Akira Kurosawa: Sanshiro Sugata (1943) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

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I always approach these first films from great directors with a certain amount of dread.  It's an extreme crapshoot of quality ranging from the abysmal (Ingmar Bergman's Torment) to the stunning (PT Anderson's Hard Eight).  Then there was poor Stanley Kubrick, whose first film is reportedly so bad he disowned the thing.

Akira Kurosawa doesn't show the slightest hint of anything other than unshakable confidence behind the camera in Sanshiro Sugata.  The opening scenes where the fresh-faced titular hero (played by Susumu Fujita) arrives in a cheerful town already pay direct homage to the history of film in a way which must have sneaked in past the censors, setting up his introduction to the town much like the footage of San Francisco from the early 20th century.  The lines of action are direct and clear, if not exactly groundbreaking, and certainly betray a more kinetic style then his contemporary, Yasujiro Ozu.

But the sequence which really stirs the pot of motion and mood comes shortly thereafter when Sugata has clearly fallen in with the wrong crowd.  Shogoro (Denjiro Okochi) is attacked by Sugata's new friends and, while the action itself is a bit boring, Kurosawa's staging is magnificent.  Sugata realization of his new friends' lack of morals casts a shadow over his new home, but Shogoro's shadow is the boldest of all, showing a mighty stature against the dwindling shadows of the attackers.  It's a wonderful sequence, and a strong indicator of Kurosawa's already blossomed technique.

Another facet already in full display is Kurosawa's sense of humor.  I love that the initial villain, Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) has a ridiculous twisted up mustache that looks like a dead-ringer for Snidely Whiplash's facial art.  But Kurosawa turns right around with the other grappling villain, Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura), who is initially set up as an even more foreboding presence and has an even more ridiculous and craggy mustache.

Even more fun is after a too-cocky Sugata takes on two groups of increasingly scared men.  He grabs a guy, throws him to the side.  Grabs another, slams him down.  Grapples yet another, forces him to the ground.  Then, finally, he sees he’s grabbed a huge sumo with a big grin just looking to slap Sugata down.  Funny as it is, Kurosawa also uses this moment to tell us a lot about Sugata's increasing judo mastery without him boasting, all while giving the sumo his full due with his own size and skill.

I understand you're not a stranger to devilish mustache's yourself Kyle, were you as equally impressed?

I can’t say I was equally impressed, but I do agree that this met in an interesting way with the famous-director’s-first-movie-dread. What surprised me the most was that while it demonstrates impressive technical skill and Kurosawa’s ability to construct memorable visual sequences, he seems uncomfortable with the actual story. Kurosawa is someone who deals with big ideas, certainly, from grand tragedy to elements of identity and power struggles, but usually they’re embedded in engaging stories—here it’s carried out on a level that almost seems like pure satire.

Sanshiro Sugata is a movie that desperately wants to convey an Idea about Life and Struggle. It is not subtle. Also, it’s 70 years old, so perhaps audiences demanded less of their visual storytelling at the time. The sequence that demonstrates this best for me is early on in the film: Sanshiro is told by his teacher that he does not understand humanity, that he has no discipline, that he is reckless, *that you’re dangerous Maverick and I won’t have you on my team!* It’s the same scene you’ve watched in every Kid Learns Something movie, and while this could very well be one of the first, that doesn’t necessarily make it any more profound when Sanshiro reacts by jumping in a marsh, clinging to a stake for several hours, finally sees a glowing lotus and Learns Something, and then afterward everyone has a mustache.

The rest of the film is carried out in the same ham-fisted way, as if following a prescription for a story type rather than building a unique story from an understanding of a classical structure. If all of this was done with the level of humor and bold-faced glee with which Kurosawa presents the villain, Mr. Westernization, then we may have the makings of a classic, but too much of the story is played straight.

Some of this may not be entirely Kurosawa’s fault. The film was initially something like 18 or so minutes longer, with footage cut by the censors at the time of its initial release that has since been lost, so title cards fill us in on what we’re missing at a few points. Here’s something: if you’re watching a movie, and roughly halfway through a title card comes up describing a fight scene, in a movie about Judo vs. Jujitsu, and it ends with “Yano has taught him what life is. Sanshiro is of sound mind once again.” … that may have been an important scene with regard to character development.

