Kurosawa Diary, Part 19: Sanshiro Sugata Parts I & II

I’m making an exception to the chronological format of this diary to cover Kurosawa’s first and third films as a director. I briefly discussed his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, in my first diary entry. I didn’t discuss the second because until last night, I had never seen it.

I saw both movies last night at the Pacific Film Archive. The PFA screened pretty beat up 16mm prints, with all the expected sound and image problems you’d expect. But considering that these films have never had theatrical releases in this country, it’s amazing they could get any subtitled prints.

Although both period pieces set in the 1880s, it’s important to remember that these pictures were made during World War II. Japan was at war with the United States and England, and Kurosawa had to answer to fascist government censors who wanted to promote the most violent of Japanese traditional “values.”

With that in mind, it’s astonishing how much he got away with in Sanshiro Sugata (also known as Judo Saga). The plot is a common one in Asian martial arts cinema, one that Jackie Chan became famous for parodying—a young, brash, but promising pupil must be broken by his master to become a great martial artist.

What’s unique here is that the title character’s flaw, according his master, is that he lacks “humanity.” And he corrects this flaw. Much of the story concerns his learning to care about the opponents he beats—a strange theme for a country where young men were being taught to kill as many Americans as possible before their inevitable deaths.

True, the only character who dresses in Kurosawa_SanshiroSugata[1]western clothes is the villain (and what a stereotyped villain he is), but that’s the only real concession to propaganda.

Sanshiro Sugata has several brilliantly-staged fight sequences—a sign of great  things to come. A passage of time sequence involving a pair of abandoned shoes also shows a unique cinematic style in the making. But as a whole, Sanshiro Sugata lacks the brilliance of his post-war work. I like this picture, but it’s a long way from a masterpiece.

The censors were clearly cracking down a good deal more with Sanshiro Sugata II. Now a famous Judo expert (although still subservient to his master), Sanshiro fights challengers from a new discipline, karate, as well as an American boxer.

Yes, there are Americans in this wartime film, Kurosawa_SanshiroSugata_Pt2_1[1]from a drunken bully to sadistic spectators to a professional boxer with “Killer” written on his robe. We’re not made to look good.

The boxer isn’t much of a challenge, however. The main villains are the two wild and impolite brothers out to prove karate’s superiority. But all the fights are disappointing and over too fast. The ending seems to promote peace, which seems odd, but it’s a peace only between the Japanese, so I guess the censors didn’t mind.

As I noted elsewhere in this diary, Kurosawa’s early career is made of up good-to-great odd-numbered films and really bad even-numbered ones. For an odd-numbered film (number three), Sanshiro Sugata II was a real disappointment.

Next Wednesday the PFA will screen the two even-numbered wartime films, The Most Beautiful (which I know is bad) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, which is now the only Kurosawa film I haven’t seen.

I’ll let you know what I think.

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