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The Criterion Collection presents

Postwar Kurosawa (1946-55)

"It seems human beings are weak, after all."- Itokawa (Akitake Kono), in No Regrets for Our Youth

Stars: Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Masayuki Mori, Setsuko Hara, Isao Numasaki, Chieko Nakakita, Takashi Shimura
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 09h:54m:53s
Release Date: 2008-01-15
Genre: compilation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

There's something a bit dodgy and obfuscatory about this set—it's certainly very nice to have these five Kurosawa pictures released on DVD, but this is kind of a curatorial curiosity. The bulk of the director's work familiar in the West was all produced after 1945, and hence it could all be considered postwar Kurosawa—the set doesn't give us the director's first films, either, so a more accurate title would be something like "Relatively Minor Kurosawa, 1946-55," given that during this decade he also made such landmark pictures as Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Still, it's most interesting to watch the evolution of the director's more familiar mature style, to see him wrestle with both Eastern and Western influences, and to begin cobbling together perhaps the greatest body of work yet produced in film history.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

"I'm just so disgusted with everything."
—Yukie (Setsuko Hara)

The first film in the set is the one generally regarded as Kurosawa's first mature work, and the beginning of the establishment of his own cinematic voice. It's a frequently romantic, sweeping epic of sorts, beginning in 1933 and offering a series of historical tableaux through the end of World War II; in some respects, though, the most interesting thing about it from our vantage point is the evolution of a style. You can see the influence of silent movies on Kurosawa's work here, with frequent extreme closeups of his actors that seem right out of Dreyer; he also makes use of Slavko Vorkapich-style montages, with spinning newspaper headlines and musical fanfares trumpeting the rapid passage of time. And most unusually, the central figure of the movie is a woman. Setsuko Hara plays Yukie, whose father teaches at Kyoto University; he's a beloved figure, a mentor to many of his students, and his daughter as she grows up becomes more than just a faculty brat, but an object of intense romantic interest.

In many respects this is an old-fashioned romantic triangle, with Yukie's attention being vied for by Itokawa (Akitake Kono), the bookish one, and Noge (Susumu Fujita), the rebel. Yukie's father is essentially expelled from the university for suspicion of being a Communist sympathizer—this is an overtly political movie in many respects, with its characters taking fierce positions on vital issues of national interest, particularly with the coming of war. The story jumps ahead in fits and starts, and the developments of the central characters are dramatic—there's no profit in detailing them here, but there's a decidedly soapy feel to a lot of this.

The film takes for granted a certain amount of historical knowledge, and now some sixty years later and a few continents away, we could have used some filling in—this surely is one of the down sides of getting more Criterion releases through their Eclipse label, because the lack of extras mean that we're on our own. (Bonus points to you if you recall the specifics of the Kyoto University Incident of 1933.) And at times the sensibility of the film is closer to Ozu's than what we think of as Kurosawa's—when a mother buries her son, for instance, she speaks mournfully to his grave: "We'll be joining you soon." We also start to see some of the familiar faces from what would become Kurosawa's de facto stock company—especially notable here is Takashi Shimura as a world-weary cop, a role not dissimilar from the one he'd play three years later in Stray Dog.

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

"This is the kind of world where you need dreams most."
—Masako (Chieko Nakakita)

There's no mistaking the Neorealist influence in the next picture in the set—you can sense deeply that Kurosawa had one eye on Rome while making this film, with its obvious affinities to the early work of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti. There's a whiff of Hollywood to this as well—some of the images of the central couple seem lifted straight from It Happened One Night, so you sort of feel that Kurosawa is trying his hand at popping up some Capra corn. That kind of sentimentality extends to the story—the film follows a young couple whose yen are running short, even as their dreams get bigger all the time. Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) is a young salariman, heartbroken at the holes in the soles of his girlfriend Masako's shoes—they know that they can't afford a new pair of flats or even to have these repaired, let alone think about setting up a home and starting a family.

The film meanders with them through the urban streets on their day off, and if Kurosawa occasionally romanticizes the poverty of street life, he's unflinching looking at the bombed-out blocks that seem to go on forever, the palpable daily reminder of the recent Japanese defeat in World War II. And unlike Hollywood pictures of the period, there's the unmistakable presence of sex—he's constantly prodding her to come back to his room, but she's a good girl, though you can see the fear that she'll lose her man if she doesn't sleep with him.

