Kurosawa 101: Day One, 1943-1945

Over the next two weeks we will provide a brief introduction to every one of the films that Akira Kurosawa directed, from the obscure to the most celebrated, from Scandal and The Most Beautiful to Seven Samurai and Ran.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata II (1945)

In beginning this discussion of Kurosawa's first film as director, it is probably worth a short diversion to discuss his earlier career in cinema. Kurosawa was under contact to Toho Studios and had worked his way up over the previous years, having assisted directors and directed second units on other films. The studio deemed him ready to direct his own film, and he picked the newly published novel Sanshiro Sugata as its source (although other studios were pursuing the rights, the author’s wife had read that Kurosawa was an up and coming figure in the film industry, and persuaded him to deem him the rights). With the rights to the novel secured, Kurosawa wrote the screenplay and set out to direct his first film.

The story of Sanshiro Sugata is straightforward. A young man -- the title character of the film -- sets out to become a martial arts master and gets caught between two rival martial arts, Jujitsu (a traditional form) and Judo (a modern form). He must overcome his own inexperience and a vengeful rival to become who he is finally destined to be. A bit of low- key romance is thrown onto the mix for good measure as well, but there is little more to the story than that.

Visually, the film is more remarkable. Although this is Kurosawa' s first film as director, his visual style is already recognizable. For example, one of Kurosawa's signature techniques -- a sequence of shots that progressively zoom in on the subject matter -- is seen in this film. The climactic fight scene also shouts "Kurosawa!" as clearly as those in his later films.

Any discussion of Sanshiro Sugata would be incomplete without some mention of the circumstances under which it was made. Japan was still at war when this film was made and released, and so it was subject to official censorship from start to finish. This not only infuriated Kurosawa, it also limited the extent to which he could tell the story he wanted to tell. This must be kept in mind when evaluating this film.

Because of Kurosawa's training and his natural talents, Sanshiro Sugata is not the film of a novice first-time director, but rather a polished film that compares well to the rest of Kurosawa's filmography.

Thanks to the success of Sanshiro Sugata, the studio decided to make a sequel, and that Kurosawa would direct. Kurosawa had no interest in a sequel, but as he was a studio employee under contract he wrote and directed one. The result is what is widely acknowledged as Kurosawa's worst film. There is no soul to Sanshiro Sugata II. All that can be said about it to the positive us that it has some good shots in it, mostly in the final fight scene. Kurosawa himself shows no love for Sanshiro Sugata II in his Something Like an Autobiography.

Dan Tinianow

Next Page





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.