There's a good reason judo movies never caught on as wildly as kung fu or samurai films. The wrestlers grab each other's collars and shuffle around for a few minutes as they seek the slightest bit of leverage for a quick toss to end the match. This makes for a few moments of tense anticipation, but without high-flying acrobatics or geysers of blood unleashed by tempered steel, the audience is left with the limited pleasure of watching coiled muscles suddenly flex and bodies thumping to the mat.
Yet "Sanshiro Sugata" (1943) is a fabulously entertaining judo movie thanks to a first-time director willing to flex his coiled cinematic muscles. His creative energies pent up during a six year apprenticeship, Akira Kurosawa was full of ideas for his first film, and blessed with the natural ability and the hard-scrabble training to realize them fully.
Viewing these films today, Kurosawa appears to have arrived at the director's chair as a fully formed artist, confident and technically polished even when directing a simple, straightforward story like "Sanshiro Sugata." Adapted from a novel by Tsuneo Tomita, it tells of the late 19th century struggle between the venerable fighting style of jujitsu and the upstart practice of judo. Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), young and full of piss, starts as a jujitsu student but quickly shifts allegiances when he sees Master Yano (Denjiro Ookouchi) wipe the floor with his fellow students. Sanshiro is easily the most gifted student in Yano's class, but he lacks the emotional and moral fortitude his teacher demands and his success will be measured not by matches won but by personal growth. A simple story, but an intricately crafted movie.
It's difficult to believe that "Sanshiro Sugata" is a debut film. Kurosawa had trained under director Kajiro Yamamoto about whom I know precisely nothing, but he must have taught his star pupil (his own Sanshiro?) very well. In an early fight between Master Yano and several jujitsu wrestlers, the camera roves the gloomy night-time docks, not just following the fight but also the increasingly frightened expressions of the fighters ready to enter the fray. Nervous, shifting from foot to foot, looking for an excuse to flee with honor, they know they're about to get beat, but what'cha gonna do?
There are more overt flourishes that, once again viewed in retrospect, seem like an auteur announcing his arrival with trumpets blaring. After a pivotal judo fight ends, Kurosawa cuts to stunned audience members who stand up to gawk. The camera pans, following their line of sight to the beaten fighter, but as the pan continues, the actors mummify into a frozen tableau, like figures in a historical diorama witnessing a major event. In another memorable sequence, Sanshiro and the woman of his affections keep meeting each other on the same outdoor staircase on different days and through changing weather, a surreal series of shots that mark a rupture in the film and a major change in Sanshiro. These are poetic moments as potent and finely embroidered as anything the director would produce in the ensuing fifty years.
Beyond his mise-en-scene, Kurosawa also demonstrated a surprisingly nuanced and malleable approach to character in his debut. Villains become more sympathetic when we meet them a second time, and our allegiances frequently shift like in the climactic fight between Sanshiro the great jujitsu wrestler Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura). The audience isn't sure who to root for in the big match and, for that matter, neither is Sanshiro.
The only exception is the charismatic but entirely villainous Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) who is certain he is the only man who can defeat Sanshiro. Good luck with that. But Kurosawa throws us another curve ball in the sequel, "Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two" (1945, his third feature), when we learn that the devil-spawn Gennosuke has undergone a radical transformation of his own. Why won't everyone just wear black or white cowboy hats to make this easier for everybody? In the sequel, Sanshiro takes down an Ugly American boxer (this was war-time Japan, after all) and a final silhouetted fight in the snow borders on abstract cinema before yielding to a much more concrete final shot, one of the most luminous and inspiring I have seen in some time.
