Criterion Blogathon: Akira Kurosawa’s Judo Epic: SANSHIRO SUGATA, Parts One and Two

19 Nov


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.

Judo as a dance:



In the first movie, set in 1882, a young former rickshaw driver, Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita), seeks to learn jujitsu but switches over to judo after seeing its originator, Shogoro Yano, overpower half-a-dozen adherents of jujitsu from the school Sugata had originally sought to enroll in. He studies under Yano, founder of the Shudokan school, and gradually develops a high level of skill, leading to a series of bullying incidents aimed at local shop owners and workers. After Yano lectures him about humanity and scolds him for his bullying, the chastened Sugata leaps into a pond and spends the night there sticking to a post to keep from sinking into the mud, coming out only after he’s had an epiphany. Sugata goes on to defeat Monma, the teacher from the school he’d first sought entrance to, and the injuries are so severe that Monma dies, thus arousing a desire for vengeance in Monma’s daughter, who seeks to kill Sugata at one point.

Murai, Sayo and Sugata (L-R: Takashi Shimura, Yukiko Todoroki, Susumu Fujita)

Murai, Sayo and Sugata (L-R: Takashi Shimura, Yukiko Todoroki, Susumu Fujita)

Later, Sugata enters a tournament in which he is assigned a bout with Murai (Takashi Shimura), the leader of a rival school, and father of a daughter, Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), who has fallen in love with Sugata while not knowing that he’s the man her father is scheduled to fight. Sugata wants to back out of the fight so as not to hurt Sayo’s feelings, but the old monk at Shudokan scolds him into embracing his mission. Sugata beats Murai but earns the man’s respect and is invited to spend time with him and his daughter. Eventually, Higaki, a belligerent student of Murai’s who plans on marrying Sayo himself, challenges Sugata to a duel to the death, and the two meet on a grassy windswept hilltop.




In PART TWO, set in Yokohama in 1887, Sugata is approached by an interpreter for the American Embassy about an exhibition match with an American boxer, but turns it down on the condition that it will sully the art of judo to fight for such crass reasons. The relationship with Sayo lingers but doesn’t really develop, prompting the old monk to tell Sugata: “A man with no guts can neither make a woman happy nor can he complete anything in his life.” Higaki’s two wild-eyed brothers, practitioners of karate, one of whom is crazy, come looking to challenge Sugata, but their challenge is dismissed by Yano.


To put pressure on Yano and Sugata, the brothers waylay each of the dojo’s students, one at a time, and beat them severely. Eventually, Sugata decides to defy his teacher and risk being expelled from the school by first accepting the challenge to fight the American boxer, for a fee, and then by accepting the challenge from Tesshin Higaki. He handily beats the American boxer, all to make a point about the superiority of judo, and then goes to a snow-covered hilltop to fight Higaki.


Both films end with judo bouts staged amidst natural settings, both of which I found distracting. In Hong Kong movies (think Bruce Lee’s FIST OF FURY, aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION) or later Japanese martial arts movies (e.g. Sonny Chiba’s THE KILLING MACHINE), climactic bouts of this sort usually take place in dojos so conditions can be controlled and the combatants have a comfortable surface on which to fight and protection from adverse natural elements.

Or how about this raised platform in RING OF DEATH:

Or, if you’re going to fight on the ground or in the grass, make sure it’s amenable to one’s fighting positions, as seen here in BORN INVINCIBLE…


I just don’t see the logic in staging a judo fight barefoot in the snow or on a hilltop covered in long grass when they could easily have found a safer space, one that’s easier to negotiate, somewhere in the city. As seen in the second film, the snowy hill leads to an awkward and ill-fated end for the challenger, yet he was the one who chose the site! Forgive me for thinking that judo needs to be fought on a flat surface. In his memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa describes how he took the crew to the hilltop for the first film’s finale and waited with them for three days for the wind to blow in order to shoot the scene. It seems like a wasted effort to me. Granted, these settings look very dramatic, but they just don’t seem all that practical. If I were looking at these scenes as a Kurosawa fan, as I hope all you readers would, I’d marvel at their aesthetic quality and filmic power, but since I’ve put on the hat of martial arts fan and bring assorted biases, I shake my head in disbelief.

vlcsnap-2015-11-18-07h30m12s154 vlcsnap-2015-11-18-07h32m22s183vlcsnap-2015-11-18-08h17m16s242vlcsnap-2015-11-18-08h17m26s99

And the fact that the two opponents in the snow fight are dark enough to be basically silhouettes doesn’t help. However, I will grant Kurosawa one impressive creative achievement in the snow fight. The cries and grunts of the karate fighter are heard on the soundtrack throughout the fight and add an element of menace that adds to the suspense. They look forward to Bruce Lee’s fighting cries some 30 years later. For that matter, Kurosawa’s creative attention to the soundtrack is quite sophisticated in both films and deserves far more examination than I’m giving it here.


