In an interview conducted by Donald Richie, Akira Kurosawa once stated that with Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi, 1948), “(…) I finally discovered myself. It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else.” Drunken Angel was shot five years after Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshirō) and three years after Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For both films, Kurosawa had to face restrictions imposed by censorship – those of the Japanese military regime of the war years and those of the Allies during the period of occupation. However, the wartime censors seem to have been more severe than their Allied counterparts. According to various sources, approximately 20% of Sanshiro Sugata had to be cut out, including scenes in which the addiction to alcohol of one of the characters was mentioned.
Despite the difficult conditions under which Kurosawa made his directorial debut, Sanshiro Sugata, based on the eponymous novel by Tsuneo Tomita, already bears the hallmarks of the great filmmaker and foreshadows the masterpieces to come, featuring themes and cinematic devices that mark Kurosawa’s whole oeuvre.
Set in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the film depicts the rivalry between different schools of martial arts in Japan, in particular the supplanting of traditional ju-jitsu by judo. The film’s hero is Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita), who becomes a student of judo master Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi). His training is told in terms of a learning process in his life. The film relates Sanshiro’s journey to manhood and humanity – an undisciplined young man discovering the spiritual side of judo and learning to control his physical strength.
The student/teacher relationship in which Yano represents a surrogate father to Sanshiro recurs in several other films directed by Kurosawa, including Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), and it still resonates in his final film, Madadayo (1993). Another element that recurs is the figure of the double or doppelganger, a figure with its roots in Dostoevsky, whose work Kurosawa read avidly. Sanshiro’s adversary, Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a man driven by ambition and material desire, represents the hero’s dark alter ego.
The propaganda element in Sanshiro Sugata is less overt than in its sequel Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Zoku Sugata Sanshiro), which Kurosawa directed early in 1945. However, Higaki’s outward appearance – sporting western clothes and behaving like a dandy – contrasts with the modest and candid Sanshiro, dressed in Japanese clothes. The westernization of the villain is in keeping with the demonization of the Americans during the war. In the film, however, Higaki feels indebted to Sanshiro – who won the fierce duel against him but spared his life – and is capable of change and now eager to abandon his old lifestyle.
The fight against his nemesis confronts Sanshiro with his own weakness and creates a link between the motif of the doppelganger and the political context at the time of the film’s production, with Sanshiro’s victory suggesting that the Japanese are superior to their Western enemies in terms of both combat and morality. The final sequence establishes a further link with wartime Japan – Sanshiro sets out on a long journey to improve his skills and bids farewell to his beloved Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), thereby evoking the departure of Japanese men sent to fight on the front.
The fact that the action is set in the 1880s allows Kurosawa to maintain distance from the period during which the film was produced. The young director is also far more interested in depicting Sanshiro’s inner journey than in showing the rivalry between different schools of martial arts. In a long sequence that has no equivalent in the novel, Sanshiro jumps into a swampy pond that has a lotus not yet in bloom. The reason behind this spontaneous act is to show his teacher Yano that he is a human being and prepared to face death. The young man spends the whole night in the pond, clinging to a wooden post so that he does not get sucked down into the mud. A shot/reverse shot of the lotus slowly opening and Sanshiro’s smiling face reveals that catching sight of the flower has made him aware of the treasures of life. The lotus is a flower closely connected with Buddhist teaching and with the concept of enlightenment.
In Buddhism, the white lotus flower and also water are associated with purity and the idea of rebirth, and in this sequence, Kurosawa suggests that in order to achieve purity, one has to act. The virtue of action is celebrated in all of his films. It finds expression in the behaviour of the young yakuza Matsunaga in Drunken Angel and in the behaviour of the elderly bureaucrat Watanabe in Ikiru (1952). However, the path to purity is a stony one. Sanshiro, traumatized after having killed the ju-jitsu master Monma in a fight, is almost overcome by a feeling of guilt when he faces Higaki. And when Higaki nearly strangles him, Sanshiro’s recollection of the lotus in bloom, shown in a flashback, helps him to find moral strength and to free himself from Higaki’s murderous hold.
The fight with Higaki takes place outdoors in a landscape under dark sky and with a storm brewing. This almost nocturnal setting is a reference back to Sanshiro’s first steps towards rebirth in the pond, and Kurosawa’s oeuvre is permeated by such variations on a similar motif and by the cyclical vision implied in the idea of rebirth. The film’s subtle camerawork with light and shadow creating fragmented spaces evokes incompleteness but also contributes to an expression of the mystery at the very heart of human existence.
This interplay between light and shadow is a highly appropriate visual means to reveal the fragility of human existence. Although he defeats his adversary in the final fight, Sanshiro’s victory is not depicted as a crowning triumph and he has to continue his quest towards achieving maturity. That Sanshiro has not achieved perfection is commented on by his teacher Yano, who jokingly says that he is still a baby and has yet to come of age emotionally. And as the films shows in the final sequence, Sanshiro is shy and ill at ease in the presence of a woman.
The mise en scène in Kurosawa’s directorial debut is at times remarkably complex. In the film’s very first sequence, in which Yano is attacked by several men and defeats them one by one, each individual fight is filmed in a different way and from a different angle. All of the combat scenes in the film develop from stillness to movement in keeping with the spiritual basis of Japanese martial arts in Buddhism.
The film’s climactic fight scene between Sanshiro and Higaki points to another important aspect of Kurosawa’s cinema with its emphasis on movement. In his films, nature and climate feature as actors in their own right and essential means to create movement or to contribute to it. Rain, snow, wind, and clouds are also used for dramatic ends or to comment on inner feelings and the human condition. Like the contrast between light and shadow, the pampas grass shaken by the wind and the clouds floating across the sky darkened by a threatening storm give rise to feelings of danger and instability.
The film’s discourse on heroism and the human condition is not completely free of the ideology of its time. From Drunken Angel on, the representation of manliness and heroism is to a much greater extent riddled by contradictions. And as in Stray Dog (Nora inu, 1949), the teacher/father figure in the films made after 1945 is not always simply a model to be followed by the younger generation. Although Kurosawa explores the dramaturgy and aesthetics related to movement in a more elaborate and radical form in Drunken Angel and his subsequent films, Sanshiro Sugata marks a brilliant debut and is an original and outstanding work made in difficult times.