I’m going to be honest – I have no clue how to start this write-up. What can I possibly say about one of the most celebrated directors in film history?
My interest in arthouse and foreign films began with none other than the towering cinematic titan, Akira Kurosawa – without a doubt my #1 pick for the Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. The titles speak for themselves: Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ikiru, Ran, High and Low, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood – I could go on. His films welcomed me in and opened my eyes to the wonders of international cinema, an obsession that continues to this day.
The most cherished item in my film collection is unquestionably the AK100 box-set from Criterion. And as luck would have it, the first Kurosawa film that popped up on my list was his directorial debut – Sanshiro Sugata.
Here’s a broad plot description from IMDB:
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.
It’s a simple story (adapted from the novel of the same name by Tsuneo Tomita) that lays the groundwork for the themes Kurosawa would explore through the entirety of his career. The backstory behind the production of the film details that Kurosawa was insistent on adapting the novel for his first film. The tale goes that he had approached Toho Studios as well as Tomita, himself, about purchasing the rights to the book before it was even published. It seems his enthusiasm was stoked purely by the publicity and advertising for the book.
Kurosawa is often cited as the most Western of the Big 3 Japanese filmmakers – the others being Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. The latter two are noted for their exploration of the domestic family and class struggles in their home country. Often times their films were noted for their “Japanese-ness”, in that they explored more Eastern themes of family and society whereas Kurosawa very plainly reveals his Western influences.
Among the Big 3 Kurosawa has been labeled the “humanist”, and he hit the ground running with themes and concepts concerning the meaning of life and what it is to be human. I think a particular line of dialogue from the film sums it up best:
Humanity is nature’s rule by which we live and die. Only according to this principle can you die in peace.
This line, spoken with solemnity by Sanshiro’s judo teacher and mentor, Mr. Yano, is the perfect encapsulation of Kurosawa’s chief thematic exploration. Over the course of 30 films he would continue to tell stories that investigated and highlighted the best (and sometimes worst) of humanity. His first film may be formally underdeveloped compared to his more celebrated films from later in his career, but even from the first frame you could see a theme that would follow him through all the genres he worked in. The “humanist” in Mr. Yano may have been a little voice on a young Kurosawa’s shoulder pointing him in the direction his career would go. And if that’s the case, then Sanshiro Sugata deserves more recognition than it gets.