I found the character of Shogoro Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi) to be the most interesting in the two films and the one who most looks forward to that of Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the leader of the seven samurai in Kurosawa’s all-time masterpiece, SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Based on the actual founder of judo, Yano lectures Sugata frequently and, with the help of an old monk residing at the dojo, gives him a steady stream of life lessons. Yano sees judo as a step up from jujitsu and one more in tune with the changing times of Meiji-era Japan. However, I never quite grasped what the differences were. Practitioners of judo seem more refined, given the rough and brutal nature of practitioners of jujitsu, as seen in the film. But I didn’t note any reasons given. Nor did they discuss karate very much, other than Sano’s refusal to accept it as a true Japanese martial art. It’s obviously a completely different fighting style, but Sano doesn’t really explain himself. I would like to have heard more nuts-and-bolts discussions of fighting styles, methods, and philosophies. In fact, a lot of key fights in the second film occur off-camera. And one student, a rickshaw boy who becomes Sugata’s pupil, is shown improving and maturing, simply via a montage of his bows, developing a more confident posture and demeanor with each dissolve, all to suggest his progress over months of training. I would like to have seen him actually doing some judo, to show us his developing skill. In Hong Kong films, we actually SEE the progress the young heroes make during their training.


Susumu Fujita as the title character in SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943)

Susumu Fujita as the title character in SANSHIRO SUGATA (1943)

So what about the story and the characters? Surely, these are areas where Kurosawa excels. Well, I had a big problem with the casting of the title protagonist and I feel that it diminished my ability to relate to the character and feel much sympathy for him. Susumu Fujita plays Sugata and was about 31 when he made this, although he looked even older. The character is probably in his late teens when the first film starts (in 1882). He’s supposed to play an awkward youth who gets better and better at judo as he trains under Yano and eventually, by the events of the second film (which begins in 1887), is supposed to be a confident hero of the people. The problem here is that I have never seen Fujita play a hero before. I know him chiefly from Japanese monster films where he plays generals and police chiefs, usually relaying information to someone or barking orders after he’s been given instructions, but he’s never the one who calls the shots. He plays one of the officers unwittingly embroiled in the coup attempt in JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967).

The biggest role I’d seen him in before this was Kurosawa’s first postwar film, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), in which he played one of two suitors of the heroine, but not the one she picks. In fact, he becomes something of a groveling coward who joins the military government and turns against the heroine and her husband. I don’t recall the details, but he may have been the one who betrays the husband, a political radical, and causes him to be sent to jail, charged with treason. So I don’t have a positive view of too many characters he’s played and I had difficulty accepting him as the hero in these two films. In the bullying scenes early in the first film, he’s suddenly seen grappling with shop owners and workers in the street for no reason. No context is given for his behavior and it seems totally out of character for him. I think he does the judo moves and stances well enough and he does seem convincing in the judo bouts, but I found the scenes he shares with the heroine, Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), somewhat awkward. The character is clearly supposed to be a much younger man than we see here. I never got past any of this. At one point he says, “Laugh at us. We’re young and stupid. It’s our fate.” And I just didn’t buy it, coming from his mouth. In the liner notes that come with the Criterion DVD for the first film, author Stephen Prince cites the actor’s “brash and boyish charm,” something I didn’t see at all.


Granted, it may not be fair to criticize an actor’s casting and his performance because of the films I associate with the actor from previous screenings. I imagine that those reading this will not bring such baggage to a viewing of this film and will be able to appreciate his performance with unbiased eyes. I watched the film a second time for this review in the hopes that I could see beyond it. But I couldn’t.


