During World War II, one of the greatest filmmakers emerged with a tale about a martial artist who attempts to find his inner self while trying to make his art the premiere art of his country. That filmmaker’s name is Akira Kurosawa and his directorial debut, despite wartime censors cutting the film at the time, is a true classic tale revolving around the martial art of judo.
The film opens in 1882 Tokyo. A young man named Sanshiro Sugata arrives to learn the martial art of jujitsu. At that time, jujitsu is hailed as the premiere martial art of Japan, with the police force even training in the art. Sugata arrives at a dojo only to learn that the sensei there is planning to challenge an expert of judo. That night, judoka Shogoro Yano is challenged by the jujitsu sensei and his students with the exception of Sugata. When Sugata sees Yano’s judo skills, he offers to take him home and eventually becomes Yano’s student.
However, still a young man, Sugata struggles to learn the balance between strength and control through satori, the acceptance of Nature’s law. When Yano learns he has challenged another in combat just to show his good judo is, Yano threatens to expel Sugata. Sugata, in return, punishes himself from wading in the cold pond by the dojo. This is quite an interesting scene, as it would pave the way for perhaps particular training or pre-training sequences in later martial arts films. One example of this brand of self-punishment could be the future San-Te’s wait in front of the Shaolin Temple in the 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
Sugata would eventually be brought back in the dojo but is now allowed to compete. This is evident when he accepts a challenge from jujitsu master Gennosuke Higaki. When Sugata is eventually allowed to compete again, he accepts a challenge from aging jujitsu master Hansuke Murai. When Sugata defeats Murai, he earns the respect of the elder master and even love comes Sugata’s way in the form of Murai’s daughter Sayo. Sugata’s eventual goal is to honor his master by having the police learn the art of judo and learn the true meaning of satori. However, as he progresses from a stubborn youth to a growing man, Higaki returns to finally have his match with Sugata.
The Japanese martial art of judo is one that has been seen in many films over the years. In Hollywood, James Cagney used the art to good effect in Blood on the Sun. In 2004, Hong Kong director Johnnie To utilized this art for his action drama Throw Down. This film, shot during World War II, is perhaps one of the first films to highlight judo as its main martial art style. The fact that legendary director Akira Kurosawa made this film, also known as Judo Saga, as his directorial debut makes it more intricate as some of Kurosawa’s trademarks would be evident in the film.
Based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, the film was originally 97 minutes long upon its initial release in Japan. However, censors during the war cut the film down to 79 minutes. When the film was re-released in 1950 by Toho, the film opens with an apologetic letter from the film company stating that the cut material was no longer available and since then, the 79-minute version is the one available worldwide.
Perhaps the reason for the cutting is that at a time where propaganda material was the name of the game, Kurosawa went against the odds and created a film that contained no propaganda material for Japan whatsoever and felt the film was too much in the style of the Allied Forces at the time. It is a straightforward story about a man’s quest to accept nature and find the balance between strength and control through the martial art of judo.
In the titular role of the young judoka is Susumu Fujita, a veteran actor of Toho Studios would work with Kurosawa again on a sequel to this very film, Sanshiro Sugata Part II as well as The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and High and Low along with others. Fujita plays the titular character very well, going from a misguided youth to a man who has discovered not only the true meaning of judo. He also has found himself in the process. Under the supervision of judokas Keishichi Ishiguro and Kinnosuke Sato, Fujita and the other cast members involved in the fight sequences really did well performing their own moves.
One of the most talked about scenes of this very film is the long awaited challenge between Sugata and jujitsu expert Higaki, played well by Ryûnosuke Tsukigata. The scene takes place on a windswept mountaintop. The tension that poses within this film would later exist in many other martial arts films, notably that of the late Chang Cheh, who has admitted to having been influenced by Kurosawa at one point. It is also more evident that while Sugata earns respect from fellow jujitsu masters throughout the course of the film, it is Higaki who truly stands out. Perhaps Higaki’s lack of respect comes from the fact that he had challenged Sugata only to learn that the judoka was not allowed to compete at the time.
After Kurosawa’s films revolving around the titular character, Japan have offered many film adaptations of the novel. Kurosawa wrote the screenplay for a 1955 version of the film directed by Shigeo Tanaka. A 1965 film version starring Yuzo Kayama was released. Director Kunio Watanabe helmed and wrote a 1970 version that starred Muga Takewaki as Sugata. Tomokazu Miura played Sugata in a 1977 remake co-written and directed by Kihachi Okamoto. The most recent version was released on Japanese television in 2007. Shigeaki Kato played Sugata.
Nevertheless, if you are in the mood for a story of self-perseverance, redemption, honor, and finding one’s self through martial arts, Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata has all of that. The finale is truly exciting to watch in terms of its visual factor and Susumu Fujita’s performance really drives the film as a whole, even if it is cut by nearly 20 minutes.
WFG RATING: A+
A Toho Co. Ltd. Production. Director: Akira Kurosawa. Producer: Keiji Matsuzaki. Writer: Akira Kurosawa; based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Cinematography: Akira Mimura. Editing: Toshio Goto and Akira Kurosawa.
Cast: Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita, Yukiko Todoroki, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, Takashi Shimura, Ranko Hanai, Sugisaku Aoyama, Ichirô Sugai, Yoshio Kosugi, Kokuten Kôdô