Thursday, June 2, 2011

Movie Review: Sanshiro Sugata, Part I

Sanshiro Sugata (Japanese: 姿三四郎) was the first film made by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and was also his first collaboration with actor Takashi Shimura. It was filmed at the height of World War II and was released in 1943. At that time the Japanese wartime government had strict rules about films that were released in Japan—they had to be about Japanese subjects and in particular they had to present the nation of Japan and its government in a favorable light. Kurosawa did his best to comply with these restrictions, but as it was 17 minutes of the film were removed by government censors. That footage has since been lost.[1] I first tried watching this movie in the Learning Resource Center (LRC) at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, but I fell asleep and missed the middle of the movie.

Near the beginning of the film a group of jujitsu practitioners accost a judo master on his way home. They surround him at the edge of a canal, intending to throw him into the water. But as each one attacks, he throws them into the water, instead. What lends an eerie tone to the scene is the observation that none of the men, once tossed into the water, resurfaces. Upon seeing this, the main character, the eponymous Sanshiro Sugata, changes his allegiance from jujitsu to judo. His desire, is simply to be able to win. The film shows how he learns to value “gentleness” (柔道 jūdō means “gentle way”), or as the film puts it, “humanity”, over winning. While the artistic techniques used in the film are primitive, this was not distracting. I found this to be an enjoyable film with a good message that presages some of the great samurai films [2] that he later became famous for.


[1] See Sugata.

[2] In Japan this type of film is known as a Jidaigeki (時代劇), which means "period piece", referring to the fact that they're usually set in the Edo Period of Japanese history. See

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