[11 October 2010]
Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata II (1945)
In beginning this discussion of Kurosawa’s first film as director, it is probably worth a short diversion to discuss his earlier career in cinema. Kurosawa was under contact to Toho Studios and had worked his way up over the previous years, having assisted directors and directed second units on other films. The studio deemed him ready to direct his own film, and he picked the newly published novel Sanshiro Sugata as its source (although other studios were pursuing the rights, the author’s wife had read that Kurosawa was an up and coming figure in the film industry, and persuaded him to deem him the rights). With the rights to the novel secured, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay and set out to direct his first film.
The story of Sanshiro Sugata is straightforward. A young man—the title character of the film—sets out to become a martial arts master and gets caught between two rival martial arts, Jujitsu (a traditional form) and Judo (a modern form). He must overcome his own inexperience and a vengeful rival to become who he is finally destined to be. A bit of low- key romance is thrown onto the mix for good measure as well, but there is little more to the story than that.
Visually, the film is more remarkable. Although this is Kurosawa’ s first film as director, his visual style is already recognizable. For example, one of Kurosawa’s signature techniques—a sequence of shots that progressively zoom in on the subject matter—is seen in this film. The climactic fight scene also shouts “Kurosawa!” as clearly as those in his later films.
Any discussion of Sanshiro Sugata would be incomplete without some mention of the circumstances under which it was made. Japan was still at war when this film was made and released, and so it was subject to official censorship from start to finish. This not only infuriated Kurosawa, it also limited the extent to which he could tell the story he wanted to tell. This must be kept in mind when evaluating this film.
Because of Kurosawa’s training and his natural talents, Sanshiro Sugata is not the film of a novice first-time director, but rather a polished film that compares well to the rest of Kurosawa’s filmography.
Thanks to the success of Sanshiro Sugata, the studio decided to make a sequel, and that Kurosawa would direct. Kurosawa had no interest in a sequel, but as he was a studio employee under contract he wrote and directed one. The result is what is widely acknowledged as Kurosawa’s worst film. There is no soul to Sanshiro Sugata II. All that can be said about it to the positive us that it has some good shots in it, mostly in the final fight scene. Kurosawa himself shows no love for Sanshiro Sugata II in his Something Like an Autobiography.
Commissioned by Toho Studios at a time when Japan’s prospects in the war were less than rosy, Akira Kurosawa’s second film certainly holds interest for his dedicated fans, despite (or because) of the fact that it is indisputably a piece of propaganda—of all his work, this sometimes exhaustingly earnest wartime melodrama may be the hardest for modern audiences to stomach.
The Most Beautiful’s plot is uncomplicated, a little hysterical and with an obvious goal of moralizing the flagging spirits of the Japanese nation during World War II. The title refers not to one who is physically beautiful, but to those who possess the right spirit in fulfilling their duty. The film focuses on the major travails and minor triumphs of a group of young women, seemingly teenagers, working at an optics factory making lenses for the military, desperately trying to achieve a nigh-impossible quota they have set for themselves.
No one is more single-minded in this pursuit than the group leader Tsuru Watanabe, played sincerely and compellingly by Yoko Yaguchi, who after much conflict on set later married Kurosawa. Largely for this reason, Kurosawa has called The Most Beautiful the film dearest to his heart.
The overt militarism of the film is jarring from the first moment, a shrill call to “destroy the enemy” from Chief Goro Ishida, startlingly played by Takashi Shimura (better known for rather gentler roles as the leads in, for example, Seven Samurai and Ikiru). Kurosawa himself has expressed regrets about doing nothing to prevent Japan’s slide into this militarism; yet even a cursory examination of The Most Beautiful shows that its propaganda is far from a straightforward approval of Japan’s actions during the war.
What feels like endless scenes showcasing the work ethic, self-sacrifice and patriotism of the female workers make up the bulk of the work, rendering the film largely a paean to the selfless actions of the girls, who are portrayed as wholly innocent and idealistic. Yet the film might also be read as a sharp criticism of a situation that drove them to the point where their extreme efforts became necessary.
The girls’ selflessness indeed verges on the pathological, making The Most Beautiful often rather uncomfortable to watch: one girl hides her tuberculosis so she can continue working, another rallies after breaking her leg, and in the film’s gut-wrenching climax, Watanabe spends the whole night re-inspecting thousands of lenses—fearing that a flaw has been overlooked—despite having just heard that her mother is terminally ill. The fact that the characters work to make lenses for the military, of all things, is also telling; these lenses are to end up in sights on aircraft, with many shots of the movie depicting the view through these sights. The relationship between Kurosawa’s camera and these militarized lenses is cannily brought to the forefront in this way.
And what camerawork it is! Noted film scholar David Bordwell famously said that The Most Beautiful has “some of the greatest back-to-the-camera scenes in film history.” There is also an enormous variety in pacing and composition, from the manic rapid jump-cuts of extreme close-ups of the girls’ faces during a volleyball game, to beautifully composed, distant shots of groups of them working and talking.
