Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa

On Film / Essays — Aug 3, 2010

Sanshiro Sugata: A Career Blooms

Moviegoers the world over know Akira Kurosawa for Rashomon (1950) and the international classics that followed—Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low. The filmmaker’s dazzling technique made his genre tales about samurai and cops, doctors and gangsters wildly popular and defined his enduring creative profile. In contrast, his career before Rashomon is much less familiar, especially the four films he made during World War II, when he had to contend with zealous government censors and the country’s physical and cultural collapse. Nevertheless, Kurosawa rapidly established himself as a major talent.

He began his training at the P.C.L. studio in 1936, under the mentorship of director Kajiro Yamamoto, who regarded him as a star pupil, and after a few years Kurosawa was champing at the bit to show what he could do as a director. He was thirty-two years old when he saw a newspaper ad for a forthcoming novel by Tsuneo Tomita about the rivalry between judo and jujitsu. He haunted the book stands until Sanshiro Sugata came out, and on reading it instantly knew this was the right project. He proposed it, and when the chance came in 1942 to make the film, he did not hesitate.

Susumu Fujita plays the hero, Sanshiro, with a brash and boyish charm, and Kurosawa embeds the martial arts action in a story about Sanshiro’s moral education and enlightenment. Kurosawa found sagas of personal transformation to be deeply compelling, and all of his great heroes enact such tales. In his first film, Kurosawa discovered his essential narrative template. The film astonishes, too, with its style. Kurosawa’s approach is supremely confident: he uses bold camera moves, aggressive editing, sudden changes in camera speed, axial cutting, wipes to push from scene to scene, and extreme weather as an index of dramatic conflict. All would become hallmarks of his work.

The film’s highlights include a climactic battle in a raging windstorm and an exquisite montage showing a series of meetings between Sanshiro and the beautiful Sayo on the steps leading to a shrine. Composed as a visual tone poem, the latter sequence reveals Kurosawa’s early mastery of film form. Takashi Shimura, soon to be a familiar face in Kurosawa’s work, plays Hansuke Murai, Sayo’s father, with his customary gentleness and affability. In a sop to the militarism of the period, the villain, Gennosuke Higaki, wears Western clothing.

Kurosawa reported being criticized for the scene in which Sanshiro spends the night in a temple pond and sees a lotus flower bloom. Lotus flowers don’t bloom at night, but Kurosawa was undeterred: as he rightly knew and said, it’s a matter of aesthetics, not physics. And Sanshiro Sugata (1943) is an aesthetic delight, though it survives today in fragmentary form, with seventeen minutes missing from its original length. Intertitles summarize the narrative of the lost segments.

Japan’s censors hated the picture. It was scandalously British/American in its sensibility, they said. When the great director Yasujiro Ozu rose to Kurosawa’s defense, however, the barking dogs ceased clamoring. Kurosawa had climbed his mountain, and he stayed atop it for the next twenty years.

The Most Beautiful: Doing His Part

Akira Kurosawa’s mentor, Kajiro Yamamoto, transitioned from prewar comedies to patriotic war films. In this, he was like many Japanese filmmakers who dutifully joined the ideological effort. Kurosawa couldn’t escape being pressed into this kind of service, and The Most Beautiful (1944), his second film as director, was an outright propaganda project. Originally, he had been tapped by the navy to direct an action film about Zero fighter planes. But by 1943, it was becoming clear that Japan would lose the war, and Kurosawa thought it unlikely that the navy would spare planes for a film. So he made this patriotic morale booster instead. The film focuses on a volunteer corps of women working at an optics factory to produce lenses for binoculars and targeting scopes. The factory imposes an emergency quota increase, and the manager announces that everyone must hone their fighting spirit in order to beat the nation’s enemies.

Inspired by the great silent-era Soviet films of Eisenstein and Dovzhenko, Kurosawa resolved to make the film as a semidocumentary, a move that anticipated the social realism that would become a prominent feature of his style in the postwar years. As he would do on such films as One Wonderful Sunday (1947) and Stray Dog (1949), he shot much of The Most Beautiful on location, at the Nippon Kogaku factory in Hiratsuka, and he had the actresses live and work at the factory headquarters. Kurosawa drilled them in factory routines and had them assemble into a fife and drum corps, as their characters do. He aimed to scrub all traces of theater and professionalism from their performances.

The film’s theme—the necessity of complete self-sacrifice to the nation—was in harmony with the repressive state ideology of kokutai, but it was not an idea that Kurosawa personally believed in. In place of an individual hero struggling with issues of conscience and society—the premise of many of his postwar films—Kurosawa here concentrates on the dedication of the factory workers as home-front soldiers in the great national struggle. In the powerful closing shot, one of the film’s main characters, Tsuru (Yoko Yaguchi), sits at her workbench, diligently meeting her production quota while blinking away tears over the death of her mother. Kurosawa brilliantly holds the shot, letting its duration emphasize the contradiction between personal feelings and national duty. Kurosawa believed deeply in nonconformity and in the worth of the individual, and The Most Beautiful shows impressively how he could channel his filmmaking talents into the expression of ideas he did not embrace. When he looked back on the war after many years, he chastised himself for doing so little to resist the nation’s descent into militarism.

Nonetheless, Kurosawa would later remark that, of all his films, The Most Beautiful was dearest to him. Perhaps one reason was that he became very close to Yaguchi and they married. Kurosawa’s parents could not attend the wedding, because they had been evacuated from Tokyo, which Allied forces had begun to bomb. Air raid sirens howled throughout the ceremony, and the next day the Meiji temple where the couple had wed burned to the ground during a B-29 bombing raid.


Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two: Sanshiro Returns

Only twice did Akira Kurosawa make a sequel. Toho pressured him in 1961 to follow up on Yojimbo, and the result was Sanjuro. The other occasion was at the start of his career. Sanshiro Sugata had been a big hit, and P.C.L. wanted another installment. Kurosawa agreed reluctantly, much preferring to dream new dreams than repeat old ones. He found the process of making a sequel rather like putting yesterday’s leftovers into the frying pan and reheating them. But, believing that a director was like a general, he saluted smartly and marched up the hill. Most of the principal cast members returned for Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (1945), and Kurosawa became intrigued by the idea of expanding the character of Gennosuke Higaki, the villain in the first film. Gennosuke has been chastened by his defeat at the hands of Sanshiro. He suffers a nervous and physical collapse, loses his arrogance, and reaches out to Sanshiro for a kind of friendship. Gennosuke was a one-dimensional villain in the first film, and Kurosawa enjoyed making the character more nuanced. He is no longer a caricature of Western imperialism.

But Kurosawa could not avoid the ideological imperatives of wartime filmmaking. The narrative has two sections, and the first, in which Sanshiro confronts two American bullies, a sailor and a boxer, and thrashes them both, is pure propaganda. Before Sanshiro bests him, the boxer cruelly pummels his Japanese opponents, making him a potent political emblem: he stands for unprincipled American brutishness, a perception that had been stoked by the American use of flamethrowers against Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Islands. And Sanshiro’s triumph is presented as an affirmation of spiritual purity over animal savagery.

The second section introduces Gennosuke’s two brothers, Tesshin and Genzaburo, who are on a mission of vengeance against Sanshiro, whom they blame for Gennosuke’s humiliation and illness. Whereas the film’s melodrama requires a buttoned-down performance from Susumu Fujita as Sanshiro, lacking the playfulness of the original, Kurosawa has more fun with the Higaki brothers. Both are crazy, their insanity played to deliriously flamboyant extremes. Genzaburo wears a black wig and white facial makeup and carries a bamboo twig that symbolizes his madness. All these elements derive from Noh theater, making the character the first instance of Noh aesthetics in a Kurosawa film. The influence of Kurosawa’s beloved Dostoyevsky, as well, is apparent here for the first time: Genzaburo suffers from epilepsy, as did the Russian novelist, one of his most famous characters, Prince Myshkin, and Kurosawa himself.

Kurosawa ended the first film with a thunderous fight in a howling storm. This time around, Sanshiro faces off against Tesshin on snowy ground. The actors went barefoot, and Fujita joked with Kurosawa for years about how he’d suffered for the film. The studio was hoping for another big commercial hit, but the war intervened. By the time the film was released, there were few theaters left to show it that had not been bombed.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail: The Warrior

Akira Kurosawa is unquestionably best known for his samurai films. From Seven Samurai to Ran, he aimed to deconstruct Japan’s warrior heritage by providing historically realistic depictions of the flourishing and decline of the samurai class, and in so doing to counter the idealistic and ideological portraits, so prevalent in Japanese culture, that saw samurai as glorious embodiments of virtue, sacrifice, and service. These, of course, had been the state’s wartime ideals as well, and Kurosawa’s explorations of the nation’s warrior past were therefore also comments on where it had gone wrong in the present. But he also loved the warrior ideal, and this push-pull of attraction and critique gives the films an uncommon bite and clarity. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) is his first portrayal of Japan’s medieval warriors, and like his other movies during the war, it shows an artist fully formed, with themes and a narrative that are wholly consistent with his later works.

The picture exists only because of Kurosawa’s energy and cleverness. In the last years of the war, the Japanese suffered extreme privation. Kurosawa and everyone else at Toho made do with severely restricted means—electricity was so spotty they often could not light their sets. Kurosawa had been in preproduction on a film about the Battle of Nagashino and warlord Nobunada Oda’s use of firearms to defeat an enemy clan mounted on horseback with swords and spears. His vision outstripped his resources, however (the project would later become Kagemusha). So he moved on, writing the script for The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail in one night and promising the studio he would need only one set.

The story derives from Noh and kabuki plays depicting a revered twelfth-century incident in which the lord Yoshitsune and a small group of samurai crossed enemy territory disguised as monks and had to persuade border guards to let them through. The event inspired countless earnest, patriotic treatises in movies, literature, and television, but Kurosawa’s take is sly and subversive. He portrays Benkei (Denjiro Ookouchi), Yoshitsune’s chief samurai retainer, in full Noh style and incorporates Noh flute and drum music through­out the film, thus furnishing the seriousness and reverence that everyone expects from the story. But in a radical gesture, he also adds a new character, a porter played by Kenichi Enomoto, the rubbery-faced Toho star comedian of the 1930s, whom Kurosawa had worked with under Kajiro Yamamoto. In contrast to the mythic warriors, the porter is a shrunken, craven, childlike figure. His jabbering undercuts the pomposity of the feudal rituals, a gambit Kurosawa would employ again in Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha, and Ran.

Of course, this got him in trouble with the censors, who thought it rude that he was making fun of a sacred historical incident. Perhaps because of this, they failed to pass their file on the film to the newly arrived censors of the Allied occupation, and the Allies thus banned it as an “illegal, unreported” production. It was not released in Japan until 1952. But no matter. Kurosawa had made his first foray into Japan’s warrior past, and at the end of the war, he was poised on the cusp of greatness. In the next years, he would take his camera and crew to explore the moral and psychological landscape of a nation in defeat.