Dwarfing all other DVD releases this week is a staggering, 25-film, $399 box set from Criterion of the films of Akira Kurosawa. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Japanese master’s birth, “AK 100” collects nearly all of Kurosawa’s films, including four that have never been released stateside.
“Elegantly packaged in a shoebox-size container covered in red and black linen, it contains 25 of the 30-odd features directed by Kurosawa, the Japanese filmmaker most famous for ‘Rashomon’ (1950) and ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954),” writes Dave Kehr in the New York Times. “For the most part these are titles that have already been issued by Criterion in stand-alone editions; they’ve been remastered here with a new menu design but without the extensive supplementary features for which Criterion has become justly famous. This time around it’s just the movies, though the set comes with an abundantly illustrated 96-page book with an introductory essay and notes on each film by the Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, as well as a personal reminiscence by Donald Richie, who was among the first critics to present Kurosawa to Western audiences.”
Over at the Auteurs Notebook, Glenn Kenny weighs in on the release: “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.'”
“Myriad threads and themes stand out as you make your way through the box,” observes Dennis Lim in the LA Times. “There’s the partnership between the director and his great star, the magnetic Toshiro Mifune, who appeared in almost all his films between 1948’s ‘Drunken Angel’ and 1965’s ‘Red Beard,’ often with Takashi Shimura. There’s the sympathetic view of the downtrodden, in the slum portrayals that run from ‘Drunken Angel’ to the Gorky adaptation ‘The Lower Depths’ (1957) to ‘Dodes’ka-den’ (1970), Kurosawa’s first color film — and first flop. (Depressed over its failure and a painful illness, he attempted suicide in 1971.) And there’s the complicated story of postwar Japan itself. While his most famous movies are set in the remote past, Kurosawa was very much an artist of his moment. This was, to begin with, a political necessity: witness the shift from nationalist boosterism in ‘The Most Beautiful’ (1944), a propaganda commission set among female factory workers, to pacifist fervor in ‘No Regrets for Our Youth’ (1946), his first film under the Allied occupation.”
“Any true appreciation of Japanese cinema begins here,” declares David Fear in Time Out New York.