Monday, January 14, 2008


Akira Kurosawa began his career as a film director in 1941, not exactly the best time to jump with both feet into the pool. Under the strictures of the wartime government, Kurosawa the artist could only paddle so far before having to submit to the nationalistic demands of the time. His first handful of films were part of the war effort, propaganda akin to the rah-rah war movies Hollywood was pumping out on this side of the Pacific.

Once WWII was over, the landscape changed and restrictions were lifted. Starting in 1946, the fledgling director finally had the freedom to explore issues that were important to him. Looking out across the postwar landscape, Kurosawa saw a country struggling to re-establish its identity, caught between the mistakes of the past and a present that was not their own. Though the militaristic Japanese government had been defeated, in their place were the occupying U.S. forces. Rebuilding had begun, but it would take some time for the country to come into its own.

Amidst this, it would also take some time for the great director to come into his own. Postwar Kurosawa is a document of that trajectory, the five films in the set representing rungs in a ladder that would allow Kurosawa to achieve some of his greatest work. Amidst the period these films were made, he would also helm such classics as Ikiru, Rashomon, and Seven Samurai. The movies collected here represent some of his lesser-known works, and the Postwar Kurosawa box is Series 7 in Criterion's Eclipse Series, a specialty label created specifically as a speedy, affordable way to bring oft-neglected segments of a larger oeuvre to the public. Together, these movies show an artist discovering his style and mastering his craft. In the struggles of his people, Kurosawa would find answers to questions that weighed on his soul, establishing some of the major themes of his work. In particular, his need to make sense of a senseless war would be something he'd chase for the rest of his life, the same issues emerging in later films like Dreams and Rhapsody in August. For those of us who only know the major works, here we will find the foundation for them.

* No Regrets for Our Youth (110 minutes - 1946): In celebration of his newfound freedom as a filmmaker, Kurosawa tackled a rather difficult subject: pre-War oppression within his own country. Based loosely on real events, No Regrets opens at a university in Kyoto where the head of the college (Denjiro Okochi) has been fired because he opposed aggressive governmental changes after Japan's occupation of Manchuria. In a period that was analogous to the Communist witch hunts in America in the 1950s, any dissenters were branded "Reds" and publicly discredited. A group of politically minded students emerge at the school, lead by the idealistic Noge (Susumu Fuhita) and his weak-willed sidekick Itokawa (Akitake Kono). As the two boys develop along opposing political lines, they court the affections of the professor's daughter, Yukie (Setsuko Hara).

The story of No Regrets is really Yukie's. She begins as a selfish girl who taunts the men, particularly Itokawa, when they don't measure up to her own impossible standards. As she matures, she is torn between the safe life that Itokawa offers, going with the flow and staying with the system, and the more dangerous world of Noge, where actions carry important consequences, good and bad. Naturally, she chooses to have a life with meaning, and despite the daunting obstacles that she faces, finds even greater reservoirs of courage within herself.

No Regrets for Our Youth is a stirring drama, even if sometimes it takes a while to get that stir going. The slower pace of the film is reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu, Japan's premiere master filmmaker. (Setsuko Hara would actually go on to star in many of Ozu's next wave of films.) Sometimes, the message prevails over the narrative, leading to overtly political dialogue that grinds the story's momentum down. Yet, the film regains that momentum more and more as Yukie finds her place as an activist and as a woman. Hara's sincere performance works to turn each of her character's defeats into very real triumphs.

* One Wonderful Sunday (109 min. - 1947): Kurosawa took a completely different approach for his immediate follow-up to No Regrets. One Wonderful Sunday is a bittersweet portrait of a young married couple who had their lives interrupted by the war. Living in Tokyo, Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita) struggle to make ends meet. Though a veteran, Yuzo hasn't found a lot of opportunities now that he's out of the service. The couple lives apart, working separate jobs and scraping to get by. They meet every Sunday and use what little money they managed to save over the week to have a day together.

The film chronicles one of these Sundays together, and the ups and downs the pair encounters. For every good moment they find, there is some immediate retribution for it. Every step they think they are taking forward knocks them back two. Kurosawa uses their wanderings through the city to show various levels of society, from homeless street children to the denizens of night clubs, and how they get by in postwar conditions. We see the rubble of the bombed-out city, the near-crippling desperation, and also the indomitable hope. In that paradigm, Masako represents the hope, always managing to stay optimistic as her husband sinks lower and lower.

