Pros: Fujita, Shimura, Todoroki
Cons: a chunk of the middle of the movie is lost and the rest is scratchy
Considering Akira Kurosawa (who was born a century ago this week) the master of master filmmakers, I’ve long been curious about his first one, the 1942 judo movie “Sugata Sanshiro,” and more so since seeing Johnnie To’s homage to it in “Throwdown” (2004). The movie, based on what was then a recent best-selling novel by Tomita Tsuneo set in 1882 Japan, is an odd mix of Victorian melodrama and the Tao of marital arts. The idealized dutiful daughter, Sayo (Todoroki Yukiko) whom Sanshiro shyly romances and the handle-bar mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, derby-wearing, perpetually smirking villain, Higaki (Tsukigata Ryuosuke) who expects to marry her seem Victorian, though what cinches the case that Higaki is a villain is his using an open flower as an ash tray.
In contrast, the beauty of a seemingly night-blooming lotus by moonlight triggers the transformation of the brash ruffian Sanshiro as he clings to “the staff of life” having plunged into a temple pond when chided by his master. It is during that long night that Sugata realizes the need for self-discipline and renunciation of ego. A strong hothead being cooled into a disciplined fighter is a staple of martial arts drama. Skill is important, but self-control is as important.
There is no intact print or negative of the movie, and two of the seven original fight scenes are lost. Not only is each one different from the others, but the first one, in which the judo master Yano Shogoro (Ôkôchi Denjirô) is attacked by the jujitsu master Monma Saburo and his disciples involves showing a different judo technique throwing each of the assailants into a canal behind Yano. The humiliated jujitsu master begs Yano to kill him, but Yano does not.
Later Sanshiro will defeat Monma in an exhibition match from which Monma does not rise. Before that, Sanshiro takes on a summo wrestler. After it, he must fight the father of his beloved, Murai Hansuke (Shumira Takashi, already there in Kurosawa’s first movie and in pretty much every one Kurosawa show in Japan: Shumiura he died between the making of “Kagemusha” and “Ran”). The final one occurs in high grass by night with one invited witness and the uninvited woman (Sayo) who in some sense is being fought for by Higaki and Sanshiro.
A vision of the moonlit lotus returns to Sanshiro when Higaki is strangling him. The fight seems to me to end abruptly and is followed by an ending I would find strange if I did not know there was a sequel (one of only two Kurosawa movies I have yet to see).
Later Kurosawa movies generally center on some sort of spiritual (or at least existential) crisis and rising to challenges not fully recognized. The stillness before action and the meteorological accompaniment would also be recurrent features of Kurosawa movies. And wipes, a technique from silent picture days that was archaic even in 1942, but one that Kurosawa continued to like and to use.
I would not recommend Kurosawa’s first movie as a starting point for viewing Kurosawa movies, but it is of more than historical interest and does not just show embryonic Kurosawa techniques and concerns: there is nothing tentative in his first movie’s direction. An out-and-out villain is rare in the Kurosawa corpus. I’d have liked to know how Higaki, a formidable jujitsu master, came to adopt western dress and vice (cigarettes).
Ôkôchi and Fujita not only returned for the sequel, but also starred in "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" (1945) and "No Regrets for Our Youth" (1946).
There is a centennial blue-ray release of the movie that does not have English subtitles. The lost footage has not been found and the surviving prints were not in good shape 40 years ago... The movie is available in a 25-disc Criterion centennial disc. Rimor has it that the first four movies, which had not previously been available on DVD, will be issued separately.
Kurosawa directed a sequel about which he said: "This film did not interest me in the slightest. I had already done it once. This was just warmed over." The print that TCM showed was in worse shape even that SS, though not missing footage. I liked the final fight in a snowy pass, though that was followed by a silly ending in which the brothers of Higaki, who had fought a battle to the death at the end of SS but is still alive if weakened and transformed in the sequel.
Sanshiro represented judo in combat with jujitsu in the first movie. In the second he represents it against first American boxing and then a totally unspiritual karate (the Higaki brothers). His spiritual crisis in the second movie comes from realizing that his defeat of jujitsu practitioners has destroyed their livelihood and ability to support their families. The priest at the judo academy sort of snaps him out of that.
Sanshiro attempts to meditate, but falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is reassured by discovering that the priest, though still sitting in lotus position, has also fallen asleep.
The romance advances not at all. A fight at water's edge seems a parody of Yano's early in the first movie. The triumph of the short (though stocky) Sanshiro against the American boxing champion is pretty obviously propaganda encouraging the belief that spiritual Japanese marital art could/would triumph against materialist American power.
©2010, Stephen O. Murray