Sanshiro Sugata (Akira Kurosawa / Japan, 1943):

The upstart in the dojo, thus Akira Kurosawa in the studio ("quite a show tonight"). It opens on a busy, unpaved 19th-century street in a curving track that's revealed as a POV of the eponymous pupil (Susumu Fujita), he's promptly acquainted with the Sensei (Denjiro Okochi) following a riverside ambush. The conflict is directly stated: Ancient and modern Japan or rather jiu-jitsu and judo, the tournament banner on the arena simply reads "Match between a tiger and a dragon." The Old Order (Takashi Shimura) takes a tumble or two but cheerfully shares a meal and a smoke with the boyish victor, the viperish dandy (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) with bowler hat and white gloves is not as easily placated. "We'll fight, sooner or later." "You promise?" A roving camera on static figures, cutting on movement (rapidly descending cranes for the tumult of a boulevard melee), keen changes in rhythm—the charging novice's panoply. The central image has the proud protagonist chest-deep in pond water while gazing at the moon, a white flower caps the composition. (Drunken Angel and Ikiru wade in for their own epiphanies.) The slow-mo silk screen that drops on the fallen opponent's head, the field of tall grass ferociously animated by wind for the final duel. Amid these imperial macho contests, the enigmatic grace of a pious heroine (Yukiko Todoroki) on the steps of the shrine, just a parasol beneath gentle snowflakes. "Laugh at us, we're young and stupid. It's our fate." A ripping debut for Kurosawa, a most secure basis for later samurai studies, plus a charmingly unexpected affinity with Walsh's Gentleman Jim. The Ozu train is seen at the close from another angle, the warrior full steam ahead. With Ranko Hanai, Sugisaku Aoyama, Yoshio Kosugi, and Kokuten Kodo. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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