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The Work: "25 Films By Akira Kurosawa," The Criterion Collection

The concept behind the box is simplicity itself, exemplified by its title: "25 Films By Akira Kurosawa." This is released in commemoration of what would have been the Japanese master's 100th birthday; this fact is elegantly implied by a little logo atop the box. This logo is reiterated, with a single variation, on every single one of the 25 identically-sized DVD cases contained in the box. That variation being that the "100" is replaced by the 20th-century year in which each given film was made. Note below that the logo on The Idiot bears the logo "AK/'51."

The very elegant simplicity of the package design itself, and the unerring use of simple detailing therein (that red line bisecting Masayuki Mori's eyes above is a particularly apt touch), make this an item you can contemplate for some time before popping the first DVD in. The films here are presented differently than those in the collection that have already received individual Criterion releases, most notably in that they are absent any on-disc supplemental material. What takes the place of that is a copiously illustrated book, containing an essay by Western Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince, brief, cogent notes on all the films, also by Prince, and a remembrance of Kurosawa by Donald Richie, the critic/filmmaker who was instrumental in introducing Japanese cinema to the West, specifically America.

There's that old story about the anti-loyalty-oath Director's Guild meeting where an American master introduced himself by saying "My name's John Ford. I make Westerns." Some eager novices in Japanese film appreciation could well imagine Kurosawa introducing himself by saying "I make chambara [sword-fighting] pictures." But of course, just as Ford proved a master of several genres, Kurosawa too could not be pinned down. And, as with Ford (see, in particular, the wonderful Ford at Fox set  20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released several years back), all of Kurosawa's pictures say things about each other, whether watched in genre-specific groups, by period, or just chronologically across the course of his career as a whole, which mode this set definitely encouraged. To call the journey rewarding is rather an understatement. The individual pleasures never let up, and are invariably enhanced by context. The incredible period saga of heroism and betrayal—among other things a truly intimate epic—Seven Samurai, from 1954, takes a different resonance followed by the harrowing modern tale of possibly entirely justified nuke paranoia, 1955's I Live In Fear. One gets a clearer sense of what Kurosawa's tragically mutilated adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot might have been by having watched the breathtakingly coherent Rashomon first. And so on.

Also enhancing context, in multiple ways, are four of Kurosawa's earliest films, all new to domestic DVD and all made during World War II. 1943's tale of competing martial arts philosophies, Sanshiro Sugata, and its '45 sequel Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two, show a tyro almost drunk on the possibilities of filmmaking. 1944's The Most Beautiful is a would-be propagandizing war morale booster with a semi-documentary edge that tends to undercut its putative message, which Kurosawa didn't buy in any event; and 1945's The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tale is a period piece that's in some ways a very early dress rehearsal for Kagemusha (Kurosawa had wanted to make that story at this time, but not enough healthy horses could be found for the battles scenes!) and Ran.

Finally, all of the pictures have been newly mastered for the set. Some more extensively than others—obviously there's not going to be a heckuva lot of difference between the image quality of the films released in the January 2008 Eclipse box "Postwar Kurosawa" (No Regrets For Our Youth, One Wonderful Sunday, Scandal, The Idiot and I Live In Fear) and what's here. And yet. Here are two frame grabs from 1970's Dodes'ka-Den, released initially by Criterion in March of this year and now part of the "25 Films" box set.

Above: the March version.

Below: the version in the "25 Films" box.

Both look good, better than good; Criterion always sets the standard in such considerations. But the new version has a very slight edge in some combo of sharpness and brightness; it's a minutely cleaner image. And, as the massive review of the box at DVD Beaver notes, none of the films in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio here have been pictureboxed—that is, presented in a black-bordered "frame" to compensate for overscan in CRT video displays, an increasing non-concern as the CRT goes the way of the dinosaur, at least as far as home video is concerned. The March Dodes'ka-Den is pictureboxed; the one in "25 Films," not.

More than an impressive consumer good, or gift idea, this is a brilliantly curated presentation, and, as with the Fox sets of Ford, Murnau, and Borzage, a genuine triumph of informed film-love. A work of art in itself.

The best Director of Japanese Cinema…! ****
tasog
This is a good write up, but I just thought I should mention that the two ‘frame grabs’ are exactly the same, down to the file size. Open them consecutively in the same browser, then go back and forth; the image does not change.
Taso: Sorry for that editorial glitch. It’s been fixed since you posted. That said, the difference IS very subtle. For more comparisons, the DVD Beaver review linked above is useful.
“Dodes’kaden” by Akira Kurosawa (1970) depicts and examines the conditions of life and of the human soul in today’s urban civilization. Kurosawa is not too interested in the polished city individuals monotonously rushing for work and back and living an artificial life of prescribed goals and standardized interests and tastes. Real heroes of DDSKD are semi-homeless paupers living on the giant dump in surrealistic decorations instead of houses, with a background of, as if, expressionistic painting. By these aesthetic analogies between the given and the created Kurosawa emphasizes a surrealistic condition of people’s life and expressionistic condition of their imagination. People’s way of life and their feelings, described in DDSKD, reflect the basic psychological archetypes constituting the existential legacy of humankind. Each character represents a certain anthropological model of life and certain way of the perception of the world. Kurosawa questions the expediency of technological orientation of today’s civilization which condemns human life to fruitless nomadism and neurotic restlessness and makes human dreams escapist and mentally disturbed. It is as if human beings, instead of learning how to live and how to improve the conditions of their lives, tried to avoid real life through pursuing mirages and vain and absurd goals. Question of being becomes a question of how to detour being. Real problems of human life are systematically put aside, postponed into future and never resolved and, as a result, they crystallized into morbid but majestically narcissistic characters of DDSKD living their lives amidst picturesque garbage on a waste land. It is human history itself (together with human nature) that has become the waste product of a sterile world of urbanistic post-modernism. DDSKD, Kurosawa’s first color film, starts and ends with multicolored drawings of streetcars – the favorite occupation of children of various nations, which are so unnaturally bright in the moving lights of street traffic that it is as if all the importance, all substance of life has gone to these drawings, leaving people depressed, apathetic, senile, abandoned, wretched, tragically comic, irresistible and unforgettable. The film provides an elaborate criticism of Western and Eastern cultural traditions in which rational and superstitious and prejudicial ingredients are fused together and together in one decide the destiny of humankind. The music of Toru Takemitsu is so expressive and so “Dodes’kaden” that, paradoxically, it has its own independent value from the film and makes the composer an equal partner of the revered auteur Kurosawa in his creation of this exceptional work of art. The acting is simultaneously realistic and epic, emotionally involving and scholarly articulate. By Victor Enyutin

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