Despite some rather dark scenarios, Kurosawa still manages to show how dreams are kept alive. Out of money after accidentally overspending in a café, the couple realize that they still have the only thing they really need to get by: each other. In a couple of sweet pantomimes, they act out their fantasies about owning their own café, and Yuzo also entertains his wife by conducting an invisible symphony after he is unable to take Masako to the real one. (I was reminded of Renoir conducting the phantom orchestra in The Rules of the Game.) At its summation, One Wonderful Sunday is a symphony that Kurosawa has conducted for his countrymen--one he even invites them to participate in, knocking on the fourth wall in order to encourage them to have some faith in his performers. Like the Schubert piece that Yuzo pretends to conduct, Kurosawa's is a message that remains unfinished, and thus open-ended. The director is saying that though they aren't where they want to be yet, as long as they can dream and keep the vision from fading, Japan can still get there.

* Scandal (105 min. - 1950): Akira Kurosawa made several movies between One Wonderful Sunday and Scandal, including such notable career highlights as Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. One of the reasons these films made such an impact is that it began the fruitful relationship between the director and his most famous leading man, Toshiro Mifune. A force of nature, Mifune's good looks and charisma burn up the screen. He's one of those actors, like Marlon Brando and James Dean would be in the years to come, whose natural presence made it impossible not to watch him, and he forever changes one's view of what acting can be.

In Scandal, Mifune plays Ichiro Aoe, a rebel painter whose canvases reflect the world as he sees it. As one onlooker notes, the mountain that Aoe is painting as red is not actually red; the artist's defense is that when he looks at it, red is how the mountain appears to him. A chance meeting with Miyako Saigo, a famously reclusive singer (Yoskio Yamaguchi), catches the attention of greedy paparazzi, and they sell a snap of the two together to a licentious tabloid publisher (Sakae Ozawa). The ensuing gossip rocks both Aoe and Miyako's worlds, and refusing to let his truth be altered by anyone, Aoe decides to take the magazine to court.

Scandal wonderfully shows the high level of craft Kurosawa had developed in the preceding four years. The confidence in the filmmaking he displays in this drama of intrigue is light years beyond the stiff and mannered direction that slowed No Regrets for Our Youth. Co-writing the screenplay with his regular collaborator Ryuzo Kikushima, the director benefits from indulging his attraction to the eccentricities of everyday people. Nearly upstaging Mifune here is another Kurosawa regular, the chameleonic Takashi Shimura (he also had a bit part in No Regrets). In Scandal, he plays Hiruta, the downtrodden lawyer who takes on Aoe's case. Hiruta is a victim of his own bad nature. The middle-aged man has barely any law practice to speak of, and the sins of the father are karmically visited on his sweet-natured daughter (Yoko Katsuragi), who has been laid up in bed with tuberculosis for five years. She sees her father constantly making the wrong choices, and she can't stand to watch him cheat Aoe.

One of Kurosawa's greatest strengths has always been to let the characters simply behave as they are without forcing a lot of visual histrionics or overdoing the melodrama. We already saw his capacity for this once in Sunday, but the technique is more interesting in this later film. For a movie called Scandal, it doesn't feel at all scandalous. Rather than revel in lurid details and thus betraying his own message, Kurosawa simply lays out the circumstances and let's the characters react as they may. There is no eleventh hour, hail-mary play in the courtroom, nor does he even resort to forcing a love affair into the climax, despite a knee-jerk audience response that causes us to wish the painter and the singer really would fall in love. There are so many places where Kurosawa could have used the standard Hollywood tricks to make Scandal more sensationalistic, but his treatise against the gossip-mongering press is all the more powerful for letting the truth of the situation speak on its own behalf.

* The Idiot (166 min. - 1951): The passionate labor of love Kurosawa made after the breakthrough Rashomon, this adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's nineteenth-century novel is a strange mess. Grasping for something lyrical, Kurosawa ends up clutching at a narrative that often slips through his fingers. Transferring the story into his time and his country, he creates a fable for a world whose morals have gone off-center. It's just that the film itself is off-center, too. Despite moments of intense brilliance, The Idiot is scattered and almost too narrow in its structure. Perhaps the director's original four-and-a-half hour cut had far fewer gaps in it, but the final studio version feels riddled with holes.

