Akira Kurosawa: Sanjuro (1962) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
16Nov/120

Akira Kurosawa: Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro is a model sequel in that it takes the character and some general ideas from the first film and creates an entirely new experience using them as inspiration. You could go into a viewing of this movie knowing nothing at all about Yojimbo and not miss out on a single thing; those who have seen the first film will enjoy how this one builds on the character in a new environment. Unlike the first time around, Sanjuro has a wider array of characters with varying levels of intelligence, motivation, and morality. Here we get to see Toshiro Mifune's iconic ronin interacting with more than just homogenous scum.

The film's premise is a fairly classic one: nine samurai have made it their mission to root out corruption in their clan, and through their efforts, the chamberlain—uncle to the group's leader—has been taken and framed for said corruption by the superintendent and his men. All of this isn't entirely clear at first, as the samurai sit in a hut discussing their predicament and the key players, and Sanjuro quietly emerges from the background pointing out holes in their story. In an opening scene that assumes viewers have some knowledge of the character but doesn't require it, Sanjuro insinuates himself into their lives and conflict like a good-natured uncle trying to casually, inconspicuously provide guidance. One of the samurai later explains to the chamberlain’s wife, “a strange series of events has made him our ally.”

One of the things that's so surprising to me about Sanjuro is how it fits in seamlessly with the attitude and aesthetic of Yojimbo while telling a substantially softer and more moralistic story. Gone is the brutal cynicism and nihilistic humor of the earlier film — much of the humor here revolves around a more good-natured display of how much smarter and craftier Sanjuro is than the samurai he's helping, putting together pieces of their enemies' strategy and plan as if it should be common knowledge while the rest of the men rush to more rash conclusions.The most interesting connection between the two is how Sanjuro contrasts the lawlessness of Yojimbo with a structured, seemingly governed society rife with corruption. Only Sanjuro's talent for manipulation and his playing fairly loose with the traditional samurai code—which is by contrast portrayed as simple and naïve—saves the clan's more honorable residents from falling prey to the corrupt officials, and this poses a question more complicated than the film initially appears: are the people living in this town, governed as it supposedly is by a legal structure that acts as a front and a shield for the same type of corruption that the warring gangs wore on their sleeves in Yojimbo, in any better or more hopeful a situation?

To me, the only misstep here is that Akira Kurosawa undercuts this question by tacking on an ending sequence that seems to force a hopeful sentimentality. The majority of the movie is relatively positive compared to Yojimbo—Sanjuro reveals himself to have a moral compass, obscured as it is by his gruff demeanor, by helping the samurai, and we are always rooting for the protagonists rather than simply rooting against everyone but Mifune—but the ending seems like a bad cliché. (Excepting the excellent final showdown, in which Kurosawa sensationalizes the violence for the first time in a way that winks at the comic book nature of the whole series).

Aside from this brief faltering, Sanjuro is still a great success for me. It has less teeth to it than Yojimbo, opting instead for an approach that more subtly undercuts the samurai genre, and that's fine. It doesn't come roaring in with a totally fresh and unique take on the genre like Kurosawa's previous effort either—you're not going to be able to trace the distinct influence of Sanjuro through to movies being made today like you can with that film—but that's ok too.Reading your musings on Sanjuro highlights just how interesting this project has been for placing Kurosawa’s films in the larger context of his career.  It’s easy to see where the ronin of Sanjuro takes the basic structure of his appearance in Yojimbo, but I saw a lot more of Sanshiro (of Sanshiro Sugata) than I saw of the rogue we observed last week.

Sanjuro borrows the episodic structure of the Sanshiro tales Kurosawa started his career off with a bit of polarization.  Between Part 1 and Part 2 Sanshiro and his students fell under American rule and he was nearly forced to kill.  This made an easy reflection of the pressures Kurosawa was facing outside the studio.  The contrast is similar with Yojimbo and Sanjuro with Kurosawa, free from many pressures and hot off the most commercially successful film of his career, making a far lighter movie.

Toshiro Mifune is a much better actor than Susumu Fujita, but to be fair the task at hand is a lot different.  Fujita needed to show how Sanshiro had changed under these new conditions, Mifune is playing an entirely different ronin this time around.  We hear Sanjuro before we see him and he proceeds to give a long explanation about why the optimistic brothers are all doomed.  In a single scene this Sanjuro has uttered more lines of dialogue than almost the entirety of Yojimbo.

