Akira Kurosawa – the early War Period films

October 6, 2009


… some off-the-cuff words/academic analysis as part of my current university studies (Cultural Expression in Modern Asia – literature, cinema and popular culture in China, Japan and Indonesia). Not much here on Japanese Textiles per se, but the portrayal of textiles in Kurosawa’s films makes me wonder why I haven’t viewed them till now – kimono, geta, kasuri, hakama, rough-sashikoed judo jackets! …


Akira Kurosawa’s popularity and reputation as an important Japanese film director; some examples of his filmic depiction of Japanese culture 

Accolades from the West have made Kurosawa a very important Japanese film director. But for the Japanese themselves, he seems to me to be important for two reasons: his work mirrors the trials and tribulations of several generations, from the ’40s (war and Occupation) to the ’80s (environmental issues). Secondly, despite the different genres he covers (in an industry and for a society for whom the departmentalisation of film genre is all-important), he presents archetypal and epic story-telling. Thirdly, the origins may lie in the West for some screenplays, but their form is Japanese. He certainly tackles ‘big picture narratives, in contrast to the closed world domesticity of Ozu.

This prolific creation over many decades which he creates is not dissimilar to that of pop singer Misora Hibari. In a sense, Miyazaki is an obvious successor: moralistic story-telling for the next generation (still grounded in WW2) with concerns about climate change and the environment, demanding engagement if not social activism. Miyazaki’s anime form is different and the magic realism is at odds with the great cinematic traditions of the previous generation (not only in Japan but also in Europe and America), but a similar over-arching trajectory is still present.

I’ve watched the war period films (affected by Japanese war censors as well as Allied Occupation censors) because nationalism tends to bring out traditional cultural values quite strongly. The films appear to be only available on DVD from China and there is of course much debate about the quality of subtitles, copyright infringement, the current strong anti-Chinese sentiment when it comes to consumer goods like DVDs. I’ve relied heavily on the films’ imagery; the subtitles are not only poor but potentially very misleading – I’m not sure to what extent Japanese women would swear at each, for example, as portrayed in The Most Beautiful.


Sugata Sanshiro (1943)

Culture is expressed through themes of personal struggle against adversity; loyalty to the clan and conflicts between clans; the pursuits of men vs the domestic life of women.

In terms of imagery, undeniably important is the lotus and the struggle (against the enemy, both metaphorical and literal) being based on Buddhist religious faith – going deeper than the Japanese to the Chinese heart of the religion. Another important image is that of torn cloth, the renting of traditional culture embodied in the artefact of handwoven fabric. Torn cloth is associated with vivid turning points in people’s lives – the embarrassment of student, with torn sleeve, meeting master; Siu’s broken geta requiring Saam to offer assistance by tearing cloth to repair the shoe. Set in 1882, much is made of the differentiation between the West and Japan via costume and fabric. Particuarly dramatic is the nexus of Western clothing worn by the lounging suitor of Siu and his ashing his cigarette into the camellia of the flower arrangement. Importantly judo (referred to as karate and kung fu in the subtitles) is very much a bushido-like life-and-death struggle, not the sport/entertainment we associate it with now, a century later. Defeat invariably leads to shame, sickness and death (less dramatic than harikiri or fighting ending in death by samurai sword, but the outcome is the same), something dealt with much more in the sequel.

Kuo’s daughter accommodates the female element in an otherwise all-male world. The scene between hero Saam and love interest Siu outside the Shinto shrine was criticised by war censors as “too American” – is the Female “debilitating”, “weakening”, “distracting” and is there a subtle nexus too of the Female and the (American) enemy, perhaps? The introduction of the female love interest certainly comes across as awkward – the rhythm of interaction between the sexes is more comfortable in the sequel. Given the popularity of Kurosawa is evident in the many re-makes and copies by others, the Hong Kong judo epic Throw Down apparently is very closely based on SS. 


