#29 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
The first film about the titular judo hero was such a success that Toho demanded a sequel from its director, Akira Kurosawa while also dealing with intensified wartime pressure from the Imperial government of Japan to produce material conducive to the Japanese cultural efforts to win the fight against America. What we end up getting is essentially just a repeat of the final conflict of the first film along with a shoehorned (but well-told, in a certain way, I must say) bit of anti-American propaganda. It’s a package that doesn’t really work overall, but it has moments of entertainment along with Kurosawa’s already well-practiced eye for strong compositions.
Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) returns home after two years wandering Japan in the late 19th century. When he first arrives in town he encounters an American sailor (boorish, loud, obnoxious, and ready to swing a punch at the slightest of provocations because of course) who gets really mad at his rickshaw driver, Toda (Soji Kiyokawa), and tries to fight him. Sugata intervenes, drawing the sailor to the water’s edge where he easily throws his opponent in the water. Word of the event reaches the American embassy, and they invite Sugata to fight the American boxer William Lister (Roy James) at a public event, pitting the American boxing style against the new Japanese martial art judo. When Sugata witnesses an actual boxing match, he’s disgusted by the brutality of the style and is prepared to leave, begging the jiujitsu fighter who replaced him to not fight at all. He tries to get away, but he cannot help but watch the outmatched jiujitsu adherent get pummeled mercilessly, and to callus cheering from the mostly Western audience as it happens. I thought this was going to be the thrust of the film, but, surprisingly, the American boxer gets forgotten for a good while.
Instead, when Sugata returns to the dojo and his master Yano (Denjiro Okochi), he’s consumed by…something. And I think this is where the movie doesn’t really hold up all that well. There’s something going on about the friction between what Sugata thinks is the right course of action and the rules of the dojo that limit his actions. There are three: don’t drink in the dojo, do not fight in competitions, and do not fight without your master’s permission. What is the right thing? The movie treats this, much like the details of the Japanese martial arts, in a very generic manner to the point where I’m not sure beyond some opaque sense of honor. It also never gives any real time to Yano to discuss why he won’t allow the fight (it’s literally never brought up to him). Instead, he does deny Sugata a fight with Higaki’s two younger brothers.
Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) was defeated by Sugata at the end of the previous film, and that defeat broke him. His two younger brothers, most prominently Genzaburo (Akitake Kono), who waltzes into Yano’s dojo, showing no respect for the place or the men in it, and demands a fight with Sugata that Yano refuses because of their disrespect. The adherents of Higaki karate begin attacking the students of the judo school outside, beating them with their new style. Sugata makes a visit to Higaki, a broken man who has let hate leave his heart and who watches his younger brothers’ descent into madness with sadness. He gives Sugata details of the karate techniques, and Sugata has a choice. He will either use the information he has received to defeat Higaki, or he will follow Yano’s orders to stay in the dojo. Again, why is this a giant moral quandary? Without Yano’s strong presence to offer a counterpoint to Sugata’s desires, it becomes an emotional effort against air. It feels light in terms of content but is treated heavily tonally. That’s a conflict that doesn’t really work.
And then Sugata decides to fight William Lister. Remember that guy? This American boxer subplot is so obviously an element of Imperial propaganda that it’s kind of amazing that it actually does sort of fit with the (underwritten) idea that seems to be the core of the film. Preservation of the traditional Japanese way of life and heritage is something of a central idea (though since judo replaced jiujitsu in the previous film, this is where this sort of message gets muddled). The fight, of course, goes Sugata’s way (with a single throw that makes Lister pretty much just pass out), and Sugata encounters the jiujitsu fighter that Lister had defeated earlier, giving him the prize money from the fight. In a scene that feels out of place for the rest of the film and is obvious propaganda, it’s a surprisingly sweet moment.
The finale of the film is the strongest part of the whole movie simply because of the visual aesthetics. Sugata treks up into the mountains to fight Genzaburo, and the two have a duel in the snow. The contrast of the dark figures on the bright white snow along with the expert compositions is really beautiful. The emotion of the fight feels light because of the wane nature of the overarching conflict between dueling martial arts schools, but it sure is great to look at.
It’s fine. It’s nothing special. There’s a muddle of an idea at play that never gets the attention it needs. The main character doesn’t have much of an emotional journey. It has some nice moments and some beautiful shots, showcasing Kurosawa’s technical talents but also the limits of creative output under a failing Imperial regime with a censorship board.