Early Kurosawa Part 2

Japan (1943-45) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

This is the second disc (well, the first disc actually but I was sent them in reverse order) of the Early Kurosawa set from BFI, meaning another two-for-one review! This time we go right back to the very beginning with the first feature film directed by the Japanese legend, followed by its sequel from two years later.

Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshirô) from 1943 is based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Set in the 1880s, the title character (Susumu Fujita) is a young fighter looking to train in Judo after failing to be impressed by the local jujutsu schools. Having barely won a fight, Sugata is admonished by Master Yano (Denjirō Ōkōchi) of the Shudokan School for being strong but not understanding the humanity aspect of Judo.

Following an epiphany, Sugata trains hard to become a disciplined and noble fighter, and is chosen to represent Shudokan in a public contest. His opponent is the older Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura), whose daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki) is sweet on Sugata. Also keen on Sayo is jujutsu master, Higaki (Ryūnosuke Tsukigata), his jealousy leading him to challenge Sugata to a fight to the death.

Equating combat sports with spiritual enlightenment is an Asian characteristic we usually associate with the Shaolin temples of China, so applying this to Judo feels a little odd but that is the general theme of this tale. Tomita was the son of noted judoka Tsunejirō Tomita, whilst Sugata is based on Tomita senior’s stable mate Saigō Shiro, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Unfortunately, the film had 17 minutes cut by Japanese censors without Kurosawa’s knowledge and this 76-minute version is the only extant copy, save for 10 minutes of deleted scenes found in the DVD extras of this release. Had they been included, much of the story would have flowed better, specifically Higaki’s interest in Sayo which is barely featured in the final cut.

Because of the sloppy cuts, the story is lacking whilst there are periods where little of note happens. There are two major fight scenes to bookend the film, both of which take place in the dark, whilst the showdown between Sugata and Murai will be unlike modern Judo most people will be familiar with. Despite this, the little touches Kurosawa is known for are present in a nascent form, including his famous screen wipes, to make this debut stand out from the other film output during wartime Japan.

Kurosawa might have felt this was the perfect film to start his directorial career but he wasn’t so keen on making a sequel which is very apparent in Sanshiro Sugata Part II (quite possibly the first ever numbered film sequel). The wipes are gone, the storytelling is disjointed, and the pacing is erratic at best, making for a rare 79 minute that is a slog to sit through.

In this second outing, Sugata is still trying to become a better fighter having become a master at the Shudokan but a trend for American boxing is wowing Japanese sports fans over Judo. Sugata is asked to show that Japanese martial arts is still powerful by facing an American boxer, but he refuses after finding boxing barbaric. But later he is forced to change his mind and faces champion William Lister (Roy James).

Meanwhile, Genzaburo (Akitake Kōno) and Teshin Higaki (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata in a dual role), brothers of Sugata’s foe in the first film, are out for revenge following the defeat of their older sibling which has left him weak and a changed man. This ties in very loosely with the theme of USA vs. Japan in that the Japanese are feuding amongst themselves over which martial art is better – judo or karate – rather than coming together against a common enemy.

Since this film delivers the Yanks a taste of their own medicine after years of portraying foreigners as the enemy, this sequel unsurprisingly was never released in the US, and much like Kurosawa’s previous film, 1944’s The Most Beautiful, this was designed for stirring the national spirit against the western enemy. It is laid on pretty thick in the opening scene where Sugata despatches a bullying US marine with ease, and how easily he defeats Big Bill Lister.

Of course, this has become a recurring theme in martial arts films from Asia, with many kung fu flicks being based around native fighters showing their superiority over brutish American pugilists. Most recently Jet Li faced off against Nathan Jones in Fearless and Donnie Yen fought Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3 – and frankly they did it better, but unlike Kurosawa, they didn’t have an austere Japanese regime breathing down their necks to make a crowd pleasing propaganda film.

Despite the cast making the best of a scrappy script – Susumu Fujita could have been the top guy for Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune not existed – there is little in the way of effort from Kurosawa until the (anti)climactic fight between Sugata and the psychotic Teshin Higaki. Shot on a snowy mountain with both figures seen as silhouettes it is both eerie yet poetic visually, given a chilling edge through Teshin’s feral howling.

Yet this isn’t enough to save what is an unfocused, lacklustre outing which Kurosawa clearly saw as nothing more than a studio pressured cash-in that runs out of steam long before its ending even for a film of such short length. However, if he hadn’t made this film he may not have been able to continue with his career and with the war ending shortly after, the shackles were off and this butterfly was allowed to spread his wings.

Neither Sanshiro Sugata film can really be classed as “essential” Kurosawa – granted the first one has historical value being his debut – but definitely should be viewed as curios to appreciate fully where Kurosawa came from, and how far he would eventually go as one of the greatest and influential directors of all time.

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