Viewing Akira Kurosawa's first film, SANSHIRO SUGATA, I was struck within minutes at just how watchable it still is today. The story is not that strong, and there are moments where you may wonder why Kurosawa is holding his shots so long, but despite some creakiness in pacing and some confusing story lapses, SANSHIRO SUGATA is an entertaining and stylish film. As quoted elsewhere in this section, writer and Kurosawa expert Steven Prince said it best: "In many respects, the stylistic fireworks of Sanshiro Sugata are the result of a powerful and profound visual form searching for an appropriate content." Akira Kurosawa arrived as a director with his stylistic "bag of tricks" nearly already full, but it was several years before he came upon stories completely worthy of that style.
Not that SANSHIRO SUGATA is all style and no substance. It is a spiritual journey of the title character, a young man played by Susumu Fujita, who gives up jujitsu for the newer martial arts form judo, studies under a wise master, and then must prove himself by defeating various opponents. His main obstacles are his own stubborn recklessness and his love for an upcoming opponent's daughter (dames!). Fujita, Kurosawa's first real star, was a fine actor who had movie star looks. Had Toshiro Mifune not come along, it is possible that Fujita would have had a long and storied career with Kurosawa. Another actor who did have a long and storied career with Kurosawa is Takashi Shimura, playing a small but important part in the first of his 22 films with "The Emperor". Shimura would go on to play such memorable roles as the pathetic lawyer in SCANDAL, the alcoholic doctor in DRUNKEN ANGEL, the dying bureaucrat in IKIRU and the lead warrior in SEVEN SAMURAI.
Aside from the performances of Fujita and Shimura, the real star of SANSHIRO SUGATA is Kurosawa and his camerawork, especially for students of Kurosawa, for whom this first film should be a real treat. In this directorial debut, fans of Kurosawa will find the smooth, flowing camera movement, the trademark transitional wipes and even a touch of slow motion to emphasize action, a Kurosawa invention that would return again in SEVEN SAMURAI and thus influence action cinema even to this day. As this film was made during World War II, you will find some nationalistic symbolism - Sugata's main opponent dresses in western-style clothes including a derby and topcoat - and some government interference in the form of censorship and editing. Apparently, the love story between the title character and the young woman was offensive somehow to the Japanese government, as most of it was cut out (if only the Marx Brothers had made movies in Japan!). There are also several passages that seem to have been cut and replaced by narrative intertitles, though, with a story as simple as this one, it is much easier to follow than the later post-war THE IDIOT, which was cut so much by the studio that parts of it were incomprehensible.
The early cinema of Kurosawa, before the classic RASHOMON, was generally hit and miss. For every DRUNKEN ANGEL and STRAY DOG, there was a THE MOST BEAUTIFUL and A QUIET DUEL. But SANSHIRO SUGATA deserves to be ranked with the better of the minor films of this period, such as ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY or SCANDAL. - JB