Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

Author: Patrick Galvan
November 13, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

From the very first shot of his debut film, Sanshiro Sugata, director Akira Kurosawa is demonstrating his natural born talents as a visual artist. The film opens with the camera staring up into a cloudless sky before gradually tilting downward, a row of buildings rising up along the right and left edges of the frame. As the shot levels out, we start tracking forward through the street of a small 19th century Japanese town. Kurosawa's camera continues to press forward a ways before slowly turning left, into an alley, finally slowing down before a cluster of chanting women. These first forty-five seconds pass in one unbroken shot until an off-screen voice interrupts. Kurosawa cuts to a reverse angle, revealing the long tracking shot was actually the point-of-view of our protagonist: an aspiring martial artist in search of someone to teach him. The film has just barely commenced, and already Kurosawa has enveloped his audience in the creative process of moviemaking. On technical terms, Sanshiro Sugata stays impressive for the remainder of its running time. Consummate mastery isn't present yet, but what we see here is dazzling for a first-time directing job.

On the other hand, seeing this film always leaves me with a certain disappointment. In spite of its grand physical technique, Sanshiro Sugata suffers from a lumpy, truncated narrative, reducing what could've been a great film into a modestly interesting one.

But the fault does not fall on Kurosawa's shoulders. When he first released this film in 1943, it was 97 minutes long. However, people in authority disliked the subject matter (the studio didn't even want to release the film until acclaimed filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu intervened), and the following year, Sanshiro Sugata was hacked apart into a 79-minute re-edit. (This re-edit remains the most complete edition still in existence.) In re-cutting this picture, the wartime sensors didn't merely trim a few frames; they tore out entire sequences, resulting in abrupt lapses in story and character development. And since the story of Sanshiro Sugata, like a great many Kurosawa productions, revolves around character transformation and self-discovery, these cuts are borderline-detrimental. Inter-titles explain what transpired in the missing scenes, and while that's better than nothing, it's not the same as seeing the complete narrative unfold before us.

Based on what remains, the plot is as follows. A young man named Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) falls into the apprenticeship of a group of jujitsu instructors. A couple of hours later, Sugata watches his instructors ambush another man. Their target is Shogoro Yano, a jujitsu practitioner who has rechristened the martial arts form as 'judo.' Sugata stands by as his instructors attack the man they claim has insulted their practice, only to be defeated one by one. After tossing most of his assailants into a river, Yano takes the bewildered Sugata under his wing as a pupil. A long time passes. Sugata becomes stronger as well as undergoes moral transformation, slowly abandoning recklessness for humility. His personal revelations continue in the face of two upcoming fights. One with an older martial artist (Takashi Shimura), whose daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todokori) has captivated Sugata, and an icy-veined rival named Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata, dressed in western clothing to suit Japanese wartime entertainment standards), the latter of whom eventually wants a fight to death.

There is nothing wrong, summary-wise, with the story of Sanshiro Sugata, and I imagine the original 97-minute cut dealt with it on a much more sophisticated basis. But since the story has so many great ambitions, all those dreadful censor-imposed cuts end up sapping a great deal of its strength. Character development suffers the most. For instance, Sayo is introduced not through a scene, but through an inter-title. When this inter-title disappears, is Sayo part of the next filmed sequence? Nope. Instead, we cut back to Yano and his students; we stay with them for a considerable amount of time; we disregard a good deal of the text we just finished reading; and when we finally do see Sayo, it takes a minute or two for the audience to remember who she is and what her connection is to the people around her.

Here's another artistic offense. The eponymous character has two notable scenes of personal transformation. One is near the beginning. He's been chastised by Yano for misusing judo (as a means of bullying people) and not understanding humanity. Desperate to prove his instructor wrong, Sugata leaps into a pond and stays there until night, realizing his errors and eventually begging for forgiveness. The second such scene occurs after someone makes an attempt on his life. Sugata begins to lose his faith in himself, until he's put in a match with his own instructor. At the end (having been thrown about a few times), Sanshiro awakens to another self-discovery. Both scenes sound interesting in their content and their themes; it's a shame we only get to see the first and have to read about the second. In the case of the pupil-versus-instructor sequence, we cut from the would-be killer being apprehended, to an inter-title, to what happens after the fight. The character's revelation is never seen.

