Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Walking Kurosawa's Road: Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

The inability to write about the films of Akira Kurosawa to my satisfaction led me to to take a different path: start at the beginning, take each film in sequence, one after the other, and watch the progression of the man from film-maker to Master. I'm hoping I can write more intelligently and more knowledgeably about his work by, step by step, Walking Kurosawa's Road.

Sanshiro Sugata (aka: 姿三四郎; aka Judo Saga) (Akira Kurosawa, 1943) Every hero's journey begins with the first step; it is true in this film's story and in reel life, this being the first full-length feature of legendary film director and stylist Akira Kurosawa. One already sees reflections and echoes of the Master's work and influence rippling out from this one, even as it, itself, builds on the reverberations of Western film-making traditions.

Made during the Second World War and heavily cut by the Japanese government for sentiments that some petty bureaucrat probably imagined might hurt the war effort, Kurosawa's first big effort and first success has never recovered from the sword of the censor—the missing pieces have never been found. 

But, what there is proves enlightening...and telling.

It is a hero's journey. Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is a novice fighter who wants to learn jujitsu, but is given short shrift by the school of martial artists he joins.  When they hear a master of the rival judo order is in town, the entire group decides to confront the man, Shogoro Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). In a fight at a canal's edge, Yano takes on all comers, dispatching them into the frigid water—the first of many examples of the "last man standing" scenes that would dominate Kurosawa's film and his students, Sergio Leone (and also Clint Eastwood). Those impressive results are all Sugata needs to switch disciplines, studying the ways of judo with Yano.
But, what the apprentice gains in skill he lacks in discipline, squandering his unfocused talents getting into sporadic street-fights that disappoint his Master.  In a desperate bid to win Yano's respect, Sugata dives into the freezing waters at the judo temple, risking his life, but also gaining an understanding of "satori," represented by the sight of a single blooming flower, growing straight and tall in the frigid waters. The strength of Nature is revealed to him, and the apprentice has found the inner truth to master his craft. 

At that point, Sugata becomes renowned as the toughest fighter in town to beat, and he is challenged by jujitsu fighters determined to best him. One can't help seeing the "gunslinger" analogy here, as the new guns and old challenge the now-humble, wiser Sugata to matches of skill to the death, like he was the "fastest draw." Just as, no doubt, Kurosawa drew on Westerns for his martial arts saga, his work would come full-circle, inspiring Westernized versions of his work—specifically, The Magnificent 7 and A Fistful of Dollars.

It's an analogy to life itself—you make your way through it, and you may have what it takes, but it is only by knowing oneself and seeing the Bigger Picture that one can truly make a success of life.  Already, Kurosawa is tackling big themes.  But, you can already see his command of staging with Nature acting as an emotional well-storm, culminating in a passionate fight between two rivals for one woman's hand, on a wind-swept hill of violently whipping tall grass.
I have so many Kurosawa film reviews sitting in various drafts, never feeling secure in my grasp of his work, so I've decided I'm going to start at the beginning and work my way through his career. In the next few weeks, you'll be seeing more and more of his films cropping up here, a result of my own faltering tentative journey observing his remarkable work. Hopefully, somewhere along the path, focusing on his work, I can achieve some wisdom about it.

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