After his successful direction of his first film Sanshiro Sugata, and subsequent rise through the ranks of Toho assistant directors in the 1940s, Akira Kurosawa was pressured to make a sequel. The result was 1945’s Sanshiro Sugata II, set five years after the original film and picking up Sugata’s tale as he faces challenges from practitioners of other styles of martial arts.
The film begins with a sequence that mirrors the opening of the first film: Sugata saves a rickshaw driver who is bullied by an American sailor, throwing the sailor into the river. Later, Sugata is invited to see a boxing match that pits a downtrodden jiujitsu fighter against an American boxing champion; he watches with sadness as the Japanese fighter is thrown around the ring like a ragdoll. Later in the film, Sugata himself enters the ring against the boxer despite his distate for such spectacles.
As well as attempting to protect his fellow men against mistreatment by the Americans, Sugata must contend with enemies from his past: specifically, the brothers of the defeated villain in the first film. These two are thoroughly over the top: Teshin (played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata, who also plays the now-bedridden eldest brother) is a very skilled but thoroughly venomous character; and the youngest brother Genzaburo (Akitake Kono) is insane, suffering from sudden fits and bouts of uncontrollable violence. They’re quite a contrast for the quiet introspection and deep sadness of Sugata.
Critics describe Sanshiro Sugata II as Akira Kurosawa’s weakest film, with the director himself saying that he had felt he’d been unable to put his full strength into it. Many scenes come across as rehashes of superior scenes in the first film, with a more melodramatic feel to much of the drama. The younger Higeki brother, Genzaburo, is an obvious reference to Noh theatre: he wears a long wig and stark makeup, and carries a branch of bamboo grass. This is something that Kurosawa did again to much greater effect in his later film Throne of Blood — Genzaburo comes across as overdone and unbelievable, unlike Throne’s rather demonic Lady Washizu. Kurosawa does experiment with cinematic techniques that I’ve not seen him use often in other films, especially the lap dissolve.
It’s excellent to see Eastern Eye filling out their Kurosawa catalogue with the director’s less well-known films, and Sanshiro Sugata II is worth your attention if you’re a Kurosawa devotee. The print on the DVD is nowhere near as good as Eastern Eye’s other releases, but there really aren’t any good prints of this film in existence: apparently the film stock in use at the time in Japan wasn’t particularly good, and some damage to the final reels this is emphasised by the high contrast of some of the last scenes, taking place outside in the snow.