In April 1952, Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata (1943), was re-released to Japanese theaters with a rather heart-wrenching disclaimer: “This film has been modified from its original version […] without consulting the director or the production staff. 1,845 feet of footage was cut in 1944, to comply with the government’s wartime entertainment policies. As much as we’d like to show the original version, we were not able to locate the cut footage.” Kurosawa’s original ran an hour and thirty-seven minutes in length, but the version that returned to theaters clocked in at only 79. To compensate for the missing scenes, Toho’s editors spliced in big, wordy intertitles describing their content; and it is this shorter version—disclaimer and intertitles intact—which remains most accessible today.
Unfortunately, many of the cut scenes were vital in establishing character motive and maintaining the story’s rhythm, and their absence results in awkward narrative skimps and plot threads that don’t feel complete in and of themselves. (For instance: characters we’ve never seen suddenly pop up in what were meant to be their second scenes, without sufficient material to inform us who they are and what they want—requiring the audience to fill in the blanks based on what they remember from an intertitle from much earlier.) Although the remnants are certainly interesting and demonstrate that Kurosawa’s technical brilliance was on fast track development, this heavily fragmented film is more of a curious specimen, notable for its historical importance as opposed to any greater artistic achievement. Kurosawa had had multiple run-ins with Japan’s wartime censors—including the first time he released Sanshiro Sugata in 1943—and it seemed they’d gotten the last laugh with the permanent scarring of his maiden film.
Or so I thought until a few weeks ago, when my colleague François Coulombe messaged me asking what I knew about a longer version of the film that had supposedly played on Japanese television. My response was one of sheer perplexion. As far as I knew, the 79-minute version was the only version extant today. Japan’s motion picture legacy suffered catastrophic damage in the final years of World War II, with thousands of films either annihilated in the Allied firebombings or confiscated by the occupation censors—or, in some cases, destroyed by their own creators to prevent the Americans from getting their hands on them. Given that Toho failed to locate an uncut print of Sanshiro Sugata on their own, I presumed it had perished along with many of its pre-1945 brethren.
Still, I wanted to hold out hope. After receiving François’s message, I went through every Kurosawa book in my collection; perhaps there’d been some info about a longer extant version I’d forgotten about. I also checked the liner notes of Criterion’s 2010 DVD of the film, wondering if the cut scenes were too damaged or simply not made available. (It wouldn’t be the first time Toho’s denied an international distributor access to something of interest.) Alas, every resource in my possession asserted the 79-minute cut is the one and only in existence. If there was recently exhumed footage, I assumed it’d turned up within the last two or three years. Then, François informed me the deleted scenes had been restored to the film in a Japanese DVD—all the way back in 2002! (A likely source for the television broadcast he’d heard about.) Genuinely perplexed, I hopped on the web to do a little extra specific scouring. What I uncovered next surprised me on several fronts.
In September 2002, The Japan Times ran an article announcing: “An almost uncut version of […] Akira Kurosawa’s first movie will make a comeback on DVD in October thanks to a Russian motion picture depository that kept a portion of the scenes removed from the original work.” As it turns out, back in the mid-1990s, a researcher from Tokyo’s National Museum of Modern Arts had ventured to the Gosfilmofond (the state film archive in Moscow) to investigate the multitude of wartime Japanese films in its collection. “It is believed,” The Japan Times explained, “the Soviet army advancing into Manchuria to fight Japanese troops in the closing days of the war may have taken the films back to Russia after the end of the war in 1945.” Sure enough, one of the films preserved and found there was a longer version of Sanshiro Sugata, containing about eleven minutes of footage not seen since 1943. These were the scenes that made their way into the earlier mentioned 2002 DVD, commercially available in Japan for almost twenty years.
Then, after some more scouring, came another discovery: those very same scenes have also been accessible in English-speaking markets for a long time, ported over to Australia and Great Britain in 2005 and 2011 respectively. Curiosity gnawing at me, I promptly ordered the Australian DVD released by Madmen Entertainment, which includes the cut scenes as a bonus feature (conveniently provided with English subtitles). Now, Kurosawa’s vision has not been fully restored. Six or seven minutes remains missing (including a key scene regarding the hero’s spiritual transformation), but what has been uncovered goes a long way in bridging the all too noticeable gaps in the 79-minute version. And since not much has been written about this film’s longer cut (at least in English), I thought it would be worthwhile to go through the deleted scenes and point out how their restoration improves the flow and content of the story (when possible, as some of the deleted scenes only exist in pieces).
