Friday, April 26, 2013

Judo Saga (1943) Review

Judo Saga poster
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura
Genre: Martial Arts, Drama

Judo Saga, also known as Sugata Sanshiro, is a notable film for a few reasons. Firstly, it's Akira Kurosawa's directorial debut. If that isn't enough to make you want to watch it then I don't know what is. I will get into the other reasons of why this film is impressive though throughout the review.

The story follows Sanshiro, a student of the art of Judo, and the film essentially shows us his development as a person. He starts out very stubborn and foolish but, through time, he begins to change. He also kicks some ass while he's at it.

To me, Judo Saga is kind of like a proto-kung fu movie. It is indeed the first Japanese martial arts film about hand-to-hand combat ever made that I know of. Prior to Judo Saga there had really only been chambara films (samurai films) such as Buntaro Futagawa's Backward Flow and Orochi or Kenji Mizoguchi's The 47 Ronin, and of course Kurosawa himself would go on to make chambara classics such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Judo Saga, as far as I can tell, is the first non-samurai Martial Arts film. It even has the clash of styles element in it (Jujitsu vs Judo) which many Kung Fu films would later also use in their stories when Kung Fu overtook Chambara in the 1970s.

To be fair, Judo Saga is much more rooted in the actual sport of Judo and martial arts. But there are a few street fights that are pretty dang awesome. The fighting is great, with guys getting tossed in the water and single men taking on numerous opponents. However, the actual "matches" are pretty boring. It really consists of guys just grabbing each other and throwing. The build-up to the final fight makes it all worth it, as you know that its coming and when it does come it's damn cool.

It's not about the fighting though, it's about the characters. Sanshiro is a very well crafted character. At all times you can really feel what he's feeling, whether it be shame, moral dilemma, or happiness. Even the villain Higaki is understandable in that he is the opposite of Sanshiro; Higaki is a man who is completely developed in his mind; he is sure of himself and sees no reason to change, whereas Sanshiro realizes his ignorance and is in the process of developing. It may seem like a very typical story in concept, but in its delivery it defies convention. This is almost entirely due to Kurosawa's pacing, structure, cuts, and cinematography. One need not look further than the film's first 10 or 15 minutes to see just how impressive this film is.

Sanshiro Judo Saga

Akira Kurosawa avoided so many of the mistakes that many debut directors do. Kurosawa knew just what he was doing and already in his first picture he displayed some of his filmmaking trademarks that he would end up using through his entire career. The wipe transitions, the story of learning, weather patterns reflecting character moods, and so forth are all things that can be seen in Kurosawa's films some twenty and thirty years later. Easily one of the greatest film debuts ever. Not only did Kurosawa know what he was doing behind the camera (he did work as an assistant director for a number of years, after all) but he also knew what he was doing before the project was even set in motion; he was so sure that this would make a good film that he tried to buy the rights to the novel it is based on before he even read it!

Judo Saga still

The film is beautifully shot, with stunning cinematography and imagery. The pacing and structure are impressive and the cuts are phenomenally effective. The one problem is that the film was cut by 17 minutes by the Japanese government during WWII. This, of course, upsets much of the film. Unfortunately the lost 17 minutes have never been recovered so we're left with a butchered film. I could only imagine how much better the film would prove to be with those 17 minutes back. It'd probably most definitely earn itself a higher rating.

Judo Saga fight

This is a must watch for any Kurosawa fan. It's also worth watching for any fan of early Japanese films, as it is a very impressive and, at the time, influential film. 

3/5 stars

Purchase Judo Saga on Amazon: DVD - VHS

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