Review: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

I’ve been a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa’s work for a while now, since devouring his samurai films (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and others), then moving on to his later work — in particular, the stunning Ran and Kagemusha. Every one has been an excellent film, on all counts: cinematography, writing, acting and direction. Throne of Blood, as well, has some of the most wonderful black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen. So, I like the man. This film, Sanshiro Sugata (sometimes called Judo Saga in the West), is the first film where he’s credited as director, and you can clearly see the beginnings of the precision, style and eye for composition that made him so celebrated a director later on.

The story’s a very simple, almost minimalist one. It’s 1882, in Japan. Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is a young man seeking training in the martial arts — he’s big, but wide-eyed and untrained. He seeks out some jujitsu masters, only to be swept along as they go to challenge an upstart who’s threatening their appointment as police trainers. This upstart, Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi), is a master of the new art of judo, which is looked upon with derision (and a touch of fear) by the established jujitsu schools. Sanshiro looks on in wonder as Yano rather effortlessly throws each of the jujitsu masters into a river, and at once decides to become Yano’s pupil and learn judo.

Sanshiro becomes very talented and strong, but he lacks discipline and restraint, getting into fights once he’s learnt some tricks and generally misbehaving. Schoolchildren make up songs about him ("Don’t touch Sanshiro!") Yano takes him to task, and Sanshiro, dismayed, jumps into a pond, where he stays for a day and a night until he’s attained some self-realisation.

The judo and jujitsu schools continue to wrangle, and now that he’s trained, Sanshiro is drawn into the thick of it. He must face a series of matches against jujitsu masters and the lean, dangerous Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a highly experienced and thoroughly malaevolent fighter.

Sanshiro Sugata is a very old film — it was shot in 1943, during the war, and as such has been unfortunately cut by the Japanese censors of the time. The film begins with an apology from Toho made in 1950, saying that the cut film was unable to be recovered later, and that they felt that the film is still worthy of release. And it is — it’s well-edited, full of action and the characters are likeable and interesting. Though it’s not the masterpiece some of Kurosawa’s later works were, it’s got some standout scenes: in particular, the climactic battle with Higaki, filmed on the Sengokuhara plain during an enormous windstorm. Clouds race across the sky and the long grass is bent almost double as the two men face each other. Higata’s a lovely character, all quiet venom and dressed to the nines in Western clothing. A suitably corrupt villain for the Japanese wartime censors, no doubt. Takashi Shimura (who would become the actor who most frequently worked with Kurosawa in major roles) is also in there and very good as the older jujitsu master who befriends Sanshiro even as he’s beaten by him in a match.

Definitely see it if you’re a fan of Kurosawa’s work, or Japanese period films — it’s an entertaining, very watchable story, presented well on DVD from Eastern Eye. The film print is as good as you can expect for its age, and the English subtitles are excellent.

9 dawn-lit lotus blossoms out of 10.
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