Sanshiro Sugata 姿三四郎 (1943) – Japan
Characters are well staged, sets are varied, and the cinematography is fresh for the era.
The story is a common one today, and so the details lack complexity we expect of contemporary cinema.
Some shots are held uncomfortably long.
Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa‘s first solo directed film, is a short work packed with expression, and, though it may not shout and cheer like the director’s later works, this effort is a gem far more complex and entertaining than first glance shows.
Sugata, a young martial artist of Jujitsu, learns the private techniques of a new practice, Judo. But when he gets into a town-wide brawl during a festival to show off what he has learned, his elderly teacher threatens to forever dismiss him from his school. He must face his greatest challenge then, to learn of discipline and life balance, before his teacher will let him fight again, but many men are already lining up to fight him, one with death unto him in mind.
Toho Studio was looking for a simple script for Kurosawa to first direct, though he had already co-directed more than twenty larger ones as a technical assistant. But it was during the war, and stirring the public with sensational tales from an up-and-comer was looked down upon. It would coolly come from Kurosawa himself, the idea to adapt Tomita Tsueno’s fighting novel on the day of its release, a safe approach. And, looking back, that was a great idea, not because many other producers fought for the rights too, but because Kurosawa could stretch his legs and run on a popular genre, with his signature wipes.
The narrative is straightforward enough, actually brief, but it’s Kurosawa’s emphasis on character and mood that makes the story memorable, him reiterating theme, for the steep nature found in learning, well. They stare at one another, for long moments at a time, Sugata and his teacher, Yano, fighting a mental game before their muscle ones, and their struggles to share with us a love for Judo and living is expertly examined.
You see that Yano admires the young Sugata, that he is so strong and full of energy, with few years below his belt, but hates in him his boastful nature. And Sugata wants so badly to follow in his teacher’s ways, wise and unflinching toward challenge, but he is admittedly foolish, in a phase that clashes with his elder’s philosophies that we can sympathize.
Kurosawa emphasizes the actions of these characters with quietness. The scenes are often unaccompanied by music. They are just there; the events seem real. It is unnecessary to intensify what is already exciting, and the director’s preference for the camera to be close to the actor’s faces, though sometimes uncomfortable – as you feel you’re intruding – adds to the excitement of Sugata’s increasing situation for choice.
The performances for Sugata from Susumu Fujita and Yano from Denjirō Ōkōchi are genuine, and their timing for execution of dialogue compliments Kurosawa’s slower editing pace, only rarely hurried. The quality of filming is hindered only by age, flickering and torn unfortunately, but still well preserved.
There are those that will find Kurosawa’s early techniques here dull and compromised, but he works to strengthen Sugata’s journey with his teacher rather than highlight physical dilemmas and hyper action sequences. He adds a love story to heighten Sugata’s stakes before a later duel with another master, and this reveals the coming of age theme to come of Kurosawa’s next films, an adolescent wonder toward life, like Sugata, to move forward, despite the challenges.
And that is the way of Kurosawa, his magic, even early in his career, to focus on the human touch through sludge. He shows with Sanshiro Sugata patience is action, re-instilling in your mind an early question posed: “What is Judo?” Ah, but it’s simple. Living one’s life slowly, and with purpose – that is Judo.