The cross-cultural elements extend to the film's soundtrack as well, which is sprinkled with Western pop tunes (like My Blue Heaven) played on traditional Japanese instruments; it's pleasing but a bit jarring, especially against such desperate images as characters lunging at plates returned to a restaurant kitchen to get first crack at the patrons' scraps. There's kind of a tacit understanding that this day marks some sort of tipping point for these pair, and it's none too subtle—this can be Kurosawa at his most didactic, even if he's got a generosity of spirit here that gets eclipsed by the pitiless distance so characteristic of his later films. There's also a very peculiar, almost Brechtian sequence toward the end of the film, when the characters turn to the camera and ask for our applause, Tinkerbell-style, to believe in the power of pretend.

Scandal (1950)

"It feels good to be rude."
—Aoe (Toshiro Mifune)

Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's leading man of choice, makes his first appearance in this set with this film, made immediately prior to Rashomon, and it's as contemporary and didactic as its successor is medieval and elusive. It's got the feel of a potboiler or a soap opera, actually, and in a peculiar sort of way much of it remains particularly relevant in our tabloid age—it's almost like this is Kurosawa's Ace in the Hole.

Mifune plays Ichiro Aoe, a brooding, successful Tokyo artist who has retreated to the mountains for relaxation and inspiration—while conferring with a couple of the locals and working on an especially artful landscape, a lost traveler happens by. She is Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko Yamaguchi), a popular singer who seems to have missed her bus and is looking for the path into town—Kurosawa is none too subtle with this bit of exposition, having her make a Maria von Trapp-like entrance, singing to the hills. Aoe offers a ride on the back of his motorcycle; weary, she happily accepts. Their conversation is friendly and respectful, and they check into separate rooms at the same hotel—he knocks on her door to pay his respects, and peering into the balcony of her room, the paparazzi start going bananas. They snap pictures of the two of them together, and they're soon plastered all over the pages of a Tokyo tabloid, Amour Magazine, with screaming headlines about the pop diva and the artist in their love nest getaway.

They are deeply disgraced, embarrassed, chagrined by all this publicity, and it's a measure of how different the time and place is from ours—neither are married or betrothed, and these days this sort of attention would probably be a good career move. Anyway, Aoe promises to litigate over the offense, and he signs on with a flighty, shoddy but deeply impassioned attorney, Hiruta, played by Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura. Hiruta nearly hijacks the movie, as he is an easy mark for bribery; and Kurosawa almost wallows in some of the mawkish sentimentality, especially with Hiruta's tubercular daughter who hasn't been out of bed in five years.

The second half of the film is dominated by the courtroom proceedings, and we get lots of legal maneuverings in what becomes a circus trial—I suspect that this isn't an entirely accurate representation of 1940s Japanese jurisprudence, and it's full of long sideways glances that are nominally subtle but that wouldn't be lost on the legally blind. This even becomes Kurosawa's Christmas movie, with lachrymose renditions of Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne, and as in any morality tale, it's a fair bet throughout that justice will triumph.

The Idiot (1951)

"I really am sick. My brain's gone bad."
—Kameda (Masayuki Mori)

This is unquestionably the most reviled film in the Kurosawa canon—in fact, it's hard to think of another film by such a well-regarded director that has come in for such critical abuse. Part of that may be the natural if deeply unkind tendency to let the pendulum swing back too far the other way after a universal success—this was Kurosawa's first film after Rashomon—and perhaps some of this critical disdain is fueled by the overall general suspicion in the director's native country that he was too Western. Kurosawa later had greater success adapting writers like Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, Ran) and Gorky (The Lower Depths), and this incarnation of Dostoyevsky's novel isn't without its major flaws, certainly. But it is worth taking a deep breath and not dismissing the film entirely.