Kameda (Masayuki Mori) is an epileptic whose lifelong illness and the trauma he suffered in the war have made his mind a tad bit soft. Newly released from a prison camp, where he narrowly escaped execution, he goes to live with his uncle (Takashi Shimura again) in Sapporo, hoping to find some peace and quiet to recharge. Once there, however, his brutal honesty disrupts the social order of the town. His absence of malice and his pure moral thinking, providing a skewed Christ-like example, call attention to the townspeople's own bad behavior. Attracted to the town harlot, Taeko (a smoldering Setsuko Hara), as a healer is attracted to a wound, he becomes embroiled in criss-crossing love lives. Kameda's greatest rival is also his first civilian friend, the primal rich boy Akama (Mifune). As the two wage a mental battle for Taeko's hard, Kameda is also drawn to the more chilling but caring Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga).

The Idiot is essentially a long string of talking-heads sequences that, despite being elegantly framed by Kurosawa's cinematic eye, tend to all run on longer than seems necessary. Motivation switches on a dime, and the story takes the long way around to get anywhere it's going. Yet, as I said, individual scenes can be amazing, and all of the performances are remarkable. The power of the actors kept me glued to the screen, and the marvel of seeing a great auteur digging deep for something meaningful makes The Idiot worth sitting through. Its goals may be mightier than what Kurosawa could get on film, but there is something fascinating about watching him try.

* I Live in Fear (103 min. - 1955): Jumping ahead a couple of years, by the time Kurosawa made I Live in Fear, he was established as an international sensation. Thus, it feels rather daring that he would make such a politically minded drama.

Toshiro Mifune, in excellent old man make-up, stars as Kiichi Nakajima, a wealthy patriarch whose anxiety over the possibility of a nuclear war has caused him to seek ways to save his family from the atomic holocaust. He has a plan to move everyone to Brazil, including his two mistresses and his illegitimate children, trading the clan's coal foundry for a farm. Seeing their livelihood about to be squandered and not particularly wanting to be transplanted to South America, Nakajima's eldest children and their mother have filed a court petition to have their father declared incompetent. When the family temporarily wins, the father, feeling a new sense of urgency, tries to get a hold of money by other means, as well as pulling a last-ditch attempt to change his offspring's minds.

Crossing paths with Nakajima, and serving as a kind of audience stand-in and the occasional Greek chorus, is Dr. Harada (Shimura). Harada is a dentist who has been appointed as special counsel for family court, and of the men hearing Nakajima's case, he's the one who becomes sympathetic to the old man's convictions. It's through him that Kurosawa poses the central question of the movie: is there such a thing as an irrational response when faced with something as monumentally irrational as a hydrogen bomb?

I Live in Fear avoids being preachy or overtly political by letting Nakajima's descent into despair do all the talking. There is no need for pontificating when the particulars are woven so well into the story. Given the petty bickering of the family and the sincere concern shown by their father, it's hard not to be swayed to Nakajima's side. Only one of the children--and a son-in-law, thus an outsider--ever sees that maybe there was a better way to handle the problem, that the desperation the old man was driven to may have been avoided. The final shot of I Live in Fear is hauntingly poetic, suggesting that madness lies on either side of the sanitarium door. It's just a matter of which psychosis you subscribe to: turning your eyes away from the inevitable, or looking for it everywhere.

The great thing about Criterion's Eclipse label is being able to sample a portion of a director's career, either linked by theme or time frame, and see how ideas and styles developed. Postwar Kurosawa – Eclipse Series 7 gives us both sides of that coin. These pieces not only represent a decade of work in the Japanese auteur's life, but also his questioning of the Japanese identity following World War II. In these five films, often set amongst the rubble of war-damaged Tokyo, Akira Kurosawa hones his penchant for individualistic characters. We also see him establish his ensemble players and cement his most fruitful working collaboration, with the charismatic actor Toshiro Mifune. Not all of these are top-of-the-line classics, but they get close, and both Scandal and I Live in Fear are as good as any of the director's other more commonly discussed pictures. Postwar Kurosawa represents an important segment of the filmography of one of cinema's greatest storytellers.

For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

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