This set serves a valuable service in providing Akira Kurosawa's first four films as a solo director (he had worked on a number of films as assistant director, even providing the screenplay for some of them). What is remarkable is how very good three of the four films are. They are also the four films that he made that were begun under the guardianship of the military censorship board (THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER'S TAIL was begun before the end of the war, but was largely shot after its end, making it one of the first films released after the end of military rule in Japan).
SUGATA SANSHIRO is an astonishing film, with Kurosawa showing a complete mastery of his craft from very nearly the first day he walked onto the set. Kurosawa was not a supporter of the Japanese military adventures abroad, but as he pointed out in his (almost) autobiography, he also did nothing to protest the agenda of the military. He was passively accepting of the status quo, happy when it came to an end, but willing to acquiesce in order to survive and have a job. As an artist he was frustrated that severe limitations were placed on what he was able to write about and what kinds of films he was able to direct. Usually a degree of anti-Western sentiment and especially anti-Americanism was expected, along with the celebration of Japanese martial values. The challenge for Kurosawa was to find films that did not offend the Japanese military authorities while being somewhat interesting to him. In three of the four films included in this set he was successful; in one he most decidedly was not.
The first SUGATA SANSHIRO was satisfying to him as a director because it was at heart a story of humanity while still having a superficially pleasing message to the military. The film tells the story of the triumph of judo over jujitsu in the late 1880s in Japan . The villain in the film is a practitioner of jujitsu who sports a Western mustache and wears Western clothes, and engages in the American vice of smoking (one of the most telling moments of the film comes when he deposits the ask of his cigarette in a lotus blossom). But as a story teller, Kurosawa is in control from beginning to end. There are many memorable segments, such as a beautiful transition where the title character removes his wooden shoes to pull a rickshaw and then the camera notes the passage of time by focusing on the fate of one shoe, eventually following it down a stream, which eventually links the narrative back to Sugata. Also of note is the use of Takashi Shimura in an important supporting role. While Kurosawa is most famously associated with Toshiro Mifune, he in fact worked far more frequently with Shimura, from this first film, all the way through KAGEMUSHA, in which Shimura played a rather small role due to his declining health (he would die shortly after completing the film). Shimura frequently played supporting roles, but he often played lead roles, such as the title role in Mifune's first film with Kurosawa DRUNKEN ANGEL (although Mifune is superb in it, Shimura actually steals the picture as a drunken doctor trying to save Mifune's character from TB), the amazing IKIRU, and as the head samurai in SEVEN SAMURAI.
From a technical standpoint, one thing that makes SUGATA so interesting is the immediate establishment of his preference for the somewhat unusual transitional wipe, instead of the more usual fade. Eventually he would utilize it in a variety of ways, wiping in some films from upper left to bottom right or from far left to right or top to bottom. He never lost his preference for the wipe rather than the fade.
Kurosawa, like many directors, preferred to work with the same actors as often as possible. Susumu Fujita appears in three of the films in this set, and would go on to work with Kurosawa in NO REGRETS FOR MY YOUTH, and then several other films in the late fifties and early sixties. An intelligent and honest actor, he is excellant in the title role in the two Sugata films, and plays the crucial role of the inspector Togashi in THE MEN WHO TREAD ON TIGER'S TAIL (in traditional Japanese theater, the heart of the play the film reproduces is the encounter between Togashi and the chief guard Benkei - one of the things that makes Kurosawa's version so interesting is the deeply nuanced performance by Fugita, who transforms him from a simpleton to an intelligent interlocutor, and perhaps sympathizer).
Kurosawa's second film (which begins with a speech from factory head Takashi Shimura) is a propaganda picture, about a group of women at a lens factory during WW II. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL refers not to a physically beautiful person, but to one who is productive because they live life beautifully. Although blatantly propagandistic (much of the film's content was decreed by the military), Kurosawa is able to transcend his subject matter to produce a fascinating film with a group of women at the center (he would marry one of the actresses after completing the film). There are a number of interesting segments centered on the relations of the women with each other. Interestingly, while the film deals with a group of workers, Kurosawa typically reveals them becoming individuals. Kurosawa loathed the group mentality that was at the center of Japanese life, always instead showing in his films people breaking from the herd mentality to become genuine individuals. That is certainly true here.
The second SUGATA SANSHIRO film is without question the worst movie in Kurosawa's career. He made it under direct orders from the government, who in the closing year of the war wanted an inspirational film about the Japanese fighting spirit. The film explicitly exploited Japan versus West, using a number of expatriot Europeans to play Americans. The film centers on two fights Sugata has to undertake, one against an American boxer and another against the two brothers of the villain from the first film. There are some blatantly offensive Americans, like an American sailor in the opening scenes in the film who physically abuses his rickshaw driver. It is all rather embarrassing, especially given how deeply Kurosawa was influenced by Western literature and film. Kurosawa admits to being bored throughout the production, giving it scant attention and making it as quickly as he could. He would never make a film as uninteresting and as uninspired again.
THE MEN WHO TREAT ON THE TIGER'S TAIL is a retelling of a loosely historical incident that has inspired a large number of Japanese plays and stories over the centuries, that of Yoshitsune fleeing (eventually unsuccessfully) from his brother Yoritomo, who was convinced that he was a rival. Yoshitsune is the great tragic hero of Japanese history and this story of his guards leading him to safety from his brother is at the heart of N'oh drama. Kurosawa retells the story here, adding a comical character (played by one of the great Japanese comedians of the era) to enliven the story. The story is deeply ritualistic. Because it was shot under American occupation, he shot it under stringent conditions. He was allowed only one set, so that much of it had to be shot on location in forests.
These are important films to understand Kurosawa's career and to see how he was from the very beginning an immensely talented director in control of his craft. They also provide a fascinating contrast to the films that came immediately after. NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, DRUNKEN ANGEL, and STRAY DOG are impressive for their chronicling of the struggle of Japan in the wake of WW II, but these films made during WW II are just as important for understanding his development. They are crucial for understanding both the development of the most famous of all Japanese directors as well as the state of Japanese cinema in the closing years of WW II.