Japan’s Warrior Filmmaker: The Films of Akira Kurosawa – Sanshiro Sugata

Sanshiro Sugata (Early Kurosawa 1)

  • Starring: Denjirô Ôkôchi, Susumu Fujita, Yukiko Todoroki, Ryûnosuke Tsukigata, Takashi Shimura

Grade: C

Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata is an impressive debut for one of cinema’s greatest artists despite being more straightforward and slightly less existential and sub-textual than the majority of his career. The film follows Sanshiro Sugata, a jiu- jitsu pupil who becomes enamored with judo after a fight. He seeks out the maligned master of judo, a discipline seen as a cheap imitation of jiu-jitsu, to learn about the martial art. Along the way, tensions between a jiu-jitsu dojo and the judo master’s dojo rise and Sugata falls in love with the daughter of an aged jiu-jitsu master. 

The story is not without its limitations. The film is on the shorter side of Kurosawa’s filmography and it is sadly to the film’s detriment. The relationship between Sugata and Sayo is introduced around the midway point of the film. While the pair do have a few key scenes together, it feels rushed and inorganic when Sugata learns that her father is his opponent in an upcoming duel. This pivotal relationship would have played better if we had extra time with the characters to showcase their chemistry and grow their bond. 

Although the film is fairly straightforward, it has rich characterization for its titular character. The growth of Sugata from a rambunctious street tough, undisciplined in the art of jiu-jitsu, to a thoughtful and capable student of judo is satisfying. There’s an inherent romanticism to be found in stories of people who are mastering a craft or skill onscreen and Sanshiro Sugata is no different. 

Seeing how the commitment and rigidness within the sensei and pupil relationship plays out is perhaps the film’s best trait. There’s a sequence where Sugata is shamed by his sensei for his reckless behavior. Sugata uses this as an opportunity to show how committed he is, offering to die at his master’s command. This leads to Sugata jumping into the water and waiting until his master either decides to forgive him or let him die. 

Notably, Sanshiro Sugata includes the first instances of techniques and flourishes that would become time honored staples of Kurosawa’s work. A pivotal scene in which Sugata duels with a member of the opposing dojo culminates in his opponent crashing into the wall. As he lays on the mat, the film goes into slow motion as a window screen falls to the ground beside him and a woman offscreen screams in horror. This display of death through slow motion on screen would later be used to equally dramatic effect in the early moments of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai

Sanshiro Sugata also includes a bevy of wipe transitions that would not only become a trademark running through his entire career but it would also go on to be one of many Kurosawa influences on George Lucas when making Star Wars. Seeing this editing choice at the birth of his career showcases a level of confidence and control that is a rarity in first time filmmakers. 

It’s worth noting that roughly 17 minutes of footage from Sanshiro Sugata disappeared after World War II and has never been found. This leaves gaps in the film covered by black screens and scene descriptions a la the silent film era. Thankfully the story is straightforward and not much is lost in the narrative by the missing footage. Besides, the most interesting aspect of Sanshiro Sugata is in the legacy of Kurosawa. But the sequences described that are missing are strong character moments and it’s tragic we’ll (likely) never see them or the complete film as Kurosawa intended. 

Elements of Sanshiro Sugata stand out for their hints at the master filmmaker that Kurosawa would become. And as relatively brief as its runtime is, the film does handle some of its characterization well while leaving breadcrumbs of existential growth for the protagonist. Although the story would have been better served in an expanded runtime, Sanshiro Sugata has plenty of good in it to keep viewers engaged. 

Sanshiro Sugata is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel

Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive ViewerAnthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll. 

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