It’s official! I have now seen every film Akira Kurosawa ever made. I still have nine films left in my Kurosawa Diary project, but that’s mostly about revisiting films I’ve seen before, this time in chronological order.
Last night at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught a double-bill of The Most Beautiful and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. I saw Beautiful at the very beginning of the diary project (see Kurosawa Diary, Part 1: The War Films). But Tiger’s Tail was the last Kurosawa film I hadn’t seen (there were four when I started the project). Now I’ve seen them all.
While far from great, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail shows promise of better things to come. Kurosawa’s first real samurai movie, it contains plenty of themes that would crop up in his later, better work. The plot, involving a noble and retainers trying to cross a dangerous border, resurfaced in The Hidden Fortress. Its chanting narrator chorus and stylized acting foretell the noh-influenced Throne of Blood (although it seems much more forced and stage-bound here). Class differences play an important role, as they did in Seven Samurai. And like Yojimbo and Sanjuro, much of this film is played for laughs.
The comedy comes mainly from a porter (Kenichi Enomoto)—the only lower-class character in the film and a very broad clown. His oversized mugging was funny at first, but wore thin as the film went on. I imagine it would have worked better on a live stage without the intimacy of film. The story comes from a traditional kabuki play and feels very stage-bound. It runs only 59 minutes (a blessing); easily the shortest work of Kurosawa’s career.
It ran into some serious censorship problems when it was new. Shot in the last days of World War II, Tiger was banned by Japan’s military censors as critical of the feudal system. Then the atom bombs were dropped, the war suddenly ended, and the movie was banned by America’s military censors as supportive of the feudal system. The American censors eventually relented and it was finally released in 1949.
The Most Beautiful had no trouble with the literally fascist censors; it was exactly the sort of movie they wanted made. In his second film, Kurosawa paints a rosy picture of teenage girls living in a dormitory and working in a defense plant. Everyone is concerned for their welfare, and their only problems are the obstacles that keep them from working harder. They sing songs about victory over China and destroying Britain and America. A title card before the Toho studio logo calls for “Eternal Conquest.” The movie lacks a unified plot and interesting characters.
I first saw The Most Beautiful off a dreadful Hong Kong DVD import. The image quality was dreadful and the subtitling was worse (and possibly censored to tone down the rhetoric), completely ruining my enjoyment of the movie. This time, seeing a well-subtitled 16mm print in reasonable condition, only the movie itself ruined my enjoyment. But it’s image of imperialist Japan as a wonderful place to be was, at times, fascinating as a historical peek–not at what was–but of the official version of itself that Japanese society was putting forward.
Between Sanshiro Sugata II, which I saw and reported on last week, and Tiger’s Tail, my theory of odd-and-even early Kurosawa (odd-numbered films are good to great, even-numbered ones bad) got blown out of the water. The odd-numbered Sanshiro Sugata II was mediocre at best, while Tiger’s Tail was at least entertaining, if a far cry from his later work. The odd-even theory now applies only to his American-occupation films, from No Regrets for Our Youth to Ikiru.