Review: Sugata Sanshiro
4 out of 5 stars
Sugata Sanshiro is a worthy first effort from Akira Kurosawa, the internationally acclaimed director who would go on to direct such classics as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
The film opens with a message from the film's distributor, Toho Company Ltd., telling the audience that Japan's wartime censors cut roughly 17 minutes from the film without consulting Kurosawa, footage which has never been recovered. But since the original screenplay still exists, titles on the screen occasionally tell the audience important plot developments that the film is missing.
The film follows Sugata Sanshiro, something of a Japanese d'Artagnan, going to the city to learn jujitsu. However, after the sensei and students at his dojo lose a fight to Yano-sensei, the founder of a new jujitsu called judo, Sanshiro begins to follow Yano.
Sanshiro is tough and stubborn, and after getting into a street fight, he is scolded by Yano. In order to prove his dedication to Yano, he jumps into a pond of cold water and stays there all night, nearly freezing to death (pictured above).
Sanshiro matures, and falls in love with a woman he sees praying at a shrine. The woman turns out to be Sayo, the daughter of a man Sanshiro is supposed to fight (Takashi Shimura, The Most Beautiful). Sanshiro is torn between his love for Sayo and his duty to fight her father, a man Sanshiro knows he can easily defeat. Sayo has been praying for her father to win.
Released at the height of World War II in 1943, Sugata Sanshiro is truly a product of its time, and I think Kurosawa picked the subject knowing it wouldn't be controversial. The historical setting, the theme of dying for one's duty and the martial arts conflict all mesh with the war-time setting in which the film was released.
The film works because Sanshiro is a character the audience cares about. We sympathize with him when he is forced to fight the father of the woman he loves. The film only suffers because of the missing footage and the dark tone in some scenes, making it difficult to see what is happening on the screen (this may have to do with the quality of the surviving print, and not a technical fault on the part of Kurosawa).