Movie Name: Sanshiro Sugata
Genre(s): Martial Arts/Drama
Release Date(s): March 25, 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) has dreams of learning jujutsu. When he arrives in the city and sees the skills of a judo master, Sanshiro decides to tackle the new form of martial arts. In choosing judo over jujutsu, Sanshiro has inadvertently found himself in a war over the advancement of the culture and will have to fight to defend his art.
Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, Sanshiro Sugata (姿三四郎 or Sugata Sanshirō) is based on the 1942 novel by Tsuneo Tomita (whose father Tomita Tsunejirō helped develop judo). Originally called Judo Saga in many English speaking countries, the movie is the premiere film of Akira Kurosawa was originally longer but cut-down by Japanese censors (and the original length feature was lost). The movie was Sanshiro Sugata was released by Criterion as part of their Eclipse imprint as Eclipse 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa.
Before Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa was a second unit director. He wanted to do Sanshiro Sugata and petitioned to adapt the book almost immediately. Though it is an early work, you can see a lot of Kurosawa’s traits developing here, and it is fun to watch this early work.
The story for Sanshiro Sugata is rather uneventful. You have a young man starting out in the world, a love interest, and a culture clash. It isn’t the most dynamic of Kurosawa’s plots, but I do find the rivalry between jujutsu and judo interesting especially since a lot of judo’s birth is tied to influences from outside countries. This really isn’t part of the text of the movie, but looking into it does enrich the plot.
Kurosawa often took his actors from a regular pool and Sanshiro Sugata shows some of that developing. Susumu Fujita went on to be in some of Kurosawa’s early films along with Denjirô Ôkôchi and Yukiko Todoroki who played Sayo Murai. Sayo’s father was played by Takashi Shimura who was often featured in Kurosawa’s movies and sometimes was the lead.
You can see a lot of what makes Kurosawa great in this film. Early shots shows the East meets West period for Japan with people dressed in Eastern fashion and some dressed in Western fashion (which seems a bit unusual for the time). You also see Kurosawa’s great use of landscapes in scenes like Sanshiro’s final showdown in the field (though the wind sound effect gets a little over the top).
Sanshiro Sugata is fledgling work, but it already reveals style and skill better than most directors will ever hope to achieve. It isn’t the most dynamic or interesting of films, but it is worth seeing for fans of the series. The movie was remade in 1955, 1965, 1966, 1970, and 1977 and Kurosawa made a follow up film called Sanshiro Sugata Part II in 1945. Akira Kurosawa followed up Sanshiro Sugata with the Japanese war propaganda film The Most Beautiful in 1944.