Akira Kurosawa: Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945)

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Kurosawa has to get better. He has to do it soon. Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 is well and truly awful on just about every level imaginable. The women from The Most Beautiful would have had trouble laughing at it.

The story takes the first movie’s clash between judo and jujitsu and expands it to include boxing. Sanshiro is asked to fight a famous American boxer in order to preserve his country’s honor, but he finds the Western crowd barbaric and refuses on the grounds that one should never fight for money or sport. That he will eventually break his code and agree to the fight is obvious, as the film is established from the very first scene to be taking on Japan’s contemporary American occupation by asserting judo’s dominance over Western fighting styles. This plays out in what feels at times like an early telling of Rocky IV, the central competition of which is proposed by a man who, judging by his outfit, can only possibly be named Mr. Pocketwatch McPlaidVest.

This sequel is a somber and joyless affair, often cast in shadows against a single candle. Sanshiro is told by one fighter he finds debasing himself in a match against the American boxer that he has been forced into this after the former popularized judo at the expense of other national fighting styles. His opponent from the first film shows up broken and sick, pleading with Sanshiro to stop his brothers, who are practicing yet another new style of combat in karate. Gone are the good natured and silly exchanges of the first film—the sense of defeat is palpable here and saturates the entire movie.

What’s surprising then is how a film that so strongly reflects this collective emotional state is unable to root this feeling in any coherent story or characters. The “we must defeat American boxing with judo to regain our national pride” storyline runs alongside a conflict I never quite understood in which the two aforementioned brothers keep threatening Sanshiro with karate, which by the way it’s presented in the movie must be a form of fighting that requires you to act inexplicably and look like a complete and total lunatic at all times. Part 2 makes the divide and conflict between the different fighting styles showcased—and what they represent—much more prominent than the first film, with the exception of boxing, which is presented as one-dimensional barbarism that pales in form and philosophy even to the karate practiced by Sanshiro’s opponents. In this way, the film is pure propaganda.

In a weird way, this is a closer attempt at the movie I wanted the first time around, but made on a much lower level. It’s an effort to explain the relevance of judo on a personal and cultural level—what it means on a deeper level to the people who are practicing it as a complicated art form deeply rooted in hundreds of years of culture, as opposed to simply something white suburban kids do for a year or so after they first see The Karate Kid. Here is a need for the survival of Japanese culture against Western influence in a more dire and urgent form. That it’s assembled so poorly is unfortunate, because Kurosawa can wring some intense power out of the more desperate, defeatist scenes.

It’s also interesting that in the end the central conflict turns out to be with the two practitioners of karate, with the match between Sanshiro and the American boxer becoming gradually less important throughout. By the time that fight occurs, it’s in a scene so anticlimactic that it barely breaks the confused monotony of the rest of the movie. We then move on to a retread of the climactic showdown in the field that took place in part 1, which this time around comes in the form of a surreal fight on a snow-covered mountain in which one of the karate fighters tries to kill Sanshiro via some poorly rehearsed yodeling.

I think Kurosawa’s aim was to take feelings toward the Western occupation at the time and work them out through the rise of a fighting style that represents an undisciplined, bastardized mutation of Sanshiro’s admirable values. The karate practitioners seem like a literally realized fear of Western values overtaking and fundamentally changing Japanese culture, and by defeating them Sanshiro demonstrates an ability to maintain his principles even in the face of changing times. This is more interesting than his fight with the American boxer, and I wish the whole movie had focused more coherently on it. Really though, I wish the movie could have focused coherently on anything.
I know this experience left you feeling a little more drained than The Most Beautiful, but maybe my musical rendition of the last thirty minutes of Part 2 will restore some life to you.  This feels entirely appropriate since Sanshiro, willed by whatever spirit moved him that particular moment, serenades us before his climactic duel.

(Slide to the left.)
(Slide to the right.)
(Grab the gi one time.)
(Punch the air two times.)

Abandoning the fine musical tradition established by Sanshiro, let’s instead take a trip to Subtext City.  The first film I thought was very enjoyable because all of the historical significance you could read into the film was portrayed somewhat lightheartedly.  True, it was still in the early stages of the long, slow, slog of defeat for Japan but the optimism was there and Kurosawa made a broad, if entertaining, flick.

There is no subtlety to the sequel.  While we could read into the wartime sadness by asking the questions of what was lacking in the images of The Most Beautiful is engrained directly into the text here.  The opening scenes show an American soldier belittling and then beating his cab driver, followed quickly by the American practitioners of boxing taking center stage while the karate fighters loom ominously in the background, then once the boxers are dealt with it’s full-on evil time for the karate masters.  In three steps Kurosawa equates the American barbarism with the evil karate fighters.

