So once again we have survived.

Sanshiro Sugata

tn_sanshirosugatarookiesAkira Kurosawa’s directorial debut SANSHIRO SUGATA, a.k.a. JUDO SAGA, is the judo saga of Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita, MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA). When we first meet Sanshiro he’s a stranger wandering into town, but he’s not a badass like our friend in YOJIMBO. He’s wide-eyed and naive and looking for a jujitsu teacher. Some locals point him to the nearby school of the instructor Momma (Yoshio Kosugi, 47 SAMURAI) where they’re sitting around complaining about their rival “Yano of the Shudokan” (Denjiro Okochi), who’s been calling jujitsu “judo” and getting alot of attention for it. I imagine they feel about this kind of like I felt when I first heard the word “blog,” or like we as a society feel when some ad tries to convince us that pizza can just be called “‘za.”

They’re worried this word-coiner Yano is gonna get the gig they want instructing the police force, so they’re gonna ambush him tonight to “teach him a lesson,” and they let the new kid Sanshiro come along to see how fucking awesome these guys are that he’s about to learn from.

They surprise Yano on the dock and one by one they run at him and get tossed into the water. This being a night scene in black and white it’s really striking and sometimes looks like he’s tossing them into a black void. Once he’s gotten Momma into an armlock and made him beg to be killed to hide his shame of being defeated by a scoundrel, Sanshiro is like “You know what, maybe this Yano would have a better curriculum” and next thing you know he’s pulling the guy’s rickshaw back to his school.

There are some old timey movie techniques in this one (possibly to cover up scenes that were cut out) such as onscreen text that explains away major events and what 40 years later would’ve definitely been training montages. But there’s also some highly advanced uses of cinematic language, and one is the transition here. Before pulling the rickshaw he ditches his wooden sandals, and the camera stays on one of them as it sits in the street, gets rained on, snowed on, chewed on by a puppy, floats down a river. This tells us that time is passing, seasons are changing, and we know Sanshiro is nearby somewhere learning judo.

Much later the image of a wooden shoe becomes important again when he helps a woman (Yukiko Todoroki) with her broken shoe and they fall for each other. There’s a montage of little incidents where he bashfully passes her on the street or the stairs, and she always tries to talk to him. My favorite part of the sequence is when it cuts to Sanshiro’s closed umbrella on the stairs as he fixes the shoe. It emphasizes the chivalry of being willing to get wet to help her, and the sweetness of her tipping her own umbrella to cover him.

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It’s cute, but I bet back in the day it would’ve been super fuckin hot. How do you hide a boner in those robes?

Anyway, Sanshiro the judo wrestler soon gets a chance to take on a bunch of guys at once just like his teacher did, but you’re not supposed to go out and get in fights, so he’s in big trouble, might get kicked out of the school. He kind of throws a tantrum, swearing over and over that he would die for his teacher, then he jumps into a pond and refuses to get out. I’m sure the rest of the school are thinking “oh jesus, what’s with this fuckin drama queen?,” but they seem to respect him for lasting through the cold night, clutching onto a wooden stake and staring at the moon. When he climbs out in the morning they treat him like he’s reborn. It’s like maybe he should’ve been thrown off that dock with the rest of the Momma school. Now he did and he’s climbed out back at square one.

still_sanshirosugata01But he’s still on punishment and not allowed to accept a formal duel from Genzaburo Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata, 13 ASSASSINS), whose decadence is signified by his western clothes and cigarettes (and later by using a rose as an ashtray). The school won’t let Sanshiro fight until he’s challenged to an exhibition match against his almost-teacher Momma, who he throws against a wall and accidentally kills. And here’s another brilliant transition: it cuts to children playing and singing a song about not messing with Sanshiro. The legend has spread. He’s become the Boogie Man.

Of course this is all leading to grudge matches and duels to the death to defend the economically syllabled name of judo. One with an old man named Murai (Takashi Shimura, GOJIRA, SEVEN SAMURAI) in the police tournament and one with fucking Higaki. Things are complicated by finding out that the girl who’s been mildly flirting with him is Murai’s devoted daughter. When Sanshiro discovers this he makes an excuse to leave but then decides to turn back around and fess up that he’s the guy she’s been praying for dear old dad to defeat. As shy and as awkward as he is with this courtship he has too much pride to get into some romantic comedy type deception trap.

mp_sanshirosugataThe fights are cool, different from most martial arts movies because they’re grappling based. It’s all about maneuvering to grab your opponent and throw him, or occasionally roll him. No punching or kicking. That makes the duel-to-the-death aspect hard to believe, but the novelty of it is worth it. There is sportsmanship. There is fight brotherhood. And there is an eerie duel in a field of tall grass during a windstorm. Also Sanshiro develops an odd trademark: he’s the guy who’s better at fighting than everyone else, but wears a tattered gi covered in patches. He and Murai share a laugh about it when he crouches down to bow and his pants rip at the knee. The Momma school said Yano was just trying to make money off of judo, but there’s no sign of that working out for his best student. That seems to position Sanshiro as a judo hero for the common man, but to be honest I think he’s just kind of a slob.

