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Currently playing at the AK film club: Tora! Tora! Tora! (Fleischer-Fukasaku-Masuda 1970)

Sanshiro Sugata: Film Club Introduction

Sanshiro SugataThis month, our Akira Kurosawa Film Club turns to Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Kurosawa’s first feature film as a director after years spent as an assistant director and screenwriter. The availability of the film with English subtitles is not stellar, but do check out the Kurosawa DVDs page for more information.

In his autobiography, Kurosawa writes how he saw an ad for a new novel about a “rowdy young judo expert” and instantly felt that this would finally be the material with which he could make his directorial debut after a succession of scripts that had been turned down by wartime censors. The ad was for Tsuneo Tomita’s novel Sanshiro Sugata, which Kurosawa bought on the day that it came out, read it in one sitting, and immediately visited producer Nobuyoshi Morita, asking him to secure the rights the first thing next morning. Kurosawa’s instincts were correct, and within a few days, three major Japanese studios had offered to purchase the rights to Sanshiro Sugata. Ultimately the reason why he got the rights, or so Kurosawa writes, was that the author’s wife had read a positive article about him in a film magazine. (121-122) Galbraith, however, adds that even if Toho purchased the rights following Kurosawa’s advice, according to director Masahiro Makino the studio had in fact first offered the director’s chair to Makino, but he had declined, recommending Kurosawa. (39)

As Sanshiro Sugata was Kurosawa’s first film, it has received relatively much attention both from film critics and biographers. The film is set in the 1880s and tells the story of the titular Sanshiro Sugata, a young judo apprentice who has to learn both the physical and mental aspects of the then-new martial art. The film was made under military censorship, and as a result some commentators including Sorensen have interpreted it as a rather straightforward propaganda film, while others like Desser suggest that it in fact promotes a type of pacifist agenda: “To be a judo master [in Sanshiro Sugata] is to be free of ego, vanity, and the need for glory. The true way of Judo is non-violent.” (63)

The question how much of a propaganda film Sanshiro Sugata was is also reflected in the film’s release history. While the script was approved by wartime censors, the finished film was suddenly seen by the censorship board as too “British-American”. Despite this, the film was ultimately released as it was, possibly due to an intervention from director Yasujiro Ozu, who praised Kurosawa’s film in front of the censors. (Autobiography 131) However, a year after the release, the censors appear to have changed their minds, feeling the need to tamper with the already released work without Kurosawa’s consent. Consequently, the version of Sanshiro Sugata that we have today is some 18 minutes shorter than the original. The cut material was either lost or destroyed, and the removed scenes are in the now surviving 1952 version narrated through the use of explanatory title cards.

When critics discuss Sanshiro Sugata, they tend to praise its form, while agreeing that the content wasn’t quite up yet with Kurosawa’s later standards. Desser goes as far as to claim that “Sanshiro Sugata is a formal triumph … stylistically more assured, more finely tuned, than any Kurosawa film until Stray Dog“. (63) Yoshimoto is of a similar opinion, noting that while the story of Sanshiro Sugata is very similar to other action films of the time, “[w]hat distinguishes it from other run-of-the-mill genre films using a similar narrative formula is first and foremost its form. … Each action scene had distinct formal features, which give the film a sense of variety and contrast.” (Yoshimoto 69-70)

Some of Kurosawa’s later stylistic innovations can in fact already be seen in Sanshiro Sugata. Perhaps the most interesting of these takes place at the end of the exhibition match between Sanshiro and Momma, when we see a paper door falling down in slow motion on the defeated Momma. Kurosawa would more influentially reuse the slow-motion technique in a fairly similar scene ten years later in Seven Samurai. Prince has dissected Sanshiro Sugata’s formal features in length, noting that many of Kurosawa’s trademark conventions were already present in his first feature but suggesting that it nevertheless “is a form looking for a content” (53), in which “the dialectic exists in terms of style only and has not been extended to the culture that informs that style”. (54)

Even if the story may not have been quite up to Kurosawa’s later standards, the film nevertheless contains many of the themes that would later appear throughout Kurosawa’s oeuvre. For instance, Sanshiro Sugata is already a prime example of Kurosawa’s father-son relationships. Tadao Sato (in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa) writes that judo master Shogoro Yano is the first of Kurosawa’s father figures, and the relationship between him and Sugata “is like an ideal father-son relationship where the young man is modeling himself after the old man.” Sato further notes that “this ideal father-son relationship of militaristic Japan appears in several other war-time films. The father in the home was a microcosm of the emperor in the nation: as the emperor was the embodiment of virtue, so each father should be a small model of virtue.” Sato goes on to point out that although this “ideal, thought to embody feudalistic thinking, changed swiftly after the war … Kurosawa continued to portray noble fathers or father-substitutes, even after the war”.

