Monday, February 18, 2008

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

A detailed analysis of the above film. Part Two.

Children are running and singing again.

"Here comes Sanshiro,
Don't get near him, that's Sanshiro.
Keep away, don't touch him --
Let's run away.
Be careful, be careful. That's Sanshiro."
[DR, p. 22]

Cut to Higaki, lying on a mat and smoking a cigarette. Sayo Murai (Yukiko Todoroki) is in the background, sewing.

"Sanshiro is a real threat," says Higaki. "Mr. Murai will fight Sanshiro Sugata," he notes. Then he does an extraordinary thing. He flicks the ash of his cigarette into a nearby flower. DR is worth quoting:

"Sugata would not do that because it would not occur to him to do it. Flowers -- the lotus -- mean something else to Sugata...one may cavil at all of this symbolism but the idea is sound enough: strength is to be found through gentleness, respect for yourself is found only through respect for other things" [DR, p. 18].

Sayo moves into the same room as Higaki as they continue their conversation. We learn that Momma died in his match with Sugata. Higaki does not believe Sayo's father can beat Sugata, even though he has quit drinking and is in training for his match with Sugata. Sayo tells Higaki how she prays for her father's victory. Higaki eyes her cynically.

"There's only one man who can beat Sugata," he boasts.

"My father will win," insists Sayo just as he arrives home. Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura) takes a big drink of water and says, "my life before I quit drinking seems like a bad dream."

He talks about the upcoming match with Sugata.

Cut to Sugata, walking very slowly up the same alley as in the first scene of this film. He arrives at Momma's house.

In quick succession, three short cuts: a long shot, followed by a close-up on a sign on the house ("House for Let") and a close-up of Osumi, her face filled with hatred.

Cut to Sugata, suddenly pained.

Cut to Osumi again -- and again, but now in medium shot, walking down a path. The priest and one of Yano's pupils intercept her at the gate. After learning that she wished to see Sugata, the pupil quickly disarms her of her knife, with which she obviously intended to revenge her father's death. After a short struggle, we see the knife drop by her shoes (shot from just above shoe level).

Cut to black. Another intertitle:

"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."

DR comments on the use of intertitles in this film, regarding Osumi:

"(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 [described above]. 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.)" [DR, p. 23]

Fade in. Shot from above, Yano and Sugata are ascending some steps.

Cut to view of the steps going up. The camera pans up to a temple, and you can just barely make out a girl in the distance. [This happens to be the first shot Kurosawa took in this, his first film as director.]

Cut to a medium shot, and now we see her well as Yano says to Sugata, "Look. It's beautiful."

Cut to close-up of girl, her hands clasped in prayer.

Cut to a long shot, the girl in the distance, POV behind Yano and Sugata. "Where did her beauty come from?" Yano asks Sugata...

Camera now faces Sugata and Yano. "She's devoting herself in her prayer," Yano says, seemingly answering his own question.

Cut to close-up of girl praying. Back to Sugata and Yano. "She's united with the shrine god."

Back to girl praying. Back to Sugata and Yano. "Nothing is stronger than that."

Extreme close-up of girl. Back to Sugata and Yano. "Shall we leave?" Yano removes his hat and they both bow towards the shrine, now shot from behind Sugata and Yano again...

"It was good. I feel good," Sugata says as they descend the steps.

VERTICAL WIPE (top to bottom) #1

Sayo (pan on her) and Sugata are descending steps, now holding an umbrella. This first vertical wipe (which is much rarer than the horizontal) is as typical of Kurosawa's technical filmic style as any other example in his work. The natural downwards motion of the character is awesomely augmented by this device. Like most of Kurosawa's usual horizontal wipes, this one seems to represent the passage of a short period of time.

The camera follows Sugata down the steps. It is snowing. He seems to see something. The camera continues its downward motion, and we see a second umbrella, and eventually, the girl underneath it. A geta is resting upon a post in the fence next to the steps. They make eye contact and Sugata continues down the steps. He stops and sets his umbrella down. Her geta is broken. He offers to fix it. He tears a strip from his kimono towel and improvises a strap for the geta, and then folds it up so that she can rest her bare foot on something. She covers him with her umbrella. Quick shot of his umbrella, folded, gathering snow.

Top of her umbrella. Side view of the gate at the bottom of the steps. Camera pans up to Sugata and Sayo -- he is still repairing the geta. Finally, he is finished.

"(The geta theme reoccurs here and his fixing it for her would seem to suggest that she -- in some future time, after the film has ended -- will put herself in his hands)" [DR, p. 22].

"It might be tight," he tells her, and quickly runs off.

"Your umbrella," she reminds him before he gets too far. He fetches the umbrella and hustles off. After several beats she picks up the kimono towel. "Your handkerchief," she calls, but he is already gone.

VERTICAL WIPE (top to bottom) #2

This time, Sayo is ascending the steps...the effect is almost the opposite of the one achieved in the vertical wipe above where the downward wipe reinforces a downward movement. In this case, it is like contrary motion in music -- she is coming up the steps while the wipe goes down the frame!

Sayo: "Your handkerchief..."

Sugata: "Never mind..."

"I'll bring it to you. Where do you live?"

"It's all right." And he scampers down the steps.

VERTICAL WIPE (top to bottom) #3

[This section seems to have severe lighting problems.] She is above him on the steps. "I didn't expect you to be here," she says. They bow to each other, and (again) he scampers off...

VERTICAL WIPE (top to bottom) #4

The two are walking down the steps.

Sugata: "You washed it."

Sayo: "You really helped me." Long pause as they continue to descend the steps.

Sugata: "What do you pray for?"

Sayo: "That my father will win."

"What does he do?"

"Jujitsu."

"What's his name?"

"Hansuke Murai. He's going to have a match." Sugata has now stopped dead in his tracks, while she has continued descending. Close-up on Sugata, clutching the handkerchief. Close-up on her. Back to Sugata.

"Do you know who he's to fight?"

"Sanshiro Sugata," she replies, still smiling brightly. "I hear he's strong," she adds.

"I must be going. Goodbye," he says and rushes down the steps. He pauses, his back still turned to her. She descends a few more steps. He turns and bounces back up the steps to her level.

"It's me. I am Sanshiro Sugata." We see her smile evaporate. He is flustered. He runs down the steps again. Again he pauses. He turns towards her and says, "I wish your father good luck." We are left with a forlorn-looking Sayo, in lengthy medium and long shots. Fade to

A big gate with a sign declaring "Police Martial Arts Tournament." A massive crowd is pouring in through the gate. Another wonderful contrary-motion effect is produced at this point. We see the crowd, moving en masse to the right, as we see, in the background, Yano's students moving towards the left (they are looking for Sugata and they are worried...)

Cut to Sugata, still at the school, as the camera moves from his side to his back as he recites:

"The spirits of heaven and earth congregated to make Mt. Fuji that towers for eternity. They became water to flow in seven seas..." The camera is now at his back looking at a window through which we can see the silhouette of a willow tree...this turns into a geometric pattern (from Sayo's kimono) and then to a smiling Sayo walking up the steps, which nicely dissolves into Sayo praying intensely...

Cut to Sugata, front view, looking uneasy. The camera moves 90 degrees to a side profile and we see something come crashing down on Sugata's head!

It is the priest (we can't tell what he hit him with). "It's an important match. Don't be late!" he screams...

Sugata is rubbing his head. "I can't fight," he declares. After a pause -- "I can't win..."

"Are you afraid of your opponent?"

"No. Somebody stands between him and me."

"Who?"

"His daughter."

"You love her?"

"No. It's not that. I saw her praying for her father. It was beautiful. I was touched. That's the problem."

Cut to the priest looking absolutely furious. Back to Sugata.

"How can I overcome it?"

"Stupid!" the priest yells, although the camera is still on Sugata. Cut to both of them...

"Be pure and innocent like her."

"I can't."

"You can. You were once."

"When?"

The priest slowly points towards the pond, which has been in the center of the frame...quick close-up on pond...

"Sanshiro Sugata found a new life there."

Another close-up of pond. Now on Sugata, although the priest is still speaking: "have you forgotten?"

Another close-up of pond (each pond close-up brings us closer to the stake to which Sugata had clung). Back on Sugata, full now, the priest is still speaking:

"What's your life?" -- another pond close-up -- very close on the stake...and then a sweeping leftward pan to Sugata's bundle (uniform), which he quickly grabs and runs out of the house, the priest peering after him...

"You're late," someone says to him, as he arrives at the gate. They all are stopped, however, by the appearance of Higaki.

"You're a lucky man," Higaki tells Sugata, as they face each other.

"Why?"

"Murai won't let me fight you."

"We'll fight, sooner or later," Sugata says...

"Really?"

"I promise."

Sugata and his fellows enter the gate. The camera then moves to a particular part of the writing on the gate, which is not translated.

We are now in the tournament room. Everyone is fanning themselves with their programs. One of the two Yano students worries about Sugata. The other tells him to be calm, like Mr. Yano...

Yano is sitting calmly, eyes closed, arms crossed at his chest and only opens his eyes when the MC [I believe this is Mishima, chief of police) (Ichiro Sugai) says, "demonstration match."

He introduces "Mr. Hansuke Murai of the Shinto School." His students applaud wildly.

Murai enters the ring and bows to all. He assumes a sitting position. The MC continues: "Sanshiro Sugata of the Shudoken."

"Call him 'mister' too!" yells a Yano student...A Murai supporter yells something back. The MC's head turns towards the Murai section.

"Play fair!" yells a Yano student.

The MC's head turns towards the Yano section. Murai guy yells something back. The MC's head turning -- four times! Finally, Sugata enters the ring. Cut to Yano. Sugata bows, shot from the back. Now a short bow from the front. A big smile at Yano. Yano's reaction. Back to Sugata who rubs his head...

[I get the same feeling from the gesticulations of Sugata here (rubbing his head after getting bopped by the priest) as I do with Kambei's similar expression in Seven Samurai (having had his head shaved for the fake-priest role in the kidnapping rescue and rubbing his bald head for the rest of the film...)]

...and moves towards Murai. He kneels and seems embarrassed by a hole in his pants at the knee. They bow to each other.

The MC's voice is heard: "Thirty minutes. No judging. Let's begin."

Murai and Sugata spring up from their seated positions. Reaction shots on Yano and the two students.

The two fighters circle each other: four degrees of long, medium and close shots. In the final close shot, Murai says something (untranslated) and they finally grab each other. Each still grasping the other, they move around, their footsteps matching exactly, in a medium-long shot...

Dissolve to a closer shot. Still the same dance.

Another dissolve to an even closer shot. Sugata wipes sweat from his forehead with his sleeve without losing a beat.

Another dissolve, camera behind Sugata, looking directly at Murai's face, strained with anticipation.

Murai makes his move. The following events are filmed with very rapid cuts.

We see everything from just above foot level for a very short period. Murai tries to trip Sugata.

The crowd rises.

Sugata jumps, evading Murai.

The crowd sits down.

Again, Sugata evades, Murai attempts to trip him. Sugata's momentum takes him to where an official is seated in a chair. The official leaps out of the way and Sugata lands in the chair. [This is a wonderfully comic moment, and I imagine it probably always got big laughs in a theater.]

With a smile and a wave of his hand, he returns to the ring. Murai grabs him and they both move completely out of the frame.

Cut to reaction shots from the crowd and Yano.

Murai now has Sugata on his back and is preparing to throw him.

Cut to the rising crowd...

Very quick cut to Sugata on Murai's back, just about to be thrown...

Another crowd reaction shot...

Sugata landing on his feet, catlike.

Cut to Murai, looking astonished. He goes after Sugata again -- evades an attempt by Sugata to trip him, picks up Sugata and throws him again.

Again, Sugata lands on his feet.

Three quick crowd reactions, Sugata and Murai...

Sugata now takes the offensive. They dance around a bit, and Sugata trips and throws Murai, who lands on the floor with a thud.

Reaction shots of Yano's students and Yano precede Murai, trying desperately to regain his feet. He shakes his head and rises. Again he shakes his head. He turns and begins to look around the room. We are suddenly observing from his POV and as we pan around the room, everything is out of focus. The camera comes to rest on Sugata, who shortly comes back into focus. He grabs Murai and throws him hard. Murai lands again with a thud. He is barely moving. Sugata looks concerned.

Sayo's voice: "Father'll win."

Murai tries to get up. He cannot and slumps back to the floor. Again, Sayo's voice:

"Father'll win." He tries again to get up. Again he slumps back to the floor.

"Father'll surely win." With great determination he now does rise to his feet. He charges Sugata. Sugata shakes his head in disbelief. Murai is thrown across the floor.

Overhead POV as he comes to rest on the floor. Murai is still. Sugata bows his head.

Close on Murai. He begins to stir. He comes to his knees and says, "I give up." Sugata winces. Murai's people go to his side. Sugata's gaze follows them. Murai is being carried out by his men. Sugata moves up along side of him. "Mr. Murai..."

"Thank you, thank you," responds the broken fighter. "Mr. Sugata. You're strong. You're great. I'm no match for you."

"I was lucky," Sugata responds.

Murai is in pain. "Goodbye," Sugata says as they carry him off...

[This next transition is worth noting as typically brilliant Kurosawa...]

The black clothes of one of Murai's attendants fill the frame as we are neatly transitioned to the black of a band member's uniform, outside the tournament arena. The camera moves to the left to reveal a tuba, trumpets and a tumultuous crowd...

Sugata is surrounded by the crowd, but he doesn't look happy. Suddenly, he sees Sayo going by in her carriage. He bows his head and exits the gate. Fade to black.

The children are running by and singing their "Sanshiro" song again. As they run from the right side of the frame to the left, the camera remains fixed at first, but then begins a pan to the left. In yet another example of contrary-motion, Sugata and Sayo, behind him, are walking slowly in the opposite direction...

This image slowly dissolves to a lamppost which cuts to a kitchen, where a pot boils. Sayo enters the room, takes the lid off the pot (releasing a huge column of steam) and ladles a bit of the soup into a cup. She tastes it. Her head turns as she hears laughter coming from the other room.

Quick cut to an empty dining room and then to Murai's bedroom, where Sugata sits at his side.

"Mr. Sugata. To tell you the truth, I used all my strength in the match with you. For the first time in my life, I did my best. When the match was over, I felt weakened. My body was broken. I'm glad you came. Let me thank you again. I sent Sayo for you. Were you embarrassed?"

"No, not at all," Sugata replies, as he fills up a pipe and hands it to Murai. Murai takes the pipe and inhales. It seems to relax him.

"It was a good match. I even felt good when you threw me. It's not 'sour grapes'."

Sayo appears. Supper is ready. Sayo asks her father if he wants soup in bed, but Murai says he feels better and wants to get up. He rises, unsteadily, to his feet.

Cut to exterior shot of lamppost and house [I suppose to indicate evening].

Cut to dining room, no longer empty. Murai, Sayo and Sugata, from left to right. Sayo is a good cook. Suddenly, Higaki appears at the door. The camera moves rather lazily from Higaki to Sugata back to Higaki to Sayo (pained), to Murai (resigned). The camera pulls back to take in all four. Fade to black.

A scroll with 12 or 13 columns of writing. Translation:

"Challenge: As promised, we shall have our duel on the night of December 26, on Ukyo Field. The witness is Mr. Iinuma. It shall be fought using jujitsu skills. It's a fight to the death. Challenger: Gennosouke Higaki."

Pan up to reveal the same window and willow tree where Sugata remained before the match with Murai. A ferocious wind is blowing.

The propitious well-known story is worth re-telling here:

“ ... We thought we wouldn’t be able to shoot this scene without special effects, so we built a set, painted clouds, and created the winds with large fans. Kurosawa, however, didn’t like what he saw. ‘I felt that what we could shoot [on the set] would not only fail to be more impressive than the other fight scenes, it would look tawdry enough to ruin the whole picture.’ He asked for and got permission to go out on location once more, but only for three days. That February, the crew drove to the Sengokuhara plain in Hakkone, and Kurosawa readied his crew for the windswept finale. The first two days the weather was unusually calm, but on the third and final day of shooting, a tremendous windstorm struck the location” [SG, p. 44].

Cut to Ukyo Field. Sugata is reciting:

"In his right hand he held a sword, And astride a horse rode the youth. Do not weep, do not weep, dearest Ao, Though it is not love that he thinks of tonight. The rain is falling and his armour is drenched. And though he must try He cannot climb the pass at Tawara." [DR, p. 19]

The clouds are rushing by overhead. The wind is loud.

Higaki and Iimura appear (one magnificent shot has them in darkness at first and then the light sweeps over them quickly). Higaki removes his cloak. Sugata does the same. A long shot shows the two fighters at left and right frame, with Iimura in the middle. He speaks:

"Wait. My last question. Do you have to fight?"

"Yes," answers Higaki.

Iimura: "I thought it would come to this someday. But a fight to the death isn't good. I can't let either of you die,"

Higaki: "If only you had let us fight last year. It's too late now."

Iimura: "I hate to lose either of you."

Sugata: "Mr. Iinuma. Laugh at us. We're young and stupid. It's our fate."

Iimura: "In that case....begin!"

