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Sanshiro Sugata: The mother of martial arts movies?

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    This is more of a film history question than anything else. I’ve seen it suggested that Sanshiro Sugata is the ‘original’ Asian martial arts film – the one that all other films are ultimately derived. I think Richie alludes to this at various times but doesn’t explore it in detail. But he does also mention other action and fight films current at the time (he of course compares Sanshiro favorably to them), but I can’t find any other historical references to the genre.

    The Wikipedia article on the subject notes a 1928 Chinese film, but doesn’t mention Sanshiro Sugata at all. Elsewhere, I’ve seen references to early Chinese wuxia films. Most seem to date the genre in general to the early 1960’s and Hong Kong cinema.

    Certainly, all the classic elements of the martial arts films are there in Sanshiro Sugata – the hero who needs to find his chi, or who needs to be set straight by a wise master – the ramping up of combat scenes through the film, the spiritual awakening of the hero, the comic flying bodies, the thinly drawn (and of course chaste) love story, and of course the final climactic duel, where the hero only wins by drawing deep into his spirituality, indicating a sort of moral superiority to the otherwise stronger bad guy. In fact, watching Sanshiro, I was immediately struck by how many scenes in it I’d seen many times before – clearly it has been imitated numerous times by lesser directors.

    So is it just a particularly fine example of an existing genre, or was it something genuinely new by Kurosawa?



    I think that genre lines are usually drawn after the fact, so I don’t know if Kurosawa would have consciously attempted to create a new genre or worked within an existing one.

    I know little of early Japanese cinema and practically nothing of martial arts films, but it seems to me that at least as far as story structure goes, Sanshiro Sugata is a fairly typical action adventure story. I think that some have suggested that the original novel pretty much follows the structure of Eiji Yoshikawa’s famous 1935 work Miyamoto Musashi.

    Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s page on Hong Kong action cinema notes that as far as China goes, martial arts films were very popular in mainland China in the 1920s, with production moving to Hong Kong in the 1930s due to political reasons.

    I would therefore think that there were martial arts films before Kurosawa, and that they were preceded by martial arts literature. How much new Kurosawa brought into this mix with Sanshiro Sugata would of course be fascinating to know!



    Something really strange is going on with the servers, no doubt due to the server move last week. Some content seems to have disappeared.

    This thread had the following post from Ryan:

    I would argue that Sanshiro Sugata wasn’t the first original Asian martial arts film. Not at all. Japanese cinema in the 1900s and 1910s was dominated by chambara films. Hell the first film of Chushingura was made in 1910; predating Sanshiro Sugata by 33 years! Kendo and other Japanese swordfighting martial arts were shown onscreen and were a popular part of films before Kurosawa was even born. I actually wrote a paper documenting Japanese cinema from 1910-1926…it’s a shame there’s not much writing on that era because it really is fascinating.

    To which I replied:

    That’s true Ryan, and I’m sure that sword fighting films had an influence on the genre. However, I assume that Ugetsu was referring specifically to martial arts films (no weapons).

    I have no idea how much of a difference there is between martial arts films and for instance Japanese chanbara, but I assume that some sort of a distinction exists since they are treated separately in the literature. But my knowledge of martial arts films is pretty much confined to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and playing a Commodore 64 game based on American Ninja.

    If you feel like sharing, it would be very interesting to read your paper on early Japanese cinema! And if you are interested in the subject, this new book coming out next week may interest you: Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925. I’m thinking about getting it.

    And Ugetsu replied:

    I’d love to see that paper too Ryan.

    I’m just wondering though if the earlier films had all the elements that we think of as a modern martial arts film? I suppose you could devote a whole book to defining what a martial arts movie is, but what struck me about Sanshiro was that it followed (or created) exactly the template of so many 1970’s and 80’s Hong Kong film, and all the various sub-genres and films influenced by them. I can’t remember the source, but I did read somewhere that in Hong Kong they consider their action films to derive from Samurai and Yakuza films, not directly from the old Wuxia books and early films. But I don’t really know enough about the topic to comment.

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