Kurosawa adapted this from a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, who based the character of Sanshiro on a guy named Saigo Shiro, who was, along with his father Tsuneijiro Tomita, one of the first students of judo founder Kano Jigoro. I like that there are all these movies based on legends about real martial artists. Ip Man, Bruce Lee, the guy that Sonny Chiba played in his KARATE trilogy. I suspect all of them are more bullshit than history, lionizing normal, flawed human beings through a combination of the biased perspectives of their students, the snowballing exaggeration of tall tales and folk stories, and the sensationalistic instincts of movie-making. But they’re good inspirational stories, emphasizing the importance of wisdom, practice, discipline, honor, courage, perserverance, and innovation. They remind us to find good teachers to learn from, to respect elders and maintain traditions, but also to challenge a status quo that prohibits progress.

And maybe SANSHIRO SUGATA would’ve taught us other stuff too, or at least propagandized something different to us, except the Japanese government cut 17 minutes out of it that was never recovered. During the war they made sure Kurosawa promoted certain stubborn principles and then after the war they were embarrassed by that and cut them out. Every asshole’s got an opinion, huh? They shoulda just noticed that this rookie was amazing and let him be from the get go. But despite whatever compromises were made or whatever sections were lost, what remains of the movie is a classic.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 at 11:21 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Sanshiro Sugata”

  1. I don’t really have anything to add except that out of the boxed set of early Kurosawa films, I’ve only watched this movie and its sequel. The both show the promise of what a master of cinema AK would become. It’s really cool to see Vern reaching way back to films like this, though I also hope Walter Hill’s HARD TIMES will be included in this series. At least, I don’t think it’s been reviewed yet.

  2. I need to catch some more Kurosawa films. RAN is the only one I’ve seen, and I didn’t have the attention span or matured taste to fully appreciate it’s artistry at the time. I remember it was promoted by Coppola and Lucas, since Kurosawa was hugely influential in their careers.

    As for The Rookies series, I am seconding Al T on Hill’s HARD TIMES, and suggesting Carpenters DARK STAR. And this is debatable whether you consider him badass or not, and he only directed one film, but Brando’s ONE-EYED JACKS is one of my favorite westerns. Flawed like it’s director, but a great revenge story.

  3. The sequel isn’t as good, but is worth checking out. Especially for it’s WW2-era anti-American propaganda vibe, which was not something I expected going in. Makes it maybe more interesting than it would be otherwise.

  4. This review once again reminded me that I’ve only seen this (years ago) from a very poor quality Chinese DVD. The same goes for PART 2, The Most Beautiful, The Men Who Tread on The Tiger’s Tail. Good thing these are all gathered in a very favorably priced DVD set from the BFI. The set also includes some deleted scenes for Sanshiro Sugata, which should be interesting.

  5. And Poeface: As much as I like RAN, I wouldn’t necessarily say it is particularly representative of Kurosawa’s samurai pics, they tend to be much livelier and with a greater sense of fun. Well worth checking out!

  6. I think what’s enjoyable about Kurosawa for me is that you know of the certain classics that most cinemaphiles will list as his best (your RAN and SEVEN SAMURAI and so forth), and they’re good shit mind you. Well of course, you’re “supposed” to like them. But then you get real joy of discovery in digging through his deep cuts, if you will. And realize this mother fucker was the real deal.

    Take STRAY DOG, a terrific thrilling film noir where a cop gets his gun stolen by a criminal who uses it to shoot several people and as the cop hunts him down, he’s wrecked with great guilt.

    Or THRONE OF BLOOD, which I thought was genius in retelling MacBeth in Japan.

    Or even a minor one in I LIVE IN FEAR, where you had him tackling the fear of nuclear war when his countrymen (understandably) wanted to avoid that topic like the plague, or use metaphors (like GODZILLA) to try to vent about it.

  7. This review reminded me I needed to see more Kurosawa, so I got my hands on a copy of RASHOMON (1950), not knowing much about it except it’s considered essential to Kurosawa-philes and cine-philes alike. I struggle with pre 1969 films (the year of THE WILD BUNCH, say no more), and black and white to be honest, unless the material is extra special like Kubricks THE KILLING or ON THE WATERFRONT. RASHOMON is one of the good ones. It was also a nice intro to Toshiro Mifune, of whose legend I had heard, but only seen in one film, RED SUN.

    The acting was on the melodramatic side, which is one of the turnoffs for me with older films, but I read it was intentional on Kurosawa’s part so as to heighten the concept of the four different versions of the murder we hear about, and which is told in flashbacks. Funny, I’ve found most old hollywood films to have that heightened melodrama thing going on. Maybe filmmakers back then relied more on their actors going mega to raise the film up, than they trusted in the technical side of their work to create mood and atmosphere.

    Anyway I’m glad I saw it. It wasn’t a full on Samurai pic like I thought it might be, more of a morality play – Mifune plays a rapist, murdering bandit, not a samurai in this one, so I’ll need to hunt down SEVEN SAMURAI as soon as I can.

