Student and master relationship in Kurosawa films

A friend of mine asked me one day, “What makes a great mentor (teacher)?”  I paused when I heard that question because it’s a difficultquestion to answer because it’s subjective.  No one really has the answer because depending on who you are and where you’re from, a great mentor or teacher can mean different things.   To me, a great mentor or teacher is someone who helps a person by challenging them and inspiring them to be a better citizen of the world.  In other words, a great mentor or teacher can take an arrogant and selfish student and shape him into humble and compassionate one.

Film makers have tried to capture the perfect student and mentor relationship and Akira Kurosawa was no exception.  Kurosawa has explored this relationship in a few of his films, including his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, which depicts a brash, but eager young man named Sanshiro Sugata (played by Susumu Fujita) and his schooling in the art of Judo.  In the film, Sanshiro Sugata is portrayed as a very eager young man who wants to learn Judo from his sensei (teacher), Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi).  Yano tries to instill him with the value of appreciating life, however, Sugata is somewhat hot headed and brash; he is seen in the film getting into brawls and becoming arrogant.  Yano admonishes Sugata for this behavior, but being stubborn as he is, he jumps into a small pond to prove that he does not fear death.

While the other students are concerned and want him to get out, Yano is not, for he believes Sugata needs a cooling off period and when he’s done sulking, he will come out.  Sugata, who still being stubborn, continues sitting in the pond all night until he sees a lotus blooming out of the murky waters.  Realizing that he has been wrong and sees the truth in what his sensei has been trying to teach him, gets out of the water and apologizes to Yano.  With this new truth in his heart, Sugata understands that to be great Judo fighter, one has to appreciate life and all its creatures.   As one can see, Yano knows that Sugata can become a great Judo fighter, but first he must learn to appreciate life and be humble.  By allowing Sugata to discover this truth on his own, Yano demonstrates the adage that actions speak louder than words.  Sometimes a great mentor or teacher realizes that words alone are not enough to instill values in a student, rather the teacher must lead by example or in some cases let a student think things over and have an epiphany like Yano did for Sugata.

Sanshiro Sugata was Kurosawa’s first foray into the student and mentor relationship, but definitely not his last.  In fact, Stray Dog (1949) was another film that Kurosawa made that explores this relationship, though it’s a little more subtle in its presentation.   In other words, Stray Dog is not quite student and mentor story like in Sanshiro Sugata (though it is there), but rather a story about a veteran detective and his young partner trying to retrieve a stolen gun (which belonged to the young detective) and capture the murder and thief who uses it.  In the film, Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is a fresh young detective who has his gun stolen from him, which is then used to commit crimes.  Murakami is paired with Detective Sato (Takeshi Shimura) by his supervisor to solve the case.  This is perhaps done to calm Murakami down and keep his confidence up because Murakami worries a lot and becomes obsessive about getting his gun back.  Sato tries to reassure Murakami that everything will be alright and not to be so high strung.

At one point during the film, when Sato and Murakami are looking for and have spotted the ring leader of a gun smuggling racket at a baseball game, Murakami wants to nab him almost immediately, but Sato holds him back and tells him that they cannot apprehend him now because the spectators at the game could be harmed; they find a more effective way of nabbing him.   By stopping Murakami from making a mistake, Sato is helping Murakami become a detective because a good detective or police officer must focus on the bigger not a small one.  If Murakami had rushed in and tried to nap the ring leader, innocent bystanders could have been killed.  Sato, in some ways, is the ideal detective to learn from because he understands his role and the larger scheme of things, which is probably why Murakami’s superior, assigned him to Sato.  Murakami needs guidance and a calming presence to mentor him into becoming a better police officer and detective.

While Stray Dog is more subtle form of the student and mentor relationship, Kurosawa’s 1965 film, Red Beard, may be his best example of the student and mentor relationship.  Why is Red Beard perhaps the best Kurosawa film depicting the student and mentor relationship?  It is because the film depicts the transformation of an arrogant and spoiled rich young doctor to a compassionate and dedicated young doctor.  How does this happen?  Kurosawa has our hero, Dr. Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), experience the condition and smell of the poor, witness a dying man, assisting in a operation where he blacks out, almost being killed by a homicidal patient referred to as the “Mantis’ (Kyoko Kagawa), being tended to by Dr. Kyojō Niide aka. Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), witnesses a man die, nurse a young brothel girl named Otoyo (Terumi Niki) back to health, said girl nursing him back to health when he falls sick himself, trying to save Chubo and his dying family, marrying the sister of his ex, and ultimately deciding to stay at Red Beard’s clinic.  Through his experiences during the film, Yasumoto changes and becomes ironically more like Red Beard as film progresses.

Why is becoming more like Red Beard ironic?  Well, Yasumoto, resented him and felt that Red Beard only wanted his notes for himself.  However, as the film progresses, Yasumoto sees through Red Beard’s tough silent guy act and realizes that he genuinely cares for his patients and is willing to face danger like in the case with rescuing Otoyo from the brothel, where Red Beard beats a group of thugs up without leaving any permanent problems.   Overall, as one can see, Yasumoto’s experiences and witnessing Red Beard’s actions have changed the once arrogant and spoiled doctor.  Living by example is probably the best way for a student and mentor relationship mature because a student generally comes to respect the mentor or teacher because it shows that the mentor is dedicated to his work and he or she is not a phony.  In the case of Red Beard, Yasumoto realized that Red Beard was not a phony and that’s why the relationship between him and Red Beard changed from one of loathing to one of mutual respect and admiration.

Overall, a great mentor or teacher is person who helps another person learn a profession or skill by challenging them and inspiring them to be a better citizen of the world.  Film makers like Akira Kurosawa have explored the theme of a student and mentor relationship.  Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Stray Dog, and Red Beard depict some aspects of the student and mentor relationship, which includes hands off teaching  like in, Sanshiro Sugata, where Yano lets Sugata figure things out on his own and living by example in Stray Dog  and Red Beard .  In the end, Kurosawa’s portrayal of the student and master in films is enduring and touching.



7 comments on “Student and master relationship in Kurosawa films

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