At the same time, this scene may have been conducted in exactly the way the title card reads (Yano: I have taught you what life is.  Sanshiro: I am of sound mind once again. * Bows *) as the characters often seem to be reading from title cards. This is the kind of movie where by the end it doesn’t even seem out of place when there’s a scene with three supporting characters talking and one of them says “Sanshiro has become a man.” And it’s a good thing, too, this bit of dialogue—for how else would we know that SANSHIRO IS A MAN NOW? Oh, how far he has come from his ambiguously motivated glowing flower revelation.

There may also be an issue of cultural translation here. There are several scenes that seem imbued with significance I just couldn’t pick up on, and perhaps this is tied to a lack of knowledge about Judo and where it comes from. Like when, at the beginning of a climactic duel, Sanshiro and his opponent grapple quietly from side to side for what appears with all the various cutting to be a significant length of time before the fight begins. I feel like this is supposed to carry some weight about what’s at stake and what’s being silently communicated through the nuances of Judo, but it comes off as a junior high slow dance with each working up the courage for a first kiss. His opponent has a mustache.

It isn’t that this is a bad movie. Its visual style is incredibly assured for a first film, and there are some surreal sequences that, while out of place, feel almost like something out of a David Lynch sketchbook (the bizarre montage on the steps has an almost haunting quality). What I’m left with most is a sense of an utter joy for filmmaking. But I feel like I’m missing something. I feel like there must be more to the climactic developments than what is so plainly stated throughout. Why does slimy Japanese Johnny Depp in a bowler hat need to fight Sanshiro so badly? Why does the deepest lesson in the movie seem to be “sometimes in life there is conflict?” Why is the movie’s answer to that issue always “TIME FOR SOME JUDO?”

Why Andrew? Why do all the main characters but the titular one have mustaches?

Maybe your own sense of what is missing might have been satisfied if the film entered yet another smash-cut to a wall of text reading “Sanshiro grew a mustache that Summer as he trained”.  The next scene would feature his deft facial styling paired against the now radically shaven Hansuke.  It would probably be accompanied with other broad dialogue about shame and the weather.

But for a differently styled response to your question, I think it is to highlight the difference between  Sanshiro’s age and those of his mentors and opponents.  Your analogy to the film being like a Junior High story isn’t to off, but I found that charming.  He has to maintain himself as clean shaven to be the unspoiled young warrior, and given the visuals supporting this I wouldn’t have been too surprised if he sprung into frame sporting a full lumberjack beard after his final scene.

This is also taking into consideration the confines of the film industry under the still ultra-nationalist Japanese and the censorship restrictions he was working with there.  What is left could at least be read as a bit of propaganda for the war considering the villain still has vaguely Western trappings in his suit and demeanor, contrasting again the more classical village and philosophies of the other residents.

The point you bring up on subtlety is of interest to me, particularly when talking about Kurosawa films, because I’ve never really found them particularly subtle, especially where the visuals are concerned.  In Yojimbo the opening scene sets how bad things are by having a dog pick up a man’s arm like a bone, the bureaucracy of Ikiru has the protagonist almost literally drowning in paperwork, the shadow powers behind Kagemusha are just that.  The visuals have always been as subtle as the weather patterns depicting the characters moods, it just happens those films are actually trying to convey Big Ideas.

I never got any indication Kurosawa was trying to do that here.  He got the chance to prove himself as a director on his own, made a film which still almost didn’t fit neatly into what was allowed at the time, and made what is, essentially, wartime Japanese Angus.   Kurosawa never stifled his hatred of the policies and government very well, but seemed game to play along and make amiable entertainment that just happened to showcase his visual talents.  I agree the Judo fighting itself isn’t very cinematic, but they all conclude in a broadly effective visual gag, save the ending fight.

