In the first feature he directed, Kurosawa adapted Tsuneo Tomita's novel about a young man who studies with a jujitsu master, is taught to overcome his emotions, and wins three important matches.
In 1882 Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) wants to study jujitsu and finds a school. When those in the school attack Yano (Denjiro Okochi), he throws several into the water; the leader asks to be killed, but Yano lets him go. Sugata takes Yano in a rickshaw. After a fight in the streets Sugata comes back to Yano, who says he does not know humanity. Sugata says he can die and jumps into the water. He refuses to come out until the morning, after he sees a flower. Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata) tells Sugata that he wants to study with Yano. Iimura tells him that Sugata is being punished and cannot have a match with him. The police chief is sponsoring a match, and Yano sends Sugata. The opponent Momma gets tired, and Sugata throws him across the room, killing him.
Sayo Murai (Yukiko Todoroki) tells Higaki that her father will defeat Sugata; but Higaki says only he can. Sayo goes to see Sugata and is caught with a knife. Yano teaches Sugata, and they observe Sayo praying. Sugata fixes her sandal. They meet often, and Sugata tells her that he is to fight her father. Sugata is late for the police tournament because he is praying. He says he can't fight Sayo's father because of her praying; but he changes his mind. Higaki tells Sugata that his master won't let him fight him, but Sugata promises to fight Higaki later. In the demonstration match Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura) fights Sugata. When Murai throws Sugata, he lands on his feet; but Sugata throws Murai down. Sayo says her father will win; but after his third fall, Murai gives up.
Sugata visits recovering Murai, and Sayo serves soup. Higaki comes in with a challenge to fight Sugata to the death. Murai does not want them to fight. On a windy hillside Sayo cries as Higaki strangles Sugata, who sees the flower and fights back, defeating Higaki. Yano learns that Higaki no longer hates Sugata. On a train Sayo says goodbye to Sugata, but he says he will be back soon.
This drama exemplifies how Zen influences the martial
arts in Japan, making it a spiritual discipline as well as a physical
one. Sugata's willingness to die is a reflection of the samurai
tradition of Bushido.