Akira Kurosawa's feature debut, a compact jidai-geki packaged, from the opening bustling street tracking shot to the climatic windswept showdown, with an invigorating absence of freshman tentativeness. The eponymous hero (Susumu Fujita) is a young hothead who, striding into town looking for jujitsu training, witnesses his sensei (Denjiro Okochi) breezily dismantling a gang of bushwhacking scamps. Embracing the new art of judo, he proves himself a sturdy enough pupil to accept a martial-arts challenge from a rival master (Takashi Shimura). Though set in the 1880s, the plot hints at an ominous Westernalization in the figure of the dandyish villain (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), who all but twirls his mustache beneath black cape and bowler hat. (The WWII links are less gloved in the 1945 sequel, where the purity of Japanese judo is shaken by the unsavory thrust of American boxing.) For the most part, however, Kurosawa is less interested in wartime rah-rah than in flexing his filmic muscles -- page-flipping wipes, a brawl introduced via rapidly descending boom shots, a tackle match capped with a screen falling, slow-mo, on the fallen opponent. Even more interesting (and uncharacteristic) is the introduction of Shimura's daughter (Yukiko Todoroki) as a sympathetic feminine element in the masculine milieu, associated with beauty and spirituality -- an utter mystery to the hero and, considering the director's customary lack of interest in female characters, probably to Kurosawa as well. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce