Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

Directed by
Fine, if a little insubstantial
Reviewed by Simon on 2022-01-22

A headstrong and bodystrong young man named Sanshiro Sugata is searching for a Jujitsu teacher, but when the entire Jujitsu school he applied to is defeated by a single Judo master he begs to become the man's pupil. His pride and bullish nature initially make him a poor student, but he gradually learns to be a better man.

As the debut film of legendary director Akira Kurosawa I have no excuse for not watching this film sooner, I've had it lying around in some for other for well over a decade and nearly watched it several times, but never felt that the moment was quite right. Nothing particularly changed today except there was an entry on my calendar saying "Watch SANSHIRO SUGATA" and I had no good reason not to do so.

The film apparently suffered at the hands of wartime censors, who excised 18 minutes after its initial release - it's not clear why, and unfortunately the missing footage is long since lost*. It does make the film feel a little disjointed, maybe even insubstantial... though perhaps it was always like that, the young Kurosawa presumably had to play things pretty safe for his first official directorial credit (he has suggested that some of his earlier Assistant Director credits undersold his contributions) and in the general wartime climate.

The result is a competent if not particularly remarkable film that's hard for me to compare to its contemporaries since I've seen so few, and none at all from Japan... it ain't no Casablanca though, I can say that.

It's worth seeing anyway given its director's enormous stature and influence, and perhaps because it enriches the viewing of Johnnie To's THROWDOWN, which is not quite a remake but is at least an homage. The film's template can be seen in any number of subsequent films, but I dare say it was already a well worn formula before film was even invented.

* actually apparently 11 of the 18 minutes were found in a print stored by a Russian archive, and it has been shown on TV in Japan with that footage restored, but even though this was known before Criterion released the film they don't seem to have had access to the extra footage. I can't see any evidence the more complete version has had a release on home video at all, strangely.