In between judo films (the first a commercial hit, the second a flop because by 1945 there were few theaters left in operation) Kurosawa was called upon to make a propaganda film. "The Most Beautiful" (1944) expresses the virtues of personal sacrifice that pervade pre- and post-war Japanese cinema, but alloys them directly to the war effort. Everyone must be willing to sacrifice their happiness and even their family ties to keep the gears of war well greased. Work hard, and then work harder! The film is set in an optics factory staffed predominantly by women. Kurosawa's semi-documentary shows them desperate to achieve their increased quota to prove they are the equal of men. I'm not sure "The Most Beautiful" can exactly be classified as a feminist film, however, since the women spend half their screen time either crying or on the verge of tears, and are still ordered about and condescended to by their male supervisors. But actress Yoko Yaguchi is a standout as the president of the women's workers. Kurosawa must have noticed because he married her. They stayed together until her death in 1985.
"The Men Who Tread On The Tiger's Tail" (1945, his fourth feature) is adapted from a well-known historical incident which had been become a long-time staple of Noh and kabuki theater. Kurosawa retains its theatrical roots, staging the short (59 minute) film on just a few sets, both an artistic and a pragmatic decision since he kickstarted production at a time when the Japanese film industry was in shambles.
A twelfth-century nobleman and his entourage disguise themselves as itinerant priests, and the bulk of the film consists of their attempt to talk their way past a security checkpoint. The movie lacks the kinetic excitement of the "Sanshiro" films, but it's intended to be a more static, dialogue-heavy movie. Denjiro Ookouchi returns as a silver-tongued bodyguard who has to think quickly on his feet to avoid a deadly confrontation. Here, strength is shown through wit and grace, and the final sequence, as damned odd as it seems at first, is clever and satisfying. Kenichi Enomoto stars in the first of many comic relief roles that Kurosawa would use so often in later films (think "Hidden Fortress").
Kurosawa would not begin his legendary collaboration with Toshiro Mifune for another few years, and international acclaim would have to wait until 1950 with "Rashomon," but with his first four films, he proved himself as a stylist capable of making popular films in multiple genres. "Sanshiro Sugata" may not be "Citizen Kane" or "Breathless" but it's a remarkable debut that stands proudly next to Kurosawa's most celebrated films. Talk about getting it right your first time out of the chute.
All four films are presented in 1.33:1 transfers. The two "Sanshiro" films are in the worst shape of the four movies in the set. Part One shows considerable damage in many scenes to the point where it looks like it's "raining" in certain shots. The image quality is a bit fuzzy, but it is still more than watchable. Part Two is probably a bit weaker in detail, and some shots show more extensive damage. The contrast in both films makes some of the darker scenes too dark in general.
"The Most Beautiful" is slightly better than the "Sanshiro" films, but still has it share of damage and average image resolution. The best of the group is "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" which actually looks quite good with surprisingly sharp contrast. Detail isn't razor sharp, but it's better than in the other three films.
The DVDs are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The audio has its share of pops and hisses and there is some background interference, but the audio is stronger than the video in most cases. Music sounds tinny but that's to be expected. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
Each film comes on a separate disc with each disc stored in its own keep case with different and very attractive cover art. All four cases slide into a slim cardboard sleeve.
As with all Eclipse sets, there are no special features on the discs. Each case has one page of liner notes written by Stephen Prince, and they are quite helpful.
A few notes: "Sanshiro Sugata" is missing about 20 minutes of its original footage which was excised by Japanese censors and was never found. This version is the most "complete" that exists and ever will exist unless there's a miraculous discovery. It's also obvious that "Part Two" is missing frames here and there and probably a few longer shots.
"The First Four Films of Akira Kurosawa" provide evidence of a director who had thorough control of his chosen medium from the get go. The literal patriotic drumbeating of "The Most Beautiful" (which starts with a caption imploring viewers to "Attack and Destroy the Enemy") can be a bit difficult to swallow today, but the movies in this set are much more than a curiosity only for the Kurosawa completist. The two "Sanshiro" films are lean actioners with a poetic sensibility that makes them difficult to dismiss as "mere" entertainment and "The Men Who Tread On The Tiger's Tale" is a quiet, lush example of filmed theater with a fine lead performance by Denjiro Ookouchi.
The films are currently only available as part of this four-disc package or as part of the "AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa" monster set released by Criterion last year.