#28 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Akira Kurosawa’s first credited film as director (he said he had as much control over his last few films as assistant director as he had over this) is missing about seventeen minutes of footage from its original release. Cut for various reasons by the censors in wartime Imperial Japan shortly after its release, the lost footage has never been recovered and the end result is incomplete. It’s not so incomplete as I can’t make heads or tails of it, but I’m pretty sure the film suffers for the lost footage. There are rather jarring cuts here and there as well as sections that get summarized through intertitles that most likely were actually filmed that the restoration effort in the early 1950s did what they could to give the audience the idea of what was missing. Based on those descriptions, I feel like the film would offer a deeper, more satisfying journey for the main, titular character, but those scenes are simply not there now, creating what is most likely a lesser, more fractured film.
The film follows Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita), a strong young man who wishes to learn jujitsu from a school in the city. The opening shot is from his point of view, tracking down a city street, viewing the mishmash of old and modern Japan in the late 19th century, and then down an alley where he finds the first jujitsu school he comes across. There’s a cut (where I presume something was removed) and he’s suddenly the lowliest student of the school. They receive word that the head of a competing school, one proposing the new form of jujitsu called judo, is returning to the city. They come upon the teacher, Mr. Yano (Denjiro Okochi), and we get one of the best sequences in the film. The eight or so adherents to the school, minus Sanshiro who is too new, inexperienced, and awed at what he witnesses, go up against Mr. Yano who throws each and every one of them in the water. It’s a remarkably tense moment as the school realizes that it’s outmatched but can’t back down, each student growing less confident as the unofficial match plays out. Sanshiro decides that the old school isn’t for him, and he joins Mr. Yano to his school.
The problem is that Sanshiro is a rash young man who gets into fights outside the school without provocation. When he comes home one night after a brawl, Mr. Yano talks of Sanshiro’s unworthiness for the school, and Sanshiro jumps into the natural pool of water at the center of the school, dedicated to the idea that he will die for his shame, clinging to a steak in the water. Mr. Yano tells him to die and chooses to ignore Sanshiro until Sanshiro decides himself to get out of the water. It’s here where the film demonstrates its greatest asset: It is oftentimes simply beautiful to look at. Kurosawa was originally trained as a painter, and that painterly approach to framing subjects in front of the camera creates many wonderful compositions. This became most obvious to me here, with Sanshiro in the pool of water. There’s a pan up where Sanshiro, clinging to the wooden stake, is the focus to bringing in the figure of the Buddhist monk (Kokuten Kodo) looming over him, ready to talk some good, Buddhist sense into him. There’s a reconciliation, but Sanshiro must still be punished for his behavior.
When Mr. Yano leaves town, an adherent to another style, Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) arrives to challenge the school. Sanshiro is forbidden to fight, per his punishment, and Higaki knows that the only challenge he could truly face would be Sanshiro. At a competition later, Sanshiro faces against the leader of the school he left and accidentally kills him in the match, leaving the leader’s young adult daughter, Osumi (Ranko Hanai) an orphan, and she tries to assassinate him for it. It’s about here where the intertitles happen twice, giving us summaries of Sanshiro’s personal efforts to overcome his guilt and grow as a person. That a lot of this gets skipped because of censorship cuts is really unfortunate, because what we end up with instead is a staccato journey instead of a smooth one.
There’s an important jujitsu match scheduled to determine a contract on which school will train the police. Sanshiro goes up against Murai (Takashi Shimura). Beset by his guilt for killing before (an act memorialized in song by the local children), and taken by Murai’s daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki). He fights cautiously, easily throwing Murai several times, and leaving him battered but alive, giving him his well wishes as Murai gets carried out. The two form a friendship with Sayo gaining affection for the increasingly sober-minded strong fighter in Sanshiro.
Higaki shows up again, demanding a match with Sanshiro, and the two meet in the hills where Sanshiro proves his worth by defeating Higaki, maiming him but not killing him. It’s another great to look at sequence, by the way. The swaying tall grass, the tall peaks behind them, and the precise framing, especially when Higaki slides down the side of the hill, are just wonderful to observe independent from their connection to the story at play.
And that story doesn’t hold together quite as well as I think it could. The cuts haven’t helped the film at all, and I do think that restoring the lost footage would, more likely than not, help to smooth over Sanshiro’s journey in a positive way. However, there’s more. The self-importance of the jujitsu schools feels underdeveloped, like the film is dipping a toe into a sub-culture that it doesn’t quite understand. In addition, I feel like the opponents that Sanshiro faces is overbalanced towards the back end of the film without a clear enough effort to integrate them into his personal emotional journey. The cuts would have likely addressed this most clearly.
As the movie stands, it’s most remarkable for Kurosawa’s camera work. The roving camera is present in several key sequences like the opening shot down the street as well as the first big fight with Mr. Yano as the camera inspects the small battlefield back and forth. The painterly compositions are the single greatest strength of the film, though. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but this film is very frequently just great to observe. In its original form, I imagine a fair number of my narrative critiques would be addressed, but until that version is found, we’re left with this. It’s an interesting and aesthetically beautiful effort.