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Sanshiro Sugata: The Lotus, truth and beauty

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    Ugetsu

    The whole film revolves around the crucial scene of Sanshiro, lost and alone in the muddy pond, clinging to a post. I can’t describe it any better than Richie:

    There is a close-up of the moon, and over it is the sound of frogs, followed by a direct cut to Sanshiro in the pond, faintly lighted, mists around him, and the distant call of a rooster. It is dawn. He turns, then looks. Before him a lotus is open. There is a short scene of Sugata looking at it, uncomprehendingly, the look of an animal. Then – and the beauty of the scene is such that no description can suggest it – Sugata understands. He has seen truth and beauty and this he shows. He races from the pond, he pounds on the teachers door – it opens at once, the teacher was not asleep. The priests and other students appear. Sugata has understood, the trial is over.

    Presumably, the Lotus here is explicitly the Buddhist Lotus of purity – the open lotus signifying enlightenment. If I’m not mistaken, while Buddhist symbolism is common throughout Kurosawa’s work, this is the only time he makes an explicitly Buddhist reference – i.e one that is unambiguous in its religious and spiritual intent.

    In the final fight scene, Sanshiro is losing the fight, losing consciousness, but he sees the full moon and is reminded of the lotus, and finds the strength to defeat his enemy. So far as I know, there is no specific symbolism of the full moon in either zen Buddhism or in general Japanese iconography, so I assume it was simply a reminder of his enlightenment (but presumably not full enlightenment, otherwise that would have been the end of the film).

    So the film revolves around the white lotus. Richie says this was not in the source book, it is entirely an invention of Kurosawa.

    Of course, Kurosawa may simply have used it as a convenient way of providing a dramatic visual statement of Sanshiro growing up. In other words, he did it because it looked cool. I’ve no problem with that of course, but I also can’t help thinking that there was something else here – a call to seek the spiritual heart of combat? A plea for pacifism in the face of war? A way of disarming what would otherwise be a glorification of combat?

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    Vili Maunula

    Something really strange is going on with the servers, no doubt due to the server move last week. Some content seems to have disappeared. I’m doing my best to return at least some of it.

    I wrote in this thread:


    That’s a good question, Ugetsu, and your suggestions seem plausible.

    The hopeless romantic that I sometimes am, I would like to suggest that the lotus flower, a feminine symbol, while standing for Sanshiro’s spiritual awakening in the first scene, represents his love for Sayo in the final fight. As I theorised in the discussion about the jujitsu teacher’s daughter, the pond is only the first phase of Sanshiro’s spiritual awakening, the second being his fight with Sayo’s father.

    You could then say that after the second fight, Sayo becomes the flower for Sanshiro. Notice also the way Sanshiro looks at Sayo only a moment before he is caught by Higaki. I think that it is his love for her that gives him that extra bit of will-power and energy to break out of Higaki’s hold and defeat him, and that it is this that is told to us through the use of the lotus flower, marking the third phase in Sanshiro’s spiritual growth. This is also why in the following scene, with the judo masters, the film stresses that Sanshiro has immediately departed with Sayo and that he has something to think over.

    As for the moon, Prince quotes Donald Keene and notes that the moon is “a frequent Buddhist symbol of enlightenment in Noh plays.” (49-50) So, it appears that Kurosawa wasn’t exactly subtle with his symbolism there.

    Finally, since no one to the best of my knowledge has ever brought this up, I think that I need to put on my feminist’s hat and draw your attention to the fact that the pole onto which Sanshiro clutches while in the pond is an obvious phallic symbol. And that in order for Sanshiro to reach enlightenment, he has to let go of the phallus and embrace the blooming lotus flower, a clear symbol of vagina (really).

    Oh yes, and remember to not take me too seriously all the time.


    Ugetsu then replied:


    Actually, I have to apologise, it seems my memory isn’t as good as it should be! I rewatched some of the scenes and Sanshiro does not look at the moon when he is being choked – he sees the rushing clouds, and then there is a cut to a single small cumulus cloud, which immediately reminds him of the lotus. Interestingly, this little cloud is identical to the one Sanshiro is caught staring at when he is working in the yard, and Higaki arrives unannounced at the school. I’m not sure what the significance of this is.

    There is one other flower in the film – the one which Higaki uses as an ashtray. I don’t think its a lotus! It looked like a Magnolia to me. Since there is quite a rich Japanese tradition of flower language (Hanakotoba), it would be interesting to know if it symbolised anything!

    Finally, since no one to the best of my knowledge has ever brought this up, I think that I need to put on my feminist’s hat and draw your attention to the fact that the pole onto which Sanshiro clutches while in the pond is an obvious phallic symbol. And that in order for Sanshiro to reach enlightenment, he has to let go of the phallus and embrace the blooming lotus flower, a clear symbol of vagina (really).

    The really weird thing is that when I was writing this post yesterday, I was listening at the time to a radio documentary about ancient vagina symbolism! It started out talking about Irish Sheela-na-gigs, then extended out to Paleolithic and South American symbolism. Nothing about japan in it sadly…..

    Of course, if that scene where Higaki used a flower as an ashtray, and the flower was a lily (which means chastity apparently), then that would be some heavy duty symbolism.


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