73. Film Review #2: Akira Kurosawa: SUGATA SANSHIRO (Judo Saga) (1943) (Part One)

A detailed analysis of the above film. Part One.

SUGATA SANSHIRO (Judo Saga) (1943)

The credits are shown against a black background.

Up on "1882" against a background of sky with three other points in the frame being barely noticeable. These are the very tops of buildings; one on the left, one in the center and one on the right. 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.

This is a fantastic example of Kurosawa as a filmmaker painter. He sets the first scene in his first movie by drawing 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.

Prince discusses how Kurosawa's treatment of this opening scene digresses from the Hollywood model:

" ...these pedestrians are signifiers of setting and atmosphere and tell us that the narrative, though not yet commencing, is about to do so. At this point, a Hollywood production would cut to another long or medium shot, giving us additional preliminary information necessary to establish the time and place of the story.

Kurosawa, however, does not do this. Instead of cutting in additional establishing material, he tracks the camera down the middle of the street ... and turns the camera left, down an alley, continuing the track. As the camera approaches a group of singing women, an off-screen male voice begins to say that he has business here. Before he has finished, a reverse-field cut has disclosed the speaker, Sanshiro. The cut has also disclosed the film's play with our expectations. An establishing shot has turned into a subjective shot or, rather, has been one all along presenting Meiji Japan to us as it is to Sanshiro"
[SP, p. 40].

In other words, Kurosawa immediately throws us into the subjective viewpoint of the hero, Sanshiro.

"...[W]hat appears to be the usual omniscience of the early narrative voice is, instead, a highly restricted and restrictive point of view and one that is, as subsequent scenes make clear, as yet unformed and immature" [SP, p. 41].

The children are singing:

"Where does this path lead? It leads to the shrine of the heavenly gods. May I get past? No, those without right may not pass" [DR, p. 15].

It is now that we see Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) for the first time -- as he talks to the girls...

Sugata: "I have some business. Let me pass."

Girl: "No, those without right may not pass."

Sugata: "But I have the right."

Girl: "To pray?"

Sugata: "No, I am looking for the jujitsu teacher."

Girls (in song): "It is easy to go but hard to return."

One of the girls gives Sugata a little push as he makes his way forward. The camera pulls back a bit on a new, thinner angle on the street we first saw. Four medium close-ups follow, each lasting approximately three or four seconds:

The women tell him that a jujitsu instructor lives here but that he is out at the moment, doing a "show";

A shot of Sugata turning his head;

A shot of the jujitsu teacher's studio -- at an angle where we see the sign, but not what is written on it; and

A shot of the sign: "Momma, Shimmei Jujitsu Instructor."

HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the right) #1

Kurosawa's very first wipe deserves comment. JG on its three primary uses in Kurosawa's films:

"...[I]n conjunction with traveling and pan shots as an optical means of accenting the momentum of screen action...

...Shifting the contexts from which story events are related in the narrative's transitions...

...[A] visual ellipsis that has eliminated connecting action within the same scene..."

How else do we account for this "visual device common in many traditions of silent film..."? [JG, p. 143]?

"...Christian Metz places the wipe cut within the code of trucage, which includes optical effects that constitute visual but not photographic material ... [This] signals the direct intervention by the filmmaker into a story, whereas a film's photographic material alone simply implies the filmmaker's point of view through the development of a story." "

...Noel Burch [theorizes that] Kurosawa's wipe cuts expose elements that otherwise sustain the illusion of reality. Kurosawa thus acknowledges discontinuity and the screen's two-dimensionality as conditions of filmic representation, while conventional Western codes conceal these formal imitations..."

"...In the estimation of Gilles Deleuze, the wipe cut constitutes an imaginary Japanese character that serves as Kurosawa's cinematic signature. The imaginary character is composed of a thick vertical stroke that extends from top to bottom of the screen and is joined by thinner, variable horizontal strokes that move screen right to left and left to right, which are the photographic components of whatever images are involved in the wipe cut..."
[JG, p. 143-45].

"[Here] Kurosawa first used the punctuation which will be his favorite throughout all of his work. It is the wipe, a punctuation mark much less common than the cut, the fade, or the dissolve. The new image pushes off the old, as one lantern slide pushes off the other. The device is relatively uncommon in modern cinema and yet is so consistently used by Kurosawa that it seems to have a definite meaning for him. Perhaps it is its finality that appeals, this single stroke cancelling all that went before, questioning it, at the same time bringing in the new. It is often used after an important scene, as though he calls attention to the fact that it is over, that it was important" [DR, p. 15].

Six men are sitting in a circle drinking (Sugata is there and makes seven, but is cleverly concealed in this initial shot). Master Saburo Kodama ("Momma") (Yoshio Kosugi) tosses back some saké and throws the cup to Sugata, now seen in the rear of the room.

"We have a new pupil," he announces. His assistant pours Sugata some saké and tells him that he is lucky -- he will get to witness a fight that very evening with Yano, the "judo man."

"What is judo?" asks Sugata innocently. (The man next to Sugata nearly chokes on his saké at that moment!)

"Judo will become Sugata's life, it will be his identity, yet he does not know what it is. And one of the points of judo is that one never knows what it is until one has done it. It is, above all else, a spiritual discipline and his question is both pertinent and child-like. To ask a group of jujitsu experts this is like asking the Shinto priest: What is zen? -- or like asking the protestant minister: What is the holy ghost?" [DR, p. 15].

It is explained to Sugata that Yano calls jujitsu "judo" and that he wants to make money from it. Momma explains that the police want a jujitsu instructor and that the "job will be ours." He can't stand this "modern" jujitsu of Yano's and growls that he "deserves to die."

A messenger arrives. Yano is coming this way in a rickshaw. As his students rush out the door, Momma instructs everyone to wait by the bridge.

"Weapons would disgrace us. It'll be a good lesson," he tells Sugata as he extinguishes the light leaving Sugata in darkness for a beat...

Cut to a shot of the moon shrouded in clouds.

Cut to Momma and Sugata exiting the house. Momma's daughter, Osumi (Ranko Hanai), standing outside, asks if anything is wrong.


HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the left) #1

A rickshaw races down the street. One of Momma's men rushes towards it. The rickshaw boy appears to throw himself to the ground. Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi) jumps out and faces the circling men. He drops his walking stick and throws off his cloak. As he moves towards the water's edge he says:

"I am Yano of the Shudokan. Are you sure you know who you are attacking?"

[In AK, we learn that Kurosawa was " ... ambushed by students from another primary school, as I was on my way home from the Ochiai fencing school" [AK, p. 28]. He concludes the story with a parenthetical remark:

"( ... As I have been writing about [this], I have had a sudden realization. Without knowing it at the time, it was these objects from my past that I employed in my first film, Sugata Sanshiro [1943] as visual devices showing Sanshiro's new dedication to a life of judo. Perhaps it is the power of memory that gives rise to the power of imagination)" [AK, p. 30].

Prince spends several pages on this next scene, detailing how Kurosawa

"...does not merely observe the confrontation. He formalizes Sanshiro's relation to the combat in explicitly visual terms, and this formalization discloses a fascination with a particular kind of movement that will continue to be foregrounded in his work" [SP, p. 41].

The man who almost choked on his saké begins to move towards the right. The camera follows him. A remarkable effect follows: Momma and the other men begin moving slowly towards the left while the camera continues its rightward pan. It stops on Sugata who is standing still -- the effect is magical...

"What school?" Yano shouts out.

The camera now pans left. After about eight seconds, the man who almost choked says,

"Shimmei" and begins to advance on Yano. This is shown in long-shot.

Cut to a close-up of Yano's feet at the edge of the surface just before the water.

Cut to a slightly overhead shot of the two men locked in combat. The man gives a Yano a funny look then begins to try to push Yano into the water. Yano seems to simply use the man's own forward momentum as he smoothly flips the man into the water.

Cut to another gentle rightward pan of the Shimmei men's reactions until we arrive on Sugata. He seems to be deeply impressed.

Cut back to Yano, the wind blowing his hair, his stance at the ready, he looks left and right...

Cut back to Sugata and now Kurosawa reverses the previous pan -- moving it leftward until we arrive at another man who, after a quick spit, charges. Yano dispatches this fool by grabbing his wrist and flipping him into the water.

Cut to Yano and then quickly back to the men's reaction -- again panning to the right until we arrive at Sugata again.

Cut to closer shot of Yano, his hair still blowing in the wind and quickly back to Sugata, who now turns his head towards the remaining Shimmei men. Leftward pan to the Shimmei men. We see one, two and presently three men. The last has picked up the walking stick Yano dropped, and advances on him. Yano quickly throws two of them, while the third seems to retreat in front of Momma, Momma's second and, off to the right, Sugata.

Similarly-lengthed cuts to Yano, Sugata, Momma, his second, and then a longer shot of the foursome -- the advancing man looking quite fearful...

Yano advances on the man. Five steps and the man rushes towards Yano. They are locked together for several seconds until Yano finally throws the man into the water, barely maintaining his balance at the water's edge...

Momma's second now charges. We see them locked in combat.

A new angle from behind the Shimmei man shows us a close-up of Yano's contorted face.

The camera moves beyond Yano into blackness until suddenly we see the same type of close-up of the Shimmei man, his face also gruesomely contorted.

The camera again moves into blackness, but quickly changes to a longer shot of the Shimmei man rushing Yano and Yano using the other man's own momentum to throw him into the water.

Even before this man his hit the water, Momma has thrown himself on the now prone Yano. After rolling over on each other several times, Yano gets Momma in an arm lock of some sort.

Yano: "Your name?"

Momma: "Kill me!"

"No. What's your name?"

Finally, Yano tells him that Momma is shattering the future of jujitsu.

"If you don't use the spirit for jujitsu -- it's wasted." He lets him go and walks off. We observe Momma reflecting upon this for a moment.

Yano is looking for his rickshawman who has disappeared during the fighting. Sugata runs towards him and bows profusely. He offers to take the rickshaw. Yano asks him if he can drive. Sugata answers affirmatively and Yano gets in the rickshaw. Sugata bends down and grabs the handles. He pauses. He sees Yano's bag and places it in the rickshaw, at Yano's feet...

Again he bends down and grabs the handles. Again he pauses. He realizes he cannot pull the rickshaw in his getas (clogs), so he removes them and tries to put them in the rickshaw -- but apparently there is no more room. With a deliberate movement, he tosses them into the street. Now he is ready to pull the rickshaw...

"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" [DR, p. 21].

Yano laughs. The camera pans down and we see the rickshaw's wheel turning. We see the geta (sandal). The camera remains fixed on the shoe in the street (for about five seconds)...

The following transition/montage is one of those elements of Kurosawa's so-called "formalist" style that is simply awesome to experience. To connect the previous fight scene with the one that follows, he uses this "formal" montage to make us feel a certain way. As Prince puts it,

"...Kurosawa has connected these scenes with exceptional cinematic grace in a manner that extends the narrative in terms of a continuous flow of camera and object movement" [SP, p. 44].

A series of dissolves: the shoe on its side with people walking by (also five seconds);

Upright again, but in pouring rain (also five seconds);

A puppy chewing on one of the straps (five seconds);

The shoe stuck on top of a fence, raining again (five seconds);

Stuck against a rock in a stream with the same type of "river grass" that is seen at the very end of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (five seconds);

And finally at motion through the stream in a lively current.

At last, the geta floats away into the left side of the frame, and the camera pans upward from the stream to a house. Two ladies with fans rise suddenly as a stream of men come running by...

"...In this fifteen-second bridge we see what has happened to the geta. At the same time we see that this is another presage. Sugata himself, after various adventures and complications 'floats free'. At the same time -- and this is the ostensible reason for the bridge -- we see that time is passing" [DR, p. 21].

Or, as Prince puts it:

"...[T]he fate of the clogs marks the passage of time during Sanshiro's early training with Yano and comments on Sanshiro as well. Like the clogs, whose compositional shifts define them in terms of process and change, Sanshiro is also in a state of flux. He is an unformed character, whose gradual defining and polishing the film studies" [SP, p. 45].

Cut to a brightly-lit street where Sugata is throwing people around left and right. The translation seems to give us the idea that Sugata has gotten a bit out-of-hand...

"I did nothing to you," says one.

"Don't be haughty," says another.

"What!" yells Sugata, chasing the culprit down and throwing him to the ground impressively...

This goes on, several times, from one end of the street to the other. The fight seems to spill out to a more open area. Sugata is throwing people around willy-nilly. He finally comes to a giant of a man and grabs him with great determination. They separate and assume fighting positions. They grab each other again and begin to spin wildly, like dervishes...

Fade to the outside of a house. Cut to a pond and pan up to floor level. Two of Yano's pupils [left to right: Yoshima Dan (Akitake Kôno) and Yujiro Toda (Shôji Kiyokawa) are walking towards another part of the house. The camera follow them as they enter a door then continues to pan to the right. In front of an open door, we now see Yano, sitting at a small table, writing. Toda announces that Sugata has returned. Yano asks them to send him in. Dan pleads with Yano not to scold Sugata. Yano simply orders them again to bring Sugata in.