This struck me as a little odd considering some of the Japanese censorship laws  allowed the Americans to seep in and even be critical of one of its own forms of martial art in karate.  Well, karate was becoming very popular with the slowly occupying American forces, so at this point it’s safe to assume karate was fair game as being the tool of something evil.  But even then, this film was released in the twilight hours of the war with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looming in the future.  Kurosawa knew defeat was coming, but didn’t quite know how to deal with it in the film.

You mentioned how the film portrays a need for the survival of Japanese culture against the encroaching Westerners.  I definitely saw that, but it’s done in a far more cannibalistic fashion than any potential viewer here might be prepared for.  Japanese culture needs to be preserved, but only the kind of physical art that does not have American fans needs to be saved.  The boxing, obviously, Sanshiro resists but the metaphorical leg work of cutting off karate because of its American fandom comes with Sanshiro hurtling the master off of the edge of a mountain.  The message of the first film, where all culture gets to go on, is completely changed here to some culture deserves to be preserved more than others.

Which, as you mentioned, could have made for some powerful viewing if the movie wasn’t so muddled.  In contrast to the three plot movements transitioning the hate from American boxing to karate, we get Sanshiro depressed in a dojo, depressed in a ring, then depressed up a mountain.  The full reasoning for his sadness is not explained because it’s essentially another propaganda film and relies on the audience to realize Americans are right outside the door.  But there’s no fire to Sanshiro this time, which makes it an odd propaganda experience since it seems he is preparing his people not for victory, but for defeat and a new future with the not so subtly placed baptism in snow at the end.

Everything else is just an outright mess.  The judo scenes don’t have the same kind of playful camerawork of the first film and exist solely to show the same hip-toss utilized repeatedly.  The boxing scenes should have fared a little better, but Kurosawa was more interested in having the crowd block the shots instead of showing some actual boxing.  I agree with you the film is drab, and given the way many of the scenes are laid out with a single source of light it seems to be intentional.  But I also wonder how much has to do with the restoration?  This film, restored as best as possible, was not as well loved during its initial run as Part 1 and the same passion does not seem to have been put into restoring a fine print to show.

I do wish it had been restored better, you are correct on that. As you said, though, the visual styles of the first two movies we looked at were pretty consistently engaging, whereas this one offers almost nothing. Even if the print was cleaned up a bit, it’s a dull looking movie with boring staging and only a few scenes that stand out visually.

What you’re saying about the film’s selective view of culture is interesting, as it’s decidedly more bitter than the first installment. At it’s heart, Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 seems to be about the clashing of two radically different cultures and how Kurosawa tries to provide some sort of catharsis through the story’s clashing of different national martial arts styles. The conflict and shame of losing the war is internalized through the conflicting values and philosophies of judo, jujitsu, karate, etc. This is an incredibly interesting way to work out not-quite-post-war tensions, but that doesn’t change how overwhelmingly bizarre the movie is.

When the karate fighters first show up in Sanshiro’s dojo, the scene plays almost like a parody of itself, with one brother portrayed as mentally unstable, running back and forth at Sanshiro repeatedly being told not to attack, until he finally rips a board from the dojo wall in a screaming fit. The more stable of the two then introduces them both and tells the others with grave seriousness, “I apologize for my little brother pulling a plank from your wall.” Which, I guess, ok—it was a perfectly good plank.

It’s incredibly strange in its overblown theatricality, but this scene doesn’t really do much to further develop the karate practitioners’ already tenuous link with American forces. Again maybe something has been lost in translation, but at this point the audience is supposed to view these two as villains because A) they like boxing, B) they have never washed or cut their hair, and C) they hate walls.

The only potentially interesting thing about this scene occurs when they first enter. There is an exchange between a pupil demanding that they bow before entering the dojo and one of the brothers explaining that they don’t do that. Yano, the master of the dojo, speaks up immediately, telling his pupil that “they have a different set of rules” and that it’s ok. This would seem to demonstrate an understanding that different martial arts styles with different values and customs exist, and furthermore that this difference is ok. The disconnect in customs does not result in an outright conflict in and of itself, but rather than using this scene to explore the nuances of each fighting style in order to say something about Japanese and Western values, Kurosawa just cheaply establishes that the brothers are evil because they start breaking things.

