Kurosawa’s first film in the director’s chair is based on the novel of the same name by Tsuneo Tomita. It follows the story of Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a stubborn and strong-willed youth as he becomes a master of the martial arts. By a chance encounter he witnesses a powerful judo master defend himself from a group of thugs and, deeply impressed, takes the man as his teacher. Sanshiro, through a series of trials, learns the meaning of his art as he is transformed from a brute to a gentle soul.
There is much to admire about this film. It is no typical chambara. Though ostensibly a story of fighting the theme is a universally human one: the metaphysical search for identity and the act of becoming, or in a word: education. This is evident from the prologue, comprised of three sequences. We see the earnest Sanshiro approaching a group of children who are singing:
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Where does this path lead?
It leads to the shrine of the heavenly gods.
May I get past?
No, those without right may not pass.”[/pullquote]
Sanshiro responds that he has the right, stating that he is looking for a jujitsu teacher. The chorus responds: “It is easy to go but hard to return.” The suggestion here is extremely subtle and quickly forgotten. One only understands afterward what Kurosawa has accomplished here so briefly, that is suggesting one possible theme: the path to knowledge is a difficult one and knowledge itself, once acquired, creates further difficulties. Thus much of the film centres upon Sanshiro grappling with himself (his humanity) in the face of his newly acquired athletic abilities.
Clearly he is here to learn, but innocently (like the young samurai of Sanjuro) he judges by appearance and chooses the wrong teacher. The master of the school is away so Sanshiro joins his pupils drinking sake and discussing something called ‘judo’. Yano, a local judo practitioner, is creating trouble for these students of jujitsu because his new discipline is popular and, besides recently teaching jujitsu to the police force, like many devoted to the artform they want to make names for themselves. Sanshiro asks innocently, “what is judo?”. This is met with laughter but they have no more idea of what judo is than he. They call it a “hoax” and intend to attack Yano this very night. Upon hearing that he approaches by rickshaw one of the men says to Sanshiro, “come along.. you may learn a thing or two.” And indeed he does. Yano is attacked by these several students and one by one he tosses them into the sea behind him (the showdown takes place on the waterfront). With each opponent Yano uses a different technique, so the education of Sanshiro begins immediately. His foes thoroughly humiliated, Yano calls on the rickshaw driver but he has scurried off. Sanshiro eagerly offers to drive him but before they can depart he must decide what to do with his geta1. He cannot wear them and there is no room for them in the rickshaw so he tosses them to the ground and takes off.
The segue between this scene and the next is very clever and already we are seeing what Kurosawa is capable of as director and editor. Through a series of dissolves (about 5 seconds each) we see the discarded geta in the rain, carried off by a dog, hanging from a post (perhaps hung there by a child) in the falling snow, and finally floating downstream. The significance of the geta is questionable, though we will see them again so they serve at least as presage, but the effect of the dissolve is clear: we have witnessed the passage of time. Each segment is a little longer than the one before with the final one (geta floating downstream) being the longest, suggesting urgency and a return to the present. The camera pans up from the river, making the scene transition seamless, to Sanshiro running through busy streets at night taking on all comers. He moves frantically from one man to the next, effortlessly tossing, slashing or pinning each in turn. We do not know precisely how much time has passed, but clearly he has learned much and grown very strong.
Next we see him before Yano with shirt sleeve torn, guilt consuming him. The master expresses that he would have liked to see him in action, then berates Sanshiro for being reckless. “Your judo and my judo are worlds apart,” he says. “Teaching judo to a man like you is like giving a knife to a lunatic.” Sanshiro has mastered many techniques, in a sense he has mastered jujitsu, but he knows nothing of judo. Sensei tells him that he must be gentle and resolved in mind and spirit and only then can he face death. Sanshiro, defiantly, states “I am ready to die if you command it!” He repeats this and then approaches the open window and leaps in to the pond below.
What follows is the most affecting and crucial scene in the film. The entire narrative, in fact, revolves around it. It is one you won’t find in Tomita’s novel for Kurosawa wrote it himself. Upon landing in the water Sanshiro swims to a wooden post jutting a few feet above the surface and clings to it. Here he remains for many hours. Like a child he is innocent. He knows not why he stays there. He could easily swim to the edge and climb the bank, yet he clings to the post in the cold waters throughout the night, risking death and waiting like a dog for his master’s command. As daylight breaks, signaled by the crowing cock, Sanshiro notices before him a lotus flower. He is struck by it, by its beauty to be sure but also by its purity. It is illuminated just as Sanshiro’s face is overcome with some powerful idea. He leaps from the pond with resolve and begs his master’s forgiveness. From here on he is a new man; he has resolved to be as pure and gentle as the flower.
Unfortunately, this film, subject to the duress of the imperial authority, was severely cut and a large portion of it has been forever lost2. Based on what remains of it the evidence of Kurosawa’s budding talent is abundant. He is known for his use of slow-motion in Seven Samurai, but it is also used here a decade earlier. We see it in a sequence of shots masterfully cut together. A jujitsu match. Sanshiro lifts a man over his shoulder, throwing him several feet across the room, but we do not see the flight. Instead Kurosawa cuts to reactions from the crowd, returning to the victim as he hits the floor, a wall-hanging jolted from its place falling to the ground in slow-motion. Many of Kurosawa’s soon-to-be wonted techniques are used here with surprising sophistication: wipes, dissolves, circular storytelling. Through these emerge a story of youth, of becoming—coupled with an eloquent athletic sensibility. It’s as if Kurosawa had previous experience filming the martial arts for he presents it as just that: art.
We have also a first glimpse at his eventual mastery of perceptive and moral ambiguities. The apparent antagonist is never denoted as ‘bad’ but the implication is there. His sophisticated (Western) dress and mannerisms and his fully-formed athletic prowess so contrasted with the hero it connotes something like admiration for Sanshiro. In other words, he has, some time ago, stopped learning and now clearly thinks himself complete whereas Sanshiro is continually learning and continually skeptical of himself. Though the analogy is far from neat, one way of interpreting Sugata Sanshirō is metaphor of Japan itself. This film was made in 1943 and, though defeat was far from certain at this point, it was clear to all then that the empire of Japan was in its final throes. Like the young jujitsu practitioners wary of this new art called judo, Japan was clinging to the feudal system and resisting a new, emerging order—a losing battle. By film’s end Sanshiro the hero has embraced this new order, yet maintained his humanity and his dignity in spite of it.