Bright Lights Film Journal

Sanshiro Sugata: Kurosawa’s Elegy for the Reluctant Kamikaze

“Sanshiro is ultimately after spiritual gain — to achieve the purity he found in the moonlit flower.”

By the time Akira Kurosawa made his directorial debut with Sanshiro Sugata (1943) for the Toho film studios at the age of 33 (seven years after joining the company as an apprentice), the film’s themes of sacrifice, spirituality and a warrior’s coming-of-age were already well ingrained in the young filmmaker — and not just because Japan was engaged in the century’s most devastating war.

Kurosawa’s family, descended from a line of former samurai, had seen its share of tragedy. When he was 10 years old, his sister died suddenly. In his early twenties, he lost both of his older brothers in a matter of months, one to suicide. (The director himself would later attempt suicide, in 1970.) But throughout his early life, Kurosawa was guided and emboldened by his father, the director of a military school for teenage boys, who frequently took his son to see Western movies as both an escape and a cultural education, even when they were no longer popular in Japan.

Sanshiro Sugata also wound up being more personal, and less propaganda-oriented, than any of Akira Kurosawa’s subsequent films made during World War II, such as The Most Beautiful (1944) or even Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945). The latter film, though it was a sequel to Sanshiro Sugata, is different in tone as it promotes Japanese judo’s superiority to Western boxing. In the original film, fighting is but a vehicle for a larger spiritual quest.

Based on a novel of the same name by Tsuneo Tomita and set during Meiji-era Japan of the 1880s, the story concerns a young man, Sanshiro, who travels from country to city to learn the ancient Japanese fighting discipline of jujitsu. Soon after he arrives, Sanshiro falls in with a group of fellow jujitsu students preparing to attack an elderly man, Yano, who teaches a new form of self defense, judo, which they see as a threat to traditional jujitsu. When Yano single-handedly fights off every young man except Sanshiro, who is watching in astonishment, the young man begs to be taught judo under Yano instead. The Sanshiro character is actually based on Shiro Saigo, a legendary “judoka” in Japanese history.

Although his fighting talents quickly become apparent as Sanshiro rises up the ranks, he is harshly admonished by his master for brashness and a lack of compassion. As Luke Skywalker learns from Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) — for which Kurosawa’s films are an important influence and antecedent — it’s not enough to merely be able to send an opponent to the ground. To be a pure warrior, in this case a judoka rather than a Jedi, Sanshiro’s fighting prowess must be in yin-yang harmony with his reverence for human life.

The film’s central narrative moment comes when Sanshiro sees the light — both figuratively and literally. After getting in a street fight, Sanshiro is scolded by his master for his lack of self-control. Shamed, he jumps into the pond surrounding their temple and spends the night there, clinging to a shrub and stubbornly hoping for an overture of forgiveness that will not come, or at least to show his master his dedication — his willingness to die for a cause. Hours later, still in the water and shivering in the middle of the night, Sanshiro notices a single flower rising from the muck of the pond and spotlighted by moonlight. This moment of singular beauty, seen only by Sanshiro, provides the young warrior his needed epiphany and the story’s turning point. The flower is fleeting, and the moment of its perfect illumination by moonlight even more so. Yet it has achieved its purpose. As it says in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.” From here Sanshiro’s growth as a warrior is complete — which is a good thing, because he will now be tested both physically and emotionally.

The rival jujitsu school challenges Sanshiro’s judokas to a match of their top competitors, and Sanshiro is chosen to fight — a validation from Yano that he has learned to be a complete warrior, with compassion equal to his strength. But then Sanshiro accidentally kills his opponent in the ring, setting in motion a pair of fights to the death.

Although Kurosawa’s visual style is generally more restrained in this debut picture than the grand presentation of his later samurai epics like Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), the moment when Sanshiro kills his sparring opponent is a memorable shot. Kurosawa presents the split-second moment of the killing in slow motion, the only time in the picture this technique is used (changing camera speeds would become one of the director’s trademarks). The jujitsu opponent’s body crashes against the wall to death with eerie beauty, emphasizing both the plot complication facing Sanshiro and this elegiac, irrevocable moment.

Sanshiro’s biggest two battles are still ahead of him, but Kurosawa sticks to a counter-intuitive approach with the narrative and fighting. Each successive physical confrontation in Sanshiro Sugata is less satisfying a theatrical battle, less full of potential glory, than the last. The movie begins with self-defense (Yano’s altercation with the jujitsu practitioners), moves to a senseless altercation (the street fight), an officially sanctioned match that ends in death, then two more concluding matches that rob both combatants of the chance for honor they believe is at stake.

After the accidental match killing, Sanshiro is challenged to a rematch — this time to the death — and pitted against a much older man, the rival clan’s most veteran judoka. But after randomly meeting the man’s daughter, with whom he becomes smitten, the young warrior refuses (after more or less winning their match) to go ahead with the kill.

This refusal to fight to the death also happens in the movie’s final confrontation, when Sanshiro meet’s the rival clan’s top fighter and. In a foreshadowing of The Karate Kid Part II (1986), after defeating this opponent, Sanshiro refuses to kill him, despite his opponent’s pleas to do so.