The end of the movie leaves even more questions. I’m with it up until the point where Sanshiro wins his duel with the more outspoken brother, who shows up looking like Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin after they kill the bear in The Edge. Then it jumps to the three of them sitting in a hut with Sanshiro gleefully cooking them dinner and then napping unguarded while Brother Plank-Hater almost hits him with a cleaver he apparently had hidden nearby the entire time. He inexplicably decides against it when, still napping, Sanshiro remembers that Sayo—during her thrilling two minutes of screen time—told him she was “certain you’ll win.” He wakes up and gets them more food, and the karate fighters tell each other “we lost,” and they seem to be pretty happy about it. What does that mean?

This scene seems to be further extolling Sanshiro’s values, as he could have left them both for dead but instead takes care of his opponent after beating him, trusts them enough to sleep in their hut, etc. Maybe Kurosawa is trying to get across the message that Japan’s values will remain intact despite any foreign influence, and the fact that the karate fighters even seem complicit in their defeat shows that no present or future corruption of those values can stand. That’s very uplifting, I guess, except that he did have to toss one of them off of a mountain for that lesson to sink in.

Two things I'm especially glad you brought up here, which highlights just how hopeless Kurosawa must have felt with this project.  The first is the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of Sayo.  The second is just about everything to do with the karate masters but I'd like to focus on their initial dojo showdown with Sanshiro.

Sayo's entire role in the film indicates the story was on some kind of narrative drift to begin with.  Her appearance in the first film could at least be chalked up to the goofy Sanshiro getting the taste of life his master wanted him to have.  Hokey, yes, but as I mentioned it is the kind of hokey that worked and at least resulted in a few fun exchanges.  Here it seems like there was a conscious decision to keep her out of Sanshiro's life as a means of torturing him.

The only problem is, Sanshiro hardly notices she's gone and to my recollection we don't see any scene of him lamenting her absence.  In fact, Sayo herself seems hardly affected by a lack of some Sanshiro sunshine in her life, deciding instead to wallow in the misery which has filled up the entire world.  A lot of the sequences in Part 1 may have felt as though they were all part of a giant narrative machine made to make audiences go "Yay!"  But in Part 2 these scenes are depressing and completely separate from one another in such a distant fashion as to confuse those who have seen the first part, and provide little reason to care for her appearance if you've only seen the second.

Of course, narrative considerations like that were still thrown out the window in action serials of the time.  So long as there is the slightest thread one character might connect to the next I suppose there's no reason to keep her locked in a closet.  But even her teleportation into the climax of Part 1 felt more natural then the sudden monologue about her dead father.

It's the superhero set-up and the unnecessary grim and gritty reboot all on two discs.

If that highlights Part 2's issues on a narrative level, the dojo showdown of the karate masters and Sanshiro is a stylistic one.  We've both gone on at length about the drab and sluggish visuals, which carry over into the set design, but even on the level of character placement I'm a bit confused as to what Kurosawa was going for.

At the height of their stare down, the two brothers are staring at Sanshiro while Sanshiro stares down the wily haired younger brother.  But a closer inspection of the way everyone is positioned shows that no one is really looking at anyone.  Sanshiro's face and eyes are clearly looking beyond the wily haired younger brother, younger brother seems to be eyeballing the exit, and older brother is keenly interested in whatever footwear is adorning the sides of the walls.  It could have been a tense moment, or at least passed as trying to be one, if it seemed anyone was actually in danger of threatening one of the other two.

Those are my final two gripes.  At least the one's we haven't already gone on at length about.  I'm used to these kinds of disappointments from directors I admire and it's hard to fault Kurosawa too much given the historical trappings he was forced to contend with.  But at least previously he made something of minor interest and some entertainment, here it seems he didn't have the strength to kill himself so he let's the movie do the emotional talking.  It's not much of an upgrade.

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Next week: The chance for less depression as we tread on tiger tail's.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Not to split hairs but this film was released before the Occupation while Japan was still fighting. It was part of a last ditch effort to raise fighting spirit in a country that was being decimated on a daily basis. So, Sugata 2 was released in May, 1945 and the Occupation began in September of that year. Once the Occupation began, the American forces forbade any sort of historical fighting involving Samurai, swords, etc. and hinting at Japanese superiority on the battle field. I believe this film too was suppressed by American sensors. Of course, that restriction was lifted a few years later, which is how we got Seven Samurai.

    • This is Andrew writing at the moment. Thank you for the insight, and I’ve become far more critical of USA imperialism (especially the foundation lay during World War 2) plus the restrictions they placed on Japan during the Occupation. I may revisit Kurosawa’s films with my this perspective in mind.

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