There are little notes to take for Kurosawa fans, little things that will give many a grin and even a laugh at what pops up: the classic "wipes" as means of scene transitions; the usage of slow-motion during an action/fight sequence, in this case at the end of a fight as the opponent conks out and the flag (this part in slow-motion) falls to the ground; Takashi Shimura, who appeared in more Kurosawa films than Mifune, as one of Sugata's opponents, who's a tough cookie but a fair fight who at the end gives Sugata praise as a great fighter; symbolism in usage of the sky, flowers, and other Earthly means as a way to communicate the environment of a scene, and a specific nature about it, as much as the characters in it. All the same, this is not to say that Sanshiro Sugata is exactly a masterwork right off the bat for the 32 year old filmmaker; the use of certain symbols, like when Sugata is in the mucky pond trying to have his own form of penance and snaps out of it once seeing a flower right in front of his face, isn't really as effective as intended and comes off as more of a cliché than anything else. The subplot with Sugata and the daughter is undercooked as romance, even as brief as it is. And the fact that the film now stands as missing 17 minutes is a hindrance; one has to comment on what remains as opposed to what could have been a complete work from Kurosawa (not as detrimental as the Idiot, but still bothersome all the same as in the title-card transitions).
But as an act of passionate action film-making, it stands its ground some 60+ years later in containing some intense scenes involving Sugata's training (I liked seeing Sugata coming face to face with a man who wants to challenge his boss, and dressed in more Western garb than anyone else in the film), and more specifically the actual fight scenes. While its a given that Kurosawa is a pro at getting down stubborn men- and professional traditionalist men for that matter- getting down and dirty and violent, it's impressive in hindsight from the rest of his career that he could add tension just by tilting the camera up during the street-fight, or in staying on the faces of the fighters, and numerous reaction shots, during the fights in the arena area. The Shimura fight especially has an aura of being as thrilling as a modern fight sequence, with aforementioned humanity coming through with every pummel and thrust and toss-up of one character over another. This all leads up to the climax, which is not only a highlight of the film but a highlight in the history of classic Japanese action sequences, as we see Kurosawa already relying on the sky, the grass pushed and pulled by wind, and the compassion of the others around the two opponents (the old man and the girl) as a fight to the death, seen mostly out of sight through the grass, proceeds intensely more due to the intent and emotion of the characters than traditional stunts and fast-pace editing.
Sanshiro Sugata is a worthy production in the cinematic cannon of Kurosawa, acting as a very good stand-alone effort for genre fans while speaking to his practically intuitive cinematic strengths at controlling the pace of a scene and meaning via certain visual cues and enjoyable performances garnered by the pro actors. It does show some of its age, and along with the cuts made in the only version available today (in a print, by the way, that is rather horrid considering who the director is) it had to face some given restrictions due to Japan's censorship laws, but it's also a cunning display of a debut showcasing the talents of a confident director in a film that was meant to be seen by a mass audience, if only for diversion during the war.