Sanshiro Sugata is an often overlooked fight film. Yet it is the prototypical cinematic example of the tale of callow youth maturing via the study of the art of combat. The formula's been used in movies from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, to No Retreat No Surrender, and countless fight manga like Naruto or Bleach. Released in 1943, it marks the directorial debut of Akira Kurosawa. But for the purposes of this post, it's important because it's loosely based on the history of Kodokan Judo - simply known to most as "judo", which was established in 1882 by Japanese educator Jigorō Kanō. More specifically, the main protagonist is generally recognized to be based on Shiro Saigo, one of Kanō's star pupils.
The original story was a novel written by the son of another of Kanō's senior students. But the actual Saigo was a shadowy figure, making him an ideal candidate for hagiography. What's known about him is that he joined the Kodokan soon after its founding, and was a participant in a series of matches that took place in 1886. This event, which was hosted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police department, pitted the Kodokan against fighters from other jujutsu organizations. There's not much hard information to go by, and most of it comes from judo sources. It's not even clear what rules were being enforced during the event. What's reported is that Saigo won his match with a throw so forceful it knocked his opponent unconscious (the film has a more tragic outcome). The Kodokan ended up winning almost all of the matches, and has since then exploited the victory for bragging rights over its jujutsu rivals. More recently, contentious claims have been made (containing no real proof) that Saigo was already a high level jujutsu exponent when he joined the Kodokan. Whatever the case, Saigo left the Kodokan in 1890 (or was booted out, depending on who you ask), became a professional journalist, and died in 1922.
Unsurprisingly, Sanshiro Sugata reflects a pro-judo bias. Not only is judo implied to be technically and philosophically superior to jujutsu, but more morally outstanding as well. A story needs a bad guy after all. So we have minor figures like the thugs who harass Shogoro Yano (the fictionalized Kanō), to the brooding Gennosuke Higaki, who battles Sugata in the film's final showdown. On the other hand, the scholarly Yano lectures the wayward Sugata on the need to transcend displays of mere physical force, and to learn the value of compassion, in order to become a true judoka.
However there's much more to the film than a vehicle for stoking style vs. style arguments. Despite the subject matter, Kurosawa doesn't seem particularly interested in examining the factional rivalry between judo and jujutsu as he is in charting the personal growth of Sugata. Considering that this was a wartime studio product, what's remarkable is how very little propaganda it contains. On the contrary, it betrays a certain subversive viewpoint. While the jujutsu practitioners are the film's antagonists, they're not cardboard villains that need to be crushed. And in complete contrast to the vast majority of genre fight films, Sanshiro Sugata goes out of its way to rob the physical confrontations of easy triumphalism. To any fan of Kurosawa's later masterpieces, this shouldn't come as any surprise. Any glory or honor to be gained in defeating a dangerous foe has largely disappeared by the time Sugata concludes his duel with Higaki.
The fight scenes are fairly simple, which compliments Kurosawa's introspective approach. They're comparitively realistic, but not necesarilly accurate since all of them look like judo randori - the fighters mostly limit themselves to grabbing their opponent's lapel and attempting a throw, with an occasional submission made. Whether these were the rules for the police-hosted matches is arguable. But why the heck wouldn't someone try to finish a fight by throwing a punch during an unregulated street brawl?
Sanshiro Sugata must have been a letdown to the wartime government. What they probably wanted was a series of glorious fight scenes that could be used to inflame the martial spirit of Japan's youth, and hopefully they'd want to become kamikaze pilots. What they got instead was something that could have been read as being critical of its military policies. Kurosawa would go on to direct a more conventional sequel which had the hero go up against those damn foreigners. Naturally, the critics hated it. But that's what martial arts films are for. Sanshiro smash puny Americans!