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POSTWAR KUROSAWA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Takashi Shimura, Masayuki Mori, Eiko Miyoshi
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-frame
Studio: Criterion
Features: None
Length: 593 minutes
Release Date: January 15, 2008

Remember that there'll be sacrifices in the struggle for freedom.

Films ****

Akira Kurosawa is undoubtedly the most renowned of all Japanese movie directors.  His greatest films were regularly set in the world of the samurai, but Kurosawa’s genius was not restricted to solely one film genre.  From 1946 until a decade later, Akira Kurosawa divided his film-making efforts between samurai epics and contemporary films.  Criterion’s aptly-titled Postwar Kurosawa box set assembles five of the Japanese director's contemporary films made in this period following World War II.  Each of these films offers a statement upon the difficult socioeconomic transformations and reconstruction of the postwar Japanese era.  Some are comic, some are tragic, but all are extremely well-made films, minor masterpieces in their own right.  Read on below for synopses of these little-seen but nevertheless well-made Kurosawa films.

1) No Regrets for Our Youth (110 min., 1946)

All you know of life are the pretty scenes outside your window.

The first film chronologically in the set is No Regrets for Our Youth.  As Kurosawa’s wartime films were generally propagandistic endeavors, so this film, his first post-war effort, represented a dichotomic opposite - a gentle, cautionary tale against fascism and militarism.  No Regrets for Our Youth starred Setsuko Hara, Japan’s top actress of the day and a megastar soon to be regarded as the “Greta Garbo of Japan” (she was also a favorite of that other great Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu).

In this film, Yukie (Setsuko Hara) is the spoiled daughter of a university professor during the early 1930’s, a period in Japanese history when the nation was beginning to launch its policy of imperialistic expansionism.  As the film opens, university professors and students, in a show of solidarity for peace, have begun staging protests against Japanese militarism, but to no avail.  The consequences will be grave for many, Yukie’s own father included.  Following this period of unrest, the film plots a decade’s journey through Yukie’s life as she transforms from a politically-indifferent young woman into one who has become more conscious of societal difficulties and the plight of the common masses in face of intense government pressure.  Yukie’s moral awakening through her relationships with ex-students from the university protests eventually takes her to rural Japan (shades of Dovzhenko’s silent Earth) where she learns to understands the rationale behind these students’ and her father’s quest for peace over militarism.

To a degree, No Regrets for Our Youth demonstrates how youthful idealism and student intellectualism or activism can be perverted over time by societal pressures and government propaganda.  Certainly, history has shown the consequences of Japanese imperialistic aspirations.  No Regrets for Our Youth is a film that could never have been made in Japan during the war, only during the difficult period of reconstruction.  The next film in Postwar Kurosawa will address directly the plight of the individual during this difficult period.

2) One Wonderful Sunday (109 min., 1947)

This is the kind of world where you need dreams to survive.

In One Wonderful Sunday, two poor young lovers, Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), spend a day together in Tokyo.  Despite their very limited funds, they find a way to enjoy themselves for an entire Sunday.   The story mirrors the heartache of David Lean’s Brief Encounter in the anguished relationship between two lovers who are unsure of where life will  lead them or whether there is a future together for them at all.  One Wonderful Sunday has clearly been influenced by Italian neorealism, which focused on the stories, however big or small, of the impoverished and the common masses.  Much of One Wonderful Sunday has been photographed in the backdrop of postwar Japan, with its economic woes, reconstruction, and broken cityscape, not so dissimilar from the disquieting images of Carol Reed's postwar Vienna in The Third Man.

Overall, this is a touching and topical film about a sincere and real couple trying to find personal happiness in face of extreme difficulties.  Aside from one strange sequence of audience participation at the end of the film (akin to the hand-clapping scene from the stage version of Peter Pan), One Wonderful Sunday never feels forced or contrite.

An interesting note about this film is the important role of music by Schubert in the narrative.  Throughout his career, director Akira Kurosawa was heavily influenced by Western culture, as seen in his adaptations of Shakespearean works or his inclusion of European classical music, Schubert in this case, in his films.

