written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
created by Tsuneo Tomita
The last thing I expected to comes across in an early Kurosawa flick, particularly one still made during the War Years, was an American speaking English. But that's the very sight we open on as a U.S. Navy man (judging by the accent, though, not an American actor by birth) hassles a cab driver until he finds himself face to face with the master of Judo himself, Sanshiro Sugata. Ah, but it doesn't stop there. No, we go all the way to the American embassy itself where a boxer named William "The Killer" Lister takes on local Japanese fighters in what are billed "friendly relations" bouts, but are really just us yanks cheering on a fighting style without dignity and discipline. Or so says the propaganda film.
Which, to be honest, comes off a lot more genuinely amusing than insulting. When you consider the stooped, slant-eyed, buck-toothed gremlins we portrayed the Japanese people as in our wartime propaganda, seeing a not-far-off-the-mark image of us as barking sports nuts who occasionally stumble head first into pure buffoonery doesn't phase me one bit. And when Sanshiro eventually steps into the ring against The Killer (you just knew the plot was going there) I had no problem with finding myself cheering for the art of Judo to prevail over that of padded fisticuffs.
But that's not what this film is really about. The first movie, while still full of unconventional flourishes on Kurosawa's part, told a very conventional story about an undisciplined youth who becomes a respectful martial artist, defeating the sneering villain and getting the beautiful girl along the way. Here, we also hit many of the same marks martial arts movie fans have come to appreciate in sequels as the hero struggles to come to terms with his new-found fame while dealing with the younger brothers of the defeated sneering villain, who are out for full-on revenge. Oh, and he avoids his wife and sulks a lot because he blames himself for the death of her father.
But this is Kurosawa, so, even at this very early point in his career, he found ways to make something conventional feel fresh. Sanshiro, you see, has given Judo such a public boost that the other dojos, many of whom are fully respectable, have lost so many students that their masters have had to resort to paid fights in order to cover the bills. Sanshiro taking on Americans to boost Japanese pride is one thing, but how does a master fighter combat the unintended fruits of his victories? While the film never does give this a satisfactory answer, it is a fascinating question. And Kurosawa laces the film with other great flourishes, the best being a student walking in and bowing before his masters, shown repeatedly in a montage as he goes from a rambunctious youth to an experienced, confident man.
I was a little tough on Susumu Fujita in my review of the first flick, being off put by Sanshiro's occasional lunkheaded simplicity, but they really sold it to me this time around. This is a man who no longer takes pleasure in the defeat of his enemies, but will nurture them by their bed of recovery, even as they stare daggers in return. Or who laughs when some friends trick him with a throw because it's been so long since he hit the floor that he finds it refreshing. There's times where the character is almost too pure of heart and every mistake is justified as a necessary step on his chosen path, but, hey, it's a propaganda flick. At least it's not executed with as heavy a hand as it could have been.
But then there's the villains. Tesshin Higaki is the sneering double of his brother from the first film (both are actually played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata), always tensed and ready to pounce, though failing to show any actual fighting skill. Trailing by his side is the younger Genzakuro (Akitake Kono), whose grief and epilepsy have left him a shaggy-headed wacko. As with the first, there's a lot of promise built around the eventual confrontation, but when it comes on a snow-capped peak - in the midst of a Kurosawa storm, of course - I can, without a doubt, say it's the lousiest, most disappointing fight sequence ever put to film. I know, I know, this is before the fighting genre would be refined over the next few decades, but it's a glaring flaw, particularly in the wake of the two great fights held in the American boxing ring.
But, overall, this film is an improvement on the original, what with tighter shooting and editing, a smoother handle on the lead, and stronger world-building of the era. If you can get through the propagandist elements and predictable plotting, and can track an elusive copy down that doesn't come in an expensive box set, then check it out. It's an early display of the master filmmaker Kurosawa would become.
(internet movie database)