Early Kurosawa Part 1

Japan (1944-45) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

A slightly different review this time as we offer a two-for-the-price-of-one appraisal of the early films of one of the world’s most celebrated directors, Akira Kurosawa, courtesy of this four-disc collection from BFI.

First up is The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku) from 1944, which was Kurosawa’s second film. Set in an optics factory during World War II, the company chief Goro Ishida (Takashi Shimura) is trying to rally his workers to support the Japanese army by asking them to work harder, and increases their production targets -100% for the men, 50% for the women.

Upset at feeling marginalised and underappreciated, the women, through shop steward Tsuru Watanabe (Yoko Yaguchi), ask that their target be increased by 70% because they want to work hard for the soldiers too. Ishida agrees but the strain on working longer hours and the increased workload begins to take its toll on the women.

It’s hard to know where to start in discussing this film. It is, primarily, a wholly nationalistic propaganda piece but we shouldn’t be too harsh as every other nation did the same thing during the war. But to hear the reputably polite Japanese rousing the workers with such bellicose rhetoric as “Let’s smash the American and British!” is a little hard to swallow, especially knowing about the Japanese conduct during this conflict.

Putting this aside, which is hard but possible, we find a parable that pays tribute to the unsung heroes of the war effort in Japan, the women left to prop up the industries in the absence of their male colleagues. In some ways this was quite radical in a time when men were always seen as the fighters and women the window dressing, but the theme here is to show that women aren’t all dainty looks and uxorial subservience either.

Of course, trying to parse the subtle sexist undertones of the male bosses assuming the women can’t cope with a heavier workload (despite being proved right) when viewed in a modern context puts a cloud over the gender politics of the workplace. However, this is an occasion where we can put this down to being a product of its time; on the positive side, at least Kurosawa is recognising the female efforts with this film, and the cast is 98% female too.

The mentality of doing their bit for their country and the indomitable fighting spirit of the Japanese is well known and Kurosawa lays it on with spades here. The women – or more accurately girls – take their responsibilities and patriotism seriously so when some start to fall ill and are sent home, they are more heartbroken about letting the team and the country down.

Over the course of this film, the women start to fall out with each other, illnesses are kept secret, and Watanabe is forced to push herself above and beyond to keep everything together. Whist some the content is hard to swallow, the excellent performances of the cast make it worthwhile, notably Yoko Yaguchi as Watanabe, who married Kurosawa a year later!

As a document of Japanese war propaganda, this has a cachet to it as a curiosity piece, but it is this aspect which taints the premise behind the drama, and subsequently the enjoyment of it for international audiences.

From 1945, Kurosawa’s fourth film was The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi), his first Samurai period outing. In 1185, the Shogun Yoritomo Minamoto orders the arrest of his brother Yoshitsune (Iwai Hanshirō), forcing Yoshitsune to flee to the sanctuary of his friend Hidehira Fujiwara.

Disguised as monks, Yoshitsune and six loyal samurai cross the country but ahead of the border, they encounter a lowly porter (Ken’ichi Enomoto) warning them the Shogun has Togashi (Susumu Fujita) and his soldiers waiting for them. With Yoshitsune now dressed as a porter, the group have to convince Togashi they are genuine monks in order to continue of their journey.

If you have done your maths and counted seven men in the group (before the porter is added) and by extrapolation of the Samurai period setting wondered if this was perhaps a portent of things to come, you may be right. Even Takashi Shimura pops up as one of the Samurai – what more evidence do you need?

Joking aside, despite running under an hour, the plot is executed with greater simplicity and clarity than how it reads, with the historical backstory covered in a pre-credits info dump. Apart from a couple of shots of the party trudging through the forests and the ambiguous end scene, much of the action takes place in a singular setting before painted backdrops, reflecting the kabuki/Noh play origins of the story.

With Yoshitsune hiding in the background, it befalls to imposing Samurai Benkei (Denjirō Ōkōchi) to make Togashi believe they are Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage. But this charade is under threat by the nervous and excitable (over)reactions from the porter, whose inability to adopt a poker face every time they come close to being exposed is a highlight of this film.

Benkei almost gets away with it but Togashi’s general Kajiwara is still suspicious, noting the inert porter in the back with the large hat and demands he step forward and show himself. This forces Benkei to take extreme measures to keep the ruse alive, the fall out of which is utterly Japanese yet still remarkable to watch given the context around it.

It is not just the seeds for Seven Samurai sown here, but other Kurosawa period entries like Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, etc. It might bit a stiff in places but of the two films, this one is the more easily digestible of the two and more recognisable of the style and substance of the Kurosawa that everybody knows.

Everybody has to start somewhere, even the greats, so flaws and all, these two films offer a conflicting but fascinating look at Kurosawa’s formative years as filmmaker.

2 thoughts on “Early Kurosawa Part 1

  1. Yeah, fascist governments had a lot of control over their respective film industries at that point, so Kurosawa being forced to make propaganda pieces isn’t surprising. Subject matter aside, Kurosawa struck me as one of those directors who always showed promise, yet took a few tries to get it right. I find those directors are the ones who end up having having long-term success; the ones who have a thunderous debut tend to burn themselves out quickly when later efforts wind up not capturing critical attention or they end up sticking to what gave them that success in the first place.

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    1. My concern is whether Kurosawa was being deliberately cautious and wrote the script for “The Most Beautiful” to appease the Japanese censors or if he simply wasn’t canny enough at that point to be quietly subversive under their noses, as other directors often were. That his next film after this was a sequel to his debut “Sanshiro Sugata” and not another patriotic outing (presumably as the war was almost over by then) says a lot.

      But hey, he found his wife making this film so I guess he had few regrets in the long run! 😛

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