Getting Deep Into... Kurosawa Part 1: Sanshiro Sugata

Susumu Fujita won't let go off that stick will he?

Susumu Fujita won't let go off that stick will he?

Approaching the work of a beloved director can be an intimidating beast, and especially one with as huge a filmography as Akira Kurosawa. Having a directorial career which spans half a century, the man lived and breathed cinema and while he is most known for a handful of these, I am sure there are gems to be had within the gaps also. In this series I will be looking at every single feature directorial credit in Kurosawa’s body of work in the hopes of fully diving into one of cinema’s greats and discovering brilliant material along the way.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

The experience of watching Sanshiro Sugata is immediately compromised with an on-screen announcement courtesy of production company Toho:

"This film has been modified from the original version of Akira Kurosawa's debut film, which opened in 1943, without consulting the director or the production staff. 1,845 feet of footage was cut in 1944 to comply with the government's wartime entertainment policies.”

This footage, around 17 minutes, was lost during World War 2 and has never been found. It almost feels unfair to judge Kurosawa’s handling of the narrative here as with nearly a fifth of the content removed, it is to no one’s surprise that the storytelling does feel a little rushed with on-screen text in the film trying to paper over cracks where character was needed.

What is here however shows Kurosawa already finding a flair for the cinematic with direction which feels contemporary now. An early sequence where our hero encounters a group of men and engages in conversation takes place in first-person view in parts, an odd piece of direction which sticks in the mind days after, showing the "outsider" perspective he has taken, fight sequences have at turns a sense of great tension and then dynamism which explode in short, sharp instances which very well exemplify the fighting styles on show here.

Susumu Fujita excels in the lead role, starting as a wilful, somewhat petulant man-child and becoming a more rounded, caring and.. still rather wilful adult by the end of his arc here. That his crucial turns come around the section which was most obviously cut out, and some frankly bizarre scenes where he appears to just run away from his love interest, does mean that perhaps we don’t quite feel the narrative thrust needed in order to make this truly work but it is fair to say that by the end, you will him on to defeat the two dimesional, though satisfyingly knobbish villain, Higaki, ably played by Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, and reclaim some dignity on behalf of Takashi Shimura’s aged ex-fighter Hansuke.

There is not much to say about Sanshiro Sugata and it is not top-drawer Kurosawa for sure, even out of the relative small percentage of his filmography I’ve seen to this point this is fair to say, but it is a well-staged but, through little fault of Kurosawa’s, choppy experience which with such a meagre runtime, less than 80 minutes, there’s essentially no excuse not to give it a watch and see where a master started.