An almost uncut version of the late director Akira Kurosawa’s first movie will make a comeback on DVD in October thanks to a Russian motion picture depository that kept a portion of the scenes removed from the original work.
Kurosawa catapulted to international fame when his film “Rashomon” won the grand prix at the 1951 Venice film festival.
Born in Tokyo in 1910, he debuted as a director with his 1943 film “Sugata Sanshiro,” a story about a Japanese judoka who struggles to deal with the callous nature associated with judo.
Sanshiro, the name of the leading character, became popular among children who sang the movie’s title song, which included the words, “Don’t go near him, don’t touch him, get away from him, everyone. He’s ferocious if you touch him.”
The critically acclaimed movie, a dynamic portrayal of the hero’s growth as a judoka, demonstrated Kurosawa’s talent as a director.
When it was originally released, the film lasted more than 90 minutes, but censors removed a 15-minute sequence before rereleasing it in 1944.
“Sugata Sanshiro” was made by movie company Toho Co., but there are no records of why the sequence was cut. A copy of the film made after the end of World War II tells the audience that the original version was “held within the bounds of national policy and the length (of the film) was reduced without concern for Mr. Kurosawa and the production staff.”
Tomonori Saiki, chief researcher of the film center at the National Museum of Modern Arts, visited the Russian national film depository Gosfilmofond after learning that it had preserved a large number of Japanese films.
There, he found a part of the sequence cut from the original Kurosawa movie.
It is believed the Soviet army advancing into Manchuria to fight Japanese troops in the closing days of the war may have taken the films back to Russia after the end of the war in 1945.
The part discovered by Saiki runs about 10 minutes and includes scenes showing an encounter between Sanshiro and his rival, Higaki. The scenes make it clear why Sanshiro and Higaki felt compelled to fight a duel.
“Watching the deleted scenes,” Saiki said, “I found it hard to believe the content of the movie posed any problem for censors of the (wartime) Home Ministry.”
He added that the cut might have been made to shorten the viewing time from the box-office standpoint.
Teruyo Nogami, who long served as a script supervisor on Kurosawa’s films in the postwar years, said she remembers his reaction when he recalled the wartime movie.
“I think he had to cut the film with an aching heart after he was told to make it shorter,” she said. “Knowing how Mr. Kurosawa cherished his works, he must really have felt frustrated. I only wish we could have shown (the original version of the film again) while he was still alive.”
Kurosawa died in 1998 at age 88.
Toho will market the Akira Kurosawa DVD Box: The Masterworks 1, which contains the nearly restored version of “Sugata Sanshiro,” on Oct. 25.