Criterion Cuts: “Sanshiro Sugata”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

One of the key features (faults, if you want) of the Criterion Collection is that their choice of directors to focus on can be rather monolithic at times. Obscure directors, single-success filmmakers, or even modern working directors are rarely as featured in the collection as some of the classical heavyweights of ‘art’ cinema. Of those, by far the most monumental is the work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The Collection covers, in one form or another, 26 of the director’s 30 feature films, outpacing the next most prolific director (Ingmar Bergman) by a full four films.

I’ve actually stayed away from writing about Kurosawa films, by and large, because despite seeing a half dozen or so of his films I feel I’ve always had very little to offer on what is the most well-trodden ground of cinema. Sure, eventually I was going to have to do it eventually (this series will likely eventually outpace the release schedule of Criterion someday) but until I had something to say, or the right film to talk about, I was going to leave that to the people who had more passion for the subject, or better context than I, and enjoy the bounty of other offerings I had before me. Today, however, that changes with my first step into what will probably be years of the intermittant Kurosawa piece here or there. How appropriate, then, that I start at the very beginning.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

Kurosawa started his career, like most Japanese directors of his era, as a lesser member of the crew of other directors. After an apprenticeship of several years on early Japanese films directed primarily by by Kajiro Yamamoto, Kurosawa was given the chance to direct his first picture, and chose a novel by the same name from Tsuneo Tomita, chronicling the early days of judo. Kurosawa chose this book primarily as a way around the Japanese censors who had full oversight on film productions during World War II. Kurosawa’s sensibilities were decidedly Western, and he felt (with some accuracy) that the novel was so prominently Japanese in its subject and glorified such a popular part of Japanese culture that they would have no problems with his proposed adaptation.

It’s interesting, then, that the end result was a film that seemed so deeply Western in its sensibilities that the censors nearly refused to release it. It took the intervention of Japanese cinematic godfather Yasujiro Ozu, vocal in his praise of both Kurosawa and the film, to get it released. And even then, shortly after its original premier censors decided to take the knife to it anyway, trimming out 17 minutes of footage that have since been lost to time. What remains, then, is an interesting relic, considered passably acceptable by the wartime government, but only barely. And looking at even the truncated form, it’s rather amazing that the film managed to release even in such a mutilated form.

The movie itself concerns Sanshiro, a young man in 1880s Japan who travels into the city looking to learn jujitsu from the most famous and prestigeous school. Sanshiro meets up with the students of this school, an arrogant and antagonistic lot who drink and openly mock Sanshiro’s lack of formal training. They drag him along as they head out into the streets and cause all manner of juvenile chaos, until they run into and decide to attack an older man for being in their way. Sanshiro watches from the sidelines, in awe, as the stranger tears through a whole gang of students. This man is Yano, lone master of the new up-and-coming offshoot of jujitsu called judo, which is much more scientific and considered than the codified dogma of jujitsu. Sanshiro immediately decides to follow the better man, and begs to be taught in the ways of judo.

Sanshiro quickly becomes an incredible fighter, but Yano expresses constant regret that his star pupil is as brash and violent as the gang he left behind. Sanshiro, mastering the use of martial arts but not the philosophies, manages to become a folk legend for his violence. The children run through the streets singing songs about his savagery. After one particularly pointless street fight, Yano rebukes Sanshiro so harshly that Sanshiro finally feels a modicum of shame. Expressing the emotion with all the nuance of a bratty toddler, he throws himself into the pond outside the school and clings to a wooden pole. He rationalizes, out loud to anyone who will listen, that if he’s truly so awful he’ll punish himself by sitting in the water until he’s either forgiven or he dies of exposure—a traditional if foolhardy expression of samurai-style loyalty to a cause.

It’s while he sits in that pond, neglected and shivering in the cold, that he has a moment of revelation. Clinging to his pole, he sees a lone lotus flower bloom, and it is so beautiful and so fleeting an event that he learns an appreciation for living life necessary to give his willingness to die meaning. With an understanding of what it means to give ones life up for a cause, how weighty a choice that is, he pulls himself out of the water and supplicates himself before his master. He’s rebuked, forbidden from fighting as punishment, and genuinely tries to spend his time earning that moment he once experienced.

