Watched Aug 23, 2012
This was Akira Kurosawa’s debut as a director. Kurosawa was 32 years old, searching for a property to film, when he saw a newspaper ad for a forthcoming book about the history of rivalry between Judo and Jujitsu. So the story goes, this is from where he drew inspiration to produce this piece about the initiation and development of a young “shudokan style” Judo student, Sanshiro Sugata.
This film is most widely recognised for being “the first Kurosawa film”, and this is not a sad fact. The film has little else going for it. Released in 1943, the original reel was mangled by the Japanese wartime censors. Many major plot details were glossed over, and a lot of scenes that showcase nationalism or loyalty are focused on more than the intimate, human moments – many of which were removed altogether. Consider the title card that interjects at about the 50 minute mark that Sugata has, following long consultation with his sensei, learnt the value of the human spirit. When we next see Sugata about ten seconds later, he is plainly an evolved and more mature character with the respect of his entire township. It is clear that a powerful scene was removed altogether, and this knowledge hurts.
Now this is not to say Sanshrio Sugata is completely without worth. The first ~20 minutes of the film is pitch perfect, the intro of the Sugata, and town, Yano and martial arts rivalry could not have been made better. Higaki is both menacing and aesthetic, a very captivating performance (and goddamn that dude has style). The montage of Sugata’s encounters with his opponent’s daughter, is treated with seemingly complete creative liberty, it’s very considered, as is the development of a friendship with her father, Murai.
The final battle feels a little anticlimactic (almost like an afterthought) contrasted with the earlier, much more satisfying duel with Hansuke, but it employs the classic Kurosawa trope - for the first time - of weather patterns reflecting moods (in this case, a wild windstorm) as a method of visual metaphor.
Sanshiro Sugata is definitely worth watching for more than its being the first entry into the stunning filmography of the most prolific Japanese director, but only by a little bit. It’s entertaining, has an identifiable and sympathetic lead, and demonstrates a sound understanding of human interaction. It’s far from his best, but it’s even further from his worst.