  8. Poeface – You need to check out YOJIMBO. It’s essential badass cinema, to say the least. Its sequel SANJURO is pretty cool too.

    RASHOMON is pretty cool, my only problem with it is I saw several of the knock-offs who ripped off the plot (Snake Eyes, Vantage Point, etc.) before I saw the original and…that undercut some of my enjoyment. I mean technically its marvelous and you gotta like how SPOILER FOR 60+ YEAR OLD MOVIE Kurosawa has a psychic (if I remember right) speak for the ghost, who revealed what really happened. You would probably never see that shit in an American movie.

  9. RRA – the psychic was an unexpected character, I liked her. I didn’t think her version of the murder was necessarily the true one, unless you think mediums are always 100% spot on. The beauty, and the frustration of the four conflicting pov’s is that there is no doubt ‘some’ truth in each one’s story, and some lies.

    And yeah, great filmatism. The woodcutters walk into the forest was a highlight, with the pounding drums on the score, and the film cutting from close-up to long shot behind the trees. That scene seemed to go on forever, yet it was exhilarating.

  10. Poeface – I wouldn’t trust it either, but if I remember the movie right (its been many years since I saw it) the movie I thought more or less said that was the “correct” version?

    Then again something about Japan where in their stories, they can randomly have ghosts/magical creatures pop up and people accept without an explaination. Ringu, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.

  11. Finally sat down and re-watched this today. A fun little film, and the finale is vintage Kurosawa – no one could incorporate the weather into films quite like Kurosawa. Part 2 tomorrow!

    The UK DVD, btw, included 12 minutes of deleted scenes, licensed from Australian distrib Madman. The material was originally found in Russia. Very interesting to see, 5 scenes in total, but hard to see why it got cut.

  12. Part II was better than I remembered. I liked the dual-plot: one being the anti-American one and the other being about the brothers of part I’s villain seeking revenge on the titular hero. I also enjoyed how the villain from first film was brought back, and bond between him and Sanshiro Sugata. At 78 minutes (PAL-speedup included!) time sure flies, and this is brisk, breezy fun. Not bad for a movie Kurosawa did reluctantly, without being invested in the material.

    Does anyone here have any familiarity with martial arts films from the era, and before? I’m curious how far back the genre and it’s conventions can be traced. I doubt Kurosawa “invented” much here, but it’s cool to see a guy walking into a dojo, wrecking it just to show off (decades before Bruce Lee), fighters from different disciplines fighting each other, etc.

  13. Forrest Taft asks a great question, one which I am not qualified to answer. I did do some cursory research, though. Wikipedia is no help, only going back as far as BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. And the listing of IMDb’s entries that have a “Martial Arts” keyword goes all the way back to SANSHIRO SUGATA. Surely, there must be earlier works. Perhaps the war years caused them to be lost?

    Hopefully, someone more knowledgeable will appear here and enlighten us.

  14. @Forrest Taft

    Here is a 1928 Fantasy Kung fu film from China called ‘Hero Gan Fengchi’. It contains a lot more invisibility than most modern Kung fu films.

    民国经典武侠片《大侠甘凤池》1928年

    导演: 杨小仲 主演: 杨爱立/ 洪警铃/ 王桂林 类型/地区: 武侠 中国 简介: 大侠甘凤池救助白氏夫妇的故事。 Sharing the old films/archives in the world, everybody can appreciate/learn/research 全面分享世界上的老电影,供...

    According to the Chinese internets, the Chinese film industry made a total of 260 martial arts movies from 1928-1932!

  15. Maxiao- Thanks for that link! Will check it out when I have time. I´ve also noticed that one of the old Wong Fei Hung movies starring Kwan Tak Hing is available on YT. Not sure if there are subtitles though.

  16. From what I understand a lot of the conventions stem from chinese opera. The staging and the acrobatics were translated to film which is why the framing is composed as it is in the genre. Like in a stage play.

  17. I am talking about kung fu films specifically.

  18. As Maxiao notes, wuxia films were very popular in China in the late silent era, but they faded away in the early ’30s when the Nationalist government outlawed fantasy films. They didn’t really start up again in earnest until the 1950s ― inspired, in part, by SUGATA SANSHIRO.

    (Which is what I’m calling it. Switching it around to SANSHIRO SUGATA is like talking about MAN IP.)

    In Japan you can trace martial arts films all the way back to JAPANESE ACTORS: SABRE BATTLE from 1897, which I wish I could find on YouTube. Complete with fake blood spray! And the plotting conventions, opponents with rival styles and so on, go back further than Kurosawa. At first these movies were just filmed kabuki plays, but later historical novels became a major story source (as also in China).

    One trend Kurosawa may have started is the emphasis on unarmed combat rather than swordfights. There were probably a couple of earlier Japanese films about judo or sumo, but if so they didn’t start a subgenre. I’m not as sure of the situation in pre-war China, but I think most of their martial arts films were heavy on sword combat too.

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