Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SANSHIRO SUGATA (Akira Kurosawa, 1943 [1952 censored version], Japan) Sanshiro blooms like a lotus flower in moonlight, drowning his ego, baptized and reborn in cold harsh waters: he no longer fears to live. Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut is no novice creation: it a masterpiece of mis-en-scene and tight framing, of beautiful tracking shots, wonderful transitions and sublime characterization. Though the film masquerades as a superficial genre picture, it delves deeper into human spirituality and identity, evoking the frailty of narcissism and lust for power and their brutal consequences. Kurosawa is not concerned with the physical techniques of the contentious martial arts forms, jujitsu versus judo; he instead focuses upon the human elements that devise this compound structure. He begins the film with a wonderful tracking shot through a busy village street as Sanshiro searches for a jujitsu mentor demanding his right of passage…his reason unexplained, though a children’s song reflects his hidden turmoil, ‘It is easy to go but hard to return”. Unfortunately, American occupation censors have edited this 1952 version and only title cards remain as exposition to hasten the narrative, but this barely dilutes the power of Kurosawa’s ideals. The jujitsu master accepts Sanshiro but he is only a follower. His fellow students ambush the judo expert and each is overpowered…but Sanshiro’s epiphany is to know his limitations. He abandons his past by leaving his sandals behind, as he becomes a lowly pupil. Kurosawa uses the metaphor of his discarded sandals to represent his growth: the wooden clogs floating in mud puddles, lost in the gutters and chewed on by stray dogs, but always intact. These images also help to visualize the passage of time. But the student soon becomes enamored with himself and poisoned with pride, and makes a leap of faith into the darkness. Screaming that he is not afraid to die…his judo master answers, “then die”. Kurosawa also uses stairs as an analogy when he meets a Sayo, caught in between the risers that reach skyward and stumble downwards, as he searches for his true self amid chaos. He proves his technique in judo but must face his nemesis, his dark mystic reflection, a man who is not evil but seeks vengeance for an act that was Just: this man can not understand that his own soul is empty of compassion. The final fight to the death, jujitsu against judo, is a blowing arid wind through tall grass, and our protagonist acts only according to his discipline. Though victorious, he is imbued with sadness…while love becomes a mote in Sayo’s eye. (B+)

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