Iimura steps back. A medium long shot on Higaki. Cut to a close-up, still, around five seconds...

Cut to the same five second close-up of Sugata. A 10-second long-shot on all three men. Another close-up on Sugata, Higaki and Sugata again.

Sugata advances. Quick shot of Iimura. Sugata walks past Iimura and Sugata and Higaki face off. They stare at each other for about six seconds and then Higaki starts the action. Another six seconds of fast and furious action is interrupted by the appearance (and scream) of Sayo. Sugata walks by her, staring, and then runs after Higaki...

"No way!" says Iimura. ["Way!" I always shout back at the TV!]

The tussle continues in the tall grass. Iimura and Sayo run over to investigate. Higaki seems to have Sugata in his firm grasp. Could Sugata be losing? A quick cut to Iimura's concern, and a longer one on Sayo, distressed.

Kurosawa is anxious to emphasize Higaki's seemingly superior strength at this point:

Medium close-up of Higaki, still wringing Sugata's neck...
Quick cut showing Higaki's face, contorted with perverse pleasure...
Quick cut on Sugata, showing his helplessness...
Quick cut back to Higaki's face...
Cut to Sugata, showing Higaki's hands firmly around his neck. But gradually, Sugata's expression begins to change. We see the tension begin to leave his face...
Cut to fast-moving clouds...
Cut to cloud which dissolves into lotus blossom...
Cut to Sugata's face, Higaki's hands still firmly around his neck. A slight smile crosses his lips.
Cut to Higaki's face -- now furious with re-determination...
Extremely rapid cutting now -- Sugata makes his countermove; reaction shots from Iimura, Sayo...the two fighters grappling...Iimura and Sayo again rushing towards them...a pan to the right where we see that

Sugata has thrown Higaki down a steep embankment.

"Enough!" cries Iimura.

Camera on tall grass.

"Not yet," calls Higaki's voice, as he unsteadily rises to his feet. He approaches Sugata (Iimura and Sayo are in the background), reaches for his kimono, misses, and falls down the embankment, which we now see from an overhead shot...

Fade to black. Up on a close-up of the stake in the pond. Cut to a room with Iimura, Yano and the priest from left to right.

"By the way," begins the priest. "I don't see Sugata today."

Yano: "He suddenly decided to go on a trip."

"A trip? Why?" Yano looks at Iimura and they chuckle.

"I think he has something to think over."

"He thinks a lot. He's worried about Higaki."

Again Iimura and Yano laugh together.

Iimura: "Higaki's also changed since their match. He doesn't hate Sugata."

Priest: "Then what's Sanshiro's problem?"

Again Iimura and Yano share a laugh. This time, Kurosawa treats us to a long hold on the priest. He is looking bemused, as if he realizes he's missing out on the joke, and is both irritated and impatient. A very expressive AK moment...

"Mr. Yano," the priest begins. "Tell him this: if you're in a spot, come back to look at the stake in the pond..."

Iimura: "It won't be necessary. Mr. Yano, he's finally become a man."

Yano: "No. He's always like a baby."

Cut to a fast moving outdoors scene as seen from the window of a train. The camera pans left to reveal Sugata and Sayo.

"Does it bother you that I see you off?" asks Sayo.

"No."

"Father insisted on my seeing you off."

"It's all right."

Suddenly, Sayo has something in her eye. Sugata grabs his trusty ol' kimono towel -- wets and twists it and begins to try to come to her rescue (again). He pauses, however. "Does it hurt?" She doesn't answer.

He seems to decide against using his twisted kimono towel in her eye. "I'll be back soon," he coos. "Take care of your father." They both laugh.

Cut to one of those train switches that goes up and down.

"The absurd and lovable train chugs around the corner carrying them away" [DR, p. 21].

"The End" against black background.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

SOURCES:

Stephen Prince: "The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa," (Princeton University Press (1991/1999) [SP]

Donald Richie: "The Films of Akira Kurosawa," University of California Press (1998) [DR]

James Goodwin: "Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema," The John Hopkins University Press (1994) [JG]

Stuart Galbraith IV: "The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune," Faber and Faber (2001) [SG]

Akira Kurosawa: "Something Like an Autobiography," Vintage Books (1983) [AK]

8 WIPES

HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the right) -- 2
HORIZONTAL WIPE (to the left) -- 2
VERTICAL WIPE (top to bottom) -- 4
VERTICAL WIPE (bottom to top) -- 0

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