Tuesday 29 November 2011

Sanshiro Sugata (The Films of Akira Kurosawa #1)

Sugata De Blanc

Sanshiro Sugata
Japan 1943
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Eclipse Region 1

About a decade or more ago I went, with a friend, to a one day seminar on my favourite director Akira Kurosawa in London, followed by a special screening of his chanbara The Hidden Fortress. The day was held at the National Film Theatre and it was filled with presentations by various experts and fans of his work such as his main biographer and friend Donald Richie. Another director I admire somewhat, Mr. Alex Cox, showed us all a packet of postcards issued by the Japanese post office on the occasion of Kurosawa's death, each reprinting the original poster art for each of the 30 feature films that Kurosawa had directed (I would really love to get my hands on a set of these if anyone has any leads on where to get them).

Of these photographs, Mr. Cox invited the audience to discuss and vote whether each of the films could be considered a “masterpiece” and, after much lively discussion from the audience as to what the actual definition of the term masterpiece could usefully mean, the exercise began. It was Mr. Cox’ idea, I believe, to prove (and he really didn’t have to since we already knew the answer in regards to Kurosawa) that the measure of a film-maker’s success, influence and general richness as an artist could perhaps be measured, for fun, by the percentage of his work that could be considered to be masterpiece works. As the exercise continued using debate and shows of hands, the audience agreed that at least two thirds of Kurosawa’s output could be considered to be the great and influential works that prove him to be an artist of exceptional worth.

I relate this story by way of explaining to the reader a) what a daunting and challenging task it is to write my first review of a director's work when he's a director who I personally hold in such high regard and b) to say, having seen all but three of this director’s films to date (but don’t worry, they’re all in the pile to watch), that although the seminar day was fun, I’d have to disagree with the final verdict of Alex Cox’s presentation. For me, you see, Kurosawa is the perfect director and I believe his films are so riveting and full of absolute artistic genius (and integrity) that they are all masterpieces and couldn’t fail to be anything else. Each time one watches a Kurosawa film it’s like taking in a mini course on film making by osmosis... it’s that good.

So here, then, I present my review of Kurosawa’s first ever feature film as a credited director and, therefore, my review of the first of his many “masterpieces”...

Kurosawa worked his way through the Toho Film Studio’s apprentice system and after working on loads of movies as script editor, script writer, second unit director etc, he had become someone to be reckoned with and, for the first film he picked to actually direct himself, Kurosawa asked the studio to buy the rights to a novel he liked called Sanshiro Sugata, a period piece which tells the story of the competition and rivalry between the Martial Art of Jujitsu and the “new” form of self defence, Judo.

Sanshiro is a reckless youth played by Susumu Fujita, a regular Kurosawa actor who would later be supplanted by the “explosion of acting” that was Toshiro Mifune (a nice visual metaphor for “out with the old and in with the new” can be found in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo where Susuma Fujita plays the former bodyguard of one of the warring clans who does a runner and waves cheekily to Mifune as he makes his exit from the films of Kurosawa... at least as a major player). The character of Sanshiro is played pretty much as an “adult child” who wanders the slow path to enlightenment as he learns the spiritual and practical skills of Judo... although he’s still pretty much a wide eyed innocent at the end of the movie.

Loads of the classic Kurosawa signatures are already in place in this, his first feature. Those moving wipes that George Lucas favoured in his Star Wars films (which I suspect Kurosawa probably inherited from his love of US movies anyway... the Flash Gordon serials are full of those wipes) are already present, as is the really groundbreaking stuff like cutting a shot on motion... which was thought not to be the done thing and was, frankly, considered a mark of bad filmmaking for a long time in the western world... until film editor (and later director) Peter Hunt used the same techniques to add excitement and prove to Westerners that it is a valid technique all over again when he edited the first of his Bond films, Dr. No.

The film starts off brilliantly by leading, after a deliberate lull to show the inferiority of the jujitsu men that Sanshiro has initially come to study with, to a fight scene where the older sensei of the Judo school is harassed by the jujitsu guys and forced to despatch them all. Sanshiro joins up with him by replacing the man’s rickshaw driver, who has run off. He casts off his clogs to be able to run better and already, less than ten minutes into the film maybe, Kurosawa gives you a long visual metaphor of the casting off of his former life by fixating on one of these clogs as time marches on and you see it go, in a series of transition shots depicting the abandoned footwear while it passes from season to season, down a street in various states of distress until it is last seen floating away in the river in which the Judo master dispatched his opponents.

