Though the story presented in Sugata Sanshiro might not be the most appealing one, it’s still a considerably enjoyable tale about the beginnings of Judo and its most prominent representative, the titular Sugata (played by Susumu Fujita, in a role that earned him a notable spot in the Japanese cinematic history). It’s a simple and modest, but a truly elaborate and serious tale of one man’s difficult journey to martial arts stardom. In order to find peace in life and achieve perfection in the craft that he’s been practicing for some time, Sanshiro needs to come to terms with his own emotions and find a right path, which might eventually lead him to the desired golden mean.
Based on a best-selling novel, Sugata Sanshiro established the reputation of Kurosawa, and made him a prominent figure in the filmmaking business. Though it’s far from being a genuine masterpiece, the film still shows the director’s steady hand and is the admirable proof of his awe-inspiring versatility.
To become the master of martial arts is an uneasy task, and Sanshiro learns the lesson in the first minutes of the picture. Trying to join a clan of Jujitsu fanatics, he quickly realizes that they’re just a bunch of up to no good coxcombs. Seeing how easily Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi), the originator and master of Judo, defeated the group, Sanshiro decides to become his student. To become a proficient Judo technician the young, strong-willed, yet somehow reckless Sugata must overcome many of his weaknesses and find out the meaning of a warrior’s way, thus learning the true meaning of life. The student, struggling to accustom himself to the situation, is constantly tested by his master, in many more or less laborious ways. And when the time comes, Sanshiro is finally able to take part in tournaments, in order to prove his indisputable technique and unrestrained power. On his way Sanshiro meets a mysterious, elegant, devilish man by the name of Hagaki (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata), who’s like a shadow that’s been following Sugata everywhere that he goes. Ironically so, the man – with his familiar look and specifically evil attitude – comes as a typical dark character, taken straight out of a superhero movie. In the film’s most climatic and disquieting sequence, the two rivals participate in a duel that will determine who’s the strongest living martial artist.
For all the lovers of Japanese culture, and for all the adepts of Asian martial arts, Sugata Sanshiro will definitely be a worthy film experience. For the rest it might be an insightful, valuable, and well-crafted period drama that’s not only full of perfectly choreographed action scenes, but also full of humane qualities that prove to have an authentic meaning even in the modern times.