July 30, 2008

Sanshiro Sugata (1943 film)

Written & directed by Akira Kurosawa. Based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Kurosawa also worked on the film as an editor.

Legendary director Kurosawa made his debut with this little known martial arts film about a young man who sets out to master a new form of fighting, Judo, and finds himself involved in an old rivalry between schools.

While it shows much of the humanity and technical skill of his later films, Sanshiro Sugata is still pretty rough around the edges. Mainly, it can't settle on what story it's trying to tell. Is it about a pupil desperate to prove himself to his master? Is it about a young man torn between his vow to a school and his love for a woman? Is it about the rivalry between two schools, enacted by a pair of fighters who pine for the same love?

It's all of these things, which isn't bad in and of itself, but the pieces just don't fit together as a cohesive whole. And then there's a romance that's vital to the 3rd act, yet randomly pops up out of the blue. Or an underdeveloped villain whose motives are never clarified and who lacks any threat since we barely ever see him in battle. Or the lead (Susumu Fujita) who toes the line between innocence and youthful stubbornness in a way that, instead of exemplifying the everyman, makes him come off as little more than a skilled lunkhead.

Now all ofvthese gripes aren't to say the film is bad. It's beautifully shot and captures the atmosphere of 19th century Japan, where western-style fashions were just starting to appear alongside traditional dress. And there's wonderful little poetic moments like Sanshuro finding solace in a flower, a time-lapse transition following the adventures of an abandoned sandal, and a man singing to the heavens in a field as wind whips through the waist-high grass.

It's a flawed film, but not terrible, and any Kurosawa buff should track it down. For everyone else, eh.

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