This entry is part of the Criterion Blogathon sponsored by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943) and SANSHIRO SUGATA, PART TWO (1945) are the first and fourth films directed by Akira Kurosawa, a man I consider to be one of the five greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. In watching these two films for this blogathon, with PART TWO a first-time viewing, I found myself watching them not as Kurosawa films, but as early examples of the Asian martial arts genre, probably the earliest films I’ve seen with significant attention to an Asian martial art—in the case of the first film, judo and jujitsu, and in the second film, judo and karate. (There are occasional bursts of judo in Hollywood films of the war years, most notably the James Cagney movie, BLOOD ON THE SUN, 1945.) As such, I didn’t connect them to later Kurosawa films (although there’s an echo of them in RED BEARD’s judo sequence, 1965), but to later martial arts films, particularly a whole host of Hong Kong kung fu films in which young Chinese heroes spend years training and competing and developing their skills and often preparing for fights with Japanese practitioners of karate and other arts. (Think THE CHINESE BOXER, FIST OF FURY, HEROES OF THE EAST, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER, FIST OF LEGEND, etc.) While the fights in the two SUGATA films are probably a lot more realistic than most such fights in films of this genre, I have to confess that I simply don’t find judo quite as cinematic a fighting art as karate and kung fu, not to mention swordfighting, or kendo. The combatants in judo and jujitsu spend an inordinate amount of time grabbing each other and grappling around the mat until they can find an opportunity to flip or throw their opponent. The grappling is often like a dance. Once the action starts, however, fights tend to end rather quickly, unlike Hong Kong kung fu films, where the fights can last ten-to-twenty minutes. Still, the two SUGATA films are rare examples of the art of judo depicted in detail on film and with great artistry.
The above picture recreates a scene of Vincent Price at the end of the tale, “The Case of M. Valdemar,” from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe anthology, TALES OF TERROR (1962). It was done by artist Jim Shaw and is on display right now at the New Museum at 235 Bowery in Manhattan. I remember seeing work by Shaw at the 1991 Whitney Biennial and being really impressed and wanting to see more. I don’t remember the exact works that were featured but they were big, sprawling paintings incorporating lots of pop culture references and conspiracy lore. Right up my alley, I thought. Shaw then dropped off my radar for 24 years until a recent New York Times article and a subsequent review by Ken Johnson alerted me to a show of Shaw’s works, titled “The End Is Here,” at the New Museum, his first American retrospective, so off I went.
Once upon a time, B-movies regularly ran in movie theaters on double bills with studio releases that were bigger-budgeted and better-publicized. I saw quite a few of them in theaters when I was a kid. Some of them were more fun than the main feature (Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, anyone?), but often they were cheap, indifferent potboilers turned out on low budgets. They were often black-and-white and, in those days, often from other countries. PAYROLL, seen on a double bill with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and THE MURDER GAME, seen on a double bill with OUR MAN FLINT, were both English-produced crime dramas that I remember very little about other than that they were short on stars or thrills. The Rat Pack vehicle, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, played on a double bill with RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a weak thriller about a team of bank robbers who wear scuba diving outfits to rob a bank on Catalina Island (hence the title) and make their getaway underwater(!).