To watch Sanshiro Sugata, one of the most accomplished directorial debuts in film history, is to marvel at the emergence of a film artist whose aesthetic sensibility is fully formed from the first reel. All of the techniques that distinguish Akira Kurosawa’s best films—his elaborate tracking shots, his wipes and axial cutting, his externalization of human emotion in wind and rain—are all there, in this subtle tone poem of a film about the expression and containment of violence through judo. If anything, his technique seems even more refined in Sanshiro Sugata than in some of his later, more overcooked samurai epics.
Take, for instance, the extended sequence in which Kurosawa tracks the developing relationship between young hotshot judo expert Sanshiro Sugata (exquisitely underplayed by Susumu Fujita) and the beautiful Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), daughter of a rival jujitsu master, on the steps leading up to a temple. The sequence starts with their first meeting, when both are walking down the stairs, separately, but meet when Sanshiro helps repair Sayo’s broken sandal. Kurosawa cuts to the next day when Sayo walks up the stairs and meets Sanshiro walking down. She tries to return his handkerchief to him. He refuses to say where he lives, afraid of revealing that he’s the champion who’s about to face her father in a tournament. A vertical wipe cuts to their next meeting with Sayo walking down and Sanshiro climbing up. Another awkward encounter, with Sanshiro quickly scurrying off. Finally, on their fourth meeting on these stairs, he reveals that he’s the judo master about ready to face her father in a possible fight to the death. The sequence calls to mind the breakfast-table history of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage in Citizen Kane or the evolution of Madame de’s affair to the Baron as depicted through a succession of waltzes in The Earrings of Madame de… Unlike female characters in Kurosawa’s later, more famous films, Sayo doesn’t become either a screaming harpy or a pitiable victim. For that matter, Sanshiro himself has enough of a feminine side to relate to her beyond macho posturing.
Sanshiro Sugata is the prototype for all future martial arts films, particularly those that imagine the development of martial skill as a coming-of-age story. The Karate Kid, in both its incarnations, follows the same template. Certainly when Sanshiro faces his nemesis Gennosuke Higaki (Ryonosuke Tsukigata) in a battle during a windstorm in which Kurosawa captures the chaos of nature as effectively as in any of his films, we’re rooting for Sanshiro to win. But we also don’t want him to succumb to the fury of bloodlust that characterizes his enemy. After all, the acquisition of physical and martial skill must be accompanied by a new emotional maturity. This may be what makes Sanshiro Sugata a more soulful film than the nihilistic Yojimbo, with its unrestrained bursts of comical violence.
Kurosawa was 32 when he made his first film. Though it may seem as complete a project as Athena emerging fully formed from Zeus’s skull, Sanshiro Sugata was also the culmination of a seven-year apprenticeship with Photo Chemical Laboratories (later Toho), during which he worked as an assistant director and screenwriter. Having initially wanted to pursue a career as a painter, Kurosawa submitted an essay to the P.C.L. studio in 1935 in which he addressed the question “What can be done to correct the fundamental deficiencies of Japanese films?” His mocking solution was that if these problems were fundamental, they couldn’t be solved at all. It’s a revealing answer because it showed the playful side that would pop up in many of his future films, but it also demonstrated his unwillingness to scrap convention and start from scratch. Instead, Kurosawa, following the model of a classical artist, would always operate within conventional forms, much to the chagrin of later Japanese New Wave directors, like Nagisa Oshima, who would dismiss Kurosawa’s style as overly staid. But who is greater? The inventor of a new form, or the master of the classical form?
Kurosawa found a mentor in director Kajiro Yamamoto, so it’s easy to see how he could identify with Sanshiro’s need for mature guidance from an elder. When Toho asked him for a sequel, he agreed to direct. However, in the meantime, he was to take on a wartime propaganda film, The Most Beautiful. The propaganda form, in The Most Beautiful and the film he made at the behest of the Allied occupation force, No Regrets for Our Youth, at once limited what Kurosawa could express, but challenged him to find a new language for expression. (Interestingly enough, both films comprise the only times he ever centered a narrative around a female protagonist.) The first 15 minutes of The Most Beautiful are crammed with obligatory anti-American, pro-militarism rhetoric. But after that, the film becomes much more complicated. A study of a group of women working in a factory that produces military lenses for bombsights, the film shows challenge after challenge that the women have to endure, some incredibly painful. In The Most Beautiful, patriotic sacrifice is no easy thing. Tsuru (Yoko Yaguchi, who Kurosawa would marry), in many ways the heart of the film, is torn between her obligations to her family and to her country. Her mother is on her deathbed, but rather than express her filial devotion, she chooses to stay and work in the factory. The final shot of the film, lasting almost 90 seconds, is a close-up of her face as she wipes away tears while trying to do her job—not quite simple-minded patriotic fervor. Kurosawa claimed that when he made The Most Beautiful he knew the war was lost, and his depiction of devotion in the face of certain defeat is undeniably poignant. What a shame that Kurosawa so rarely included female protagonists in his films, because The Most Beautiful and No Regrets for Our Youth, starring Setsuko Hara, rank high among his best work.