Fantastic stuff! And this is Kurosawa’s directorial debut? What style!

There are lots of visual and audio “surrogates” used in the film, such as Sanshiro throwing himself into a dangerously dirty sump for a number of hours/days after his chastisement (for his fondness of brawling) until he has an epiphany, of sorts, in the form of an appreciation of a flower (a thing of beauty surviving in the ugliness) growing at the side of the sump and sees himself, presumably, as this growing flower.

Another good tool Kurosawa uses is a children’s made up song about Sanshiro being a force to be reckoned with, which is chanted as they go about their play in a couple of scenes and is here used as short-hand by Kurosawa to get the message across to the audience that Sanshiro has moved on a little more over the course of the months/years.

There’s loads of dynamic moving camerawork... a lot more motion than you’d probably expect from someone who was labelled by his own people as being more of a Western director than an Eastern director, after his international success with Rashomon... although this was pretty much rivalry, jealousy and xenophobia on behalf of the Japanese for having to tolerate that Westerner’s could understand Kurosawa's films. And why is that? Because he’s using the international language of good cinema and strong semiotics which can be understood worldwide... that’s why. Even though, it has to be said, Kurosawa was an acknowledged admirer of the films of John Ford.

Also heavy in the mix on this debut movie is Kurosawa’s sheer genius of having establishing shots and, I guess you could call them “establishing moments” sneak up on you before you are aware of them on screen on a conscious level. Check out the young samurai’s introduction on Seven Samurai for an excellent introduction to this “technique by stealth” as the character is masked into shot with a load of other people before his appearance is slowly highlighted by the way in which the extras are aligned with the key players in those scenes. It’s almost like Kurosawa has found a direct line to the collective audience subconscious and uses it to throw elements of importance at you to begin their work before you’ve even consciously registered what they are... Steven Moffet uses the same approach with his “scary moments” in his writing for Doctor Who.

And this also, of course, is where Sergio Leone and the traditions of Italian spaghetti westerns truly begin... yes, I know Leone’s directorial debut was a remake of a Kurosawa film which didn’t originally get made until some 18 years after this one, but hold on a second and I’ll explain my theory...

This is where the Kurosawa action sequence starts and, hopefully most people will agree with me when I say that the majority of Kurosawa action pieces do not rely on great, strung together pieces of action. They may seem dynamic in speed and, in the case of epics like Kagemusha and Ran, scale... but they are actually more about pauses and machismo and the way in which the action is actually highlighted in intensity between the slow pacing and build up between each little segment of an action piece. And this is what Sergio Leone went on to do with his own action cinema when he started out with his Yojimbo remake A Fistful of Dollars. It’s all extreme close ups of the eyes and music and twitching facial muscles with Leone and, in the case of Kurosawa’s approach, though not overtly as stylised, it’s very much the exact same thing. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it unless proven otherwise. The final fight in a field of wheat in the extreme wind, for example, is all about the atmosphere created by the weather and that long, tall, rippling wheat in contrast to the martial arts skills being used. It is the atmosphere of action and the intensity of the feeling of action that Kurosawa seems more interested in... and not the actual details of the action itself, it seems to me. I believe without these early demonstrations of this kind of film-making, you would never have gotten to the Leone style which was taken up as a template for all Spaghetti Westerns after his first one... or at least, the Spaghetti Western would have evolved in another direction. So yes, I am saying that Kurosawa was accidentally responsible for creating a genre of Italian cinema which he had nothing to do with... just as he himself was influenced by the Westerns of such luminaries as John Ford and his ilk in his early career.

I first saw Sanshiro Sugata at the cinema in a retrospective of his work of which the aforementioned seminar was a part of and then, later on, went on to buy the awful Region 3 Poker industries release of this movie... which was muddy and had subtitles written by somebody who did not seem to be able to speak, or at least successfully write, the English language to such an extent that it was almost impossible to follow the story with the words which were being, almost randomly, thrown up on screen. This new Criterion edition is a definite improvement on all predecessors but I am annoyed that Criterion chose to release this movie as part of their “bare bones” Eclipse series as I would have loved to have seen the accompanying documentary episode of the TV show Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create which accompanies the regular Criterion editions of Kurosawa’s movies. Perhaps one day.

Still... no contest. The Criterion Eclipse boxed set of The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (which includes his first four movies) is definitely the best way of seeing this movie so far, next to seeing the thing projected properly at a cinema.

All of Kurosawa’s movies are a definite recommendation from me... this is the first one... it won’t be the last.

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