Akira Kurosawa’s first post-war project was a Noh/Kabuki standard that hid a surprisingly topical theme: when is it right to break with tradition in order to save tradition? It’s the underlying point of this period piece about a lord on the run from his powerful brother. Traveling in disguise, along with a few loyal retainers, he needs to cross a border without being discovered. But for his disguise to work, he must lose face, drop centuries of proper protocol, and allow his position (actually his person) to be debased. It’s a situation not so far removed from what the current Emperor, and much of the country, was struggling with. It sounds intriguing, but the film doesn’t come to life. Kurosawa is not yet able to balance the various styles of acting & visual representation. Painted mountains on cycloramas are followed by hikes thru real landscapes; a realistic perf from Susumu Fujita (Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata) plays alongside highly stylized theatrics & off-screen choruses. And a wild comic turn from Kenichi Enomoto, as the porter, doesn’t fit in with anything. (According to Kurosawa, the Japanese film board found the comedy insulting and held back the film’s release for years. They may have been on to something.)
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While Kurosawa mavens will want to see this, non-completists should check out his first film as director, SANSHIRO SUGATA/’43.