is simple but effective, and although the cuts clearly take out some of the nuances Kurosawa added to the characters, there’s still enough going on to see that he had more on his mind than spinning an entertaining yarn. Kurosawa doesn’t just want to show a rivalry between two schools of martial arts – he wants to show how it affects the people involved, and how they learn more about life through it. It isn’t enough that Sanshiro learn the martial art, but that he learns control and maturity.

When Sanshiro is scolded by Master Yano, it is because he fights for no reason, and that he displays no humanity. In his first fight in the tournament, Sanshiro loses control, accidentally killing an opponent. In his fight opposite Murai, it’s clear that the previous fight has affected him, and he starts out timid before again going overboard on the older man (who nonetheless admires Sanshiro for giving him a good fight). In his final fight with Higaki, he shows not only greater control, but greater humanity, and we learn he was genuinely concerned about an opponent who showed him nothing but bitterness.

It helps that Kurosawa has a very good cast to help further elevate the material – the controlled Ōkōchi, a suitably conflicted Fujita, and soon-to-be Kurosawa regular Shimura as Sanshiro’s affable opponent. Even Tsukigata, ridiculously dressed as a westernized dandy (I genuinely had to pause the movie because I was laughing too hard) in a clear bit of WWII-era propaganda, gives his villain subtle shades of pride to make him more than a one-note villain.

More than anything else, Sanshiro Sugata shows that Kurosawa was a born filmmaker, someone who knew what he was doing right out of the gate. He’s already playing with deep focus, with wipes that bring real energy to his transitions, with perspective shots that emphasize Sanshiro’s shame. Kurosawa also knows from the get-go how to direct an action scene, using axial cuts (or cuts on moments of action to a close or further angle that maintain an illusion of continuity) and slow-motion for moments of drama (example: Sanshiro’s accidental killing of an opponent). The final fight also shows the first example of Kurosawa using weather as a commentary on a character’s state of mind, with the heavy wind accentuating the brewing conflict both between Sanshiro and Higaki and the self-conflict in Sanshiro.

But most notable is a moment of pure poetry from Kurosawa: having been shamed by his master, Sanshiro tries to prove his dedication by jumping into a pond and staying clinging to a pole throughout the night. As the night goes on, Sanshiro sees a lotus blossom, symbolizing his growing understanding and humanity. Many critics at the time noted that this was impossible, as lotuses cannot bloom overnight, but it’s a point where Kurosawa’s expressionism trumps anything as banal as realism.

The Most Beautiful: 55/B-

Sanshiro Sugata had bits of propaganda in it, but Kurosawa was next drafted to make a pure propaganda film. Originally slated to make a film about the Japanese fighter pilots before the government decided it couldn’t spare any planes for film, Kurosawa refocused on making a film about women volunteers in Japanese factories. The resulting film, The Most Beautiful, has a straightforward propagandistic idealism that doesn’t much represent Kurosawa’s worldview, and the lack of real drama in the film (biggest complication: a woman hides her fever so she can stay working) sometimes makes it a slog.

Yet The Most Beautiful isn’t completely without interest. Kurosawa was too committed a filmmaker to go on autopilot, and there are some impressive bits of editing throughout, especially in a volleyball sequence that shows the bits of joy and relief in their lives. More notably, Kurosawa, influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, tried to make the film as honest a portrayal of the hard work the women put in as possible, making the actresses live in the filming locations and showing how exhausting the conditions could be. It’s minor, but it works as a social realism film and as a sweet tribute to Japanese civilians (and as a bonus, Kurosawa met his wife of forty years on set, so he probably wasn’t complaining too much).

Sanshiro Sugata Part II: 65/B

Kurosawa was again commissioned to make a propaganda film, albeit under odd circumstances. Sanshiro Sugata nearly went unreleased following the censors’ objection to it being too western, but Kurosawa was told to make a sequel to his hit film that would further validate the Japanese way. The film sees Sanshiro trying hard to keep the rules of his dojo, with the threat of American sailors, who challenge Japanese martial artists in boxing matches, hovering over them. His situation is further complicated by former rival Higaki’s vengeful brothers, the decidedly nasty Tenshin (Tsukigata again) and the insane Genzaburo (Akitake Kôno).

