Akira Kurosawa often incorporated social issues into his films. One of the most interesting of these issues was that of western culture’s affect on the Japanese and whether it was better to evolve with the rest of the world or not. Many times in his films, Kurosawa ended up bashing the message over his audiences heads: This new culture may not be the best, but everything will be all right.
Kurosawa used many different tools in getting his themes and metaphors across to his audience. By combining the right visuals, audials, and even dialogue, he completed, what he deemed to be, the perfect picture with the perfect statement on society (and he did it repeatedly).
Sanshiro Sugata began the illustrious career of Kurosawa with resounding force. On the surface it seemed to be a simple film about a judo fighter defending his art versus jujitsu. Judo was a newer version of jujitsu and was looked down upon by those who studied the older art, including _______, the antagonist of the movie. Although this antagonist studied the more ancient of the two martial arts, he was shown to be a very “modern” individual. He wore western style clothing, including fashionable shoes and by giving this character a snide attitude with western style, he made the statement to the Japanese that the west represents evil. This character was visually Europe and America. When Kurosawa established that part of the character, he turned that character into a symbol and could now do whatever he pleased with that symbol. The symbol became oppressive and hateful, something to fight against.
One should remember, however, that this symbol also represented the ancient style of fighting, and in part, the older part of society. The title character, even though he was the protagonist, fought for the younger and less traditional style of life. He was impatient and sometimes overly aggressive, but fought with nobility, as opposed to his negative counterpart. The protagonist did not want to hurt or kill, but was forced into it by the actions of others.
This movie presented what appeared to be a movie with a strong anti-western theme to it, while underneath suggesting that by looking at the west in the right light. They are not as bad as the Japanese have made them out to be.
The reason for the hidden message in Sugata is most likely the timing of the movie. It was released in 1944, during World War II. Because Japan was fighting against most of Europe and America they absolutely could not present a movie with a positive message on the side of the west. Later in his directing career, with a lot of the pressure off of him for propaganda, Kurosawa was free to make the directorial decisions he wanted to.
In 1952, Kurosawa directed a movie called Ikiru, debatably the best movie of his career. The lead character, an old man named Kanji Watanabe, was stuck in the rut of boring tradition. He went to work day in and day out and never thought about himself. Never thought to enjoy life. He was not content with his life, but he was not discontent either. After finding out that he has gastric cancer he becomes extremely depressed, while at the same time, his son and daughter-in-law want him to help them build a new house. They feel their old house is rickety and cold, much like the old man. It seems that the old way is dying out and the new is taking over. The daughter-in-law even states to her husband that they should think about themselves more, and forget about his father for a while.
Kanji finds himself dwelling on his past, he comes to the realization that he never really lived his life for himself, and would like to give that a try. The only problem is that he doesn’t know how.
He finds thinks he finds solace in a young novelist, dressed in a Jack Karuac style, who says he knows how to show him a good time. All the novelist does is drag him throughout the city, bringing him to modern bars with aggressive prostitutes and clubs playing salsa music. It seems that again, the new western culture is the aggressor and is shown in a poor light.
At one point, it actually appears that Kanji is fighting for his soul. Placed in a small room with a piano and several “flapper-like” dancers, he requests a simple, traditional song that he remembers from his youth. As he begins to sing it, he is looked at with disdain and uncomfortableness. There is no place for such traditional things in such a fast moving, trendy world.
After this experience, he meets a young woman who works under him at his office. She too, is a modern woman, and is quitting his office because “The work bores [her] . . . there is never anything new.” His interaction with the woman revitalizes him; she is young but not impetuous and she shows him how through subtle ways he can enjoy himself more.
In the end, he dies a happy man, having changed his actions dramatically, while keeping the tradition of his culture intact. This is what I believe Akira Kurosawa intended his message to be from the beginning, but because of the strict hold on art that the Japanese government held, he was never able to get that message across until more than a decade after he began working on film.
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