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Sanshiro Sugata

Sanshiro Sugata II

Akira Kurosawa Centennial

Wednesday, July 7, 2010
7:00 p.m. Sanshiro Sugata
Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1943)

(Sugata Sanshiro). Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1943, during the height of World War II and at a time when “you weren’t allowed to say anything worth saying,” as he recalled. “Back then everyone was saying that the Japanese-style film should be as simple as possible; I disagreed and decided that, since I couldn’t say anything because of the censors, I would make a really movie-like movie.” Concerning a hero’s awakening and embrace of a larger ideal (in this case, judo), the film’s dazzling cinematic energy is already pure Kurosawa, complete with novel fight scenes (one done entirely in darkness and shadow, another shot on a windswept, grassy mountainside) and a remarkable control of filmic techniques for capturing emotion, space, and time; one montage of a pair of discarded sandals, for instance, conveys the passing of the seasons with an economy that’s as simple, and as pure, as a line of poetry. Within these eighty minutes lies the foundation of an entire career.

—Jason Sanders

• Written by Kurosawa, based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Photographed by Akira Mimura. With Susumu Fujita, Denjiro Okochi, Yukiko Todoroki, Akitake Kono. (80 mins, In Japanese with English subtitles, B&W, Permission Janus/Criterion Collection)

Followed by:
Sanshiro Sugata II
Akira Kurosawa (Japan, 1945)

(Zoku Sugata Sanshiro). Forced to make a sequel to the successful Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa responded with a by-the-numbers account of the further years of our lockjawed, sweetly shy young judo hero (the appealing Susumu Fujita, who had become a major star thanks to the first film). This being a wartime production, Sanshiro warms up by battling some naughty foreigners (first a drunken sailor, then a tall boxer with “Killer” helpfully emblazoned on his flowing robe), but Kurosawa has even more fun introducing the next villains: the brothers Higaki. All long hair and white robes, odd twitches and ominous declarations, the two seem to have been flung out of a Noh play. “What interested me was not the hero but the opponent,” Kurosawa noted. Fascinating as an example of Japanese filmmaking during the war years, the film is also revelatory as an example of how Kurosawa could fuel even the basest of tales with moments of pure grandeur.—Jason Sanders

• Written by Kurosawa, based on the novel by Tsuneo Tomita. Photographed by Akira Mimura. With Susumu Fujita, Denjiro Okochi, Yukiko Todoroki, Akitake Kono. (83 mins, In Japanese with English subtitles, B&W, Permission Janus/Criterion Collection)

• (Total running time: 163 mins)