One last observation before we delve into the meat of this article. Despite having gone over the deleted scenes a number of times, I must admit I’m having difficulty discerning what it was that the censors of 1944 could’ve found so objectionable. In fact, I question if they were the ones who chose to take out these scenes, at all. When Sanshiro Sugata was first submitted for review/approval in 1943, a great deal of fuss rose over the “British-American” love scene between Susumu Fujita and Yukiko Todokori; and yet when the movie was re-released a year later, that scene was left intact. (Had the censors been demanding re-edits, one would think that part would’ve been first to go.) Tomonori Saiki, who found the deleted footage in Russia, has similarly remarked: “I found it hard to believe the content […] posed any problem for censors of the (wartime) Home Ministry.” Thereby implying the cuts were purposely made by the studio.
Saiki suggests the cuts were enacted to increase box office potential. His argument has merit. Toho was enduring immense poverty in the final years of World War II and was starved for product; re-releasing a successful movie (like Sanshiro Sugata) was a cost-efficient venture; and the shorter a film ran, the more times it could be screened in a day. However, considering the film’s disclaimer blames government “wartime entertainment policies” for the missing footage, I’m inclined to believe another factor was some regulation concerning the run time of Japanese films. While I myself am not aware of any such law, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn one existed, given how fiercely the government controlled the film industry in the early 1940s (limiting the number of films that could be made, forcing the major studios to consolidate, shutting down production nationwide once a month to conserve electricity, etc.) and considering Japanese movies, in the last two years of the war, usually ran 80 minutes or less.
Regardless, it also seems length was the issue when one takes into account the testimony of Kurosawa’s longtime script supervisor, Teruyo Nogami, who asserts the director had been forced to make the excisions himself. “I think he had to cut the film with an aching heart after he was told to make it shorter. Knowing how Mr. Kurosawa cherished his works, he must really have felt frustrated. I only wish we could have shown (the original version of the film again) while he was still alive.” While not a smoking gun, notice she doesn’t say anything about axing objectionable content, just trimming the film’s length. (Though it does raise a few questions. Was Kurosawa not consulted in shortening the film? If he himself physically took the scenes out, as Nogami claims, surely he would’ve at least tried to have input in which scenes were axed. And at what point was he informed his directorial debut needed to be shortened? Did he protest, as he had before, when the censors raised objections over scripts he’d written? There’s so much more context that would be useful to know.)
The Priest Visits Sanshiro
In the 79-minute version, after Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) experiences his first spiritual awakening—witnessing the bloom of a lotus flower—we suddenly cut to a medium shot of him doing chores, when someone appears behind him. He turns to see the villain of the story, Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), who wants a match at the judo school Sanshiro attends. If this sequence feels like it starts abruptly, that’s because the first part of it was lopped off.
The uncut version of this scene began with an exchange between Sanshiro and the local priest (Kokuten Kodo). The latter comes upon our protagonist doing his chores and remarks how quiet things are around town. Suddenly, a loud yelp comes from the school. Sanshiro explains that one of his fellow disciples (Akira Nakamura) is sparring with Iinuma (Sugisaku Aoyama), a visiting master of Kito jujitsu. We then cut inside the building to see the pupil being thrown to the floor, Iinuma standing over him with a bemused smirk. Back outside, the priest notices Sanshiro staring toward the school and assumes he wants a match with Iinuma. Sanshiro nods in acknowledgement, clearly not having lost the urge to prove himself. (However, he’s been banned from fighting for the last two months due to using his strength to bully people.) The priest tells him the respite being forced upon him will help improve his spirit. He walks off, and Sanshiro resumes his chores.
