Akira Kurosawa’s graceful debut is based on a novel of the same name by Judo practitioner Tsuneo Tomita about the rivalry between Judo and Jujitsu. Starring Susumu Fujita as the title character, Sanshiro Sugata is a thrilling martial arts action tale. More importantly, Sanshiro Sugata is a poignant story of moral education that’s archetypal of Kurosawa’s prolific career as a movie director.
Moviegoers universally identify Akira Kurosawa for his masterpieces Rashomon (1950) and the international classics that followed— Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963). Or his later movies, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985). The filmmaker’s incredible technique made his genre tales about samurai and cops, doctors and gangsters wildly popular and defined his enduring creative profile.
In contrast, his career before Rashomon is much less familiar, especially the four films he made during World War II, when he had to contend with obsessive government censors and the country’s physical and cultural downfall. Nonetheless, Kurosawa’s earliest movies swiftly established himself as a major talent.
Akira Kurosawa began his training at the P.C.L. studio in 1936, under the tutelage of director Kajiro Yamamoto, who regarded him as a star pupil. After a few years, Kurosawa was champing at the bit to show what he could do as a director.
Akira Kurosawa was thirty-two years old when he saw a newspaper advertisement for an upcoming novel by Tsuneo Tomita about the rivalry between judo and jujitsu. He frequented the book stands until Sanshiro Sugata was released, and on reading it, right away knew this was the right project for his first film. He proposed it, and when the chance came in 1942 to make the film, he did not hesitate. Susumu Fujita plays the hero, Sanshiro, with a brash and boyish charm, and Kurosawa embeds the martial arts action in a story about Sanshiro’s moral education and enlightenment.
Akira Kurosawa understood sagas of personal transformation to be profoundly compelling, and all of his heroes in his great portray such tales. In his first film, Kurosawa discovered his characteristic narrative template.
Sanshiro Sugata film astonishes with its style too. Kurosawa’s approach is assertive: he uses bold camera moves, aggressive editing, sudden changes in camera speed, axial cutting, wipes to push from scene to scene, and extreme weather as an pointer of dramatic conflict. All of these techniques and styles would become hallmarks of his work.
Sanshiro Sugata’s highlights consist of a climactic battle in a raging windstorm and an exquisite montage showing a series of meetings between Sanshiro and the beautiful Sayo on the steps leading to a shrine. Composed as a visual tone poem, the meetings between Sayo and Sanshiro sequence reveals Kurosawa’s early mastery of film form. Takashi Shimura, soon to be a customary face in Kurosawa’s work, plays Hansuke Murai, Sayo’s father, with his customary gentleness and affability. In a gesture to the militarism of the period, the villain, Gennosuke Higaki played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata, wears Western clothing.
Japan’s censors hated Sanshiro Sugata who claimed that it was outrageously British/American in its emotional response. Kurosawa also reported being criticized for the scene in which Sanshiro spends the night in a temple pond and sees a lotus flower bloom. Lotus flowers don’t bloom at night, but Kurosawa was undeterred: as he rightly knew and said, it’s a matter of aesthetics, not physics.
Sanshiro Sugata is an aesthetic delight, though it survives today in fragmentary form, with seventeen minutes missing from its original length. Intertitles summarize the narrative of the lost segments.