Whenever the president of the Rockford Institute and I chat about movies, the conversation always runs into the brick wall of the Japanese cinema. I especially like the films of one of its acknowledged masters, Yasujiro Ozu, whose later movies are his best-known in the West, especially Tokyo Story (1953) and Floating Weeds (1959).

“Ach, Ozu! He’s so boring!” Vainly I plead that Ozu’s predilection for stories of family relations and continuity should appeal to genuine conservatives. OK, Ozu favors long takes and minimal camera movement, and there isn’t a single martial arts feint, let alone a bout, nor either pistol or cannon anywhere in his films. Still—

“Now, Kurosawa! There’s a man who makes movies! What do you say about him?” Well, I like what I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen enough, or enough recently.

But that’s that. The conversation’s over.

The next time, though . . .

My chronological journey through the movies recently arrived at 1943, the year when, after screenwriting and second-unit direction since 1936, Kurosawa took the main chair for the first time. He directed one and occasionally two movies nearly every year thereafter until 1966, when his studio contract expired. He made seven more films, essentially independently; the last was Madadayo (“Not Yet”) in 1993.

Since St. Paul Public Library owns the four earliest Kurosawas, I requested that three (the fourth was checked out) be sent to “my” branch for me to pick up. Although neither Sanshiro Sugata (1943) nor The Most Beautiful (1944) nor The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) is a towering masterpiece, each is interesting and technically impressive.

All suffer from being wartime productions. The Japanese government insisted they be morale-boosting and/or diverting. Two are period pieces; the other, realist propaganda. The two historicals tweaked censors’ noses, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail after as well as before the war ended. The Most Beautiful—my favorite of them—was a smash hit, just as Sanshiro Sugata, once past the censors, who cut 18 (of 97) minutes out of it, had been. Indeed, Kurosawa’s directorial debut was so popular that Sanshiro Sugata Part II was made posthaste.

Sanshiro Sugata is a young man from the provinces, come to the city in 1882 to study in the most advanced school of jujitsu. Before his training commences, however, he witnesses a master of the emerging martial art, judo, singlehandedly vanquish a pack of jujitsu adepts. He enlists with this master, under whose tutelage he quickly becomes the foremost demonstrator of judo, capable of throwing the strongest jujitsu fighters quickly—but also lethally. The master insists he develop spiritually as well as physically, and that development is the subtext of the film. It is worked out through the demonstration matches Sugata engages to establish the superiority of judo to jujitsu, through his blossoming love for the daughter of a jujitsu master he eventually must defeat, and finally in a showdown with a man who, to avenge Sugata’s circumstantial victim, insists on a fight to the death. The matches, the nascent love story, and the climactic duel without weapons are all masterfully shot and cut. Really, the whole film is thoroughly and carefully crafted, and in the Kurosawa manner. Here are the cutting during motion (in the fighting), the compellingly composed deep-focus two-shots (often among conversing characters), the expressionistic use of nature and of sound (as in the climactic duel in a wind-thrashed field), and the optical-printing device, the wipe (in which a line passes over the screen to “push off” one scene and “pull on” the next), that are key to his heightened dramatic style.

The subtext of Sanshiro Sugata, spiritual development, is foregrounded in Kurosawa’s next film, The Most Beautiful, his sole work of wartime propaganda. Whereas the challenge in Sugata’s spiritual development is to integrate compassion into his consummate physical performance of judo, the challenge to young Tsuru Watanabe is to achieve total dedication to the nation at war. She must meet this demand as the model leader of a corps of very young women boarding and working at a factory making lenses for gun sights. The film documents a period of greatly increased production, during which one girl is injured and sent home, another breaks down and is sent home, another falls ill but swears the leader to secrecy about it, and finally, Tsuru’s mother dies. “Documents” is the appropriate verb because Kurosawa elected to feature the factory as prominently as the actors, whom he had live in factory dormitories and learn factory procedures to prepare for the actual shoot.

Without surrendering his own dramatic style, Kurosawa adds the geometrical, constructivist-influenced imagery of the greatest Soviet cinematic celebrator of industry, Sergei Eisenstein. No other film is more like The Most Beautiful than Eisenstein’s 1929 silent, Old and New (aka The General Line), the supreme masterpiece of the documentary-like fiction film, and not just because both films dazzle us with shots of gleaming machines at various rates of motion. Like Old and New, The Most Beautiful valorizes a people through a representative individual. Both inescapably didactic, the Russian film says that Marfa, its heroine, is the ideal collective farmer—SO BE LIKE HER; the Japanese, that Tsura is the ideal patriotic Japanese girl—SO BE LIKE HER. Meanwhile, the stunning machine imagery and an appealing central performer make them evergreen.

Kurosawa’s fourth feature, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail is also his first about historic Japanese warriors. In it, the late-twelfth-century general Yoshitsune and a clutch of warrior monks are traveling in disguise through enemy territory, with the young warlord posing as a porter and his men as priests. Arriving at a gate guarded by a local lord and his forces, Yoshitsune’s band obtains passage because of the quick-witted, rule-breaking devotion of his foremost lieutenant, Benkei. This incident became the subject of classic plays of both Noh and kabuki theater. Into a scenario customarily treated with high seriousness Kurosawa injects an antic, cowardly, genuine (i.e., lower-class) porter—played by the diminutive, rubber-faced, jabbery slapstick star, Enoken (né Kenichi Enomoto)—who grimaces, groans, and shivers at every danger and demand, physical or moral.

Thus Kurosawa, admirer and skeptic of the heroic Japanese warrior, tries to have it both ways in a script said to have been written overnight and that forecasts his subsequent samurai films all the way to his last martial spectacle, the King Lear adaptation Ran (1985), in which the role of the fool is greatly enlarged, up to and beyond the king’s death, while its function is much the same as in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail—to prick the consciences not so much of the other characters as of us, the audience.
Of course, Kurosawa’s Janus-faced treatment got him in trouble again. Japan’s censors frowned yet, amid the chaos of the war’s end, didn’t destroy The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail. Nor did the censors of the postwar occupation, though they considered it “too feudal” and suppressed it. It was finally released in 1952, soon after Rashomon (1950) made Kurosawa the most famous Japanese movie director in the world.

Two footnotes, if you please.

Despite her excellent performance as Tsuru in The Most Beautiful—her long, long close-up at the end is unforgettably powerful—Yoko Yaguchi appeared in no further films. Instead, she married Kurosawa in 1945. The marriage lasted until her death in 1985. He did not marry again.

The censors were so hard on Sanshiro Sugata that it looked like Kurosawa’s career would be nipped in the bud. But a highly respected established director stepped in to save the movie and the career. The successful intervenor was Yasujiro Ozu.