One of my quirks is picking things out of a novel and treating them as ‘extras’. It many times is music that may be discussed by a character, played by someone, or written about in the narrative. It could be other books which are mentioned – I’ve been turned on to a great many books this way. Sometimes it’s a film. As I read Helen De Witt’s The Last Samurai, a few of the films of Akira Kurosawa play a prominent role – especially Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I’ve seen that classic several times, but I checked it out of the library to see again. But Kurosawa’s first film was mentioned as well, and I watched that a few nights ago: Sanshiro Sugata.
Filmed in 1943 at the hight of WWII, SS tells the story of a young man who finds himself entering manhood in the city, apprentices to a jujitsu master. But when he sees the new rival method of Judo in action, he knows this is where he was meant to study. The judo master Yano takes young Sanshiro under his wing. Sanshiro, full of the power of the new martial art form finds himself showing off at the docks tossing one after another of the jujitsu devotees into the drink. Word gets to Yano, and he is furious with his apprentice, telling him that the way he fights is “worlds apart” from how he has taught his other students because Sanshiro “doesn’t understand humanity.” Yano berates Sanshiro for wasting his time. Teaching judo to him is like “giving a knife to a lunatic”. As Sanshiro protests, Yano tells him he is living “without reason or purpose”. Humanity, Yano again tells Sanshiro of his lack, “is nature’s rule by which we live and die…only according to this principle can you die in peace. It is the essence of all life…and of judo as well.” This spiritual view of the martial arts is a precursor to the centered and moral code of the samurai which we see in full flower in Seven Samurai.
At his wits end, Sanshiro jumps in the pond, saying he’d give his life for his master and he’ll prove it. After a full day and night Sanshiro has an epiphany (or reaches satori) as he sees the foolishness of his ego, the abandon with which he has defied his master, and is humbled and welcomed back into the fold. Sanshiro is then selected to stand for the honor of judo against the older, more entrenched jujitsu. Sanshiro embodies this new, bold affront to the established ways, and the much older Hansuke Murai, representing the jujitsu school. Unbeknownst to Sanshiro, he has become infatuated with the beautiful Sayo Murai, the daughter of Hansuke. Sanshiro makes short work of him. The hotshot of the jujitsu school, Gennosuke Higaki, has been loitering around, menacingly, and sees himself as a rival for the affections of Sayo. Finally, a fight to the death is scheduled, to settle the supremacy of the two arts (and, one would assume, the inside track for the hand of Sayo).
The duel is of a kind in the long tradition of showdown sword play. These are usually played out against stunning backdrops in nature. One thinks of the ultimate fight scene in The Samurai Trilogy, a stylistic duel remembered as much for the heroic sword play, as for the juxtaposition against nature’s grandeur. Here, in black and white, with the wind howling and the grasses bent against the wind, Higaki and Sanshiro stage their nature dance. Higaki nearly has Sanshiro defeated as he chokes the life out if him. Suddenly, the vision of the lotus blossom comes to Sanshiro again – the same one he had seen in the pond as he found himself.
Sanshiro Sugata is a simple film, but one that anticipated many of the Kurosawa classics to come – chewing over many of the same themes for which Kurosawa became known: the quest for perfection and the imperfections of the human spirit and everyday life; the cultivation of a moral center to guide a man along the right path; and the codes of honor and truth by which man may best serve and pass his days in the world. There’s the early fight scene with one man against ‘a sea of enemies’, and as the enemies see the tide turning against them, their bluster increases, their willingness to put themselves on the line decreases, seeing the outcome as a foregone conclusion. And of course, there’s the climactic fight scene, which Kurosawa fine-tuned as his career progressed. The way Kurosawa’s lens frames his shots as time passes with the seasons can bring a new appreciation some nearly 70 years on.
It’s fairly obvious how this initial Kurosawa film leads to his classic samurai achievement, Seven Samurai. But how does this film relate to De Witt’s novel, or more expressly to the latter film? We shall see.