The restoration of this particular scene (or partial scene) doesn’t fix any gaps in the plot. It explains who Iinuma is, but since he’s not a major character—not to mention Sanshiro never actually spars with him—learning his background isn’t that fundamental to the audience. What it does accomplish, however, is correcting the narrative’s rhythm. Up to this point, the film had been moving at a very smooth and natural pace, each scene permitted ample breathing space to resonate; and with this footage reinstated, it continues to move efficiently—rather than stumbling with a scene that feels (and is) half complete.
Sayo, Murai, and Higaki
Of great detriment to the shorter version was the manner in which it “introduced” two major characters. After Higaki’s denied a match with Sanshiro for the first time, we abruptly cut to an intertitle telling us about how he learned jujitsu from a man named Murai; and how Murai’s daughter, Sayo, fears Higaki’s “dark side, his snakelike shadow.” The placement of this intertitle always struck me as odd since none of the characters it addresses appear in its wake. Instead of following up with Higaki, Murai, and Sayo, the shorter version jumps from this intertitle to Sanshiro, his teacher Yano (Denjiro Okochi), and the other judo students—prompting us to forget the characters whose stories we were just told about. Thus making it harder to identify the as-yet-unseen characters when they do appear.
In fact, Murai doesn’t show up until a whole four minutes after that intertitle, presented as a witness at a match, with nothing aside from a medium shot (and the fact that he’s played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) to distinguish him from the others spectators. Sayo’s “intro” takes place later still: sitting in the background of a wide shot while Higaki gabs away center stage, the scene playing out for a spell before the audience puts two and two together and realizes the woman at the back of the room is, in fact, our heroine. Had the earlier mentioned intertitle been placed in front of this scene, it would’ve been a tad easier to follow along (and it would’ve made logical sense, since Murai himself later enters the room and interacts with Higaki and Sayo). At the same time, though, no amount of rearrangement would completely make up for what had been taken out.
Here’s what originally played in Kurosawa’s cut. Following Higaki’s victory at the judo school, we see our villain standing on a bridge with Sayo (Yukiko Todokori), an air of tension quickly established as the latter avoids making eye contact—showing the fear she has for Higaki’s “dark side.” Higaki inquires about his old master and learns he’s still drinking excessively. After giving Sayo some money, shoving it down the neck of her kimono, he recalls seeing a Chinese woman who resembled her (“She was really beautiful. And suddenly she reminded me of you.”) before asking his master’s daughter to marry him. Sayo, nervous from the start, promptly runs home, her journey captured in a beautifully executed montage with dissolves taking us from shot to shot. We’re then properly introduced to Murai, who inquires why his daughter’s so quiet. Sayo remains still until she hears Higaki entering the house, at which point she flees into another room.
Talking with his old master, Higaki reveals he’s returned for two reasons. He wants 1) a recommendation to become the police force’s martial arts instructor after Murai retires, and 2) marriage with Sayo after accomplishing his goal of unifying jujitsu under the Ryoshinto style that Murai has taught him. Murai dodges around this second request by pointing out they’ll have a hard time getting Yano and his students under their thumbs. Higaki realizes this, too, confessing he’d gone to Yano’s school that day hoping to fight either him or a strong, worthy student. In other words, he challenged the school not for the sake of fighting (as was the impression in the shorter version) but as part of his mission to coalesce Japanese martial arts.
Through just a few minutes of extra footage, Higaki’s revealed to be a fairly complex character with goals and desires; and we realize why his dynamic with Sanshiro changes from seeking a fight to determinedly trying to kill him. In the third act, Sanshiro’s paired against Murai in a tournament to decide which school shall teach martial arts to the police henceforth. Sanshiro wins, granting the job to Yano’s school—in consequence wrenching away Higaki’s career. And when the young judo student becomes a special guest in Murai and Sayo’s home, he acquires the respect of the old master as well as Sayo’s affections. Higaki’s lost everything he’d been striving for (unified martial arts; the job of his dreams; the woman he wanted). Hence why, in the climax, he challenges Sanshiro to a fight to the death.
One more noteworthy detail. The 79-minute cut only lightly—almost imperceptibly—touched on Murai’s weak physical condition, leaving some viewers (such as myself) wondering how this supposedly formidable jujitsu instructor (someone hired to teach martial arts to the police) could, in the third act, become bedridden after just being thrown a few times. But the deleted scene under discussion clearly establishes that Murai’s health has been diminishing for some time, a problem compounded by excessive drinking. (Higaki mentions the old man’s health was once so bad that he vomited blood.) Now it makes sense that Murai would not only lose a fight with Sanshiro but struggle to recover from it.
