Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING January 18th at The Film Forum.
209 W. Houston St. New York, NY 10014 Box Office: (212) 727-8110
This is Kurosawa's first film!
With world war raging around him, and the Japanese censors making the choice of material nearly impossible, Kurosawa read a book, convinced his bosses at Toho to purchase the rights, begged for the chance to direct his first feature film and against all odds made a hit!
The year is 1882. Sugata sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) witnesses a fight between two rival judo sects and makes himself a disciple of the winner, Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). However, he fails to understand his sensei's teachings and, like an obstinate baby, throws himself into the dojo's pond and spends the night shivering, clinging to a wooden stake. Seeing the lotus blossom at dawn, he "awakens" and asks Yano's forgiveness. He then faces a series of tests and judo matches culminating in the "ultimate showdown."
For a detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of this film, click here.
Before we begin, please understand that there existed a very definite difference between a print of a film coming out of Hollywood in 1943, as opposed to a film coming out of Japan!
There are severe lighting problems throughout -- although you lucky folks who will see this at the Film Forum will get a much better view than us poor slobs who have to sit through the old VHS (only very recently did this release find its way to DVD via this 25-film Criterion set).
In addition, the Japanese censors made cuts (necessitating intertitles) before the film's premiere -- and two years later, the Occupation authorities banned the film due to its depiction of feudalism. It was not seen again until 1952 and is obviously missing chunks of storyline, mostly concerning the two women in Sugata's life!
A lot of you (I hope) will simply be curious to see what AK's very first effort was all about ~ but the truth is -- this is a very good film on its own merits (other than the technical deficiencies) and is fun to watch, even 67 years later!
A few tidbits that always come to mind when I watch this unique debut:
- Kurosawa was a painter before he became a filmmaker. I still gasp at the way he "paints" the very first scene in his very first film: the credits are shown against a black background. Under a background of sky with three points (left, center and right) barely visible at the bottom of the frame, a subtitle: "1882." These points are actually the very tops of buildings and after four seconds, the camera pans downward and stops at street level. We now see the structures in their entirety, on either side of the street which divides them. The camera faces the structure in the center. Basically, he drew three simple vertical lines (left, center and right) and a gentle vertical pan down these lines to set the scene.
- I count at least 24 people in this first scene and their movements are "drawn" onto the film quite beautifully. Before the camera even reaches the bottom of its pan, we see a man in a cap exiting the frame on the left. Two men are walking slowly on the left, coming towards the camera. A rickshaw boy pulls a well-dressed lady in front of the two men. A two-horse carriage sets an entirely different tempo on the right side of the screen. A one-horse vehicle now appears and the children who had been playing at the back of the left side of the frame now scatter towards the camera.
- Seiichi Suzuki's score comes to a halt. The camera begins a slow, methodical pan to the left, down an alley, showing close architectural details -- two women working, and finally coming to rest on some older children (two of them have babies on their backs), who we have heard singing since this shot began.
- My blog post goes into quite a bit of detail concerning the wipe.
- In order to drive Yano's rickshaw, Sugata tosses his getas (clogs) away. "There is a Japanese phrase, 'geta o azukeru,' which literally means to hand over the wooden clogs but has the figurative meaning of putting oneself in the hands of others. Perhaps this was in Kurosawa's mind when he constructed the sequence which follows. Sugata, having put himself in the hands of the judo teacher, and made himself barefoot to do so, pulls the rickshaw off down the road" [Richie, p. 21].
- Kurosawa sure knew how to pull a particular type of expression out of his actors: "While on location for Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa discovered Fujita had been sleeping with a local woman. When Kurosawa learned of the tryst, he used Fujita's embarrassed expression for the scene where Sanshiro is scolded by Yano. Fujita, even into his seventies, was fairly notorious as a ladies' man" [Galbraith, pp. 42-43]).
- Richie does an excellent job of helping us keep things straight. One intertitle reads: "Sanshiro is still young. The girl's denunciation shocks him. Yano trains him in the moonlight. Sanshiro is like a spiritless dummy. But as he is thrown by the instructor, he regains his courage and understands. Yano has taught him what life is. Sanshiro is strong-minded, once again." Richie: "(This girl is, of course, different from the temple-girl [Sayo] though the story obviously parallels these two daughters. Since all existing prints of Sugata are mutilated and sections of the original negative are missing, she disappears after an aborted attempt on Sugata's life. The negative was only reconstructed in 1952 and this also accounts for the lavish use of titles in existing prints. The later editors decided to explain everything while they had the chance and many of the major sequences are separated by needless continuity titles telling us that so many months have passed or that such and such has happened.)" [p. 23]
- There are eight wipes in this film; four horizontal (2/2) and four vertical (all top to bottom). Notice the beautiful effect as the vertical wipes accentuate the downward movement of Sugata as he descends the steps!