But let me dispel a certain vibe that I'm sure has been emanating in the last few paragraphs. Sanshiro Sugata is definitely worth seeing. Not merely because it was the first film by an important director, but what does survive—edits and all—is a modestly engrossing theme-packed story. The scene in the pond is a genuine highlight, particularly with Kurosawa's use of a blooming lotus (not to mention the watery setting) to symbolize Sanshiro's rebirth.

And, from what does survive, the characters are all interesting people and competently acted. Fujita (who would go to work on many Kurosawa pictures before finally parting company with the director with 1961's Yojimbo) is perfectly cast as the lead, effectively evolving his performance alongside the character. Yano (wonderfully portrayed by Denjiro Okochi) stands out with his composure. I would have liked to have seen more motivation on the part of the rival Higaki other than some sort of instinct to fight every worthy opponent, but Tsukigata's performance is menacing enough to make up for it. As if I really need to mention it, Shimura is excellent as the old martial artist. Kuninori Kodo is humorous as a monk who, on two separate occasions, assists with Sugata's self-discovery.

Finally, we have the wonderful actress Yukiko Todokori as Sayo, and this is the character, apart from Sanshiro Sugata himself, who works best. Once we remember who she is (remember, her introductory scene was hacked out), Sayo not only grabs our interest but also serves as a symbol of faith. That's what makes the dynamic between her and Sugata so interesting. It is strongly hinted they have romantic feelings for one another, but Sugata also regards her as something he himself has yet to become. He first sees Sayo praying at a temple and is captivated by her unabashed and selfless faith. One of the best sequences in the picture is a montage of meetings the two of them have on the stairs leading to the temple. (They do not know who each other is yet.) The only complaint I have about their relationship is more screen time wasn't devoted to it.

The directing is superb. Already, Kurosawa is using magnificent compositions as well as his trademark techniques: the 'wipe' transitions; the axial cuts for dramatic effect; emphasizing shock with slow-motion; the use of weather to represent emotion. He is also exemplifying a surefire knowledge of how to tell a story using visuals over everything else. A key example: when Sanshiro Sugata first meets Yano and they leave together. Sanshiro leaves a shoe behind in the street, at night. Kurosawa's camera trains upon the shoe. Then the wipes begin, showing as that shoe is stepped over by people in broad daylight, chewed on by a puppy, swept up in floodwater, and hung upon a fence amidst falling snowflakes. The changes of scenery and lighting perfectly implicate the passage of time. Finally, Kurosawa shows the shoe again, this time drifting in a river, before his camera swings up to a ruckus in the post-winter town, revealing what has happened to Sanshiro Sugata in the year since. Another director might've simply faded in and out and explained, through superimposed text, that a year or so had passed. But Kurosawa, realizing that visuals are the dominant means of storytelling in film, opts for pure imagery instead, and the results are infinitely more captivating.

One more positive attribute worth noting: Seiichi Suzuki's marvelous musical score. It has a similar tone and feel to the scores Fumio Hayasaka would write for Kurosawa later on. The gentle, romantic cues used for Sugata and Sayo work best of all. It's a solid score, one I wish I owned.

On the whole, Sanshiro Sugata, in this fragmented edit, is a heavily imperfect movie, but it is well worth the time of any Japanese film enthusiast. I highly encourage everyone to see it twice; on the second viewing, you'll have the complete flow of the narrative in hindsight, and those awkward story jumps with the inter-titles won't feel quite as devastating. Overall, an interesting first chapter in what would later become one of the most impressive careers in cinema history.