The American Society of Cinematographers

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Crystal Skull
Filmmakers Forum
DVD Playback
Bonnie and Clyde
The Draughtsmans Co
Postwar Kurosawa
ASC Close-Up
Postwar Kurosawa (1946)

1.33:1 (Full Frame)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection/Eclipse, $69.95

The Criterion Collection has done quite well by Akira Kurosawa over the years, releasing more than a dozen exemplary editions of such seminal works as Yojimbo and Rashomon. Yet a large portion of the director’s output has remained difficult to find on DVD in this country, particularly when it comes to the early films in which he developed his craft. Now, as part of its Eclipse label, Criterion once again comes to the rescue with Postwar Kurosawa, a reasonably priced box of five obscure Kurosawa works. The package kicks off with No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which, though the most dated movie in the set, contains moments of great lyricism in its tale of a young woman who comes of age as a political activist. Today, No Regrets is most noteworthy as the first collaboration between Kurosawa and the cinematographer who would go on to shoot many of his greatest films, Asakazu Nakai.

Nakai was the secret weapon for an entire generation of acclaimed Japanese directors — Ozu, Naruse, Ichikawa — and many others relied on his supreme sensitivity to light and shadow. His best work, however, was with Kurosawa: Their partnership yielded such classics as Seven Samurai, High and Low and Nakai’s final, Oscar-winning masterpiece, Ran. After No Regrets, Nakai and Kurosawa shifted gears to a more intimate style with One Wonderful Sunday, the second movie in this collection. Whereas No Regrets is a sweeping statement covering 12 years (1933-1945), Sunday, as its title indicates, follows a young couple trying to make the best out of one solitary day. Yet by juxtaposing his lovers against the backdrop of an economically unstable Japan, Kurosawa manages to make a film that is every bit as political as its predecessor — if far more subtle and timeless.

The third film in the set provides an entertaining example of the director’s early work with his most famous star, Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa and Mifune had already made a pair of excellent films, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), when they collaborated on 1950’s Scandal, a witty attack on yellow journalism. Mifune plays an artist who is inaccurately linked to a famous singer in the tabloids, an incident Kurosawa uses to examine postwar Japan’s moral decay. Kurosawa is clearly furious about the lack of scruples in the tabloid press, yet his film moves beyond anger to a state of genuine redemption — a state that his cinematographer, Toshio Ubukata, expresses beautifully through lighting and composition.

After the international triumph of Rashomon, Kurosawa turned to a passion project: an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. This film turned into a nightmare for the director when the studio edited his four-hour cut down to two hours and 45 minutes, and in the years since its 1951 release, The Idiot has been dismissed by critics as a minor work. Yet in spite of an awkwardly paced first act riddled with intertitles and narration, The Idiot contains some of Ubukata’s most haunting imagery. (Nakai lent an uncredited hand as well.) The extensive use of long lenses that would come to characterize later Kurosawa masterpieces is prevalent here, as are a number of striking compositions revolving around alternating motifs of snow and fire. Some Kurosawa scholars have criticized the film for its uneasy marriage of Russian and Japanese traditions, yet it is precisely this collision of sensibilities that gives The Idiot its hypnotic impact — the behavior combines the strange and the familiar in a way that perfectly mirrors the title character’s troubled mind.

The final film in the set is another collaboration with Nakai, 1955’s I Live in Fear (also known as Record of a Living Being). The first film Kurosawa and Nakai made after Seven Samurai, it was also the second major Japanese release (Godzilla being the first) to examine the culture’s fear of nuclear war. In Fear, Mifune plays an aging factory owner who becomes obsessed with the bomb. His loved ones try to have him committed, and he does indeed lose his mind over the course of the film as fear and paranoia overtake him. I Live in Fear serves as a kind of summation of all of Kurosawa’s postwar work, as it addresses the tragedy of Japanese life head-on and explores the source of the anxiety that characterizes the earlier films in this collection. Like the other movies in Postwar Kurosawa, Fear is presented in a no-frills edition; aside from some informative liner notes, there are no supplements on the discs.

The films themselves are presented in transfers far superior to most other domestic and foreign DVD incarnations (such as those released by Mei Ah and BFI), though they lack the detailed restoration work that has gone into Criterion’s editions of Kurosawa’s more famous pictures. The source material in all cases is marred by occasional scratches, but the soundtracks are crisp and clear, and the contrast and sharpness of the images are up to Criterion’s usual impeccable standards. Given the age and relative obscurity of the films and the inexpensive price per disc, the quality is impressive; and the individual titles are — as is almost always the case with Kurosawa — massively rewarding viewing experiences.

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