I was curious to see if there were any hints of wartime propaganda in either film, given that they were both made while World War II was still raging and, in the case of the second film, while bombs were raining down on Japanese cities. I didn’t see any hint of it in the first film, but the second film is another matter entirely. In fact, I was quite surprised to see that Americans represent a significant contingent of characters in PART TWO, with two major sequences taking place at the American Embassy, and two American characters getting significant screen time as opponents of Sugata.


One is a sailor who rides in a rickshaw at the very beginning and browbeats the rickshaw puller, in English, and gets physically abusive before Sugata intervenes and succeeds in using judo moves to get the best of him. The other is a boxer, William Lister, aka “Lister the Killer,” who is visiting Japan and seeks an exhibition match at the American Embassy with Sugata, who at first refuses, only to take up the challenge much later in the film. The fact that the Embassy interpreter suggests to Sugata that he engage in “a friendship match between Japan and America” astounded me, given the anti-American propaganda infusing the rest of the culture in Japan at the time. Kurosawa had trouble with the censors on the first film, deemed too “British-American,” as recounted in his memoir, but he mentions nothing about any similar reaction to the second film.


Also, while the film stresses the ability of judo to subdue and topple a more powerful opponent and Sugata does indeed best the two Americans he fights, I never got a sense of hatred toward the Americans nor did I think they were portrayed any more negatively than I’ve seen them portrayed in many later, peacetime Japanese films. One can argue that the Americans are depicted as boorish when they’re seen gleefully cheering American boxers as they beat their opponents, but I don’t see “boorish” as particularly propagandistic. (Japanese filmmakers often portray Americans that way.) Sugata is appalled at the Americans’ cheering reaction to a knockout, conveniently forgetting the fact that one of his opponents in the previous film wound up dead after a match with him and the others all wound up injured and bedridden. Later, when Sugata beats Lister, the Japanese in the Embassy audience cheer wildly. But that’s okay, I guess.


So who were all the white people (male and female) in the American Embassy sequences? When I consulted Kurosawa’s memoir and confirmed that this film was indeed made before the war was over, I feared that they were POWs forced into service as extras. (Kurosawa doesn’t say a word about any of this.) A note on the IMDB message board for this film indicates that they were all foreigners living in Japan at the time:

According to the booklet of the Toho DVD, they were legal foreign residents in Japan. An agency known as “Uehara-gumi” (as it’s based in Yoyogi-Uehara, Tokyo) supplied such foreigners as “actors” back then. Among them, Turks were the top majority, but there were also Norwegians and Swedish.

Which begs the question of what these Turks, Norwegians and Swedes were doing in Japan during the war. The actor who plays the sailor at the beginning is indeed a recognizable figure to those of us who follow Japanese genre films. My immediate thought as I watched it was that he had a remarkable resemblance to Yusuf Osman, who appears in MOTHRA, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, ATRAGON, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, LATITUDE ZERO and Sonny Chiba’s THE STREETFIGHTER, among many others, usually as a sinister westerner. Well, according to IMDB, it is indeed Mr. Osman, a Turk who lived in Japan.


He shows up again, later in the film, as one of the spectators at the boxing match, seen here on the left:


And here he is some 16 years later, on the left, in MOTHRA (1961):

The actor who plays Lister, the boxer, is listed as Roy James, identified by IMDB as follows:

Birth Name Abdul Hannan Safa

He was born to a Volga Tatar family that took refuge in Japan. His father Muhammad Safa was an imam (Muslim cleric) who fought on the side of Whites during the Russian Civil War. His family attained Turkish citizenship and he grew up in the poor Tokyo district of Shitamachi. After Turkey sided with the Allies in February 1945, he was rounded up for hard labor along with other enemy aliens. A popular media figure of the 1960s, he took Japanese citizenship only in 1971. He died of laryngeal cancer and is interred at the Foreigners’ Muslim Cemetery in Tokyo. His father died two years later in 1984.


If he was sent to prison in February 1945, then this film must have been shot before then. (According to IMDB, the film was released in Japan on May 3, 1945.) And if Roy James was sent to prison as an enemy alien, did Yusuf Osman, who was also Turkish, suffer the same fate? I’m not sure how to find that out.