3) Scandal (105 min., 1950)

It doesn’t matter if it’s bull.  Once it’s in print, the public believes it.

Scandal is another film strongly influenced by Western culture.  A tabloid magazine, in the hopes of enhancing sales, fabricates lies about an illicit liaison between a willful artist Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune) and a famous singer, Miyako (the gorgeous Yoshiko Yamaguchi).  Scandal co-stars two of Kurosawa's favorite stars, Toshiro Mifune as the determined painter who decides to fight back by suing the tabloid and Takashi Shimura as Ichiro’s lawyer, a man of good intentions who is nevertheless too weak-minded to avoid being consumed by the wolves of the media world.

Scandal explores postwar media corruption and despite its age, hardly seems dated at all.  Any glance at today’s headlines concerning the woes and latest scandals of our beloved pop or movie stars can attest to this.  While the purported scandal at this film’s core seems quite innocent today (Ichiro is discreetly photographed while chatting with the unmarried Miyako outdoors on her balcony), one must remember that Japanese society a half-century ago was quite reserved and mannered.  But, as the film’s tabloid publisher declares, it’s no scandal unless they’re famous; are the tabloids then at fault for simply feeding the voracious appetites of their readers for such salacious gossip in the first place?  Or, does the blame rests with all - the publishers as well as their readers for perpetuating this vicious circle of lies and deceit?

4) The Idiot (166 min., 1951)

In this world, goodness and idiocy are often equated.

Following the enthusiastic international reception to Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon, the director went back to work on an adaptation of a famous Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevksy.  The Idiot would prove to be one of Kurosawa’s more trying films to make, given its scope and complexity, the difficulties of altering the original novel’s nineteenth-century Russian backdrop into a postwar Japanese setting, and most importantly, studio interference.

The film follows the postwar experiences of one Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a former prisoner-of-war returning home after the conclusion of World War II.  His war experiences continue to haunt him, having driven him temporarily insane and reduced him to a man-child.  Kameda, now an innocent who simply views his life with truth and complete sincerity, has little defenses in a heartless world, and The Idiot documents the inevitable downfall of this “pure soul.”

On the train voyage home to snowy Hokkaido, Kameda befriends the cynical Denkichi Akama (Toshiro Mifune).  Soon, the bonds of the unlikely pair’s friendship will be tested by their mutual infatuation with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a femme fatale whose perpetually dark attire foreshadows the friends’ fates as though Taeko were Lady Death herself, eager to prey upon her helpless victims.  Akama recognizes Taeko for what she is - a kept woman, now fallen and outcast, but he cannot resist her.  Kameda, however, views her more naïvely as an lost soul betrayed by the world in which she lives, an extremely unhappy woman whose basic need is one for warmth and sincere friendship, something that perhaps Kameda can provide.  Is Taeko truly a fallen angel, or simply another sad standard of the baseless, amoral world into which the innocent Kameda has returned?

The film runs for just under three hours in length but was originally four-and-a-half hours long before being severely re-edited by the Shochiku studio.  The Idiot feels strangely disjointed during the first reel or so, particularly given the choppy editing, frequent usage of editing wipes, and the inclusion of numerous title scrolls to fill in the inevitable gaps.  Viewers may be forgiven for initial confusion, given the flood of characters introduced quickly into the film with little set-up.  Rest assured - events in the narrative eventually settle down, and with nearly three hours of narrative, there is plenty of time to pick up the story.  Following the first half of the film, which reveals how Taeko nearly tears Kameda and Akama’s friendship apart, the film follows Kameda’s romance with girl-next-door Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga).  However, as long as the spectre of Taeko’s presence persists, even this relationship seems doomed to failure.

Overall, The Idiot is a very otherworldly, ethereal achievement.  Its wintry canopy provides an eerie ambiance to the film - irregular snow banks adrift amongst seas of ice and snow, ceaseless blizzards, nighttime masques and carnivals replete with grimacing masks and costumes.  The cold descent of snow seems almost to mirror Kameda’s own slow descent into ruination.  As if to accentuate this foreboding sense of alienation and the inevitable, Kurosawa even uses some well-known musical pieces of the supernatural in his film’s score - Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

Due to studio interference, The Idiot, like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons before it, must be viewed today as a flawed masterpiece.  Fortunately, more than enough of the film remains intact to demonstrate Kurosawa’s cinematic genius and to establish The Idiot as truly one of the artistic highpoints in Kurosawa’s legendary career.

