Kurosawa Watch: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

SANSHIRO SUGATA is Akira Kurosawa’s debut film as director, first shown in 1943. He also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Tsuneo Tomita.

The story is set in the late 1800s and follows a young man (Sanshiro Sugata, played by Susumu Fujita) seeking to find a martial arts teacher. He arrives in town to study jujitsu, but after witnessing an altercation between a jiujitsu master and his students and a single judo master, Yano, he asks to study with Yano.

The primary conflict in the film is Sugata against his own lack of self control and his reliance on strength rather than training. He has to learn to control himself in order to master martial arts and become Yano’s leading student. After Yano’s expels him for fighting in the street, Sugata plunges himself into a cold lake overnight, and in the morning the sun’s light falls upon a blooming lotus flower as a symbol of his ability to master himself.

There are two intertwined secondary conflicts. The town’s police department wants to hire one of the local martial arts schools to train its officers. Matches are set up to determine which school is best. In one match Sugata so overpoweringly throws his opponent (the unsympathetic jujitsu master seen in the opening sequence) that the fall kills the other man.

The final match will pit Sugata against the respected master Murai. This match gains additional tension when Sugata meets Murai’s daughter Sayo because one of her geta (wooden shoes) breaks on a steep stairway leading up to the temple where she prays regularly. A series of short scenes makes it clear the two are attracted to each other (although never that crudely stated) even if Sugata doesn’t quite know how to understand or express such a feeling. By the way, Sayo is a lovely character. Yukiko Todoroki is wonderful in the role. Her charisma lights the screen in what is a fairly small role in terms of screen time. She got her start in show business in the Takarazuka Revue.

As the match between Sugata and Murai begins, the viewer knows how strong Sugata is, and doesn’t want him to harm Murai. At the same time, Sugata has to win in order to gain the police training contract for his master. In the end Murai is thrown three times before he concedes, and afterward Sugata goes to his home to make sure he is recovering.

As this secondary plot line unfolds a mysterious man arrives to challenge Yano’s students, specifically Sugata. This man, Higaki, is also clearly interested in Sayo Murai. After Sugata’s victory, Higaki makes a final demand for a match to the death.

This match plays out in a wind-torn field of tall grass in a striking and dramatic manner that to my mind absolutely presages the rest of Kurosawa’s career and how he uses nature as a way of understanding human emotion and conflict and the human presence in the natural world. It’s a phenomenal scene, filled with energy and foreboding.


What we can now watch is not the entire film Kurosawa made. Wartime censors cut out 17 minutes, which have never been recovered although the full script is extant. I don’t know what precisely was removed but there were certainly some leaps between scenes where it felt as if interactions were missing, perhaps particularly with Sayo’s plot line. Someone who has read the script would have a better idea.

Some of the lighting feels murky but, again, I don’t know enough about film history to know if this reflects the techniques of the time or the physical aging process of film itself.

Besides the amazing final duel in the windswept field, two other things struck me about this film.

One of the things I love about Kurosawa is how he composes people within the frame of the screen. This is already apparent in this film. People are never haphazardly placed. Empty space isn’t just there, or filled with random background sets. The camera might dwell for 3 seconds on four men on the screen, three seated and one standing, and how they are arranged is art. Seeing this aspect of his work so clearly in his first film was kind of amazing to me.

Kurosawa is might well be best known in the West for his long collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune. But I could not help but notice that while Mifune is not in this film (and could not have been since he was, I believe in the Japanese army stationed in Manchuria during the war), another longtime Kurosawa actor is: Takashi Shimura. So I checked, and indeed Shimura appeared in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films, which makes him the actor Kurosawa worked with most. I was delighted to see him here. He had a long and distinguished career in film from 1934 to 1981. His Wikipedia entry says that during the war he was arrested and held for three weeks due to his prior involvement with left-wing theater groups.

Next up: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL (1944).

Again, I’m using The Criterion Channel to view these early films (subscription required). I’ll write up a post in about two weeks (circa January 24).

4 thoughts on “Kurosawa Watch: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

  1. I’m so excited for this project and its reviews. I look forward to more. Criterion is not available where I live but I do still have a US credit card so if I can remember to get myself sorted and fire up the VPN maybe I can even watch along for a few.

    Also, this plot sounds so familiar to me but I have not seen this movie. Do you know, is it a stock martial arts plot at this point and so probably I’ve seen it in other films?

  2. I don’t know enough about the history of Japanese film to know if Kurosawa was here playing with an already stock plot line, or if he was part of the creation of that plot line. He wrote the script from a piece of fiction written by someone else. I also wonder if the villain of the piece, who features in a way that isn’t wholly “organic” to the plot (he just shows up out of nowhere with his exaggerated Western clothing and an obsessive need to fight which isn’t prefigured or explained in any way), is more due to Kurosawa or the story. I just don’t know.

  3. It is a bit weird to watch this and the next few films knowing they were being made during wartime.

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