His Sanshiro Sugata Part II also incorporates an element of propaganda. His first judo epic had been reviled by the censors for being too Western, even though its villain wore a Western business suit to separate himself from the more spiritual dimension of Japanese martial arts. In Sanshiro Sugata Part II, Sanshiro comes to the aid of defenseless Japanese who are being beaten up by a drunken American sailor. He later must take part in an exhibition where he pits his judo against an American boxer—and of course, his inevitable victory is taken as a sign of Japanese physical, moral, and spiritual superiority. But again, Kurosawa does not portray his society as being monolithically patriotic. Sanshiro must later fight the insane brothers of the first film’s villain, Gennosuke Higaki. Their battle takes place on a snow-covered hillside and matches the natural beauty of the first film’s windstorm finale. In his years apprenticing at P.C.L., Kurosawa had become exposed to the films of John Ford, many of which played in Japan, before the foreign-film embargo that accompanied Japan’s declaration of war on the United States in 1941. Like Ford, Kurosawa would emphasize the place of landscape in his films, often pairing his characters’ emotional turmoil with the Elements. The rain in One Wonderful Sunday, Rashomon, or Seven Samurai, the beating sun in Stray Dog, the sinkhole in Drunken Angel, the snowfall in The Idiot, the wind in Dersu Uzala, and the crashing waves of Kagemusha would express some emotional anguish of the characters and, as a kind of cinematic synecdoche, society as a whole.
If Kurosawa’s first three films highlight elements that would remain important aesthetic motifs in his later masterpieces, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tale identifies what would be Kurosawa’s greatest shortcoming—his emphasis on expository dialogue. That a visual artist like Kurosawa could also be a dialogue-heavy literalist is an unexplainable paradox. Tiger’s Tale, his first of many jidai-geki period films, based on a Japanese legend about a feudal lord traveling with his entourage through enemy territory, is rooted in the Noh and kabuki theatrical traditions. It plays out as a one-act play, over the course of just one scene, in which the lord’s adjutant charms his way past an enemy checkpoint. Shunning realism, Noh and kabuki rely on characters that serve more as symbols than three-dimensional human beings. This is a didactic theater, morality plays that illustrate a particular lesson, rather than seeking to illuminate the human experience. Kurosawa’s embrace of these theatrical traditions intersected with his background as a painter, and his later Noh epics, Kagemusha and Ran, would possess a startling two-dimensionality, with backgrounds appearing as little more than painted backdrops. It doesn’t make for compelling cinema, but Kurosawa’s embrace of this tradition certainly dispels the idea that his films are too Western—the criticism first lodged against him by the fascist government’s censors, which, oddly enough, has been embraced by his detractors in the West. Unfortunately, it’s a style that could also devolve to a sitcom-level tediousness in The Lower Depths and I Live in Fear!, in which, as in live-audience TV, even dialogue scenes were shot with multiple cameras rolling at once.
None of these films quite reach the heights of Kurosawa’s greatest achievements (No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Red Beard), but they offer a fascinating blueprint of both the evolution of the artist and the continuity of his style, windswept landscapes and all.
This isn't the first time these films have appeared on DVD. Criterion already released these as part of their AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa set to commemorate the centennial of the director's birth. The image quality is consistently strong throughout, though these films don't display enough contrast between light and dark to really test the digital transfer. Still, different grades of shadow appear distinct enough that one can't even imagine a perfectionist like Kurosawa having much to quibble about here. There's very little grain or dirt, except for a few moments in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tale. One wishes that a more extensive restoration had been inaugurated for Sanshiro Sugata to try to reconstruct the 17 minutes, presumed lost, that wartime censors cut from the film, and are represented now only be intertitles, but budget restraints undoubtedly limited such a project. The monaural soundtracks of these films are disappointing. If these films were in English without subtitles, you probably would not be able to understand much of what these characters are saying. Even what could have been a great soundscape during the windstorm battle at the end of Sanshiro Sugata sounds overly muted.
Unfortunately, this being an Eclipse release, the set lacks any special features except for liner notes by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince (author of The Warrior's Camera, a definitive Kurosawa study).
These films offer a blueprint to the evolution of Kurosawa as an artist and the continuity of his style, windswept landscapes and all.