In my review of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 comedy, Yojimbo, I said the film was an example of Kurosawa Lite, but that Kurosawa Lite was still better than most ‘heavier’ films of other directors. Well, those sentiments can be echoed in spades for that film’s sequel (or prequel?) Sanjuro (????), made in 1962. It could be classified as Kurosawa Liter, but it’s still an enjoyable experience. Unlike Yojimbo, though, it’s not even a dark comedy, it’s virtually pure comedy, and, despite being better than most, the truth is that Chaplin, Keaton, and Groucho Marx have nothing to lose sleep over.
This is because while the comedy works, for the most part, the actual film plot is propelled almost entirely by the Dumbest Possible Action trope, meaning, that unless the characters act in the dumbest humanly possible manner, nothing can happen. The saving grace of this film is, of course, Toshirô Mifune, as Sanjuro. There is some debate as to whether or not his Sanjuro, in this film, is the same one as in the prior film, because a) he seems less malevolent and mercenary, and b) he gives himself a different name, Tsubaki Sanjuro (aka 30 Year Old Camellia Tree). But, given that the character names himself while seeing a different plant, and makes the same stale joke in both films, it’s a good bet that they are one and the same. But, given that Sanjuro seems to be set in an earlier peaceful, and less technological era than Yojimbo, it is more likely a prequel, for this ronin is less embittered than the one in Yojimbo, and not quite as wise nor evil. One gets the sense that this Sanjuro still has faith in mankind; a belief wholly expunged by the time of the events in Yojimbo. Nonetheless, the screenplay was based upon Shugoro Yamamoto’s short story Peaceful Days (???? Nichinichi Hei-an), and adapted by Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni; which basically consisted of them adding the Sanjuro character wholly into the tale. The only other possibility is that Sanjuro is meant to be taken as a mythic, timeless character who simple wanders the hills and dales of time, looking for adventure stories to plop himself into for, he is the superantihero everyone seems to love, even if, in this film, he is more of a traditional hero, or superhero, than the superantihero he was in Yojimbo.
The film starts with nine young samurai, worried about corruption in the leadership of their clan. They are overheard by a snoozing Sanjuro, who warns them their assumptions are wrong. The rest of the film concerns Sanjuro’s saving the asses of the ‘Nine Stupid Samurai,’ as one of the actors who played one of them recalls in the DVD features, because they are too dumb to realize the reality of their situation. They seek to release Mutsuta (Yunosuke Ito), a clean chamberlain who is trying to root out a corrupt superintendent, Kikui (Masao Shimizu), and his minions. After several failed attempts, in which Sanjuro saves the idiotic nine (never failing to rebuke them as stupid, fools, or idiots; or my favorite, when he asks them, ‘Aren’t you tired of being stupid yet?’), Sanjuro worms his way into the conspiracy, and its main henchman, Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai, who was also a different bad guy in Yojimbo); whom he continually outwits, until he is captured, after tricking Muroto into believing there is a larger conspiracy against his forces. Left alone, and bound, he tricks some of the older conspirators into signaling the nine young samurai, who rescue him. The film ends with the restoration of Mutsuta to his position of power, and the end of the conspiracy. Mutsuta proves to be a wise and self-effacing man, but he never meets Sanjuro, who takes off. Mutsuta sends the young samurai after him, and they find him by the side of the road, confronted by Muroto, who demands a swordfight so that he can restore his honor, after being so easily outwitted by Sanjuro. Sanjuro demurs, claiming Muroto should not be ashamed, but finally assents, even after flattering Muroto on his skill. Their duel lasts only a second, as Sanjuro dispatches Muroto with a single strafe across his chest, which produces an unreal arterial spray, the sort which then became de rigueur in samurai films, but which is anatomically incorrect. and looks phony from the get go. The young samurai are even more in awe, and bow to him, but Sanjuro warns them not to follow, and ends the film in the same manner the first film ended, telling them he’ll see them around.
The film, as mentioned, is really fluff- even more so than its progenitor film, but many critics again (tiringly) try to read deeper meaning into the film, such as when the chamberlain’s rescued wife chides Sanjuro for all his bloodletting, by stating that killing people is a bad habit, and that ‘the best sword is kept in his sheath,’ among other things. But even the first expression of this sentiment is done in a comic setting. Yet, nothing else of depth exists, even were one to grant the film this depth, and far too much of the plot, as mentioned, relies on Dumbest Possible Actions, such as guards getting drunk while watching a valuable prisoner; Muroto’s quick embrace of Sanjuro, a total stranger, into his world, and easily telling him of his plans; Muroto not quite catching on to Sanjuro’s obvious lies until the end, when it’s too late; Muroto’s tying up of Sanjuro instead of killing him; Sanjuro’s gulling of the old conspiratorial bureaucrats, and on and on, to the point where it’s just enough to be Dumbest Possible Action, but not quite enough to be taken as a parody of such a trope (one still a few decades from coinage). Oddly, while most critics enjoyed the film, they almost all, to a man, consider it a lesser film than Yojimbo, which is true. The lone exception came from New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who panned the first film, but raved on about this film, even though it is bloodier, less daring, less technically impressive, more ham-handed in its comedy, and more poorly written and acted. Go figure, but that was Crowther, one of the worst film critics to ever set pen to page.
The 96 minute, black and white film, is part of a two pack DVD set from The Criterion Collection, along with Yojimbo. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1, and includes the original theatrical trailer and teaser, an insert booklet, a stills gallery, and a 35 minute long documentary on the film from Toho Studios, called Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. It also features an audio commentary from the notorious Stephen Prince, whose commentary on Yojimbo was not particularly good. This one is much better, even as it is for a lesser film. Prince makes note of the film’s soundtrack, by Masaru Sato, who did Yojimbo’s. Like that one, the actual music is enjoyable, but unlike in Yojimbo, the music is very well scored. Note especially the comic scenes, and one scene of celebration, between the nine young samurai, where the jazzy music feels almost infantile in its unbounded joy. There is less visual daring in this film, whose cinematography was done by Fukuzo Koizumi and Koichi Saito, but there are a few boom shots and frame within frame shots that are wonderful to view. A few noticeable lens flares mar some outdoor scenes, and these occur at the end of the film.
Overall, Sanjuro is a technically well made enough film, and it is leagues above the films made today, action or not, comedy or not, but it is still, truth be told, a very mediocre Kurosawa film. In fact, even some of the flawed films of the late 1940s, from Kurosawa, were better than this because, at least those films had some moments of greatness. Sanjuro is just an extended, if enjoyable, mediocrity. Fortunately, the master returned, the very next year, with what is the greatest of his films that I’ve yet seen, 1963’s High And Low. So if one is tempted to use the old ‘darkest before dawn’ trope, don’t, unless one wants me to unleash Chapter 3 in this amusing, but oh so tired, drama. Kurosawa Lite is good, Kurosawa Liter is solid, but does one really want Kurosawa Litest? If you do, tempt me; just know I don’t follow the chamberlain’s wife’s words, ok?
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.