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DVD Review: Eclipse 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa

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The Criterion Collection is a beloved publisher for many reasons. Sure, they don’t put out original titles, and you’re never going to see a production under their brand in the theaters, but when it comes to collections for the home you’re never going to find a more diverse and discerning list of films. Focusing on the classics, the unknown, and masterpieces, Criterion has carved out a name for themselves with their ability to snag iconic licenses.

Under their brand several titles you may or may not have remembered have come out, and chances are good that in any DVD collector’s library there’s at least one Criterion film. Aside from the single classics, Criterion also has a brand entitled “Eclipse.” This lineup takes obscure, lesser known titles from the masters of film and packages them together in an effort to give fans more and let them see what they have been missing. Owners of the AK 100 release will already have these titles in their collection, but the latest Eclipse series, 23, hits store shelves soon and features the first four films of Akira Kurosawa.

The four films included here are: The Most Beautiful (Ichiban utsukushiku), The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi), and Sanshiro Sugata – Parts 1 and 2 (Sugata Sanshiro and Zoku Sugata Sanshiro).

The Most Beautiful (Kurosawa’s second film) is arguably the most unique piece in this collection. Originally released in 1944, this film focuses on female volunteers working at an optics plant during World War II. It’s really a propaganda piece that pushes a patriotic agenda and it’s downright haunting at times. Kurosawa brings an interesting perspective to things and really zeroes in on the women who are volunteering there. There’s a great sense of pride and duty held between them and a sisterhood is formed thanks to the job they are charged with performing. The film was also shot on location at the Nippon Kogaku factory to lend some credence to the background.

As interesting and historical as The Most Beautiful is, I dare say that the plot is kind of a mess. The film lacks real focus and it’s quite easy to mix the characters up and lose perspective on what their goals are. The cast is simply too large for its own good and due to that the pacing feels off somehow. It’s fascinating to watch, though not the greatest project Kurosawa was involved in.

The Men Who Tread On The Tiger’s Tail (Kurosawa’s fourth film) was released in 1945 and features a story closer to the Kurosawa most fans know. This one features a tale about an incident that occurred during the twelfth century involving a group of samurai. Basically the lord Yoshitsune and his samurai disguised themselves as monks in an effort to get through an enemy checkpoint. This film has apparently been utilized in kabuki and Noh theaters many times over the years. Here it stands out as the most tension-filled movie in this collection and it’s a rather fascinating film with a great amount of drama.

The first and third films are the two parts of Sanshiro Sugata. The first part, released in 1943, was originally based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita and since it was produced during wartime it was censored by the Japanese government. Apparently 17 minutes of footage was removed and lost, so the film was never quite the vision Kurosawa had in mind. Still, it’s an interesting movie and is worth checking out.

Sanshiro Sugata is about a young man named Sanshiro who finds himself practicing judo when he sees a master beat users of jujitsu. The film soon comes down to a clash between the two styles and it presents some interesting characters. Considering it was released during World War II, the film also includes subtle propaganda against America and Western influences. The same can be said for the sequel, though it’s not quite so subtle this time around. Sanshiro has to take down a brutish American boxer and the film features loud-mouthed, rude American sailors picking on defenseless Japanese. Though Part 2 is not bad, it isn’t as entertaining as the first film.

This boxed set is really a treat to check out in the sense that it allows us to see the early directorial vision of Kurosawa. These four films are unique in their own right and stand out for what they offer from the time period. Though they contain stories that are interesting and are filled with well-developed characters, there are elements of wartime propaganda everywhere. I suppose this is to be expected, but it’s a little surprising in some respects. Still, it’s a unique and historical look at the Japanese perspective and as Kurosawa films any fan should be chomping at the bit to have these in their collection.

The films in Eclipse 23 are rather good looking for their age. After all, these pieces are over 60 years old and most likely weren’t stored in the best of manners. All are presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen and black and white, as is to be expected. The video features an abundance of grain and dirt, and there are plenty of scratches in the material. There are also a large number of scenes that are too dark, or bright, for their own good. Overall the films look very good for their age and those coming to this release will get exactly what they are looking for.

Likewise the audio presentation on these four volumes comes in the form of Japanese monoaural with English subtitles. The flat dialogue, music, and effects are exactly what one would expect from films over 60 years old. There are moments where things are nice and crisp, but others where the sound is muted and scratchy. It’s not bad, really, but maintains quality that comes with the territory.

No bonus features are available in this Eclipse release.

If you’re a Kurosawa fan and you don’t have the AK 100 release, Eclipse 23 should be an enticing collection. The first films of the director stand out in many ways. His skills as a director blend with war propaganda to create four fascinating experiences that stand out for their originality and tone. Ultimately it’s the historical value of these films that make them important additions to any Kurosawa fan’s library.

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