“Andrei Rublev” (1966), “Voyage in Time” (1983), “Barton Fink” (1991), and even more recently “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) are all films which explore varying artists whether they’re painters, filmmakers, writers, or musicians. The concept itself isn’t new and arguably dates back nearly 100 years ago to films such as Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” (1922) and Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera (1927), which both centered on a different type of artist rather than the typical ones as mentioned above. This week’s film of the week, however—Kurosawa Akira’s “Sanshiro Sugata” (1943/1952)—truly centers on a different type of artist more in line with the norm: the martial artist, specifically the one who practices Judo.
One of the themes which “Sanshiro Sugata” deals with is the split between jujutsu and judo. The split—as Kurosawa depicts it—is more than just a difference in technique but an ideological one. An initial scene showcases an ambush of a Judo master (Ōkōchi Denjirō) by a dojo of Jujutsu practitioners. The pretense being: the Judo master is willing to teach Judo to students at the police academy in exchange for money. Those practicing Jujutsu see this as an affront to the tenets of martial arts and see to it themselves to rectify the situation. The small plotline described above—in essence—deals with the commodification of art although here it has dual functions.
The first function being a trade of art for money which is typical. The second function, however, deals with the survival of the art itself. While Kurosawa’s film doesn’t deal with this, if a martial arts master doesn’t have any students and passes away, then their specific branch of martial arts is also gone with them. Unlike painting, martial arts doesn’t have the ability to live eternally within a museum, mostly due to its nature of motion and hands-on approach. Even its ability to be “embalmed” in film—as Bazin would say—is hampered by the limits of learning martial arts from watching films. Martial arts then becomes more in line with dancing and Kurosawa uses this in effect to film some of the most violent yet graceful dance scenes in cinema.
Yet while these exhibition matches showcase both the physical struggle and ideological one between martial artists with the most intense gravitas, the scene that truly depicts the most action is one that is completely devoid of it. Following the unsuccessful ambush of the Judo master, Shōgorō Yano, Sanshiro (Fujita Susumu) leaves the jujutsu school he had joined only a few minutes prior and begs Yano to take him on as a disciple. In the wake of the ambush Yano had lost his rickshaw man who Sanshiro is more than welcome to replace. Sanshiro soon discovers that he’s unable to lead the rickshaw with his sandals and leaves them behind. Yano and Sanshiro promptly leave, but Kurosawa focuses the camera onto one of the sandals left behind.
What initially appears to be a digression of the adventures of a sandal soon turns out to be Kurosawa’s own unique way to show the passage of time through the sandal. In a close-zoom in shot the sandal is shown being swept by pedestrians, being chewed by a puppy, pelted by rain and in the more subtle depiction of the passage of time, being swept upon the river alongside cherry blossom leaves which only bloom in the spring.
The narrative here is simultaneously about Sanshiro (in the following scene we learn that Sanshiro has become not only a gifted fighter but also a rabble rouser) as well as the fictional town in which Sanshiro resides in. Kurosawa’s technique in this scene is one that would later on be echoed a few years later during the Italian Neo-Realism movement. Kurosawa takes the on-screen passage of time, nature, and the movement of the citizens in combination with Sanshiro’s off-screen training, and crescendos the film into quiet heights far higher than any Judo throw possibly could.