5) I Live in Fear (103 min., 1955)

Is he insane, or are we, who can remain unperturbed in an insane world?

I Live in Fear was made during a period between two acknowledged Kurosawa masterpieces - The Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood.  As with the other films in this collection, I Live in Fear explores socio-economic turmoil in postwar Japan.  Somewhat of an ironic comedy with light doses of pathos, I Live in Fear was one of many Japanese films made during the 1950’s about the lingering devastating effect of the Hiroshima bombing upon the general Japanese psyche and morale.  There may be no radioactive, fire-breathing giant reptiles in this film, but I Live in Fear provides social commentary about palpable fears in a Cold War era when the threat and potential aftermath of an imminent nuclear strike were very real.

I Live in Fear stars Toshiro Mifune, playing much older, as Kiichi Nakajima, the crusty patriarch of a extended family clan that includes his wife, several children, and a number of discreet mistresses and illegitimate children, too.  Kiichi Nakajima is intensely fearful of another nuclear attack on Japan and not without reason, given Japan’s recent tragedies of a decade earlier.  Kiichi resolves to move his entire family, despite their protests, to South America to escape nuclear destruction.  The film follows the struggles between the determined father to carry out his plans and the schemings of his own family to protect their properties and assets by declaring the patriarch insane or at least too incompetent to manage the family finances.  A court mediator, Dr. Harada (Takashi Shimura), becomes involved as he tries to determine how best to resolve this difficult situation; in the process, Harada himself grows quite sympathetic to Kiichi’s plight.  After all, what rational Japanese man citizen of the day does not to some degree fear the threat of the bomb?  To what degree then is Nakajima insane, if at all, for simply wishing to protect his own family?

There is another lingering theme throughout I Live in Fear - how much of our own personal freedom must be sacrificed in order to maintain a sense of social stability?  After all, society does not revolve around a single individual but instead is influenced by the contributions of all.  To what degree do the needs of the individual supercede the needs of the many? 

Due to significant cultural differences within the storyline, I Live in Fear is perhaps a film best appreciated by Asian audiences.  However, the central message - the inherent need to protect oneself and one’s progeny - is universal and evident to all.

After I Live in Fear, Kurosawa would never again address so directly in his films the problems and anxieties of postwar reconstruction in Japan.  Perhaps there was little need, as Japanese society by the late 1950’s had shown amazing resiliency in bouncing back from the devastation of the war.  Postwar Kurosawa then is a capsule in time, offering viewers an opportunity to view contemporary Japanese fears during a period in which they were extremely relevant.  But more than that, for fans of Akira Kurosawa, this collection also offers a wonderful opportunity to see early works by a film director rapidly approaching the height of his artistic achievements.

Video **

These five films are presented in their original black & white, full-frame aspect ratio.  As with other entries in the Eclipse series, the films are presented with no significant restorative efforts.  As such, they appear quite old with jittery frames, fine scratches, and images that are occasionally washed-out or soft and grainy.  Uneven camera projection speeds in No Regrets for Our Youth lend the appearance of silent film or vintage newsreels in some instances.  The numerous editing wipes used in The Idiot are somewhat distracting and suggest studio interference and re-editing.

Audio **

The audio quality of these films is nothing special.  There are plenty of pops, scratches, and hisses on the monaural soundtracks, with music and dialogue occasionally distorted by buzz.

Features zero stars

Aside from liner notes for each film, there are no other extras included within this box set.  Also, the paper casing that holds these films together is rather flimsy, but at least each of the five individual DVD cases is sturdy enough.

Summary:

The seventh in Criterion's on-going Eclipse series, Postwar Kurosawa presents five of the master director’s modern-day films made in the decade following World War II.  Those who enjoy these excellent films are encouraged to check out other selections in the Eclipse series, which is dedicated to offering viewers a chance to experience seldom-seen, early classic films by some of the world’s greatest directors.

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