The biggest problem I have with traditional martial arts films is that the whole basic concept of whether this style is better than that style is completely pointless. If it was truly that simple then everyone would have forgotten about every style other than the best one and there would be no more martial arts films. In this 1943 Japanese film, we're watching judo rather than kung fu but we're mostly watching the same old story: one style against another, one school constantly challenging another school, that constant struggle to prove superiority over someone else, when there are so many other factors in play.
In keeping with that theme of purity, the usual revenge story fades in the background here behind a theme of personal discovery, though this is kept reasonably vague as such things go and happens pretty quickly, possibly because this was a wartime film and while it was deemed a safe subject, that doesn't mean that other elements would have made it in from the source novel by Tsuneo Tomita had it been made at any other time. There are a five subsequent versions of the story, and the last three are based directly on the book rather than this screenplay. I wonder how much they differed from this version.
The title character, Sanshiro Sugata, is apparently some sort of hoodlum at the beginning of the film, but really that just translates to him being unfocused. He comes to the city to learn ju jitsu but falls in with the thugs of Shimmei School, and on night one he witnesses one master, Shogoro Yano, of the Shudokan School, dispose of them all into the river, one at a time. So he decides to study under Yano and learn the form of ju jitsu that he practises, called judo. In doing so, he finds that he learns just as much about himself, finding calm and focus in the gentle way or way of softness. There's also a mild romance thrown in there too.
It's a period piece, set in 1882, and the martial art of choice is judo, so it all looks a little strange, something aided by the fact that it's directed by no less a filmmaker than Akira Kurosawa. This was his first film as a solo director after a few years of second unit work for others, so nobody associated him with samurai at this point. However the fight scenes, especially early on, are often highly reminiscent of much later samurai battles. The problem is that judo doesn't look violent enough, and I say that as a former student of judo myself, because the moves are all based around holds and throws rather than strikes. There are no weapons to flail around or slash with and no hitting or punching at all, removing all possibility of a punch of death or some such device. Yet we have matches to the death to deal with.
Kurosawa's name resonates through this film. While there's much in common with later samurai films it doesn't feel like a standard martial arts film of the kung fu or karate varieties. One of the key reasons may be because while this is no masterpiece, Kurosawa had already developed an eye for visuals, hardly surprising given that he was a trained painter who storyboards his films as large paintings. There are many shots here that would have appeared ambitious for a first time director, such as the opening point of view tracking shot, or which presage later work. He would return for a sequel, Sanshiro Sugata II, two years later.
The man playing the lead role would also return for the sequel. He's Susumu Fujita and he'd become a Kurosawa regular, making nine films for him across the two decades to High and Low in 1963. I've seen him a few times without recognising him, which is surprising as he so often looked just like a Japanese Glenn Ford in this film. I did recognise another Kurosawa regular though: Takashi Shimura, who made more films for Kurosawa than even Toshiro Mifune. None of the actors really get to do much though, which is a little disappointing.
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