It’s here that the rivalry between schools picks up again. The jujitsu school, sure that their art is the best to be utilized by the police force, feels the need to show their strength by stomping out all competition: including Yano and his upstart discipline. An array of challenges occur, and Sanshiro is eager to step up to fight in the place of his teacher and his fellow, unready students. Instead he is instructed to simply watch as the entirety of his fellow class is torn apart by the larger, better trained jujitsu school. Sanshiro, finally allowed to fight, is so eager to show his capabilities that he kills the man he’s sent up against. Horrified, Sanshiro swears off fighting once again, retreating away from his teaching to try to escape the knowledge of what he had done by spending his days hovering around the temple.

It’s here that he meets a young woman who he falls in love with (this is, unfortunately, where most of the movie is trimmed, and their relationship is fleeting on screen, represented mostly through text inserts explaining the missing pieces of the script), spending his time with her reinforcing his appreciation of life. However, in his professional life, he’s being challenged to a fight to the death against the oldest fighter the rival school has. He also happens to be Sanshiro’s young love’s father. Sanshiro, torn between the devotion to his school and belief in his art, and fear for a further murder on his hands and a continuing cycle of violence, finally decides to go through with the match. But when he finally wins, he refuses to kill the man, forfeiting the whole contest and causing the entire martial arts community of the city to fall into chaos. Sanshiro, however, helps nurse the old man back to health, winning the respect of one of the jujitsu fighters and cementing his place at the old man’s daughter’s side.

The movie ends, then, with one final battle: the star pupil of the jujitsu school, a man who was much like Sanshiro but became vain and egotistical instead of humble and compassionate, challenges Sanshiro to a final battle to the death. Sanshiro, with everything to lose and nothing to gain, shows up to the meeting place among the flowing wheat on a hillside only to refuse to fight. Sanshiro, weaving out of the way of his murderous opponent, only watches as his foe exhausts himself and then makes a final mistake, falling and striking his head, a fatal blow that he was given every opportunity to avoid. Sanshiro mourns his opponent, a final lesson of compassion, as the film ends.

What’s amazing about this now little-seen film is just how decisively Kurosawa the whole thing feels right from the start. Many first-time directors struggle with, or at least are still developing, the authorial voice that eventually becomes their hallmark. This is especially true the further you go back, as directors had less tools and training at their disposal. Kurosawa, however, was something of an anomaly: he was already doing most of the heavy lifting as a unit director on prior films, so he had the technical know how; and he grew up watching Western cinema, even into wartime when such things were looked down upon (if not outright discouraged). He was the rare director of the era with a deep and abiding passion for viewing cinema before he made it, presaging the cinéaste auteurs that would later follow and be influenced by him.

And it really shows, as Sanshiro Sugata contains almost all the themes that would recur again and again in his work. There are curious differences, to be sure: unlike his hyperviolent samurai epics, Sugata is constructed to be increasingly less violent as the movie moves on, starting with the best action scene and ending with two men not fighting at all. And compared to the body count and heroic suffering his later films had, Sugata seems nearly cheerful in its relative lack of consequence. But Kurosawa’s style, with his flashy wipes and classical Hollywood staging, manages to firmly ground a very traditional Japanese story into the language of Western cinema.

This undoubtedly contributed to the tepid response he received from censors, but even moreso than that the themes of the movie seem strangely international for the Japan of the 1940s. Yes, it’s a period piece, but the movie advocates the benefits and necessities of adaptation and cultural flexibility that were nearly heretical during the war. Judo isn’t the best because it’s the most Japanese, but because it is the most modern, something that flew in the face of the traditional nationalism of the time but would become a recurring theme in his later period pieces. That these ideas survived the cut is a testament to how fundamental they are to the story, and certainly there was a basic element of cultural touchstones to work upon: Sanshiro Sugata was so popular Kurosawa made a sequel himself a few years later, and the movie has been remade half a dozen times since.

Normally I find myself qualifying first films with half-hearted terms like ‘curiosity’ or ‘interesting footnote’, but I’m glad that I don’t have to have such qualifications for this movie. Kurosawa’s first film is hardly an unsung masterpiece, but it fits firmly in with the rest of his work, smart with its themes and beautiful in its bold, culturally fused construction. Even with so much of it excised, it remains incredibly watchable, and just as relevant to the themes that would dominate his career as any of his other, more famous period action-dramas.


About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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