Although, given their common roots in ancient Eastern fighting disciplines and the renown that came to the director for these pictures, the natural inclination is to compare SanshiroSugata with Kurosawa’s later, more acclaimed samurai pictures, a better comparison might be Ikiru (1952). Ultimately Sanshiro Sugatais not an adventure story like the samurai pictures but a quest story. As such, the hero’s journey is not a search for glory or victory, but for knowledge and understanding. Just as the cancer-stricken bureaucrat in Ikiru (Takashi Shimura) wonders if there has been enough meaningful purpose to his life, so Sanshiro is ultimately after spiritual gain — to achieve the purity he found in the moonlit flower. The two films also share an actor: Shimura, the star of Ikiru, plays Sanshiro’s more elderly opponent from the jujitsu academy, whom Sanshiro ultimately befriends (along with the character’s daughter) at film’s end. And in keeping with the classic quest structure, our hero has set out with one purpose (to become a great judoka) and, because of what he’s discovered through a series of trying episodes along the way, has changed himself and the nature of what he desires.

This quest to mine meaning from death and endless conflict obviously would have been all too relevant to a 1943 Japanese film audience, sure to have included some young men who were part of the war effort, perhaps even would-be kamikaze pilots.

In Austin Hoyt’s PBS documentary Victory in the Pacific (2005), a former Japanese soldier, Masayuki Shimada, recalls being trained as a kamikaze pilot, accepting his destiny to give his life for Japan and deliberately crash his airplane into an American warship. He solemnly accepts the toasts of his commanding officers while boarding the airplane seemingly for the last time. But en route to the attack, Shimada’s plane develops engine trouble and his plane crashes off a small island before reaching its target. He ejects, safely makes it back to shore and, eventually, after six weeks, back to base. Astonished to still be alive, Shimada is initially ready to make another kamikaze attack.

“I said, ‘I wish to go on another mission. Please prepare a plane for me,'” he recalls in the film. “To my surprise the officer was angry and yelled at me, ‘How could you come back alive? You must have spared your own life. You idiot!’ I was angry; my hands were trembling with rage. They called us war gods. For the first time I realized that I was regarded merely as part of the plane. Isn’t it natural that I decided not to sacrifice my life again?” He refused all subsequent requests and orders to make another kamikaze flight.

Were Shimada to watch Sanshiro Sugata, a film about a warrior seeking to elevate himself and transcend his everyday struggles to a higher spiritual plane, it could have resonated profoundly.

Indeed, Sanshiro wrestles with practically the same dilemma. When he develops feelings for the daughter of his elderly judoka opponent, Yano urges him that the only way to win the upcoming bout is to be as pure as the moonlit flower that transformed him: a judoka and only a judoka, at least while in battle. Sanshiro goes ahead with fighting the old man, but his refusal to fight to the death is a rejection of that unflinching purity, for to have compassion is sometimes to reject one’s most extreme, and therefore pure, emotional or cognitive impulses.

Susumu Fujita, who plays Sanshiro, was one of the great stars of Japanese cinema before and during World War II. He also starred in a number Kurosawa’s early pictures. In the post-war years, Fujita settled into a series of supporting roles, most notably some of Japan’s popular if kitschy monster movies of the 1960s and ‘70s, such as Godzilla Against Mothra (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and Ultraman (1967). He also played a general in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), the Japanese-American production about the Pearl Harbor attack.

Fujita is no Toshiro Mifune. He doesn’t have the blend of brute strength, surly masculinity, chiseled good looks, and gentle vulnerability that Mifune brought to his 16 collaborations with Kurosawa later in the director’s career, masterpieces that established Mifune as cinema’s quintessential roving warrior. Yet it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the Sanshiro role, for Fujita effectively communicates through his wide eyes and clenched muscles the lead character’s blend of physical prowess and emotional youthfulness: an able disciple in need of a teacher. With a square, small head, he looks like a kind of minuscule superhero, a Mighty Mouse to Mifune’s Superman. Mifune would have appeared less boyish in Sanshiro Sugata (even though he would have only been 23) than the part called for, less of a blank canvas to be filled by the wisdom of the master. A hero must start reluctant and naïve, too much so for Mifune. He’s more Han Solo than Luke Skywalker.

You could say that Sanshiro Sugata is a kind of chamber piece to Kurosawa’s later symphonies (the samurai films with Mifune) in terms of its comparatively modest scale and formal stylistic ambitions. Yet there are unmistakable signs of Kurosawa’s subsequent visual trademarks: the use of the “wipe” to indicate scene transitions, weather as symbol of character moods, and the thematic fascination with all manner of ancient warriors.

If Sanshiro Sugata is today far less familiar to audiences than Kurosawa’s later pictures, it was at one time influential enough in Japan to inspire five different remakes. Perhaps that’s also because the nature of the story is so universal. Sanshiro could be a kick-boxer or a figure skater or an Iraq War combatant just as easily as a judoka. Judo is in this film what Hitchcock famously called the “MacGuffin”: the thing that seems important to the director but isn’t. Long after the philosophical questions or some of the more specific plot elements have faded away, the film’s two quintessential moments — both stylistically and as key points in the narrative — remain embedded not only in memory but in the canon of Kurosawa highlights: of Sanshiro staring up from the pond at the moonlit flower in surprised awe and, later, the sight of his opponent slowly flying against the wall in a death blow. In a few images Kurosawa captures the pain and pleasure that buffet and plague us all, and makes them transcendent.