There is still a bit of dead space in the movie, it’s just livened up by those moments of levity.  The romance between Sanshiro and Sayo could have happened off-screen in one of those smash-cut text boxes and it still would have had the same kind of energy and relevance it does to the plot here.  This is where I feel Kurosawa’s confidence in the story is actually shaken, and given the rest of his career he’s never been very good at writing women or romance.  Answering the how and why of her presence at the climactic duel caused my brain to blank out momentarily because there is no dramatic answer I could form which made any kind of sense.

The cheese worked on me wonderfully, especially the flower growing from the muck (keeping in mind I am the guy who said Rachel McAdams hasn’t starred in a bad romantic comedy yet).  I’m in empathy with this kind of film-making, someone going for the broad punch of black and white while still putting in shots that inspire, if not awe, at least a brief spat of violent envy.  I think again of that climactic battle with the clouds oncoming furiously, the tall weeds whipping around, the tiny figures against the endless storm, and the frame slowly filling with the faces of the two wearied combatants.

While it is broad (I get it, their clash is so mighty even the violence of nature pales next to them), it’s still a helluva image in a film that had a lot more of those than text cards.  Though it wins out on that margin ever so slightly, it was enough for me to enjoy and respect quite a bit.

Considering next week we have what amounts to a straight-up propaganda film, I’ll be curious how his sense of visual subtlety (or lack thereof) will translate.

The final scene did seem the most indicative of much of what is to come, specifically when thinking about something like the vast battlefield sequences in Ran. His eye for summing up character relationships in single shots also seems to emerge fully formed and in high gear here, specifically with the shot of Sanshiro looking up at his teacher from the marsh, and again those strange short scenes on the steps with Sayo.

I certainly won’t dispute that there is a sort of charm here, and Kurosawa’s sense of humor is firmly on display in a few scenes, most notably the monk, who seems like a guy I would want to hang out with. This leads to another point of interest for me, though, which is the way things seem to have a pattern of ending very agreeably for all concerned. With the exception of the guy who gets shoulder-throw missile’d straight into a corner to his death, everyone seems to end up friends.

This was strange to me, considering the blatant Western symbolism in Sanshiro’s opponent. It would seem the story is heading to a payoff in his opponent’s defeat, which does in fact happen, but Kurosawa softens this at the end by making specific mention of the fact that despite their duel was to the death, Mr. Mustache himself survived. Perhaps this was just in going along with the more lighthearted celebratory tone he was trying to strike; the final train ride may be less cute if Sanshiro had turned by this point into a cold blooded murderer.

But it is curious, nonetheless, and makes me wonder if Kurosawa was trying to subtly  draw a line between his own position and the more cut-and-dried allegory his story is making.  It’s also interesting to me that one of the sequences that was cut involved the rise in power of the central villain, who is said to grow reckless and negatively influenced by his developing skills. Scenes like this seem to be the most fertile for political metaphor, and yet they were cut? Was there an issue with Kurosawa’s depiction of the villain in a way that humanized the enemy too much? It seems that demonizing a character that clashes with tradition and grows drunk with power would be a scene that a wartime censorship board would welcome.

However, I could easily see something like this being used as a veiled criticism of Japan at the time as well. Perhaps this says something about a nationalistic government’s defensive anxieties? I would really love to see this footage. (There is also the possibility that it consists of a single scene in which the villain emerges from training proclaiming, “My Judo reigns supreme,” and Sayo yells, “You are reckless and drunk with power!” This will forever remain a mystery.)

It will be interesting in the context of this conversation on subtlety and political allegory and facial hair to address a propaganda piece, especially knowing how he later became so fond of politics and group dynamics in his stories. I’ll be curious to see if some of his visual sensibilities cohere with his thematic ones a bit more.

Sanshiro Sugata was interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying to me, because of how it acted as a sampling of some of what we’re about to dive into heavily over the next few months. Aside from that, I don’t know that I have tons left to say about it. Hopefully that won’t carry over to the sequel in a few weeks.

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Next week: Girls!  Girls!  Girls!

Posted by Andrew

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