Donald Richie notes that this film is “what the original Sugata might have been had an ordinary director done it”1. It is very much a commercial endeavor, arguably more so than his other wartime films. From the very beginning we see Sanshiro defending a boy from a brutish American sailor, which is clearly a directive of the imperial authorities and something not lost on its audience of the time. And rather than a film of identity, of education and becoming, this is one of triumphalism. Sanshiro is very much a conventional hero here, by film’s end vindicating the power of the Japanese martial arts over and above that of the West by defeating an American boxer.
The Buddhist symbolism, the interplay of truth and illusion and the allegory of the first film have all been stripped away. Kurosawa replicated many scenes from the first film and while some are interesting and cleverly shot (particularly the nightlong meditation and the boxing bout), all are seemingly meaningless. Clearly the problems with this film are borne of Kurosawa’s lack of interest in it. Unlike most of his other work this film has no guiding vision. It’s merely a pale rehashing of the first, injected with a strong dose of wartime propaganda. Seeing it truly reinforces the preeminence of the first film, for it’s even more striking that it managed to sidestep most of the cliches to which the second succumbs.
This sequel to Kurosawa’ debut film is, categorically, the worst of his long career. It shares the same cast as the first and is a continuation of Sanshiro’s life, but it is thematically quite different. Kurosawa was not interested in making this film, and precisely why he did direct it is not clear, though we can assume that the authorities, pleased with the first one, “encouraged” him to do so. However, it could be instructive as its deficiencies may clarify the eminence of the original. That is not to say that it is completely worthless. Indeed, it does have its moments and I think the further development of Higaki’s character, the antagonist of the first, is particularly interesting.
Like Kurosawa’s previous film, The Most Beautiful, one can discern a critique of the powers that impelled him to direct it, though you have to squint. Many scenes in this film are like satiric reproductions of the first, not that the first film wasn’t a propaganda film; the opening fight for instance seems like it was shot and edited in an intentionally uninteresting way, as if the director wants to convey how unexciting his character has become by showing how unexciting he is to watch.
1 From “The Films of Akira Kurosawa” by Donald Richie.