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Sanshiro Sugata: Instances of Buddhism and Shintoism

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    In a previous discussion on Sanshiro Sugata (Sanshiro Sugata: The Lotus, truth and beauty) Ugetsu and Vili examined the image of the lotus and its possible relation to the idea of Buddhist enlightenment. This got me thinking about other possible references to religion in this film. With Western fiction, Christian imagery is such an accepted part of our cultures it creeps into things both consciously and unconsciously. We instinctively absorb these things. Some fiction deliberately uses these images and symbols for narrative purposes while other fiction lets these things gently pass by, perhaps randomly, even if the general narrative has little or nothing to do with Christianity. We must imagine that the same thing happens in Eastern fiction, yet because we (or at least most of us here) were not raised in an environment where Eastern ideas were prevalent, we are usually unable to instinctively absorb and process these accepted forms.

    I don’t think Sanshiro Sugata is a religious picture by any stretch of the imagination. I believe any religious symbolism present is tangential to the larger narrative and its purpose, but there are definitely symbols and ideas which are religious in nature like, perhaps, the lotus flower which Ugetsu pointed to in his post.

    A problem with interpreting Japanese fiction this way, though, lies in the confusing state of its religious identity. (I’ve been living in Japan for two years now, and before I came here I never could quite grasp what the heck Shintoism was. Isn’t Japan a Buddhist nation? Is Shintoism a part of Buddhism? Are they the same? Are they different? It wasn’t until I had lived here for a while that I began to really understand these two religions, which are indeed separate yet somehow joined.)

    I don’t really intend to get into a larger discussion about the religions of Japan, but here very quickly is a summary: Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. It is an animistic religion where everything in the physical world is seen to have a spirit associated with it and there are hundreds of thousands of these gods who influence people’s lives. Many of these gods “inhabit” various shrines throughout Japan. When someone wants to pray for something, it is to these Shrines that they go, to humble themselves before the gods. Buddhism, however, is quite different. First of all, it is an adopted religion brought to Japan from China via Korea. Furthermore, as we all know, Buddhism is a system of enlightenment gained through study, practice, and discipline. It is at its intellectual core a renouncement of worldly sensation, a dissipation of self, in an attempt to achieve enlightenment. But, to be honest, this is not at all how Buddhism is treated in the everyday lives of people in contemporary Japanese society. Shintoism is seen as pure and innocent, so all ceremonies and actions that are thought of as pure and innocent are dealt with at shrines. Buddhism, on the other, is not thought of as pure and innocent. It is mainly used for ceremonies dealing with death and the departed. Weddings, births and so forth are handled in Shinto Shrines. Funerals and ancestral worship (realms of the dead) are handled in Buddhist Temples. (More confusion arises, though, when it appears that some things overlap between Buddhism and Shintoism.)

    That’s a very reduced and naive summary of Shintoism and Buddhism (things are, without question, more complex than I’ve written), but I think it’s enough to lead me to Sanshiro Sugata and its instances of religion.

    There are only two overtly religious images in the film: The first being the fact that the judo facilities are located on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, and the second that Sayo is seen praying at a Shinto shrine (and Sugata and she continue to meet there). Concerning the former, the monk who resides at the shrine becomes the voice of wisdom for Sugata. It is he who translates the experiences of Sugata into words. He is the one who directly helps Sugata to understand his path. Then through this monk’s words to Sugata a deliberate connection is made between Sugata’s time in the pond and Sayo’s praying at the shrine. When Sugata is late for his match against Murai and sits praying and dreaming of Sayo (in an absolutely stunning visual remembrance, by the way), the monk confronts Sugata. Sugata says that he cannot be as innocent and as selfless as Sayo was when praying for her father. But the monk angrily says that Sugata was as innocent and as selfless as her. When asked by Sugata when, the monk passionately points to the pond. “There!” So instantly Sugata’s time in the pond links up with Sayo’s praying.

    Yano, upon seeing Sayo, is so taken by her humbleness that he wants to leave and return another time so as not to disturb her. He believes she has so completely given herself up to the god of the shrine, and he views this as one of the greatest things a person can ever do, it seems. I believe this is what he was trying to explain to Sugata when he first lectured him which led to Sugata jumping into the pond. Yano believes that we must humble ourselves and give ourselves up completely with no thought to our own selves. He perhaps believes this is the way one must live one’s life, not in selfish pursuits but in completely selfless actions. He never wanted Sugata to simply die for him mindlessly (which Sugata literally interprets by jumping in the pond to prove his loyalty); no, he wanted Sugata to cease being concerned with his own life and his own self and that even if he were to lose his life in the process, it would not matter. (This idea of Yano’s, this renouncing of the self, seems to be a very Buddhist ideal which he sees Sayo characterize at the Shinto shrine.) As Sugata rests in the pond overnight he thinks about this and when he sees the lotus blossom, he suddenly realizes his sensei’s message. Or I should say he deeply feels his sensei’s message. There is never a sense that he intellectually understands the message (as he exits the pond passionately calling to Yano he never verbalizes his epiphany). Didactic words here are unnecessary because he feels it at his very core. It is only the monk who later intellectually understands and can express this verbally.

