The One about Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanshiro Sugata”

Akira Kurosawa, one of the most highly revered filmmakers of all time.

Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking debut begins with the martial arts film “Sanshiro Sugata” (Judo Saga).  A film that was released in Japan by Toho films back in March 1943 but because it was during wartime, the Japanese government removed 17 minutes from the film and that cut footage has never been found since.  In fact, for the 1955 release of the film, the following was shown at the beginning of the film:

“This film has been modified from the original version of Akira Kurosawa’s debut film, which opened in 1943, 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.”

Nevertheless, the film without those 17 minutes still manages to be an enjoyable film and giving us a glimpse of Kurosawa’s filmmaking and also his selection of shots especially of the sky and the countryside which would become prevalent in his later and most revered films.

“Sanshiro Sugata” (姿三四郎) is a film that was adapted from a novel by Tomita Tsuneo and focuses on a stubborn young man named Sanshiro.  One day, Sanshiro joins a group of men who practice Jujitsu (a martial art that evolved from the samurai of feudal Japan to defeat armed or unarmed opponents without weapons).  Wanting to learn, instead he hears that the men are upset with a martial arts teacher named Shogoro Yano.  Mainly because he has been teaching a martial art called Judo (a Japanese martial art in which one can use defense to throw an opponent to the ground or immobilize them through grappling maneuvers).

The group of men are not too thrilled that this teacher is practicing judo which they feel is a disgrace to Jujitsu and thus they want to get their revenge by beating him with Jujitsu.

So, as the men begin their attack on Yano, Sanshiro watches and is amazed that the Judo teacher has easily beaten all the Jujitsu members.  Immediately, Sanshiro Sugata begs Yano to take him in as a student and Yano allows him to join his school.

But the problem is that Sanshiro is a wild child who follows the beat of his own drum and this may cause problems with his relationship with his own teacher.  Can Sanshiro be a changed man and prove to his teacher that he is a worthy student?  And what happens when the mysterious Gennosuke Higaki comes to the school and challenges him to a duel?

For any Kurosawa fan, just the opportunity to watch his earlier work is an amazing treat.  And even though his debut film “Sanshiro Sugata” was unfortunately cut by the censors during wartime (as it was deemed as British/American in sensibility), the film still manages to be entertaining and enjoyable in its own right.

The film would spotlight on the unruly Sanshiro Sugata played by Susumu Fujita and Fujita does a tremendous job of playing a man that is conflicted in his emotions of wanting to fight but also knowing his responsibility to obey his elders.   The expressions on his face, may it be during a match against a Jujitsu student to his battle with Hansuke Murai speaks volumes.  This is a man who loves to fight but at the same time, he values life but ends up in predicaments where he must fight a battle to the death.

In today’s modern world, we have seen plenty of Asian cinema that showcase various martial art styles colliding.  Especially in Hong Kong and Chinese films but it is really a treat to see the battle between Judo vs. Jujitsu coming into play throughout the film and to see how the tournaments are executed.

Kurosawa’s vision in conjunction with Akira Mimura’s cinematography work in tandem and both are able to create a sense of intrigue and suspense but also managing to capture beauty.  May it be the lotus blooming in the water or the storm clouds rolling in and seeing Sanshiro battle his rival Gennosuke Higaki (played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata) is well-done.  It is quite interesting as everyone in the film are in Japanese traditional clothing while the opponent and Sugata’s rival Higaki is dressed in Western/English style of clothing.

In many ways, this is a story of an underdog with a good heart.  If trained well, Sanshiro Sugata can accomplish big things but because of his brash personality (albeit having a big heart), realistically Sanshiro Sugata is like a child who had no direction growing up and thus, his special relation to his teacher Yano who has shown him guidance.

Yano knows that Sanshiro can be a difficult student but he knows that he needs to give his new student some tough love in order to have him learn why he is learning  judo and that he has a purpose in life.

I hope that one of these days, especially within my lifetime, as many silent film footage is being discovered, Kurosawa’s “Sanshiro Sugata” and its missing 17-minutes of film will somehow be found.  Those 17 minutes almost similar to “Metropolis” in which missing footage has to be told by intertitles but you feel those cut scenes could have added more depth towards the film.

Overall, “Sanshiro Sugata” is an enjoyable film and is definitely worth watching!