Saw a raw copy, here’s what I wrote on Letterboxd:
Continuing my re-watch of Kurosawa as I fill in some gaps. Take this review with a grain of salt as, while there’s a lovely copy on Youtube, it’s raw without subtitles. It did have auto-captions enabled, meaning I could get an automated translation, but it was gibberish most of the time, so I opted to keep going raw. Alas, also couldn’t find any summaries outside of a brisk single paragraph which Goggle Translate didn’t mesh well with.
That said, I still got pulled into the movie pretty well, with a largely easy to follow plot, an expressive lead, and a crisp visual style. Based on a book by Hikojiro Suzuki, I don’t know if this is a biography or a work of fiction, but it tells the story of a rookie sumo wrestler named Ryukichi, as he evolves from a scrawny, “aw shucks” hangdog hapless student to a driven and successful star of the ring named Mt Fujino. Along the way he has coaches who bark him out, a best bud who looks to be played by a real sumo wrestler, and the heart of a plain geisha in a run-down tavern who always cheers him on. As he grows and develops, there’s rivalries, a delightful training montage, and reconnecting with the woman he spurned as he upgraded to fancier geishas. It’s a whole thing, leading up to a straight up Rocky battle where his head isn’t in the game because he’s just thinking of subliminal intercuts of her, until she joins the cheers to urge him on.
There’s a lot that I’m definitely missing because of the lack of subtitles, and this is one I’d definitely love to revisit should a translation emerge. Kurosawa wrote the screenplay for Santaro Marune, a prolific director in the 40s and 50s, though it sadly looks like almost all of his work is unavailable in the west. He’s a very clean director, with a good heightened dynamism and mix of humor and drama, and I love how he balances heightened tensions with “down on their luck” hijinks. I’m sure there’s more commentary in the dialogue I’m missing, but in terms of this being made during the propagandist period of the wartime, all that really came across were general nationalist messages like sumo becoming a neglected pastime, most exemplified by the opening credits playing over a packed dance hall doing western waltzes, then cutting to the sumo school next door as scowls are had at the embracing of foreign entertainment while traditional outlets are being ignored. But that’s a thematic approach which could be applied to this story even outside of that period in which it was made, so that’s totally fair game, and didn’t leave things feeling skewed.
Even though a bunch was flying past me, this was still a charming, well-made sports flick, which I’d be curious to revisit, and a nice companion piece to Kurosawa’s own debut the same year with the judo biopic of Sanshiro Sugata.
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