The actual conflict in Sugata II is pretty familiar, with the Higaki rivalry hitting many of the same beats as it did in the first one (though Kurosawa stages a memorable final battle between Sanshiro and Tenshin in the snow to mirror Tenshin’s much more pronounced hatred). And while the propaganda element is as well handled as can be expected, it’s still pretty broad, portraying all of the Americans as monsters who either A. fight solely for financial gain, or B. take pleasure watching American boxers beat the life out of more noble Japanese warriors.

That being said, Kurosawa does find ways to keep Sanshiro Sugata Part II more than just a propagandistic repeat of the original. First, he gives Tsukigata new notes to play, both as Tenshin, the rage-filled brother, and, more notably, as a sickly Gennosuke, who has mellowed following his defeat in the first film and laments that his brother has lost his way much as he had. There’s also a deep sadness in his decaying health, and in his loss of his beloved to Sanshiro. Kurosawa also takes a more complicated view of duty, with Sanshiro’s mentors holding firm belief that while he has broken the letter of judo’s rules by prizefighting, his heart has not broken the spirit of the rules, as he did not do it for personal gain. The film look at the martial arts not as a dogmatic world, but as a set of rules leading to enlightenment, one that allows for multiple schools, styles, and worldviews leading towards a more humane life.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail: 75/B+

Kurosawa’s last film before Japan’s defeat, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, was also affected by the war. Made on a limited budget, Kurosawa had to make sure the film was A. shot quickly, and B. on one set. The result is his shortest film, at only 59 minutes, and one that would be delayed release until 1952 after the Allies refused to let Toho release a pro-feudal film. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor, one that gave further hints of the master who was about to emerge.

Yoshitsune Minamoto (Iwai Hanshirō X), a successful general and nobleman, is betrayed by his brother Yoritomo, and must flee with his advisors and loyal protector Benkei (Dejirō Ōkōchi) to Fujiwara for protection. The group disguise themselves as monks, but their porter (Kenichi Enomoto) realizes who they are and warns them that Yoritomo’s men are guarding the borders and on the lookout for men posing as monks. Soon, they come in contact with Togashi (Susumu Fujita), a good-natured commander of the border guards who nevertheless must scrutinize the group, and who’s accompanies by the treacherous Yorimoto’s messenger.

Kurosawa might be working on a budget here, but he finds a way to use that to his advantage. Sure, the set is obviously indoors and limited, but Kurosawa ekes claustrophobic tension out of the enclosed space, making the woods seem like a very small place to hide. It’s also the first introduction of a regular Kurosawa character: the comic relief peasant. Enomoto’s rubber-face antics get to be a bit much in the later going, but in the first half of the film he’s a welcome counterpoint to the solemn, somewhat pompous lords he accompanies. He also serves as the first character to showcase Kurosawa’s interest in conflicts between class, as most of the lords view his earnest attempts to help as the work of a “fool” or a “nobody”.

The film also shows the first overt use of kabuki and Noh theater influence on Kurosawa’s work (after some minor bits in the Genzaburo character of Sanshiro Sugata Part II). There’s theatrical music that serves as a poetic commentary on the action and a slow, deliberate movement to the lords. Best of all is the scene where Benkei (in a shrewd performance by Ōkōchi), posing as the head priest looking for donations for a temple, must adopt a more theatrical way of carrying himself as he reads a fake pronouncement from the temple, while Kurosawa uses fast edits that play almost like a precursor to what Sergio Leone would do in the future.

Kurosawa further explores his complex view of duty, showing first the sad state of a loyal general forced to flee because of treachery, then showing Fujimata’s honorable character, forced to work for dishonorable causes. But the film’s most moving moment comes when Benkei, the most loyal servant to Yoshitsune, must strike his master. Yoshitsune has disguised himself as another porter, and when Yorimoto’s advisor believes he recognizes him, Benkei beats his master for being a lazy, useless porter. It works, but Benkei is heartbroken and anguished over having to violate his duty to protect his master. But again, Kurosawa does not view this dogmatically, as Yoshitsune comments that “It is not this hand that struck me, but heavenly protection”. It’s a sign that the director is growing more thoughtful, something that would flourish in just a few years.

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