After the two men leave, Yano looks back at the door and then turns his gaze towards the pond. The camera studies his face as Sugata enters the door, his kimono sleeve torn...

(A brief digression on Fujita, who was one of the greatest of all the actors in the early days of the Kurosawa-gumi.

"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" [SG, pp. 42-43]).

Yano proceeds to bawl Sugata out. "Your judo and mine are different," he tells him, "because you don't know humanity. Teaching judo to such a man is giving a knife to a lunatic."

"But I do know humanity," Sugata protests.

"You don't!" shouts Yano, as the camera moves to the other two pupils, eavesdropping nearby. POV now behind Sugata's drooping shoulder facing Yano.

"You live without reason or purpose. Where is your humanity?" he demands..."It's nature's rule by which we live and die. Only through this truth can you die peacefully. This is the essence of any life. Judo, too. Sugata...you haven't noticed that."

"But I can die peacefully for you sir," Sugata answers.

"Liar!" Yano shouts with anger...

"No, I can!" insists Sugata...

"Shut up! I can't believe rascals like you."

Sugata clenches his fists, head bowed. "I can die," he insists and with an innocent determination, flings himself out of the shoji, splashing into the pond below.

"...a gesture visually linked to Yano throwing the jujitsu men into the river" [SG, p. 40].

He paddles his way towards a post near the middle of the pond...

Yano gets up and peers down at Sugata. The other two pupils also stare. The camera then cuts to an empty room which is immediately filled up with the presence of the priest (Kokoten Kodo) who also stares at Sugata. Cut back to Yano.

"Die!" he screams, and shuts his doors.

Cut to Sugata clinging to the stake. Cut back to the doors, washed white with daylight. Suddenly, the horizontal and vertical lines which form the many rectangles on the door become visible. It is now night and the door is illuminated from Yano's inside lights showing these beautiful geometric shapes clearly. It is another small, stunning Kurosawa moment!

We are now inside Yano's room, looking over his left shoulder as he continues to write. Pan right to the two pupils, busy doing something. One of them stares in the direction of the pond, looks at his fellow pupil, and they both look towards Yano. Yano continues his writing.

One of the pupils: "Sir. Sugata is still in the water. It is late. He might die. Forgive him."

The other: "He's wild and stubborn, but it's too much."

Yano continues his writing. "He can come out any time," he finally says.

Pupil: "Not without your forgiveness."

"He'll come out when he wants to."

POV behind the pupils with Yano framed between them. After a ten-second pause, one of the pupils again asks, "won't you forgive him?" with obvious fear for Sugata's well-being in his voice...

"Idiot!" shouts Yano. "He won't die. He's thinking."

Cut to the pond where Sugata is slumped, but still holding on to the stake. A reflection is seen in the pond. "Well proud one..."

The camera pans up. It is the priest speaking. "Is it painful? No answer? You haven't found out...won't you give up?"

"No," Sugata shouts back...

"If you feel that good you won't die yet. But Sanshiro....do you know what you're hanging on to? Too haughty to see?"

"A stake."

"Yes, a stake of life. Without it, you'd sink into the mud. You're too proud to come out. Death is near."

"Shut up!"

"Give up and come out!"


"Mule! Allright. Enjoy the view in the moonlight all night!"

The priest closes his door. The camera returns to Sugata and follows his gaze with a leftward, upward pan to a beautiful full moon. Cut to several poorly lit shots of various lotus blossoms, and then a right pan to Sugata, clinging to his stake. He suddenly seems to awaken. We see him staring at something, and the camera pulls back just far enough to show us a (much-better photographed) blossom. Then a close-up of the flower. Back to Sugata. Back to the flower. Back to Sugata -- something is making his lips quiver slightly -- back to the flower from medium close-up then extreme close-up. Back to Sugata who has a new look of contentment and understanding on his face...

"Mr. Yano," he cries out...

Yano's doors fly open, followed by the pupils' and the priest's. Sugata gets out of the pond and in a wonderful long shot, bows to Yano, as the pupils and the priest gather at the bridge above the pond. Fade to black.

