Japanese World War Two Movies

directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa's career as a director was just getting started in the early 1940's, when Japan was deeply involved in World War Two. This page reviews five of his WW2 movies: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata - Part 2, Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, and No Regrets for Our Youth.

None of these are great movies; as a matter of fact, I wouldn't recommend them at all. Even for a Kurosawa "completist," they are only slightly interesting. I should add that I viewed theseon an inexpensive, Chinese-made 33 DVD set of all Kurosawa's movies. The picture quality is poor and any motion or darkness makes it worse; the subtitles are in very poor, fractured English, that look like they were translated by a computer. Undoubtedly these poor copies affected my opinion, but even so, these are run-of-mill movies, filled with stereotyped characters, low budget productions, and simple plots.

Sanshiro Sugata

Stars Susumu Fujita, (one of Kurosawa's main leading men until Toshiro Mifune came along), as a young, idealistic judo student. He comes to the city, joins a judo school (the subtitles calls the judo schools "streams"), proves himself in a nighttime fight (barely visible), proves himself again in the judo master's pool. He wins one fight, but is distressed to learn that his shamed opponent falls on hard times. Another challenge match is arranged, with Takashi Shimura as his opponent. Inevitably, he meets and falls in love with his opponent's daughter, and is terribly conflicted about the match.

For reasons that escape me, this movie has been re-made five times.

The Most Beautiful

The story of the women working in a optics factory during the war. When new production quotas are announced by the facory head (the nearly ubiquitous Takashi Shimura), the young women workers are highly incensed that their quotas are not increased as much as the men's. There is a lot of marching and singing of patriotic songs. Of course, that staple of the propaganda film, the sick worker who does not want to leave her factory job, makes an appearance. Airplanes fly overhead, "Look, it's our work that goes into those planes."

Sanshiro Sugata - Part 2

In this one, our hero stands up to various Westerners, easily subduing them with his judo techniques.

Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

Set in Twelfth Century Japan, the story involves seven men, a defeated prince and six of his loyal retainers, disguised as monks, who want to escape from their land. They latch onto a hapless, comic porter, and attempt to make their way past a border fence. At the fence, they encounter suspicious guards, who are skeptical of their claim to be monks. A particularly sinister fellow constantly peers over the captain's shoulder, expressing his suspicions. At one point, to prove they are monks, one of them reads a passage from a scroll; the scroll is blank; apparently he recited it from memory. After a brief confrontation, with lots of grimaces and drawn swords, the men make good their escape.

Apparently, this movie is based on a Kabuki drama, including the obviously fake painted backdrop of distant mountains. Perhaps, aficionados of Kabuki might appreciate this movie, but I found it stilted and boring. And oddly uneventful, very little ever happens in the 58 minutes of the film.

No Regrets for Our Youth

Of Kurosawa's WW2 films, I enjoyed this the most. A bit overlong, but with a final third that wrapped it all up nicely. Made just after the war, it denounces Japanese militarism. It focuses on three young upper-class students: a young woman and two men, whose university is caught up in strikes for free speech and academic freedom. Many years pass in the movie, and the more idealistic of the two young men is jailed for a time, and, upon his release, continues vaguely anti-government activities. (Perhaps this vagueness is a function of the lousy subtitles in the version I saw.) The young woman joins him, and after he is jailed again and mysteriously dies in prison, she goes to live with his parents, forsaking her privilege for the hard work of farming and rice-planting.

The last 45 minutes of this film bring together many elements from earlier on, and it's emotionally satisfying that way, but, generally speaking, it's too long and too mundane.