THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SANSHIRO SUGATA PART 2″

Akira Kurosawa is my favorite filmmaker and his 1950 masterpiece “Rashomon” is my all-time favorite movie. But that is not to say that I think Kurosawa is infallible. Actually, things would not have been that terrible if his films “One Wonderful Sunday,” “The Lower Depths,” “Red Beard” and “Madadayo” never crossed the Pacific.

Kurosawa is one of the relatively few Japanese filmmakers whose work is very well represented on American home video. Nearly all of his features can be located through the proper commercial channels. But there is one movie which never received an American home video release. As luck would have it, the film is also among most intriguing but least successful endeavors. That film is the 1945 production “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2.”

In his memoir “Something Like an Autobiography,” Kurosawa recalled the commercial success of the 1943 “Sanshiro Sugata” (his first work as a director) was so strong that his employer, Toho Studio, ordered him to do a follow-up. Kurosawa, in his book, dismissed this line of reasoning with no degree of diplomacy: “These people continually remake films that were successful in the past. They don’t attempt to dream new dreams; they only want to repeat the old ones. Even though it has been proved that a remake never outdoes the original, they persist in their foolishness. I would call it foolishness of the first order. A director filming a remake does so with great deference toward the original work, so it’s like cooking up something strange out of leftovers, and the audience who have to eat this concoction are in an unenviable position, too.”

Complicating the aesthetics of this equation was the politics of the period. Kurosawa was not supportive of the Japanese imperialism that propelled his country into war. In fact, “Sanshiro Sugata” ran afoul of the censors because its protagonist, a headstrong judo student, was portrayed as being too much of an individualist and that was perceived as being too American in his personality. (The Japanese audiences that came out for the film did not agree, of course.) Kurosawa did a tit-for-tat in his next movie, “The Most Beautiful,” by using John Philip Sousa’s march “Semper Fidelis” on the soundtrack (the censors did not catch that one, oddly). But for “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2,” Kurosawa was clearly under pressure to turn up the propaganda. If Japan was losing to the Americans in the battlefield, then they had to be shown winning against the Yanks on the screen.

Indeed, “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ opens with a genuinely surprising sequence – surprising in retrospect, perhaps, but still something of a shock. The film, which takes place in Yokohama of 1887, finds a Japanese rickshaw man running wildly through the streets with his carriage. His passenger is a burly American sailor who is screaming in English to stop. When the rickshaw runner finally halts, the vehicle topples backward and the sailor is thrown out on his head. The sailor gets up and begins to assault the small rickshaw runner, pummeling him with punches and kicks while a horrified Japanese crowd looks on. But the attack is halted by Sanshiro Sugata, the heroic judo master, who twists the sailor’s arm and kicks him in the shin. The sailor pursues Sanshiro to a pier, but Sanshiro topples the American into the harbor.

The next day, Sanshiro is visited at his judo school by the Japanese translator for the American embassy. The translator is supposed to scold Sanshiro, but he advises him: “It’s well done for you to beat the American!” Sanshiro is invited to the embassy to witness boxing matches. It seems the Americans imported boxing and the local American population comes out en masse to watch these bloody, violent clashes. Sanshiro is appalled, especially when there are mismatches between puny Japanese men trying (and failing) at judo and the U.S. champ, William Star (who wears a robe bearing the logo “Killer”).

But Sanshiro has other pressing matters. The Tesshin and Genzaburo, the crazy younger brothers of his one-time foe, the jujitsu wizard Gennosuke Higaki, have come hunting for him. Sanshiro vanquished that enemy in the first movie and now his former adversary is a frail invalid. The Higaki brothers challenge Sanshiro to a duel.

Sanshiro, though, winds up back at the U.S. Embassy to fight William Star. It is something of a mismatch – Sanshiro lands a couple of judo chops and the fight is over within a minute of the first round. He leaves the embassy and encounters his old foe Higaki, with whom he makes peace. Once that is in order, Sanshiro heads to a snowy mountain for a deadly duel with one of the Higaki brothers while a storm blows around them.

If “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ sounds pneumatic, it is. Even Kurosawa admitted as much, writing in his autobiography he “was unable to put my full strength into it.” The movie only comes alive in the final duel, when Sanshiro and Tesshin Higaki fight each other barefoot in the snow. That was actually shot at a ski resort and the kimono-clad actors were literally freezing their way through the scene (Susumu Fujita, who played Sanshiro, would always hold this against Kurosawa and inevitably complained about the hardships of the wintry production). During the filming of this scene, a group of skiers came upon the location and encountered one of the actors in costume as a deranged Higaki brother. Not realizing they were on a movie set, they quickly skied off in terror. Kurosawa would later look for them to apologize for the scare.

Years after the film was made, rumors circulated that Kurosawa used American prisoners of war to populate “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2.” This was not true – the Westerners in the movie were actually nationals from neutral and Axis countries who lived in Japan at the time. The boxer William Star was played by Osman Yusef, a naturalized Japanese citizen and Turkish national who later appeared in many kaiju flicks (usually as an American general or henchman). Yusef is clearly not a boxer, either in his physique or his technique. And if one watches the film carefully, it is easy to see how Kurosawa employed the skillful arrangement of extras and the subtle placement of the camera to give the impression that he had many Americans in his boxing audience.

And, quite frankly, the depiction of Americans in “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ is much less offensive than the manner in which Japanese were shown in American wartime movies. This is not to say it is an enlightened movie – after all, a war was going on and anti-American attitudes were prevalent in Japan at the time. When “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ opened in May 1945, it resonated with war-weary Japanese audiences.

But three months and two atom bombs later, things changed dramatically. When the American occupation rolled into Japan, “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ was abruptly withdrawn from circulation. Even at this late date, it is very difficult to find the movie in Japan. From what I’ve been told, it is not available on Japanese video.

“Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ turned up in America in 1989 for a brief engagement at New York’s Film Forum (the original “Sanshiro Sugata” had its stateside premiere in 1974). Today, the only DVD source for the film is from China. However, the version being sold appears to come from a worn-out 16mm print that is full of scratches; its English subtitles leave a lot to be desired (Sanshiro is called “Saam Chee” and the translation, even from the film’s brief English dialogue, is often confusing and off-base).

Bootleg hunters can find “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2″ on several P2P sites. But in fairness, only the wildest of Kurosawa fans would want to search for this. Take it from Kurosawa himself, when he stated this “was not a very good film.”

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on January 6, 2006 in Features by
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