One of the things you learn early on in the picture is that apparently idiocy is an acceptable medical diagnosis. Masayuki Mori plays Kameda, the title character, a man of such pureness of character and nobility of intentions that he approaches the world with a childlike sense of wonder and naïveté—he's a cultivated primitive, a type more familiar to contemporary audiences with someone like Forrest Gump. The good soul of course gets ensnared in the ugliness of life, and the movie traffics in some retro virgin/whore primitive dichotomies about women. (It's actually kind of sad, to see Kurosawa's portraits of women become more crude and binary over the course of his early work.) He's enchanted by Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a fallen, kept woman whose respectability is to be purchased back in a sham marriage, yet cannot resist the purer temptations of Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), an innocent who doesn't know quite what to make of Kameda, and is even unsure if he is a suitor.

It's kind of an impossible central role—a man of such delicate sensitivity that the boorish find him comical—and Masayuki Mori seems pretty simpering in a thankless part. The movie is amorphous and loses a lot of its narrative drive—it runs close to three hours, seemingly because Kurosawa never seemed to have tamed the material. Still, there are elements of the typical Kurosawa style asserting themselves here, like wipe transitions and an emphasis on extremities of weather; and a couple of fair performances from familiar faces. Mifune plays Akama, Taeko's other suitor who cannot quite believe the simp he's up against; even better is Shimura, Kurosawa's great muse of self-loathing, who wrestles with his conscience about cheating Kameda out of his inheritance. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but almost certainly not deserving of the ample abuse it has received.

I Live in Fear (1955)

"Don't you realize that life is the most precious thing?"
—Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune)

The final film in the set may be Kurosawa's most overtly political, and gives Mifune a singular opportunity to show some range. Here he plays Nakajima, an aging lion who has done well for himself, with a wife and children, and a couple of mistresses and still more children—he's a man of seemingly insatiable appetite in the twilight of his years, but what occupies his thoughts almost exclusively is the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. He's got a plan that his greedy kids think is mad: he wants to buy a huge tract of land in Brazil, and have his extended clan migrate to South America, to save themselves from the inevitable attack. The echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just ten years before the release of this film, are palpable—does it really make you deeply crazy to fear dying in an atomic bomb blast, especially if you live in a major Japanese city?

Mifune and Kurosawa had long since parted ways by the time of Ran, but this in many respects is the actor's turn as Lear—the old king raging against his children and the madness of his universe. As so often happens in the U.S. as well, these sorts of family squabbles end up in court, and the conscience of the piece in some respects is played by Shimura—he's a prosperous dentist asked to serve on a kind of grand jury (the particulars of Japanese jurisprudence are a little vague), and so is one of a panel brought in to render judgment on Mifune and the petition brought against him by his children. Is he an old fool squandering his children's inheritance on his madness, or the Cassandra of Tokyo, foreseeing doom and seeking refuge in Sao Paolo?

It's almost like Nakajima and the film itself have a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder—lightning from a rainstorm is enough to trigger evil memories of nuclear attacks, though the film careens strangely from notions of apocalypse to scenes of indulged obnoxious children trying to pry every last yen out of the old man's hands. The parallel tracks never quite converge—faced with the possibility of the end of the world, everything else seems petty, particularly things like the state of your dental practice. Kurosawa's didacticism doesn't always serve him well in this movie, but the sense of anxiety is palpable and completely understandable—the fright of being just one madman's button push away from nuclear war has to be uniquely horrible for a country that has already suffered through the first ugly trial run at the end of World War II.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As has become house style for the Eclipse series, the image quality ranges from fair to poor, as no restoration work has been done. No Regrets For Our Youth is certainly the worst of them—the transfer seems to have relied on a print of very poor quality, with lots of bacterial decay. One Wonderful Sunday looks pretty scratchy, too; the Scandal print is considerably better, but seems to be missing a couple of missing frames.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono tracks for all five films have some static, One Wonderful Sunday particularly; I Live in Fear sounds the cleanest of the bunch.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 83 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. color bars
  2. liner notes
Extras Review: Each disc comes with color bars and informative though brief liner notes.

Extras Grade: D

Final Comments

These aren't Kurosawa's most widely known or highly regarded films, but the opportunity to see a master at work, taking ambitious chances and seeing only a percentage of them pay off, makes for some intriguing viewing.

Jon Danziger 2008-02-08