Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa


“Laugh at us, we’re young and stupid… it’s our fate,” says our protagonist, Sanshiro Sugata before a climactic yet completely unnecessary fight to the death, thus completing his spiritual character journey.  In the beginning of Sanshiro Sugata, the titular character is a stubborn, reckless and ambitious judo fighter.  He takes care of a group of attackers and will take on the whole village if it came to that.  By the end he becomes a reluctant fighter, finally understanding the value of honor.

I hope I’m not stereotyping here, but a lot of old Japanese films deal with young characters learning lessons (about such things as honor), and they are often caring for an ailing elder.  There is a great sense of duty and sacrifice as the young-ins learn what it means to grow up.  And growing up, in this case, means empathy.  The characters in these coming of age scenarios do not learn a big lesson about the world which will impact them as they go about their own lives (as in most American coming of age films), they just learn what it means to take care of the people who came before you.  There’s a sense that life goes on, generations follow each other, and you’re just another part of that movement.  In something like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, the young hero of the film learns a lesson about death and friendship which he carries with him as he grows up and becomes a successful novelist.  The story is about his personal growth and the way that benefits his own life, not the lives of those around him.

Early on Sugata is something like Rocky Balboa at the end of Rocky.  He’s already got all the strength and talent in the world.  In the first twenty-five minutes he finds a teacher who makes it very clear what he’s lacking, “honor.”  We then get a brief title card and move ahead in the story when Sugata is now imbued with that honor.  He’s still eager to fight, but he shows more self-control, even when a sinister-looking man challenges him to a fight and promises that they will meet again.

A series of fights (and victories) lead Sugata, the best fighter in the village, to a match with an older man.  Before the fight, Sugata witnesses a woman, Sayo, praying selflessly for her father’s well-being.  He admires and is attracted to her.  When he learns that Sayo is the daughter of the man he is to fight, he becomes loaded with second thoughts.  Try as he might, the villagers won’t let Sugata flee from the fight, and so he and the older man spar, and Sugata badly injures him.

Immediately Sugata rushes to his aid and even stays with the man and Sayo to help care for him.  Soon the sinister man from before, Higaki, returns to town and challenges Sugata to a fight to the death, seemingly over Sayo.  Sugata reluctantly agrees, and in a beautiful, dramatic scene they fight through the howling winds on a dark hillside.

This is where Sugata delivers the above line of dialogue before a battle that nearly kills him and does eventually kill his rival.

On the surface, Sugata experiences very little change.  This isn’t a story about an underdog fighter rising up the ranks, like in most boxing movies, because Sugata is already the best there is at the start.  All that changes is his outlook.  He’s eager to fight anyone that comes his way, and by the end he continues to do so.  It’s in a way his job, but he expresses regret for his actions.  The last two of his fights are both victories that leave a sour taste in his mouth.

In the end, Sugata boards a train with Sayo to his next assignment.  Though he’s a changed man, he will keep fighting because it’s what he does.  He feels honor in this role.

Sugata is really just like a modern day football player who realizes the damage he’s doing to himself but who can’t retire because he’s paid handsomely and has a family to support.  He continues giving out and taking the beating, but he does so reluctantly.  Sugata would be the perfect type of player, actually.  He’s physically adept, but he’s loyal to a fault (from my perspective), so people like Jerry Jones would have an easy time keeping him in line.

Sanshiro Sugata is the first film directed by famed director Akira Kurosawa.

“According to Japanese cinema scholar Donald Richie, the reason Kurosawa was allowed to direct the film was because he had had two film scripts printed, including one of which had won the education minister’s prize. However, his work was too far away from the government requirements for a wartime film. Tomita’s novel, on the other hand, was considered “safe”, dealing, as it did, with a Japanese subject such as the rivalry between judo and jujitsu, was a period piece, and was a popularist subject. Kurosawa deliberately went out to make a “movie-like movie”, as he knew he would not be able to insert any particularly didactic qualities in the film.”

I’m not yet too familiar with Kurosawa’s work, having only seen Seven Samurai too many years ago to remember past the broad strokes, so I can’t say much about how this film relates to his best ones both in style and in terms of theme.  From what I can tell it feels like a safe story, one he could tell well but one which wasn’t personal to him.  The story goes that there were around 17 minutes cut from this film to satisfy national censors which were never recovered.  Watching this on, there is a title that refers to all the footage which was lost from the original print, but the people who re-released this current cut (79 minutes long) felt it had enough of the spirit of the original to be seen.

The importance of this film likely has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the man who made it, as if we could only look into Sanshiro Sugata with the appropriate curiosity after seeing the best of Kurosawa’s subsequent films.

Up Next: Murder on the Orient Express (2017), Thumbsucker (2005), Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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