Grades: Sanshiro Sugata: B+; The Most Beautiful: B-; Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two: B; The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail: B+
Early in Akira Kurosawa’s 1943 directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata, hero Susumu Fujita spends a night in a pond, clutching a stake to keep his head above water. Fujita, a young judo devotee with a bad habit of picking fights, is desperate to convince his sensei that he’s willing to change his ways, but apart from brute determination, he has no comprehension of how to take the next step on the path. Then, in the morning, he sees a lotus flower that bloomed overnight. The image is warm, glowing, and richly spiritual, and Fujita, overcome, springs from the pond and declares himself ready to move forward. When Sugata was released, according to Stephen Prince’s liner notes in the new Eclipse set of four early Kurosawa films, the director was reportedly criticized because lotus flowers don’t bloom overnight. The point is irrelevant. The shot of the flower is pure cinema, and even at the start of his directorial career, Kurosawa already had this language well in hand.
Sugata (based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita) follows the title character’s journey from neophyte to renowned champion. While the plot points are conventional, Kurosawa’s storytelling is vivid, crisp, and grippingly visual, as in the evening confrontation between a judo master and a group of drunken fools that ends with reflecting close-ups of grimacing, squirming faces, or the final bout between Fujita and his rival on a windswept field, struggling for supremacy in a sea of waving grain. In the studio-dictated 1945 sequel, Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two, Kurosawa focuses on the consequences of Fujita’s supremacy. The era’s politics forced the director to include a broad subplot about American boxers and the rapacious nature of American crowds, but the film’s second through-line, focusing on a contest of wills between the hero and a pair of mentally unhinged karate experts, is both comic and unsettling, leading to another memorable fight, this time on a mountain in a snowstorm that seems to foretell the end of the world.
Politics were entirely responsible for Kurosawa’s second film, 1944’s The Most Beautiful, a propaganda picture about World War II’s female volunteer factory workers, which preaches national fervor and self-sacrifice above all. Beautiful’s strident, unblinking idealism, in which the greatest sin anyone commits is hiding a fever in order to avoid early discharge from work duty, doesn’t fit well with the director’s normally more complex view of patriotism and duty. But by avoiding iconic imagery, and focusing instead on the young women, their insecurities, and the mechanics of their duties, Kurosawa is able to make a one-note portrait more intimate and engaging than mere agitprop.
The final film in the collection, 1945’s The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail, introduces one of Kurosawa’s most enduring stock characters: the comic-relief commoner, undercutting the supposed dignity and bearing of his betters with his mugging and directness. The story, based on a 12th-century legend, follows a group of six retainers and their lord as they attempt to journey through hostile territory. The eighth member of their party, a porter played by Kenichi Enomoto, warns them of the flaws in their plans, and the group adjusts accordingly. Made on limited means as Japan was losing WWII, Men often feels stagey, but the close quarters give the sparring dialogue and tense circumstances greater immediacy, playing out conversation like a form of ritualized combat. The porter, whose presence reinforces the heroes’ dignity while subtly mocking their blind spots, drew fire from censors, but like the night-flowering lotus blossom, it was a key piece of film. This conflict between higher and lower classes appeared again and again throughout Kurosawa’s career, and it perhaps found its start in Men’s final scene, where a fool wakes up alone in the wild, as though his great and mighty companions were simply a fairy-tale dream.
Key features: Apart from a Stephen Prince essay accompanying each film, none.