Open on a big fluffy white cloud in the sky. Cut to Sugata, looking up at the cloud, while heavily shifting his weight from one foot to the other. From behind, a man taps Sugata's shoulder with the handle of an umbrella. The camera pans to the left showing the man -- Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata). It returns briefly to Sugata then back to Higaki, who is slowly removing a cigarette from its case. The cigarette is in his mouth and he is preparing to light it when Sugata gives him a look and turns his back on him and goes back to his marching...

The camera now faces Sugata with Higaki right behind him. Sugata is again looking up at the cloud as Higaki lights his cigarette.

"Is Mr. Yano here?" asks Higaki.

"He's out," replies Sugata.

Slowly, Higaki lights his cigarette, takes a puff, and stares at Sugata. Sugata again turns his back to Higaki and restarts his march. Higaki inquires about Yano's school and then asks for a lesson.

"Come in," says Sugata, as the camera pans down to his feet, where he is slipping into his getas and we see that he had been marching on his laundry!

Higaki follows Sugata slowly into the house.

HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the right) #2

A man is flying through the air and hits a wall. The priest waddles over to attend to the man. Sugata also looks at the injured man. He tells the priest to get some water. He pulls the man up to a sitting position and performs some sort of chiropractic maneuvers on him. Off-camera we hear, "Next?"

Sugata looks up and gently lays the injured man back down. He rises and faces Higaki.

A new voice is heard: "Mr. Higaki. I'm next." It is Tsunetami Iimura (Iinuma in the subtitles) (Sugisaku Aoyama) another Yano pupil.

As the priest returns with water for the injured man, Iimura explains to Higaki that he cannot have a match with Sugata because Sugata is being punished and is not allowed matches. Sugata begs for the opportunity but Iimura will not permit it. Sugata and Higaki agree that they will have their match sometime in the future. The camera work at the conclusion of this scene is magnificent. As Higaki exits, walking towards the camera, the camera momentarily rests on Iimura and Sugata, then begins a slow leftward pan, stopping at the priest and the injured man. Finally the priest speaks. "He's like a snake." Fade to black.

An intertitle:

"Sayo is the daughter of Hansuke Murai. Higaki has learned jujitsu from Murai. Sayo is threatened by his serpentine shadow." Fade to black.

Yano is addressing his students. He explains that the police instructor is looking for good fighters and that an exhibition match is scheduled. Since the Shimmei school had already fought Mr. Yano, this match would be Sugata's against Momma. Sugata is smiling broadly...

HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the left) #2

Momma is frowning, pacing and staring at Sugata who is still seated. Sugata rises and meets Momma in the center of the arena. The official signals the start of the match. Sugata begins to kneel, but Momma remains standing, stamping his feet. "I'm ready," he shouts.

Sugata rises and bows. He appears to be perfectly calm. Momma is intense and ready to fight. Momma grabs Sugata and they begin a wild dance from one end of the arena to the other. The camera stays with the two fighters for about 14 seconds, then rests on Murai and Higaki, observing the fight, in a medium long-shot. Close-ups of Murai and Higaki follow...

The camera returns to the two fighters still dancing around the room. They separate. Momma is breathing heavily and looks quite concerned. Sugata is calm and nearly smiling...

Momma lunges at Sugata several times, saying several things untranslated by subtitles. Once again, they are locked in fierce embrace, with Sugata gripping Momma by his kimono. The camera quickly pans past the fighters to Higaki, Murai and Iimura and then returns to the fighters. A series of quick cuts follow:

Sugata's grasp on Momma is strong.

Cut to a shot of the fighters' feet.

Cut to Sugata throwing Momma.

Cut to two separate very quick shots of Momma flying through the air.

Cut to a long rightward pan, giving reaction shots of nearly everyone in the room (all stunned and looking towards the spot on the floor where Momma lies). At last the camera arrives on Momma, lying quite still on the floor. In slow motion, a window pane drops on his lifeless body...

POV on Momma's lifeless body from behind Sugata, poised, tensed. Sugata turns and looks at Osumi. Her reaction, a loud scream which penetrates the previous silence, in long, medium and extreme close-up. The last is held for nearly 20 seconds until a fade to black.

"...As the screen falls to the ground in slow motion, we realize that the sound has been shut off entirely, and when Kurosawa returns to the long shot of Sanshiro looking at Momma, the silence continues, and again we assume that the soundtrack is being manipulated. Again we are wrong and receive a perceptual shock because of our error: the loud shriek of Momma's daughter shatters the silence and our composure. The sequence is formally as explosive as the event it depicts..." [SP, p. 47].

Part Two