Kurosawa films
Photo: Film posters courtesy of Toho Company / Public Domain

Akira Kurosawa Films 101: 1943-1945

Over the next two weeks, we will discuss every film 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)

Film poster courtesy of Toho Company, © 1943 / Public Domain

In beginning this discussion of Akira Kurosawa‘s first film as director, it is probably worth a short diversion to discuss his earlier career in cinema. Kurosawa was under contact with 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.

Film poster courtesy of Toho Company, © 1945 / Public Domain

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 but 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 is 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

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