Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa's debut work, Judo Saga (1943). For five years, Kurosawa would make six pictures that demonstrated the master's seemingly congenital gifts of a magnificently skillful craftsman, including one sequel to his first film. With the meditative but crackerjack crime thriller Drunken Angel (1948), however, he reached a certain zenith as a brilliant filmmaker whose still-budding themes and abilities demonstrably gained traction and weight. The man himself knew it. "In this picture, I finally found myself," he said.
Taking the Kurosawa template for filmmakers, past and present, at which point do you think certain directors found themselves? Is it an intrinsically different process today, or does the increased freedom only muddy the line of progress? Certain directors, it seems, only needed one picture to find themselves, but what does such a pronouncement mean, precisely?
Drunken Angel is a certain culmination and beginning for Kurosawa. Playing out in a benighted, unsightly slum in Tokyo, the story focuses to a great degree on a drunken doctor whose crusade to drain a stagnant pool that engenders the conditions for mosquitoes to prey on people in the pool's proximity, and like a number of Kurosawa masterpieces, details the grinding, exhaustive experience of the unfortunate poor in Japanese society. As is the case with so many auteurs, Drunken Angel's importance becomes clearer in the hindsight of Kurosawa's later works. The violent ferocity of Stray Dog, the crusading spirit of Ikiru, the depressed milieu of The Lower Depths and Dodes'ka-den and many other touchstones familiar to those who have traversed the fascinating arc of such a rich body of work.
Judo Saga features many intrinsic thematic concerns that would haunt Kurosawa's films, and which may perhaps be boiled down to, why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there injustice, in all of its myriad forms? How does the human soul sometimes become corrupted? How does it find redemption, or at least some measure of it? What is the place in the modern world for the values of ancient and medieval Japan? Is modernity (the film is set in 1882) all that it is made up to be? Kurosawa may not have found himself yet but he had taken his first step, and an interesting one, with a film that sparks more curiosity today because we are privileged to see the development, to note the nascent technique, to find the artist before he found himself.