Zoku Sanshiro Sugata (1945)

Decried by Kurosawa himself, this is panned universally by critics as his worst film. It’s less an “action” film and with a barely-moving narrative, it seems to be an exposition on the struggle for Japanese traditions to survive and maintain relevance in a modernising Japan. An obvious agendum seems to be standing up to Allied Forces Occupation, from the opening scene involving the bashing up of a young rickshaw driver, through to the formal fist-fights at the Embassy. Focus of the first third of the film is on the Japanese heart of traditional martial arts – pursuing it not for the sake of winning or losing but for continuing the tradition, “being” Japanese (the subtitles refer often to “Japanese Arts” in this respect – in contrast to the barbaric American fist-fighting but also to the ill-mannered rivals of the Station dojo, Tin and Yuen (ghost-hair) Kuo: all in all, a quite long-winded explication on what it is to be Japanese and  what way of life to pursue. The nature of managing others, the student-sensei relationship, being an effective leader, the nature of ‘celebrity (popularity and fame drawing enemies and envy) are all there. The last third requires some narrative jump-start and this is provided by the fist fight between Killer and Chee, followed by the clash of the two judo/karate/kungfu styles in the snow. I have no clear idea of what the scene involving Yuen Kuo and a rolled-out bolt of yabane-patterned fabric owned by Siu was all about – I’m guessing any sort of underhand trickery to bring down Saam Chee was rejected out of hand by his colleagues as breaking with convention too much. Hero Chee ends up reversing his philosophical objections to fighting inside the American Embassy – he ends up fighting for money, with the cash dramatically appearing, prop-like in his face from stage left.  The Buddhist monk has a stronger presence in this film than the first – the philosophical case for Old Japan being articulated. Since there was more talk than action in this film, I found the subtitles troublesome. There is no decent copy of this film in existence; the stock was of poor quality at the time.


The Most Beautiful (1944)

Values: leadership and “followship”, goal-setting and management style; emancipated women; city vs country; teamwork and common goals, both at the workplace, in their military band and on the volleyball field; personal sacrifice and the hierarchy of personal values – emperor/country/family then self. One commentator has mentioned the compliance of management in heroine supervisor Tao staying at work despite her mother’s death; I found the opposite seemed to be the case, probably given confusion surrounding the subtitles – they objected but ultimately didn’t order her home, I’m guessing because she was too “hard” a woman to stand up to and because they needed her work and supervisory skills. Inequality of the sexes: men are either managers or invalid cleaners unable to fight in the war – the disappointment that the women’s work targets were less than the men’s, for example. The women dominate as much here as the men do in the SS films, hinting at strong differentiation along gender lines of narrative in contemporary Japan (one can tell men’s stories, or women’s stories, only with difficulty both).

Ritualised derence and etiquette is as strong as nationalism – there is an overwhelming sense of individuals respecting each others’ feelings and opinions, though the temporary absence of key people maintaining social order (and consequential breakdown in morale and productivity) is something explored by Kurosawa in the second half.

Imagery: railway lines (engineering “on the earth” similar to engineering “in the skies” which the women are involved with) “splitting up” the team members. The railway line works too as a boundary between the world of the war-women and the world beyond, that of their families and normal life. 

Japanese cultural artefact and spirit has strong links to Nature. SS is very “open” in its portrayal of human beings against a very vivid natural world (the abandoned geta shoe used as a device for the passing of time through a variety of weathers’ the scenes of clouds and grassy fields); TMB by contrast is ‘closed’, densely human and with Nature only seen through the grid of the manager’s office, not unlike the enemy plane seen through the machine gun lens. Even the outdoor scenes of the band playing (always in urban streets) and the volleyball games are strangely devoid of the natural world, except the odd nightscape featuring moon and mountains, and mentions of foxes – the natural world as the locus of superstition, the opposite of the Science they are pursuing at their workstations. TMB has dense crowd scenes of the working women which are unnaturally cloying and almost claustrophobic; these are alternated with the meditative hush associated with the Hut Room, the inner sanctum where lenses are checked. The camera work here is very formal and almost stilted in portraying formal artisanal work (as opposed to the factory assembly lines elsewhere) – the almost robotic movements associated with traditional crafts, e.g. doll-making. SS2 is similarly ‘closed’, with only some light relief from the interiors with touches of Nature (the garden of mums, for example). The final fight in an open field of SS is reprised in the snowy outdoors in SS2 but the outcome is conflicted: do Tin and Yuen represent Japan emasculated by the Americans, the evil to Saam’s good? The ambiguity over whom the knife was aimed at in the attempted assassination – is Tin or Saam the intended recipient? Does this reflect the futile clan fighting whcih weakened Japan just prior to the arrival of the American black ships – the historical “readiness” of Japan to open itself up just at that moment? Or does Saam’s laughing face in the final moments reflect a taming of wild forces within the judo movement, a final affirmation that the ‘Japanese Arts’ are fit and ready for the post-war period?