In the Criterion DVD liner notes for PART TWO, Stephen Prince has this to say:

But Kurosawa could not avoid the ideological imperatives of wartime filmmaking. The narrative has two sections, and the first, in which Sanshiro confronts two American bullies, a sailor and a boxer, and thrashes them both, is pure propaganda. Before Sanshiro bests him, the boxer cruelly pummels his Japanese opponents, making him a potent political emblem: he stands for unprincipled American brutishness, a perception that had been stoked by the American use of flamethrowers against Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Islands. And Sanshiro’s triumph is presented as an affirmation of spiritual purity over animal savagery.

All quite a stretch, I daresay. For one thing, Sanshiro doesn’t even fight the boxer until late in the film. He beats both men using simple judo moves. Not exactly a “thrashing.” Lister does indeed “pummel” his Japanese opponent in the early match. Is it cruel? He hits him with boxing gloves. That’s what boxers do. How is that “animal savagery”? And I take offense at his characterization of American soldiers’ use of lethal weapons in battle against a relentless enemy as “unprincipled American brutishness.” I’d like him to tell this to an actual veteran of the Pacific War. How else were we supposed to win the war? Did he expect American combatants to bow before the enemy and then follow rules of the dojo? And is Prince completely unaware of Japanese “brutishness”? Has he never heard of the Bataan Death March or the Rape of Nanking? Or is that “principled brutishness”?

I also watched another version of the novel by Tsuneo Tomita which formed the basis for Kurosawa’s films. It was called “Sanshiro, the Judoist” and was part of “Animated Classics of Japanese Literature,” a 1986 series that offered half-hour versions of novels and short stories by Japanese authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Three episodes were devoted to “Sanshiro,” the only time that many episodes of the series were devoted to one work. As such, it parallels the first film and recreates some of the scenes we see in Kurosawa’s film, while adding some new ones. For instance, we see Sugata eating noodles in a shop when a gang of bullies enters and targets him, prompting Sugata to usher them outside before using judo to overpower each of the miscreants. He inadvertently flips a policeman who has come to intervene and he gets arrested for his trouble.

The key improvement made in this anime version is the simple fact that Sugata looks like a young man here, thus making his character more believable. And his scenes with Otomi (as Sayo is named here) have much more feeling and poignance than most of their counterpart scenes with Sayo and Sugata in the two Kurosawa films. At one point in the anime, Murai explicitly requests that Sugata protect and care for Otomi. There is one scene between Sugata and Murai’s daughter that is done equally well in both versions and that’s the one where Sugata finds Sayo at a shrine praying for her father’s victory and the two engage in quite a getting-to-know-each-other dialogue culminating in Sugata volunteering his actual identity, a name she knew only as the feared opponent of her father. This causes her some shock. It’s the only moment with any real emotional power that I experienced in either of the two Kurosawa films.

The fight scenes in the anime are well staged and are sometimes more stylized than we see in the live-action films. They reminded me of other martial arts anime I’ve seen, most notably the film and TV adaptations of the video game, “Street Fighter II.” But there are more fights in each of the films than in the three-part TV episode.

I’d love to read the novel by Tsuneo Tomita, but I don’t believe it’s ever been published in an English translation. There have been other film versions of the novel, including a 1965 film starring Toshiro Mifune as Yano and Yuzo Kayama as Sugata, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see them.

13 Responses to “Criterion Blogathon: Akira Kurosawa’s Judo Epic: SANSHIRO SUGATA, Parts One and Two”

  1. Silver Screenings November 19, 2015 at 11:21 AM #

    You raise a really good point about the importance of casting. You indicated you couldn’t connect with the lead character in the Sanshiro Sugata films because of his age, and his previous projects. However, from your description, he doesn’t sound like a believable casting choice. Personally, I find it too distracting when an older actor plays a much younger man. (I’m looking at you Jimmy Stewart / George Bailey.)

    I really enjoyed your post. I tend to glaze over at the mention of martial arts films, but the way you presented your review was so intriguing. I found myself thinking I need to hunt these films down! When I do watch them, I’ll keep in mind what you said about the style of judo & jujitsu.

    Thanks so much for joining the blogathon (and educating a martial arts novice like me) about these films. You’ve expanded my movie-watching horizons!

    • briandanacamp November 19, 2015 at 2:39 PM #

      Thank you! Much appreciated. If I had to recommend some martial arts films to a novice, I’d start with these four:

      1) BROKEN OATH (1977) – Angela Mao’s greatest film and a remake of the Japanese film, LADY SNOWBLOOD, an influence on certain parts of Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL. 1. Angela played Bruce Lee’s sister in ENTER THE DRAGON and had a long, illustrious career as a kung fu star in her own right.

