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Judo Saga (1943)


Boot to the head!
Boot to the head!

Genre: Period Action Sport Drama (Japan)

Starring: Susumu Fujita (The Hidden FortressNo Regrets for Our Youth), Takashi Shimura (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail • The Quiet Duel)

Directed By: Akira Kurosawa (Seven SamuraiRashomon)

Overview: The young and impetuous Sugata learns and lives the art of Judo, all while coming to learn about the world around him.

Some spoilers in this one kiddies...

Akira Kurosawa began his career through a director's apprentice program in 1936. In two years he worked as Third Assistant Director on 13 films, moving up to Chief Assistant Director for 11 more films. In the 1941 film Uma (or Horse), a tale about a woman who raises a colt from birth and has to fight against the governmental decree that it be sold to the army at auction, Akira got his first chance at personally directing some scenes as Second Unit Director.

In 1943 Kurosawa was given the opportunity to direct his first film, and though at first I believed that this was nothing more than the Japanese equivalent of a Barton Fink-esque 'Wallace Beery Wrestling Movie' assignment forced upon him, I later discovered that the idea of turning the novel Sugata Sanshiro into a film was in fact Kurosawa's idea.

Lucky as I was to find this, the earliest work of "The Emperor", much as it was with Hitchcock's early trials at film, I was not expecting to find grandeur, and though not far from the mark, there are indeed some worthwhile dramatic cinematic moments.  

Judo Saga is the tale of an impetuous, stubborn young man who moves to the city to hope to learn martial arts, namely Jujitsu, but once he sees a new style in action (Judo) he decides to devote himself to it's tutelage.

The plot is standard Karate Kid 'Coming Of Age' fare: boy sees what Judo can do and signs up.  Later, boy tears up town fighting with his Judo skills and Sensei kicks boy out of dojo. Boy, Sugata, jumps into a pond and remains there for hours, proving to his master that nothing, not even life, is more important that his devotion to Judo. From this point on, we have Sugata encountering foes in tournaments, and facing moral dilemas like becoming enamoured with the daughter of his next opponent. The final climactic battle to the death on a wind-swept hill is certainly the most cinematic and worthwhile moment of the film.

However, as is typical of ancient, nearly lost-to-the-ages film, I found my greatest issues were with the copy I had secured. Muddy images are nothing compared to the atrocious translations - namely 'Judo' being translated to 'karate', and omnipresent examples of broken Engrish.

Chokehold to the head!
Chokehold to the head!

Overall Rating: 56% (Threw Me A Little)

Judo Saga also suffered from pacing issues that made the film drag on but ultimately, at the time of release, this did well enough to secure Kurosawa a sequel, Judo Saga II (1945). No, I would not recommend this film to those who'd like a Kurosawa primer, though a well-translated copy could be enjoyed by Kurosawa's completist fans.

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