Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Sugata Sanshiro (1943)

Action movies are in a bit of a recession these days. It might have something to do with Steven Seagal, or superheroes, or critics not paying proper respect to the biceps that built this world. Maybe the decline of action represents weakness in society. Enter Sugata Sanshiro-sama: the figurehead of humanity and the prototypical man, 1943 edition. He kicks, throws, and makes faces as he simultaneously sets the stage for Bruce Lee and all of entertainment wrestling.

Like Enter the Dragon (1973) and The Matrix (1999), this is a seminal film, the likes of which happen only once in a generation. (Until the sequels.) It is also a Kurosawa film, his first feature. Even if you don’t like martial arts movies, that is reason enough to watch it.


Replace blast processing with rear projection and you’ve got one badass judo guy.

One is reminded of the Segata Sanshiro ads, and how the Sega Saturn commercials differed from the later Nintendo Wii commercials. The Wii is politely presented at your home by a couple of Japanese businessmen, while the Saturn is delivered by a judo guy who kicks your ass and smacks you upside the fucking head with it. How’s that for gaming?

Yeah, Sega makes the cool consoles, and they’ve got the uniquely Japanese Sugata Segata Sanshiro representing. The company’s disorganized machismo cost them everything, and judo practitioners can’t do judo after they outgrow their youthful bodies. There may be some truth to the enduring heroic myths, but in philosophy it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Where people see wisdom in some jock/hero/mascot/ideology, there may just be delusion.

I like to think that Sugata Sanshiro is not delusional. After all, it’s nice to believe in something. There have been 6 sequels, dozens of parody commercials, and music videos, for a reason. He is an ultimate badass; get on his level.

In starting with an action movie, Kurosawa made the right call. He showed a philosophy that has stood the test of time while also showing people kicking ass and flying across the room. The film portrays the judo lifestyle as something visually spectacular, which judo itself is. This film is judo, and judo should not be understated.

The film constantly reminds the audience of those spectacular scenes, even though most of the film is low-budget talking parts. It gets more for less, something Hollywood has always tried and failed to do. Beginning in the ’30s and up until not too long ago, the indie action movie was more than just viable, it was en vogue.

The product on offer is a gratifying macho experience. Does it give meaning to your life? This world gave up on real heroes a century ago. A return to more primitive times would trade technology for brawny individualism. A movie is a modern compromise between those things. If we forsake even our imaginary heroes, will we be left with nothing but technology and pragmatic philosophy? What about the ass-kicking? Let us remember and celebrate where we came from.