08/25/2010 05:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

On the Culture Front: Early Kurosawa Films From Criterion and Trust

A couple weeks ago, Criterion released a box set of four early films by Akira Kurosawa that have remained relatively unknown until now, certainly in comparison to classics like Rashomon and The Seven Samurai. Some directors like Orson Wells or Wes Anderson arrive fully formed early on in their careers. Citizen Kane and Rushmore are undeniably Wells and Anderson, respectively. Other directors take a while to find their groove.

It seems, from these films, that Kurosawa falls somewhere in between, cultivating expressive performances from his actors and framing the scenes in way that creates the tension of impending action. Quick edits punctuate key scenes in these films, including a pivotal moment in the middle of The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, suggestion an inner passion that he would later fully tap. He made a dozen films before Rashomon, and Tiger is reminiscent of the methodical pacing of classic whodunit, taking place mostly in a forest, where instead of searching for the truth, lord Yoshitsune and a group of samurai retainers disguise themselves as monks in order to pass through an enemy checkpoint. It might have even been an inspiration to all those "criminals disguised as nuns" films like Nuns on the Run. Who knows? It's always interesting to look at a director's early films before he's solidified his style because you can see both influences on his work and conversely the influence his work will have on others. Kurosawa's influences, especially in Tiger, are heavily rooted in Noh and kabuki theater, traditions that emphasize stylized theatrics along with primally piercing emotions. It's hard to judge the dialogue of foreign films, much less ones from more than sixty years ago, because a lot can get lost in translation, but through these kabuki traditions Kurosawa draws out his characters in ways that don't rely on words, a defining trait of his later work. This ability to flesh out his characters in a cinematic way that's organically tied to the action frees his films from an action/adventure structure and allows him to deconstruct the myth of the samurai.

In Trust, Paul Weitz has many acute and witty observations about his extremely successful main character, played with charm by Zach Braff. The play moves at a pretty thrilling pace as it alternates between scenes in an S&M dungeon and Braff's home life with his depressed wife. There's a palpable nihilism in the excess that surrounds them that gives the scenes a rich, existential tinge. Less successful are scenes between the dominatrix played commandingly by Sutton Foster and her Neanderthal, slacker boyfriend who just happens to be Ivy League-educated. Their exchanges are boilerplate melodrama: sweet girl controlled by abusive man. Lots of yelling ensues. Bobby Cannavale plays the boyfriend with as much nuance as he can, but it's a very odd role. He has a rich education, but he acts as if he's never picked up a book. He hatches a blackmail scheme that's downright idiotic and seems totally out of character. It feels like Weitz is trying to say something about the precarious nature of success and how some people can't find an outlet for their intelligence, but it comes across as muddled at best. Still, there's a lot to like about Trust. The dungeon scenes explode on stage with a great mix of comedy and intensity, and make the play a solid find in the sparse summer season. Weitz and co. walk that fine line between frivolity and serious theater and generally succeed. Read more about the themes of the play on my Classical TV blog.