|Sanjuro (Criterion Collection)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 September 1999|
"Yojimbo" was a major hit in Japan, so Toho (the production company) persuaded Akira Kurosawa to make the only sequel of his career, "Sanjuro." He and collaborators Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni had written a script prior to "Yojimbo" intended for another director. It was rewritten to fit Toshiro Mifune's character of Sanjuro, and the resulting film was an even bigger hit in Japan than "Yojimbo," though it is somewhat less well-known elsewhere than its predecessor.
This excellent DVD by Criterion may help to correct that; the film is presented in beautiful condition -- the print lacks even the mild scratches present on the "Yojimbo" print -- in letterbox, preserving the outstanding black-and-white photography of Fukozo Koizumi and Takao Sato. Masaru Sato's score, almost as good as his brilliant work on "Yojimbo," may be in monaural, but you're not likely to miss stereo effects. This is an excellent movie, with another outstanding performance by Mifune as the scruffy, cynical wandering samurai.
There's a difference, though: "Sanjuro" is somewhat more serious than "Yojimbo," making it a bit less fun to watch, though it's equally well made. This time, Sanjuro is drawn reluctantly into a conflict because he actually believes in the cause he encounters, and not just because, as in "Yojimbo," he's amused by annoyed by the cheap venality of battling yakuza (gangsters).
Nine young samurai, all earnest and naive, meet in a shrine to discuss the corruption that's plaguing their village. Partly because the local chamberlain makes an ironic comment they misunderstand, partly because he's homely (we don't see him until near the end), they assume he's behind it, and mistakenly trust the real corrupt official, the superintendent Kikui.
The nine young men are surprised when Sanjuro, yawning and grunting, sits up behind them; he'd taken refuge in the shrine, and was awake long enough to hear their story. He warns them that the chamberlain is the honest one and the superintendent the criminal -- proved when the superintendent's men arrive outside the shrine, ready to kill the nine samurai. Sanjuro hides the young men, and steps outside to face the warriors -- of whom he quickly kills several, greatly impressing Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai again), a samurai in the employ of the conspirators. (Nakadai's character is quite different here than the role he has in "Yojimbo," but has a similar plot function.) The band of warriors depart.
Reluctantly, always complaining about the naivete of the young samurai, Sanjuro chooses to join them in toppling Kikui. He doesn't explain his thinking very often, or announce his plans, constantly frustrating those among the nine who don't entirely trust him. On the other hand, when he and the others rescue the chamberlain's very dignified, hothouse-flower wife, she instantly respects him, but recognizes him as a "drawn sword," dangerous and sharp-edged. Sanjuro is taken aback by this; she's a social type he's rarely encountered, but he immediately recognizes the truth when he hears it.
Slowly but surely, Sanjuro and the nine -- who follow him about like "a centipede," he grouses -- begin to make headway against Kikui and his colleagues, leading to another final confrontation between Mifune and Nakadai, a swordfight that has an unforgettable climax.
"Sanjuro" is the work of Kurosawa at the peak of his abilities; the story is so compellingly told that it's just about impossible to step into this movie at any point and not follow it to the end. It's witty and wistful at the same time, with some vivid characters, none more so than Sanjuro himself. Some American reviewers tended to peg him as essentially the same as the wandering gunfighters often found in Westerns, but there's more to Sanjuro than that, particularly in this sequel. He learns about himself -- a "drawn sword" -- and doesn't really like what he finds out, but at the end, he's clearly beginning to change. He's not quite as funny as in "Yojimbo," and there aren't as many action setpieces for Mifune to strut his stuff, but there's something a bit less predictable about him. In terms of story, "Sanjuro" could have come before "Yojimbo," but in terms of Sanjuro's character, he seems a little older, a little wiser, than in the earlier film. This adds a touch of complexity to the point that he's occasionally surprising even to us. Only in the greatest American films that are at all similar, say the best of John Ford's cavalry films, or "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," or "The Wild Bunch," do you find characters are richly drawn and as interesting as Sanjuro.
This DVD, though on the pricey side, is unconditionally recommended; pick it up when you buy "Yojimbo," not because they're original and sequel, but because they make such a wonderfully entertaining double bill. As usual with Criterion, the extras are very skimpy; in this case, the only one, really, is the original theatrical trailer, but since that includes scenes of Kurosawa directing the actors during production, it’s unusually interesting for a trailer.
In the late 1950s and on through the 60s, there were several foreign directors -- Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, a few others -- who almost routinely made movies that were so much better than equivalent American films (when you could find equivalents). We haven't had anything like that flood of great movies ever since; there were giants in those days. Kurosawa is simply one of the best directors, in any language, who ever helmed a movie. Thanks to Criterion, several of his best are now available on DVD. He did make a few movies that are overall better than "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro," but none that are more emotionally accessible to Americans, and none that are as much sheer fun to watch. You really owe it to yourself to get both of these films.