Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

18 12 2012

Kurosawa’s surprisingly inventive debut seems to have been buried beneath the power of the director’s legendary oeuvre. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is a more than competent first film, showcasing the director’s appreciation of genre cinema. His influences are obvious, but it’s safe to say that Ford and Walsh never choose something as deliberately stylish as this. The performances aren’t fantastic (though I did watch this after a heavy dosage of Naruse) but they service the film, which is arguably driven by Kurosawa’s virtuoso technical talents. It’s too short yet also not as economic as the works it was inspired by, but it’s perfectly enjoyable action film.


The titular character arrives in town, with little exposition. He’s there to learn judo, but his stubborn and childish behavior make him an unlikely student of the art. His teacher, Yano, initially refuses to take him in, but Sanshiro’s hard-headed attitude eventually wins out. He turns out to be a wonderful student, and his progress becomes evident when he accidentally kills an opponent in a tournament. He’s quickly mythologized, but his focus shifts to Sayo, who he finds out is the daughter of his next opponent, Hansuke, a celebrated teacher of jujitsu. Sayo’s affections are also desired by Higaki, who requests a fight with Sanshiro in the mountains.


The story seems to be a little complicated, though it flows with much ease in Kurosawa’s hands. This is sort of problem, in all honesty, because the character development isn’t handled all that well. It’s worth noting that 17 minutes are missing from the current preferred cut of the film, but I don’t think any footage could flesh out the simplistic characterization of Sanshiro when we are first introduced to him. He is stupid and impulsive, traits that manifest in fantastic sequence in which he runs around a city looking for anyone willing to participate in the fight. The sequence is staged beautifully, with a symmetrically composed shot of an alley way cut juxtaposed with a complete 180 reverse shot. This is a simplified description but it’s a bit like if Ozu was an action director and had a dolly.


The previously described scene encapsulates Kurosawa’s debut, and to me, it’s somewhat representative of even his most celebrated work. The characters are put together in a clunky fashion, and resemble cartoons, but they are composed in an excellent way. It’s truly a shame that Kurosawa’s career started with the circumstances of the war. His vision was obviously edited to fit the government’s wishes (as it was here) or his talents were used to make pure propaganda, which is the case with his second film, The Most Beautiful. I say this because there’s an exciting energy here that one frequently finds in a filmmaker’s early years.


On the other hand, Kurosawa would have plenty of breaks throughout his career. His success was and is completely unexpected and far outside of the realm that anyone in Japan at the time could have envisioned. It’s often explained that Kurosawa’s international success may have been a contribution of his passion for western culture. This isn’t exactly correct as his biggest influences, Ford and Renoir, were crucial influences to earlier Japanese filmmakers. Kurosawa’s enormous success might have been in his distinct iconography, which of course categorizes him as a genre filmmaker. An effort like this is more in tune with the genre giants of Hollywood at the time than his later, more celebrated films. It’s an impressive and entertaining debut, a smaller scale sample of what was to come.