After his ban from sparring has been lifted, Sanshiro duels with Saburo Monma (Yoshio Kosugi), the jujitsu “master” he’d initially approached in his quest to learn martial arts. Sanshiro proves to be a more than worthy adversary, throwing his former instructor into a wall and accidentally killing him. The fight is witnessed by Monma’s daughter, Osumi (Ranko Hanai), who later visits the judo school and asks to see Sanshiro, a knife hidden in her kimono. Fortunately, she’s recognized by one of the disciples and apprehended, Kurosawa giving us a close-up of the knife clattering to the ground. At this point, in the shorter version, we cut to an intertitle. “Sanshiro is still young. Nonetheless, he is badly shaken by her failed attempt. That night, Yano trains him by moonlight. Sanshiro is like a lifeless puppet. But as he is thrown by the instructor, he regains his courage and understands. Yano has taught him what life is. Sanshiro is of sound mind once again.”
Watching the recovered footage, in this particular instance, is something of a bittersweet experience, as only its prelude has been found. After Osugi’s intercepted, we jump to an interior scene of her talking with the priest, who reminds her that Monma’s death was an accident. Despite his best efforts to dissuade her (“Killing someone with intention and doing something that leads to someone’s death by chance are completely different.”), the seemingly emotionless Osugi insists Sanshiro is her “sworn enemy” and that she’ll only be at peace once she kills him. Angry, the priest returns her knife and tells her she’s free to do what she wants once Sanshiro returns to the school grounds. Stillness and silence ensues. The scene then goes outside as someone off-screen asks, “Where has everyone gone?”
That, alas, is all that survives of this particular scene. The crucial moments (Osugi’s reaction when Sanshiro returns, Sanshiro learning of the botched assassination, his subsequent depression, Yano throwing him around, his second spiritual awakening) remain absent, so we’re still dependent on the intertitle transcribed above to learn about a key moment in our hero’s personal journey. Still, it is nice seeing some additional material with Osugi and getting an idea of how her part might’ve resonated had all her scenes been preserved.
Filmed in an unbroken take lasting about a minute and a half, Higaki tries to persuade Murai to let him take his place in the police tournament match against Sanshiro. Murai refuses, insisting only he can properly represent Ryoshinto. Higaki calls this a betrayal of the style, to which the police officer in charge shouts back, “[A] person or individual style can lose, but it will never affect the whole of Japanese martial arts.”
This exchange originally took place between Sanshiro running off to the tournament and the moment of his arrival, providing some quintessentially paced filler: our hero doesn’t magically teleport from one part of the city to the next as in the 79-minute cut, maintaining continuity without slowing things down.
Sanshiro Refuses to see Sayo
In spite of his ambition to prove himself and the fact that he’s won a major honor for his school, Sanshiro responds to victory against Murai with sheer remorse. He’d grown close to Sayo prior to the match—enchanted by her beauty and spiritual dedication, oblivious to the fact that he’d soon be facing her father. And when the match is over, Sanshiro’s not only remorseful for the now-bedridden Murai but disheartened to see Sayo somber and dejected.
The final recovered scene, which takes place between the victory and Sanshiro’s visit to Murai’s home, details his guilt. All that survives is two partial shots. We fade into a tilted camera angle looking down at Sanshiro sprawled on the floor of the judo school. He’s staring blankly at the ceiling when a shadow crosses over him, announcing the arrival of fellow student Yoshimaro Dan (Akitake Kono). “You’re a very lucky person,” Dan teases as Kurosawa’s camera elegantly descends and levels out to show both men. “Everytime you win a match, a beautiful girl comes to see you.” As it turns out, Murai wishes to see Sanshiro and has sent Sayo to fetch him.
The first shot of this scene is missing its middle, so it abruptly skips from Sanshiro sitting up to him on his feet and walking away from the camera. In the second shot, he leans against the door overseeing the school garden, insisting he cannot face Sayo.
That, unfortunately, is all that remains of this scene.