Men treading on the tiger’s tail (1945)

It has a double frame – the “outer” frame is Nature (a forest overlooking Fuji-san at the opening and a spectacular dawn seen from a low horizon at the end) while the “inner” frame is the character of the naive, jovial porter, an Everyman figure representing the gullibility, knockabout comedy and eternal optimism of ordinary Japanese, caught up here in the machinations of their leaders and enemies. The porter is always intrigued and curious about what will happen next and never retreats from a challenge. The porter obviously humanises the chessboard-like struggle between Benkei/The Seven and those at the border post. Kurosawa deliberately amplifies this role compared to the kabuki version. Otherwise, Kurosawa would be simply filming a kabuki performance.

On a metaphysical level, it’s all about humanity coming to grips with the way forward, being thwarted and working around barriers by whatever means. One wonders to what extent the magistrate is complicit in the ruse – having saved face by challenging The Seven and coming to the superficially “correct” conclusion as a result of Benkei’s beating his master in disguise. Will the ritual pretence of the Japanese ‘bashing themselves up’ (by renouncing their Emperor and nationalism for example) convince the Americans to ‘go away’ and leave them in peace? Will the civilising attitudes and culture of the Japanese be permitted to flourish eventually? Despite the battle between militarism and civilisation/human values though, everyone in Kanjincho/Tiger’s Tail survives to live another day – which cannot be said for the many Japanese and many Americans and Allies who did not. Will the Japanese (like the porter after the night’s drinking, surprised at the gift of fabrics left behind for him by The Seven) awak from their nightmare to a new dawn?

Kurosawa’s imnportance as a director shines through in his ground-level and over-the-shoulder camera shots at the border crossing, alternating quickly with aerial shots. These are the advantages of perspective which are unavailable to the kabuki audience, nothwithstanding the three-dimensional effect of the hanamichi. Kurosawa not only re-tells the story (with added interest thanks to the porter) but exploits filmic potential at every opportunity, especially with the same attention on close-ups as used previously. His casting of Fujita as the magistrate is important, an “open-faced” actor revealing strong humanity (as potrayed in both the Sanshiro films), a humanity which considers the unveiling dilemma, contrasting with the closed mind of the suspicious (soldier) assistant, an extremely sinister-looking Iago-type portrayal. On the kabuki stage, this contrast is made much less emphatically.

The film exemplifies the importance of the team and loyalty, the leader who takes risks and ‘fights the good fight’ without surrending to personal base emotion. The importance of surface appearances in social interaction is also here; while outwardly a “feudal” drama (the excuse used by the Allied Occupation to ban it), the traditional Japanese value system and culture is plainly at work here.


Japanese cultural artefact and cultural spirit have strong links to Nature. SS is very “open” in its portrayal of human beings against a very vivid natural world (the abandoned geta shoe used as a device for the passing of time through a variety of weathers; the scenes of clouds and fields of autumn grasses); TMB by contrast is ‘closed’, densely human and with Nature only seen through the grid of the manager’s office. Even the outdoor scenes of the band and the volleyball games are strangely devoid of the natural world, except the nightscapes featuring moon and mountains; the presence/absence of Nature in Kurosawa is something very considered and engineered given his painting background. TMB has dense crowd scenes of the working women which are almost claustrophobic; these are alternated with the quiet meditative hush associated with the inner sanctum where lens are checked. The camera-work is very formal and almost stilted in the portrayal of artisanal work – the almost-robotic movements associated with traditional crafts, e.g. doll-making. SS2 is similarly closed, with only some light relief from the interiors with touches of Nature (the garden of chrysanthemums, for example). The final fight in an open field of SS is reprised in the snowy outdoors in SS2 but the outcome is conflicted: do Tin and Yuen represent Japan emasculated by the Americans? the evil to Saam’s good? The ambiguity over who the knife was aimed at – Tin or Saam? Does this reflect the futile clan fighting which weakened Japan just prior to the arrival of the Americans in their ‘black ships’ – the historical “readiness” of Japan to open itself up just at that moment?


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