This is of course not to say that Kurosawa necessarily clung to old, feudalistic traditions. An argument can be made that already in 1943, just like in his later post-war films, Kurosawa was contemplating the topic of change and modernity. “The struggle in Sanshiro Sugata is between ju-jitsu and judo, which comes to stand for the struggle between the old ways of traditionalism and feudalism and the new ways of competitive individualism. … What Sanshiro Sugata presents, then, is the struggle between tradition and innovation within a strictly Japanese context. A natural extension of this implied message is that Japan, to survive, must adapt.” (Desser 63) In this context, it must be noted that judo was historically developed as a scientifically research sport form of traditional jujutsu (or ‘jujitsu’) that had been developed by samurai for unarmed combat.

Another theme familiar from Kurosawa’s later films is the director’s love of his villains. Already in Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa found himself “strangely attracted by Higaki’s character. For this reason I portrayed Higaki’s demise with a great deal of affection.” (Autobiography 130) Furthermore, just like Kurosawa would go on to pair his heroes with his villains in films like The Quiet Duel, Stray Dog or High and Low, it can be argued, that “Higaki, in fact, is Sanshiro’s double, which Kurosawa makes clear through similar actions that he has each character repeat.” (Prince 48) One could say that Higaki, who dresses up in modern western garments, is a “failed” Sanshiro, much in the same way that Yusa for instance is a failed Murakami in Stray Dog. That Sanshiro himself has the potential of failure is evident from his behaviour early on in the film, but with the guidance of his father-figure Yano, he is saved from becoming like Higaki.

This touches on another theme familiar from Kurosawa’s later films. Galbraith labels this the “parallel education (i.e. physical or intellectual and metaphysical)” (41), through which Sanshiro is saved. In other words “Sanshiro”, writes Galbraith, “is an ordinary man in search of his self.” (41) Meanwhile Higaki, it could be argued, has the skills but lacks this “parallel education”, and is therefore ultimately doomed for failure.

The film also includes visual symbolism that Kurosawa would later go on to use again. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the lotus pond which, as Noel and Coco pointed out in last month’s discussion of Scandal, represents spiritual rebirth here, but later makes markedly different appearances in Kurosawa’s post-war films.

Sanshiro Sugata was both a critical and commercial success, even winning a few prizes (Galbraith 44-45), although some “Japanese reviewers found Kurosawa’s adaptation wanting in its portrayal of the spirit of judo.” (Desser 62) The film also helped to make a star out of Susumu Fujita, who played Sanshiro in the film. Fujita would go on to star also in The Men Who Thread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), Sanshiro Sugata II (1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), and later acting in smaller roles also in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961) and High and Low (1963).

The film was influential also in other ways. In fact, Sanshiro Sugata’s history of remakes and remakes’ remakes is almost as long and winding as is that of Yojimbo’s. In addition to Kurosawa’s own 1945 sequel, the film has received a direct remake treatment at least twice, in 1955 and 1965. Of these two, the latter is the more interesting case. Overseen by Kurosawa himself and produced by Kurosawa Productions together with Toho, the film was even originally planned as Kurosawa’s next work after High and Low. (Galbraith 384-385) Instead, the film ultimately ended up as a quick remake directed by Seiichiro Uchikawa to recuperate costs generated by the long shoot of Red Beard.

This 1965 Sanshiro Sugata, which narrates the stories of both Sanshiro Sugata and its sequel Sanshiro Sugata Part II, was released less than two months after Red Beard, and starred many familiar faces from that film, including Toshiro Mifune as Shogoro Yano the judo master, and Yuzo Kayama (the young doctor of Red Beard) as the titular Sanshiro Sugata. According to Richie (22), the 1965 remake was also edited by Kurosawa himself, who “put whole scenes together in the same way” that he had in his original film. The film was financially successful, but an artistic failure, despite winning the Catholic International Prize in Rio. (Galbraith 385) While near impossible to get in any home video format these days, the film can apparently be found online, if you are patient enough and know where to look (try filecrop.com).

In any case, the remake history doesn’t end there. This 1965 remake itself was remade twice, first in 1970, and later in 1977. In addition to these, there is also a recent 2007 film called Sanshiro Sugata, which IMDb currently lists as a remake of Sanshiro Sugata II. I have no way of verifying what it actually is. Finally, there is a supposedly unrelated adaptation of the original novel from 1966, also called Sanshiro Sugata.

All in all, even if it may not have reached the artistic heights of Kurosawa’s later films, Sanshiro Sugata is a fairly interesting work, and well worth our attention this month. The forums, as always, are open for your comments, insights, and questions. How do you see Sanshiro Sugata? The work of a director still looking for his own domain? A wartime propaganda film? An exciting action flick? Destroyed by the censors’ meddling? The floor is yours.

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