Considering Kurosawa Akira (I’ll be using the family name, personal name Japanese order for names in my blog) the master of master filmmakers, I’d long been curious about his first one, the 1942 judo movie “Sugata Sanshiro,” and more so since seeing Johnnie To’s homage to it in “Throwdown” (2004).
The movie that Kurosawa adapted from what was then a recent best-selling novel set in 1886-87 Japan is an odd mix of Victorian melodrama and the Tao of marital arts. The idealized dutiful daughter, Sayo (Todoroki Yukiko) whom Sanshiro shyly romances, and the handle-bar mustachioed, cigarette-smoking, derby-wearing, perpetually smirking villain, Higaki (Tsukigata Ryuosuke) who expects to marry her seem Victorian, though what cinches the case that Higaki is a villain is his using an open flower as an ash tray.
In contrast, the beauty of a seemingly night-blooming lotus by the light of a full moon triggers the transformation of the brash ruffian Sanshiro as he clings to “the staff of life” having plunged into a temple pond when chided by his master. It is during that long night that Sugata realizes the need for self-discipline and renunciation of ego. A strong hothead being cooled into a disciplined fighter is a staple of martial arts drama. Skill is important, but self-control is more important.
There is no intact print or negative of the movie, and two of the seven original fight scenes are lost. Not only is each one different from the others, but the first one, in which the judo master Yano Shogoro (Ôkôchi Denjirô) is attacked by the jujitsu master Monma Saburo and his disciples involves showing a different judo technique in throwing each of the assailants into a canal behind Yano. The humiliated jujitsu master begs Yano to kill him, but Yano does not. (Sagata is a rickshaw driver recently from the countryside who watches the succession of ju-jitsu failures and then takes master Yano in his rickshaw.
Later Sanshiro will defeat Monma in an exhibition match from which Monma does not rise. Before that, Sanshiro takes on a summo wrestler. After it, he must fight the father of his beloved, Murai Hansuke (Shumira Takashi, already there in Kurosawa’s first movie and in pretty much every one Kurosawa shot in Japan: Shumiura died between the making of “Kagemusha” and “Ran”). The final one occurs in high grass by night with one invited witness and the uninvited woman (Sayo) who in some sense is being fought for by Higaki and Sanshiro.
A vision of the moonlit lotus returns to Sanshiro when Higaki is strangling him. The fight seems to me to end abruptly and is followed by an ending I would find strange if I did not know there was a sequel (one of only two Kurosawa movies I have yet to see).
Later Kurosawa movies generally center on some sort of spiritual (or at least existential) crisis and rising to challenges not fully recognized. The stillness before action and the dramatic meteorological accompaniment would also be recurrent features of Kurosawa movies. And wipes, a technique from silent picture days that was archaic even in 1942, but one that Kurosawa continued to like and to use.
I would not recommend Kurosawa’s first movie as a starting point for viewing Kurosawa movies, but it is of more than historical interest and does not just show embryonic Kurosawa techniques and concerns: there is nothing tentative in his first movie’s direction. An out-and-out villain is rare in the Kurosawa corpus, and even Higaki is changed by his defeat. I’d have liked to know how Higaki, a formidable jujitsu master, came to adopt western dress and vice (cigarettes).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
An English-subtitled DVD is part of the four-disc Criterion Eclipse set The First Films of Akira Kurosawa.