Even with twenty minutes clipped by the wartime censors, it’s easy to see what a natural Akira Kurosawa was in this debut pic. The oft-filmed story is something of a Karate Kid for grown-ups as we watch the questing Sugata choose the new martial arts discipline of Judo over the more traditional Jujitsu. The time period is 1880 which gives us a pleasing mix of old world sensibilities & values meeting head-on with a modernizing world. Indeed, the film’s most interesting character is Sugata’s final opponent, Gennosuke Higaki, a mustachioed compact tornado of a fighter, dressed in the dapper three-piece suit of a British undertaker on holiday. Once Sugata learns that humility & wisdom are as important as skill & strength in making a champion, and after winning a psychologically difficult match against the father of the girl he’s taken a shine to, the stage is set for a Sugata/Higaki throwdown. In this early work, Kurosawa hasn’t worked out all the kinks in his editing style, but the pacing & composition are fully in place and those glowering skies & windswept grain fields where the last battle occurs not only show the strong influence of Soviet silent cinema, but also point ahead toward masterpieces to come.
DOUBLE-BILL: Er . . . SANSHIRO SUGATA PART II?.