The plot: Sugata, a young man, struggles to learn the nuance and meaning of judo, and in doing so comes to learn something of the meaning of life.
Kurosawa’s first film is already impressive. The opening shot of the film, shaped by incredible, sophisticated camera movements, shows incredible confidence. It also already links it to the cinema of other filmmakers that would come various years later. For instance, this incredible opening, instantly reminded me of the crame shots of the town in Serio Leone’s western Once Upon a Time in the West. (I have a feeling this will not be the last reference to Leone that I will be making in these journal entries.)
The titular hero, the leading character, is apparently not very interesting. But Kurosawa makes him interesting in subtle ways.
Most significantly, while the rest of the film is based on a commercial novel (which Kurosawa actually insisted passionately on directing), he wrote a whole sequence that leads him to understanding the spirituality of judo. He jumps in a pool, clinging onto a post, to prove to his judo master that he is willing to die in order to understand judo. Judo, it is implied, is not something that can be taught. At best it can be experienced, but like the present, the now, it is so fleeting that it is almost as if it were impossible to ever truly know.
And so, Sanshiro’s awakening happens when he sees a lotus flower opening. It’s poetic and yet subtle. It adds a whole type of sensibility to the entire movie that is simply unlikely, unwarranted, unexpected in a martial arts movie. Nevertheless, it is a feature that makes the best of martial arts so highly revered.
As do the fight sequences themselves. They begin in quiet. They evolve in quietness. It is implied that the fight is not a result of physical exhibition but internal (spiritual?) tension between adversaries. This is something that I remember in all Kurosawa’s fight or battle sequences, but it’s still great to see it in his very first feature.
Sanshiro Sugata surprised me. If it had been made by any other filmmaker, it’s possible that this film might have been known better. But Kurosawa’s filmography truly speaks for itself. So it is destined to be a hidden treasure against the legacy of Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Ran and so on…