Equally wonderful is the chemistry between the actresses, whom Kurosawa made live together for several weeks in the factory dormitory and call each other only by their characters’ names. Their real-life camaraderie shows through in every scene, anchored around the figure of Watanabe, whose development becomes the emotional centre of the film and who remains arresting even as it starts to feel longer than its 85-minute running time.
Though it doesn’t quite live up to its title when considered within the context of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, The Most Beautiful stands fascinatingly apart from his other films as a work that can be called wartime propaganda yet remain a genuinely artistic consideration of the strength of female bonding and, in particular, the inner life of the monolithic figure of Tsuru Watanabe.
Often regarded as the most difficult of Kurosawa’s films for non-Japanese viewers to appreciate, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail offers unexpected pleasures for those willing to do a bit of exploration of the cultural and historical background for the film.
The film is a revision of the famous Kabuki play Kanjincho, which was itself based on the Nō play Ataka. All are loosely based on historical events, the pursuit by the late 12th Century shogun Yoritomo of his popular half-brother Yoshitsune. After being chased for four years, Yoshitsune killed himself along with his wife and children. Yoshitsune has ever since been celebrated in Japan as the quintessential tragic hero. Although Kurosawa preferred Noh to Kabuki theater (his later films Throne of Blood and Ran would display considerable Nō influence), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is more in the Kabuki style.
Kurosawa focused on one of the more traditional incidents in Yoshitsune’s story, the attempt by his guards disguised as Buddhist monks to sneak Yoshitsune past a checkpoint held by those faithful to Yoritomo.
The key event in the story is the game of wits at the checkpoint between Yoshitsune’s bodyguard Benkei and Lord Togashi, the commander of the checkpoint. The climax of the film occurs when Benkei, who has told Togashi that they are Buddhist monks traveling to distant areas soliciting donations for the rebuilding of their temple, is challenged by Togashi to read the prospectus. Since the document does not exist, Benkei has to bluff by unfurling a blank scroll and successfully adlibbing its contents.
The tensest moment occurs when Togashi’s aide accuses their porter of being Yoshitsune in disguise (which he is). Benkei instantly charges in and begins beating the porter, accusing him of shirking. Togashi declares to all that obviously the porter could not be Yoshitsune, because no one would beat their lord in such a fashion.
Kurosawa makes two interesting changes to the story, both of them controversial. One is that he makes Togashi far more intelligent than he is usually portrayed. In his version, Togashi (played by Susumu Fujita, who had the starring role in Kurosawa’s first film, Sanshiro Sugata) is not duped by Benkei, but apparently respects his devotion to his master as well as his skill in answering his questions (such as his request that Benkei read the prospectus). Togashi therefore becomes almost an accomplice in Yoshitsune’s escape.
The second major change is the inclusion of a comic character of Kurosawa’s own creation. Kenichi Enomoto, whose antics and physical mannerisms will put many people in mind of Jerry Lewis in the 1950s, is added as porter whose sole purpose is to provide comic relief, though doubtless some will debate to the degree to which his presence is relieving. Enomoto is not a subtle performer and his performance is best described as excessive. Many viewers of the film like Kurosawa’s twist on Togashi’s character even as they regret Enomoto’s porter.
The film enjoyed a complex history from creation to eventual release. From 1943 until 1945 Kurosawa struggled with the censors of the military government, who placed considerable limitations on the kinds of stories that could be told in films. Toho had authorized a project entitled The Lifted Spear, with the end of the film to show the Battle of Okehazama of 1560, in which Nobunaga, a feudal warlord who began the process of Japanese unification, defeated his rival Yoshimoto (in 1980 he would finally show Nobunaga winning a battle, when he filmed the Battle of Nagashino in Kagemusha). The film was to star Denjiro Okochi (who had headlined Sanshiro Sugata as the title character’s teacher) and Enomoto, the pair two of the biggest stars in the Japanese film industry. But because the climactic battle scene required a large number of horses and the war effort had taken nearly all of the horses in Japan, making the original film was impossible.
Kurosawa quickly reworked the project, retaining the two lead actors, but choosing instead the story outlined above. Before much work was completed, the Japanese surrendered, ending WW II. Filming commenced under the most stringent circumstances, with material resources limiting set design. Kurosawa got around this by working with a small studio set that was reworked to become different rural locations in addition to the checkpoint where the main encounter between Benkei and Togashi. (There are some fascinating home movies taken by American servicemen in the first wave of the occupation visiting the set, with the actors all in full costume and high spirits; excerpts of which can be seen in the Adam Low documentary Kurosawa.)
In general the American occupation censors were far less restrictive than the Japanese military censors had been (while some of this films during the occupation had details changed upon request, Kurosawa frequently just ignored the censorship rules, such as the request to not show signs in English). In a final act of revenge by the Japanese military censors, they left Kurosawa’s film off the list of films already in production, causing this to be labeled as an illegal production. As a result, the film was banned from distribution. The ban was lifted in 1948, but Toho chose not to release the film until 1952, in the wake of the enormous positive publicity attending to Kurosawa in the wake of Rashomon winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail may not be among Kurosawa’s most accessible films to Western viewers, but for those willing to take the trouble to understand its nuances, it is one of his more interesting early films.