There was a time not so many years ago when it wasn’t all that bizarre to see a Hollywood-made martial arts film released on a nationwide basis every few months. From about 1986 until about 1998, moviegoers could count on Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and their ass-kicking contemporaries to be annual fixtures at the theater, releasing such memorable films as Bloodsport and Out for Justice. Norris even brought his brand of family-friendly martial arts to the small screen, appearing as the title character in Walker: Texas Ranger on CBS from 1993 until 2001.

Since that time, however, American martial arts movies have largely been relegated to straight-to-video (or, in 2013, straight-to-digital-streaming) status. As those stars of the 1990s aged beyond a point where they could be taken seriously as tough guys, no one really stepped in to replace them. At the same time, the genre itself became seen as hokey by the post-ironic American audiences of recent decades. As a result, foreign studios have recently re-taken the martial arts film mantle, releasing modern classics like the Ong Bak trilogy (from Thailand) and the two Ip Man films (from Hong Kong).

Decades before any of the martial arts films from the 1980s and beyond were released, however, another more contemplative piece was made by one of the masters of cinema. In 1943, amid the catastrophic conditions Japan faced during World War II, Akira Kurosawa directed his first movie, Sanshiro Sugata. The film stars Susumu Fujita as the title character, a wild and energetic man who travels to a new city in search of a jujitsu school. The night he arrives, he witnesses a fight between several jujitsu students and a rogue martial artist who has adapted the traditional techniques into what he calls “judo.” The man, Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi), easily fends off the handful of attackers and earns Sugata’s instant loyalty.

As he learns the techniques of judo, Sugata also must learn about himself, and it is only after a long period of struggle and self-reflection that he is able to truly master the art. While physically strong, Sugata’s emotional volatility gets him in trouble early in the film. After being shamed by his sensei, Sugata leaps into a nearby pond, where he spends the night until he has shown the proper amount of humility to be forgiven. Once out of the pond and with a greater sense of self, Sugata is prepared to face the obstacles life places in front of him. His judo improves as well, which is demonstrated by two crushing victories over jujitsu fighters who seek to discredit Sugata’s art. The second of those opponents turns out to be the father of the film’s female lead, with whom Sugata has an extended flirtation.

The film’s climactic scene takes place in a remote field, where Sugata has been challenged by yet another jujitsu artist, the powerful Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), in a duel to the death. Their fight is set against the backdrop of a violent windstorm, and that technique of increasingly extreme weather to raise the tension during periods of conflict would become a trademark of Kurosawa during his storied career.

The film is definitely not in the same vein as Kickboxer or Hard to Kill, but does showcase a time when the blending of martial arts styles was still looked at as taboo. Today, with the sport of MMA involving the blending of disciplines by definition, martial artists seem more willing to examine and adapt elements of other fighting styles in order to improve their own overall techniques. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that such a practice would not have been looked upon kindly. As recently as the first few UFC events, fighters representing different distinct disciplines entered the Octagon to prove theirs was the best. In fact, the popular theory is that UFC 1 was put together as a showcase for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which at the time was virtually unknown thanks to the striking-heavy styles perpetuated in movies. In Sanshiro Sugata, that dedication to one’s art is taken to the extreme degree, with the protagonist and his enemy literally fighting until one of them was no longer alive to prove his art was superior.

Sanshiro Sugata is not Akira Kurosawa’s best film, nor is it even close to being his most famous, but it is an engrossing tale that showcases the very real conflict between jujitsu and judo in early 20th-century Japan. It’s currently available as part of the Criterion Collection and is streaming on Hulu Plus. Even for those who have never seen Seven Samurai or Rashomon, or even any of the Hollywood martial arts movies from just a few years ago, Sanshiro Sugata is well worth the 78 minutes it takes to watch.

Photo: Sanshiro Sugata

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.