The BFI have done a great job here - bringing together all of Kurosawa's early films together in one box set - six films on four discs. These films are generally considered to be Kurosawa's "apprentice works", made in very difficult wartime circumstances. As such, individually, they may be of primarily historical interest, but brought together as a collection they provide a fascinating overview of Kurosawa's development and Japanese cinema of the period. Although made in tough economic conditions, the films are technically quite accomplished. The prints are sometimes a little scratchy & ragged, but very watchable - it's a miracle they survived at all. The sudden switch from wartime patriotic propaganda to post-war American Occupation propaganda might be disconcerting, but doesn't seem as opportunistic as expected - the wartime propaganda is mostly rather low key, while the post-war films seem not so much pro-occupation as verging on the communist. Or maybe there is an underlying continuity in Kurosawa's cinematic style & sensibility regardless of ideology.
Kurosawa's debut "Sanshiro Sugata" (1943) is a martial arts film about the conflict between judo and jujitsu. Doubtless the film was extolling the militaristic "purity" of Japanese martial arts, but it comes across as sensitive & exciting, prefiguring the later famous samurai films. The climactic closing combat scene on a dark windswept hillside is really impressive. After this success a follow-up was demanded - apparently Kurosawa was reluctant & it shows, but after a slow start & some clumsy xenophobic propaganda "Sanshiro Part Two" improves, building to another memorable fight scene.
"The Most Beautiful" is about a group of women factory workers struggling to meet increased wartime production quotas. This is an unadulterated propaganda film & may be cinematically and historically interesting, but I imagine most viewers will find it hard to take. More accessible is "They Who Step on the Tigers Tale" (1945) a traditional Kabuki tale of lords disguised as monks trying to make their way to safety. The film seems quite strongly influenced by a classical "Noh" style. Made towards the end of the war, it had the honour of being banned both by the Japanese military government and then by the American Occupation authorities. In the accompanying booklet, critic Philip Kemp is lukewarm about the film & its mix of traditional & comedic elements, but I thought it unusual & interesting.
As for the post-war films, "One Wonderful Sunday" is an uneven love story but "No Regrets For Our Youth" (1946) is a real stunner. Starring Setsuko Hara in a role rather different from the Ozu films for which she is known, it is a melodrama about Kyoto University activists struggling against the militarists & going underground during the war. It surely goes way beyond what the American Occupation wanted, being a complex (if propagandist) radical leftist film. Might it even be said that Kurosawa himself "sold out", like some of the characters in the film, when he abandoned this radicalism at the end of the 1940s for "humanism" and more mainstream filmmaking?
Overall, the films in this box set are of obvious historical interest, but for the most part they also stand up quite well as watchable films in their own right. Well done BFI!