Arts & Events

The First Films of Akira Kurosawa

By Justin DeFreitas
Wednesday October 13, 2010 - 08:05:00 AM

It's fitting that the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa began his career with a traveling shot. Sanshiro Sugata (1943) opens with a camera pushing forward through a village street, probing into the life and secrets of the hamlet and its denizens.  


The subject matter of this, his first film, is not profound — it is essentially a martial arts film — but Kurosawa never treated anything lightly. Even with this rather conventional film, he is striving for impact, for meaning, for a connection with his audience, and the director's confidence and skill are evident in every frame. 


Kurosawa reluctantly heeded the call for a sequel two years later, but otherwise his films took on a deeper tone, examining the state of Japan on the brink and in the depths of war. The Most Beautiful (1944) is a wartime propaganda film, but one whose realism, humanity and insight lent it a more artful air. The film takes place in an optics plant where female workers strive to prove that they are every bit as capable and patriotic as their male counterparts.  


The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) is an adaptation of a classic Japanese play in which a lord and his entourage disguise themselves as monks in order to get through an enemy roadblock. Kurosawa added a character to this well-known drama, the first of many eccentric fools who liven his dramas with a comedic counterpoint. Though he cast a beloved comedian for the part, it is a rather rudimentary role, broadly played and often repetitive; the director would only improve in his use of this device throughout his career. Otherwise the film is notable for its use of minimal sets. Kurosawa may be best known in the West for his sweeping epics, full of battles and action, but here he demonstrates his equally impressive talent for containing taut, compelling drama in small spaces, with little action or melodrama. 


Kurosawa's characteristic techniques are evident from the start of his career. These early films include many examples of his mastery of the moving camera, of swift characterization, of action paired with quiet, probing sequences. His signature transitions are also already in place, dispensing with dissolves and fades in favor of wipes that move us quickly from scene to scene at a brisk pace.  


The First Films of Akira Kurosawa