    In Sanshiro Sugata, perhaps the monk, as a representative of Buddhism, is a mouthpiece for interpreting experience; Shintoism as represented by Sayo’s silent prayers in the shrine and Sugata’s humble revelation in the pond is more of a silent comprehension, something understood in the heart but not expressed by the mouth. It’s interesting to note that Sayo’s silent prayers for her father are later actually expressed vocally in Murai’s mind (or should I say, heart) as he lay crumpled on the floor. Her words are made manifest and give him the courage and strength to stand again. This moment defines Murai and even though he inevitably loses, it is this standing up again after falling which dignifies him. You could say Sayo’s prayers have, in a way, been answered: Her father emerges a winner even though he has lost the match.

    My arguments are meandering and an ultimate conclusion eludes me, but it seems, as in real life in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism are merged in this film. I’ve talked in broad terms and haven’t been able to point to any direct symbols of Shintoism and Buddhism beyond Ugetsu’s lotus. I’d be curious to hear anyone else’s opinions on the matter.



    While living in Japan, I pretty much came to see the relationship between Shinto and Buddhism just like you have described it here. I would actually go as far as to say that for most people Shintoism isn’t really a religion at all, but rather a collection of customs, folk beliefs and related things that form a big part of the national identity.

    I would actually compare Shinto to similar practices in Finland, my country of birth, where for instance people may as they leave the sauna throw one last cup of water onto the stove for the house tonttu to enjoy, or where they may spit over their left shoulder after lowering their fishing nets for the lake spirits to guide the fish into the nets. I doubt that most people who do these things actually really believe in their power, but they are customs or practices that some people keep to, something like a private everyday performance art, one might say.

    So, I fully agree with what you say about the role of religion in not only the Sanshiro Sugata films but Japanese films in general. Since Buddhism and Shintoism are such an integral part of the Japanese culture and identity, notions from the two will inevitably make their way into Japanese cinema, whether or not it is consciously intentional from the film maker’s part. What we, as foreigners interpreting these films, may need to keep in mind is that we should not over-interpret instances of what to us seem like religious symbols.

    Therefore, I think that you are right that in Sanshiro Sugata the lotus that Ugetsu pointed out may well be the only religious or philosophical symbol that was really intended as such, and that anything else is simply part of Japanese culture and the culture of martial arts. And the observation that the monk works as Sugata’s intellectual mouth piece is an excellent one, I think.



    I would actually go as far as to say that for most people Shintoism isn’t really a religion at all, but rather a collection of customs, folk beliefs and related things that form a big part of the national identity.

    I definitely agree with you here. Shintoism just seems like a natural part of life in Japan: If a family’s daughter is going to take a big exam, they go and pray for her at a shrine. There are no larger theological implications; there is just a sense that prayer increases the chances. Perhaps this is all a consequence of a homogeneous population with what is more or less a national religion (or religions). If everyone is the same and follows the same religion, there’s no need to emphasize it.

    Perhaps we in the West rely on religion (specifically Christianity) and its iconography a little too much. I was thinking that if Sanshiro Sugata were a Western film and Sugata jumped in the pond just as he does in Kurosawa’s film, immediately (and definitively) most critics and viewers would think of this as a baptism. They would argue that he is washing himself of the sins of his youth (perhaps even his original sin). Everyone would nod their head in agreement and say, “Yes, of course he is.” But Sanshiro Sugata is a Japanese film made by people who only knew Christianity superficially at best if at all. It was made at a time when Christianity may have been looked on as a religion traitorous to the Japanese way of life. So when Sugata jumps into the pond, there is no baptism taking place. Perhaps he is washing himself. Perhaps he is cleansing himself of his former life, but it is most certainly not a “baptism”.

    Ultimately, film criticism (and any criticism, for that matter) can never be divorced from the viewer, the critic him/herself, and all their experience and all their remembrances.



    Ultimately, film criticism (and any criticism, for that matter) can never be divorced from the viewer, the critic him/herself, and all their experience and all their remembrances.

    I fully agree with you here, Chris. And I think that this is not a bad thing in any sense. I very much believe in the usefulness of using films (or anything else for that matter) as a spring board for examining and re-examining the world around you, and your own interpretation of that world.

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