Akira Kurosawa is widely known as one of the twentieth century's greatest directors, responsible for masterpieces like Rashoman, Ikiru, and The Seven Samurai. But every director must begin somewhere. John Ford got his start on B-westerns. Steven Spielberg began with Duel, the story of a man being chased down a desolate stretch of highway by a homicidal big-rig trucker. And Kurosawa started with that most Asian of genre films, the martial arts movie.
Sanshiro Sugata (subtitled Judo Saga) tells the story of a young man who seeks to learn jujitsu, but upon seeing his prospective sensei thwarted in an attack on a rival instructor chooses to follow this man and his new art of judo. Don't expect any nefarious plots by criminal syndicates with innocent lives hanging in the balance. Sanshiro Sugata is more like an American boxing film in that it focuses mainly on the hero's personal development and his rise to become a great fighter.
And rather than the flying kicks and fists of fury that characterize modern entries in the genre, this movie uses pure judo and jujitsu, which consists of the combatants struggling shoulder to shoulder seeking to throw the other, with only the occasional block or leg-sweep. The fighting here is simple but authentic, and fairly well staged. In between the fights, we see Sanshiro train, develop a budding romance, and learn that a warrior's spirit is as important as his skill. There is of course a villain, instantly recognizable as such because of his resemblance to Snidely Whiplash, and of course they fight before it's all over.
I must confess that the villain is never given much characterization, nor is his hatred for Sanshiro explained. More interesting is Murai, an aging jujitsu master who faces Sanshiro in the annual police tournament. He is fighting for the honor of his dojo, and to make his daughter proud. Their match, pitting Murai's skill and experience against Sanshiro's strength and agility was the movie's high point for me.
The film's low budget does show at times, mainly in the set pieces and the low quality of the night shooting. More seriously, the significance of some scenes isn't clear, and others felt like they should have been developed further, such as when the daughter of a fallen rival seeks vengeance on the hero. However, this may be due to the fact that wartime authorities cut a great deal of footage, most of which was never recovered.
Sanshiro Sugata is a long way from the kind of movies Kurosawa would be making just a few short years later, but it's not bad for a debut film, and there are signs of the greatness he would later achieve.