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Friday 2 January 2009

Sanshiro Sugata II (1945)

We've moved on to 1887 in Yokohama and all the propaganda that wasn't in the first film is present in the first five minutes of the sequel. A young rickshaw driver is a little overeager in speeding his fare into town and that fare takes it personally. Because that fare is an American sailor, he's petty and cruel and so starts beating the rickshaw driver, at least until he's stopped by our hero, Sanshiro Sugata, and thrown into the sea. Sugata is now something of a celebrity, having beaten Hansuke Murai in the demonstration match we saw in the first film. There's even a song that children sing about him, and this latest exploit just brings him even more celebrity.

You see, the Americans are all over the place and a noted American boxer wants to fight a ju jitsu wrestler at the American Embassy, with Sugata being asked to fill that spot. He declines, because he doesn't want to fight for entertainment. He turns up to watch though, to see what boxing actually looks like, and in this film it's a disgusting spectacle with brutal fighters destroying each other for the enjoyment of bloodthirsty savages watching. It doesn't even bear mentioning in the same breath as the sacred martial arts of Japan. Yes, this is a powerful and not particularly subtle piece of propaganda, but then it was 1945 and the Americans were the enemy.

This film surprised me and not just because of the blatant propaganda. While the first film was full of little Kurosawa touches, this one just doesn't feel like his work, even though he wrote and directed and it's nicely done. The first Sanshiro Sugata film was set mostly outdoors with frequent use of clouds and wind, transition effects including wipes and a fluid camera that impressed with its motion. There were also a couple of very nice symbolic scenes to signify passage of time and comparative mental states. Here all of those elements I mentioned are notably absent. Almost everything is indoors with no connection to nature, there are no wipes or symbolic transitions and the camera hardly moves. When it does venture outdoors, such as for the final fight in the snow, it pales in comparison with its equivalent fight in the field in the first film.

However just because it doesn't stylistically match the original doesn't mean it isn't worth anything. The story is much clearer and better defined, while still leaving certain deliberate ambiguities, and it's a much smoother ride. Susumu Fujita is one of many actors who returned to reprise their roles (such as Deniiro Okochi as Sugata's sensei Shogoro Yano, Yukiko Todoroki as his girlfriend Sayo, and Ryunosuke Tsukigata in a double role), and it's much easier to get into his characterisations here. Sugata is a much stronger person, still troubled but much more human. The fights are better, with the exception of the final one which is terribly staged and quickly becomes pantomime.

There are also a couple of memorable villains, who feel like they should be in a colour exploitation film from the seventies, especially the androgynous and insane Genzaburo Higaki, played by the Akitake Kono. He was in the first film, playing a different character, but he looked very different. He has a presence to him here that seems very familiar, even though I don't remember his parts in Sansho the Bailiff and one of the Zatoichi movies. I'll be watching out for him in the future though, and because he seems so appropriate for horror, I think I'll have to seek out The Temptress and the Monk. His last appearance was in a Crimson Bat movie in 1969. I wonder why he didn't continue longer. IMDb doesn't carry birth or death dates but I would assume deliberate retirement or early death.

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