Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Walking Kurosawa's Road: Sanshiro Sugata, Part 2

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 Part 2 (Akira Kurosawa, 1945) Any director thinking that "they don't do sequels," should bear in mind that Kurosawa did one...with only his third feature film. Before embarking on his next project, the soon-to-be Japanese Master was pressed by his financiers to follow up his popular judo film with a continuation of the story, following the path of Sanshiro, now two years in self-imposed exile, having abandoned his position as Judo champion.

Things have changed, but he hasn't. The city he comes back to is now under occupation, and the disciplines that Sanshiro struggled so mightily to learn, seem to have little significance in this new atmosphere.

Returning home, his acclaim is widespread, but he's dissatisfied. A promoter tries to entice him into participating in a match with an American heavyweight champion for money, something that is both against the rules of Sanshiro's dojo and his own hard-fought-for beliefs. He attends, however, and is disgusted when the martial artist roped into the match is summarily pummeled before the crowd of blood-thirsty Americans and Japanese.

Things had changed for Japan, as well. Defeated in World War II, and occupied by the United States, the country that Kurosawa made the sequel in was far different from the one in which he'd made the original. And one can tell by the very first sequence that he bristled at it (despite the fact that the first film, made during the war, was chopped up by Japan's ministry, to the point where no original print exists). Imagine my shock when the first words heard in this film are in English.  They come from a belligerent American sailor hectoring, then threatening his rickshaw-driver—the abuse comes in a different language, but the opening is parallel to the situation in the first film, only now it's Sanshiro who comes to the aid of the driver, in the position (flat on his back) that he was in at the beginning of the first film, before his transformation.
He retreats to his Master's dojo, but sinks into a deep depression while, simultaneously, training that young rickshaw driver he'd earlier saved. His disciplines start to fall away, as he begins to drink, his fortunes falling as his young student's rises. The dojo provides no respite and relief—he is challenged to a fight by a tag-team of brothers, the Higaki's (also brothers to Gennosuki Higaki, the previous film's final combatant), one extremely aggressive and the other, deeply insane, to exact revenge on their fallen kin. He also reunites (discretely) with the woman who loves him, and with Gennosuki, who is now in ill health and seeks a reconciliation before he dies, a far cry from his brothers' path of vengeance.
The battles Sanshiro must fight—and avoids fighting—are much like the battles raging in his own mind. With his fame, and abilities still intact, he is caught in a dilemma of purpose—should he fight with the stakes becoming decreasingly honorable? And how long can he maintain his reputation while avoiding confrontation (and does he even want that reputation—with its incumbent honor—anymore, given how cheaply and shallow the value others impose on it are?). Is his reputation worth it in such a world? And will the matches with his own demons (represented by the brothers) keep him from maintaining his own "wa?" 

It's a universal problem negotiating the minefields, internal and external, that dot our lives. But, there's something else going on here, given the context and the environment in which Kurosawa made this film. This was his first post-war film after the Japanese surrender (Kurosawa paused in the filming of The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail in order to listen to Emperor Hirohito's "Gyokuon-hōsō") and for the nation this was a crushing, demoralizing defeat, especially given the fervor that the government had invested in its people.
How does a nation, especially one so steeped in tradition and pride, endure after such a concession? Kurosawa encapsulates the answer in the fighting brothers who have challenged Sanshiro, one incapacitated by an epileptic "spell," the other who fights the master on a hilltop—not of frantic wind-swept grass as the first film—but a precipice blasted by snow. After a long struggle, where Sanshiro is mostly passively defensive, the revenge seeking Higaki is defeated and sent tumbling down the hill. He is saved and tended to by Sanshiro, while under the baleful watch of the younger Higaki brother, who in a moment of clarity, understands Sanshiro's purpose and responds to his brother's lament with the same words...and a beaming smile.
The influence of the good, the dedicated, the humble, and the charitable perseveres in this world of defeat and cynicism. One could take the position for seeking revenge, but how much better it is to have grace—not curling up and dying, of course—and follow the better path, as this most popular of Japanese heroes, demonstrates.

This may be the greatest sequel in all of film. But more than that, it is a gift from an up-and-coming master filmmaker to his nation, at its most desperate hour, in gratitude for the opportunities he had been given, and providing balm, solace, and wisdom, to go on. It is an amazing film, inside of itself, and outside in the world in which it was made.

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