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Film Review: Sanshiro Sugata
In 1943, Akira Kurosawa released Sanshiro Sugata, which was his directorial debut. Starring Denijiro Okochi, Susumu Fujita, Yukiko Todoroki, Ryunosuke Tsukigata, Takashi Shimura, Ranko Hanai, Sugisaku Aoyama, Ichiro Sugai, Yoshio Kosugi, Kokuten Kodo, and Akitake Kono, the film was released in the United States in 1974. It has been remade five times in 1955, directed by Shigeo Tanaka, in 1965, directed by Seiichiro Uchikawa, in 1966, directed by Sadao Nakajima, in 1970, directed by Kunio Watanabe, and in 1977, directed by Kihachi Okamoto. It also garnered a sequel, released in 1945, called Sanshiro Sugata Part II, which was also directed by Kurosawa.
Hotheaded country boy Sanshiro Sugata arrives in the city to study martial arts. He becomes an apprentice to a teacher named Yano, who fought the school Sugata originally intended to attend by himself and won. Yano is able to teach Sugata the techniques of judo as well as the spiritual matters and Zen influence of how to be at one with nature.
The first film put out by Kurosawa, Shansiro Sugata is a pretty good film considering he was beginning to find himself as a director. The story itself is quite interesting, seeing a brash young man decide which jujitsu school he wants to join simply because of the master’s power and ending up having instruction on the art in addition to spirituality. Though a portion of the film is missing, the story is still told fairly well, capturing the essences of every aspect within, from Sugata’s character development and his relationship with Yano to Sugata’s his rivalry with Hikagi. It’s also interesting to see how Sugata is seen by others at various times in the film through singing girls. At first he’s a practical nobody and they’re singing about traveling down an alleyway and later on, they’re singing about not getting in his way, showing that he’s essentially arrived and made a name for himself via judo.
The film’s technical aspects are also done well, considering it’s Kurosawa’s first outing and he’s figuring out what works and what doesn’t. This film employs much of what would essentially become his signature style such as his wiping and fading transitions, his use of the weather as a symbol to capture the overall mood and tone, and his employment of speeding up various points of the action to give them greater weight. The weather is most notable during the final battle between Sugata and Hikagi, when the wind essentially becomes its own character and won’t stop howling as if to show it’s protestations at the fight between the two. The two of them ignore it just as much as they’re ignoring the pleas of their witness. This scene also has a great example of Kurosawa speeding the action up, seen the two are grappling with each other, going back to normal speed when one throws the other. It’s a great way to give more impact to the throw.
As for Sanshiro as a character, he’s pretty interesting with some good character development. As stated above, he starts off the film as a brash youth who enthusiastically chooses his judo instructor simply because of power. Interestingly though, it’s after a street brawl where Yano tells him to die that he starts becoming the man he’s going to turn into at the end of the film. His time in the pond gives him the connection and Zen he needs to be at one with nature. Following that, he is seen as not being so prideful, which can be seen in how he tells Hansuke that his win was by pure luck and leaving Hikagi alive after their battle.
Further, the romance between Sanshiro and Sayo is also done fairly well, even with portions of the film missing. What’s really notable about is that their relationship doesn’t come to a head at all at any point in the film. The two of them continue to grow on each other right up until the end, when they plan to resume their relationship when Sanshiro returns. It also interestingly gives Sanshiro some good internal conflict when he’s not sure how to carry on with his match against Hansuke because he’s fallen for Sayo and she was praying for her father to win. Said conflict also provides a great call back to him growing as a person when he’s told to think about his time in the pond.
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