SUGATA SANSHIRO, 1943
Cast: Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita, Yukiko Todoroki, Takashi Shimura, Ryunosuke Tsukigata,
Adapted from a best-selling Japanese novel of the day, Sanshiro Sugata is the story of an average young man’s transformation into a Judo master, a patterning of the heroic journey toward self-knowledge and enlightenment through the trials of feudal conflict between competing schools of martial arts, Judo and Jujitsu.
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Set in 19th Century Meiji period, this film, Kurosawa’s startlingly mature directorial debut, boldly stood out against other Japanese war-time films. Indeed against other world cinema as well. On its opening, we are introduced to Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita), as he searches for a teacher upon whom he can place his devotion in the hopes of becoming a martial arts master himself. He meets Saburo Momma (Yoshio Kosugi) , a jujitsu instructor, and his students, who are jealously brooding over the growing reputation of a local Judo teacher. Momma, driven by ignorance and aggression, wanting to destroy Judo’s growing reputation and expose it’s teacher as a fraud, orders his students to attack the mysterious Sensei ShogoroYano (Denjiro Okochi).
That night, Sanshiro, invited to witness the event on a peer, watches as Sensei Yano, cornered and outnumber, displays a masterful grace and ease, throwing his attackers, one by one, into the river, then traps and defeats Momma with a immobilizing pin. Kurosawa’s direction here is fluid as Sensie Yano is precise; like the slow-motion movements of these throwing techniques, Kurosawa silently ( sound is used with Spartan simplicity) tosses the viewer in into the world of Sensei Yano’s perfection, a technique used throughout the rest of the film and for much of the Kurosawa’s career.
Awestruck by Sensei Yano, Sugata pleads with the older man to become is disciple, taking up a rickshaw in an humble offer to carry the teacher home, this his first act of deference toward a new master and his exit from jujitsu and entry to the world of judo.
Jumping in time, editorial brevity at it’s best, the story adroitly becomes a moral tale, as Sanshiro has learned techniques but has begun street fighting to test his skills, much to the disgust of Sensei Yano. Realizing his naked display of aggression has insulted his teacher’s philosophy, Sanshiro hurls himself into a frigid pond in an impulsive act of repentance, declaring his willingness to die for his transgression. Sensei Yano, ever the martial man looking to teach – for all Kurosawa films at their core spiritual journeys – tells him to go ahead and do just that. Challenged inwardly this time, clinging stubbornly to a dead tree in the middle of the pond, Sugata shivers through this spiritual trial until the point of breaking when he sees a lotus flower open after meditating on the full moon. In this beautiful series of visual transitions his moment of maturation, from glory seeking dilettante to dedicated student, is artfully realized. An illustration of how a man might change rather than why.
A changed man, Sugata is entered by Sensei Yano into a local competition where he is to challenge non other than the jujitsu instructor, Monma; the two men are to compete for the right of their respective schools to win the contract of training the local police detachment. Monma, insulted by this challenge from the less experienced Sugata, pushes the competition from sport to combat, and pays for it with his life.
Such prowess, though tragic for Momma, brings about a fast paced change in turning fortune for Sanshiro as Kurosawa suggests a life in flux ultimately finds complications. And again, one of the great identifiers of his subtle understanding of film, Kurosawa only thirty-two, telescopes time for the audience grasp this idea. There’s scarcely a extraneous scene as the director endows Sanshiro with instant reputation, attracting the attention a love interest in the beautiful Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki); she’s the daughter of another instructor, the alcoholic Murai (Takashi Shimura) who pins new hope for his sake-soaked reputation on his own student, Higaki, and the second challenge to Sanshiro’s new persona, hopeful he can best Sanshiro. Life is ever difficult in Kurosawa’s world. Sayo fears for her ill father while Sugata is tortured by a dread that another man might die by his hands in a duel, as well as his confusion over new feelings of love.
Sensei Yano, spiritually timely, denotes the perennial Japanese notion of ‘duty’ above all else, and informs Sanshiro he must face the older Murai, which he does, defeating him, though not killing the old father, and they become friends. However, there is still the brooding and dangerous student, Higaki, who, insulted, forces the final climatic fight buy challenging Sugata, not to a sporting duel, but a fight to the death.
Meeting alone, each a Kurosawa symbol for the struggle between stages of enlightenment, Sugata and Higaki stand on a wind battered hillside for the battle. Disquietingly austere as all we hear is the wind! And although Higaki nearly defeats Sanshiro, a vision of the floating lotus flower transforms Sanshiro’s attack from life-taking, to life-affirming and he defeats Higaki but spares his life.
This intensely focused film draws to a close as Sensei Yano explains to a priest that Higaki has reformed and Sanshiro is leaving town. The final scene foreshadows Kurosawa’s future oeuvre - the full circle story - dramatized as Sanshiro and Sayo struggle for confidence in new love; the hero, quietly returned to being the average young man full of questions and uncertainty. The outward Sanshiro Sugata we met in the beginning, yet inwardly changed. This, the assured start to one of the world’s great directing careers that was to be Akira Kurosawa’s.