      2) HEROES OF THE EAST (1979) – a film about competition between Chinese and Japanese martial arts styles, all stemming from a marital argument between the Chinese hero and his Japanese wife. No death and no bloodshed, but abundant humor and charm.

      3) FIST OF FURY (THE CHINESE CONNECTION) (1972) – Released in HK as the first title, but released in the U.S. as the second, this period thriller about Japanese-Chinese tensions in the early 20th century was Bruce Lee’s best film (IMHO) and was later remade with Jet Li as FIST OF LEGEND (another great movie).

      4) THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978) – one of the greatest kung fu films ever, its emphasis is on training as its hero, a famous Shaolin monk named San Te, goes through the 35 different chambers of Shaolin training before graduating through the last one to undertake his mission to combat the Manchu oppressors who have taken over China.

      That should keep you busy for a while. 😉

      • Silver Screenings November 19, 2015 at 4:39 PM #

        This is awesome! Thanks! I took a screenshot of your recommendations so I can have ’em at the ready.

  2. aaronwest November 19, 2015 at 12:42 PM #

    Great post! I’ve seen a few early Kurosawa (including No Regrets For Our Youth, which I adore), but had seen neither of these. In fact I didn’t know that he had made any judo films so now I’m curious to see them. You’ve really put a lot into this and I appreciate the comparisons to martial arts genre films and anime. Thanks again for participating!

    • briandanacamp November 19, 2015 at 2:29 PM #

      Thanks. It pained me to write something negative about Kurosawa and I guess I would have had a different take on these films if I’d written about them before 1998 when I started exploring kung fu films in depth. In fact, I’m pretty sure I first saw SANSHIRO SUGATA, Part 1, back then and liked it. Earlier this year, though, I watched two Kurosawa films for the first time, SCANDAL and THE BAD SLEEP WELL, and reacted negatively. I still have a few more that I haven’t seen (THE IDIOT, THE LOWER DEPTHS, I LIVE IN FEAR, DERSU UZALA, etc.) and once I get through those, I’m going back and starting over with ALL of them! Oh, don’t forget to check out RED BEARD, which has a great judo scene. And, yeah, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH is amazing. The chapter on it in Kurosawa’s memoir is one of the best in the book.

      • aaronwest November 19, 2015 at 2:37 PM #

        Early Kurosawa is pretty sketchy. I’ve seen a couple of those you mentioned above, and they are High & Low (sorry!). I have seen Red Beard and forgot about that judo scene. A new restoration came out and I’m assuming it’ll eventually come out on Criterion.

        The one thing about going in blind with some of these is you don’t know how you’ll react. It’s no guarantee that you will like the films, but I think you backed up your reaction extremely well. And you gave him some credit when if was deserved. I’ll still watch these, but my expectations are tempered.

  3. Kristina November 19, 2015 at 3:51 PM #

    Fantastic post, loved reading it and so impressed at all the work and thought you put in. Also just noted 3/4 of your suggestions in the other comment, thanks for adding that. Great work and thanks for joining us.

  4. aaronwest November 19, 2015 at 8:53 PM #

    Congrats on your Daily Award!

    • briandanacamp November 20, 2015 at 4:41 AM #

      Thanks. My first blog award! I took a break yesterday after finishing the piece and responding to the comments. Now I’ve gotta sit down and read all the other entries. I’ve actually seen a number of the films covered.

      • squawk December 3, 2015 at 9:53 AM #

        Saw the first SANSHIRO SUGATA years ago—didn’t even know there was a sequel to it. Your review makes it sound interesting,though, especially since it has non-Japanese folks in it.

      • squawk December 3, 2015 at 9:55 AM #

        Congrats on your award–didn’t know you’d won one—-for being such a talented writer, you certainly earned it!


  1. Favorites from the Criterion Blogathon | F for Films - November 20, 2015

    […] Brian Camp’s Film and Anime Blog – Sanshiro Sugata, Parts I and II. I’ve only seen the first of these early Kurosawa films. Interesting discussion of the martial arts styles, and of the wartime attitudes towards the West on display. Also a comparison to an Anime version of the story. […]

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