In the 1950s, the country at the pinnacle of world cinema in both style and content was Japan. There were the low ‘tatami’ shots and humanism of Yasujirō Ozu, as seen in Tokyo Story (1954). There were the panoramic wide shots and female characters of Kenji Mizoguchi, in films such as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). And there was Gojira (Ishirō Honda, 1954), the king of the monster movies.
But the biggest name during this Golden Age of Japanese cinema – to Western eyes anyway – was Akira Kurosawa. To some detractors, he achieved this podium by offering a non-existent, romanticised version of Japan – one dominated by samurais and yakuza, shot in a manner inspired by the Hollywood westerns of John Ford. In this way, he could be seen as a Japanese equivalent to the British period drama: a Downton Abbey, pimping out British culture to be sold to an American audience.
The above can correctly be dismissed as bollocks (although I won’t comment on Downton Abbey). Kurosawa’s films are some of the most entertaining ever produced. That they involve ‘stereotypical’ elements of Japanese culture – if that is indeed a criticism – is secondary to the sheer enjoyment and satisfaction they invoke.
The Golden Age of Japanese cinema is often deemed to have begun with the release of Rashōmon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. However, Japan had produced great films in the decades before. And the fact that Western audiences had largely ignored them until Rashōmon, should not lead to these films being glossed over.
It was in this light that I ventured back to Kurosawa’s debut film from 1943, Sanshiro Sugata (or alternatively ‘Judo Saga’, giving away some indication of the plot). It is immediately clear then, that even in his first film Kurosawa is appropriating elements of Japanese culture for entertainment – a form of ‘Judo-xploitation’.
Or perhaps it is just a film about a judo warrior, and a celebration of that culture. Kurosawa was not the name he is now – this was certainly not a film made for the purpose of entertainment of Western audiences.
The plot follows the eponymous Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita), a new Judo warrior who becomes known for his great strength. He causes great harm to the old-fashioned Jujitsu fighters he faces. Children in the street sing songs about his power. Through the film, however, he must learn that it is not just his strength that is the key to being a great fighter, but his mental endurance.
The film is evidently about trying to squeeze in as many fight scenes as possible. In one early scene by a waterfront, we see a warrior fighting off several individuals who in turn get thrown into the water (they fight one-at-a-time of course because they didn’t want to make it too difficult for him). In many scenes, pairs of fighters in a judo ring appear like dancers together crossing a ballroom floor.
Kurosawa’s ability as a director is key to the film. Even in his first directorial scene, Kurosawa tries an inventive shot with the camera moving slowly down a road, perfectly setting up the world of the film, and the people who inhabit it. Later he experiments with montage, following a lone shoe on the ground, with time and seasons passing around it.
At the end, a fight to the death is arranged in a cornfield. We see dark figures on the distant horizon, about to discover their fate. The scene has a strong Bergman-esque feel to it, so much so we expect Death to wander in from The Seventh Seal. As they fight, the warriors fall below the wheat level, and we only see the occasional limb flailing. It is both thrilling, and visually stunning.
However, despite the film’s inventiveness and look, it lacks the spark of Kurosawa’s best works. Susumu Fujita is very good, but compared to say, Toshiro Mifune, he lacks the same charisma (and scary eyes). Some of the spiritual elements are guff. The romance should be dropped completely. The coherence of the plot is, well, dubious.
What remains unknown is how many of these issues would have been solved by an uncut version. The Japanese wartime government made the decision to remove “1,845 feet of footage”. That footage is now lost. Perhaps supporting characters roles would have made more sense in the original version. Or perhaps not. We’ll never know.
A sequel was released two years later – Kurosawa’s third film. It continues the story of Sanshiro, this time focusing on the temptations that distract him from his quest to becoming a judo master.
The sequel is slower-paced and more contemplative than the original, with fewer fight sequences and more of an emphasis on the nature of fighting itself. The camera is stiller; shots held for longer.
This is not to say that Kurosawa has lost his eye for a cinematic fight. He ends with a one-on-one fight-to-the-death on a snow-topped mountain. (The audience may ask if there wasn’t a more suitable, easier-to-reach venue.)
It is possible to read wartime allegories into the films. Traditional Jujitsu is being wiped out by a new form of warfare – Judo. This becomes especially true in the sequel, where – verging on pro-Japanese war-time propaganda – the American sport of boxing has spread to Japan and is corrupting traditional culture. Judo and Jujitsu are about inner power and self-worth, a continuation of past values for their own sake; Boxing is about providing entertainment to a public, and being paid for it.
Many of the elements which would go onto be definitive Kurosawa are already evident in this pair of films from the beginning of his career. Each of them has detriments though. He was certainly still a director-in-training. But there is also no doubt that even this early in his career, he was able to produce moments of ‘cinema’ greater than some directors achieve in their careers.