The difference isn’t just in the words, but also the actions.  During the first fight scene Sanjuro makes an active attempt to avoid killing any of the enemy warriors, beating them with his scabbard in a fight scene longer than the climax of Yojimbo.  This time around Sanjruo is patient instead of coldly calculating and looks a women with sadness instead of indifference or annoyance.The pattern continues with the visuals.  Sugata Part 1 was striking and took place in warm interiors before climaxing in a powerful storm.  Part 2 was much darker, ending in the snow.  Yojimbo is all dusty streets, caskets, and misplaced limbs hacked off by men with hardened faces.  Sanjuro is much cheerier, even in the darkest scenes, with a sharper contrast between figures that are lit brighter and characters that are the height of cartoony joy.

I agree that you need to have seen Yojimbo to get a handle on Sanjuro because of how neatly Kurosawa lays out the scenario.  This is partly because of those differences I outlined, and partly because the film has the feel of a television series, something I also mentioned regarding the Sugata films.  Sanjuro has his own established theme music now, that rollicking blend of strong horns and drums, and even exits the film with the same line, “See you around,” after a moment of stylized violence in front of fearful supporting characters.

Which, to break from the comparisons between the two duos, brings me to one of Kurosawa’s most amusing creations.  The nine brothers are endlessly amusing to watch and are choreographed to move together so perfectly a great running gag is established early on with Sanjuro remarking how they can’t be sneaky moving as a human centipede (before, of course, that tem took on a far different meaning.)  They form a perfect contrast with the battle weary Sanjuro in their crisp clothing and streamlined hair to his rugged form shambling movements.  Plot-wise, their constant contrast keeps getting them into trouble that they shouldn’t be in and in physical comedy terms seem to be coming and going endlessly.  I especially love one of the self-conscious throwbacks to Yojimbo when the nine brothers come popping up from the trap floor like eager prairie dogs.

Like most of Sanjuro, that scene is funny enough on its own but has an additional smile thrown in if you’re familiar with what the Sanjuro of Yojimbo had to go through.  This sums up my feelings on the two films perfectly, separate but equal and have small moments of fun interplay between them.  The influence of Sanjuro is still as strong but a bit more subtle – how many people praise For A Few Dollars More over A Fist Full of Dollars?One other interesting thing about Sanjuro for me is how it's suggestive of some of the broader, more epic scope that we're about to see in a few weeks when we reach Ran and Kagemusha — while the action of the film is modest and controlled, it suggests a larger scale that it keeps just an arm's length away. Part of this may simply be due to the fact that the stakes here seem so much higher than in Yojimbo, despite the tone being lighter and less severe—the fates of “good” characters here appeals to more traditional emotional investment than the manipulation of gang leaders and thugs.

As a result, the scenes of action often have the feeling of a potential impending battle, as opposed to the ruthlessly efficient dispatching of individuals or small groups in the first film. The battle in the first scenes that you mention, with Sanjuro squaring off against what is essentially a small army detachment, is immediately invested with more urgency because he isn't fighting simply for himself. Likewise, there's that incredible sequence later in the film where Sanjuro single-handedly massacres an entire regiment of men in order to free a few of the samurai. It has the brutal simplicity of many of the action scenes we've gotten in previous movies, but strung together in a slightly longer, more complex manner. It's a reminder that Kurosawa has an incredible talent making visual sense of chaos (also something we both noted in the editing of certain scenes in Rashomon).

This is of course a very different effort than a film like Ran, with a different tone, scope, and purpose, but this hinting at a larger conflict that seems embedded in Sanjuro reminded me of the change we're going to see shortly from the more individualistic, visually calmer stories we've gotten lately.

Other than that, I don't have a whole lot more to say about this one. I love it, only a bit less than Yojimbo, and would watch this character played by Toshiro Mifune in just about any situation. In fact, that would be a good project—go through Kurosawa's filmography and replace any role from any film with Sanjuro. Maybe replace all references to the inevitable coming of “nuclear war” in I Live in Fear with “Sanjuro,” and that film becomes markedly better.Of the many things I anticipated you to see this film at, I must admit that re-imagining Mifune as a murderous old man sparing his children the sight of nuclear war with his blade was not one of them.  As I type this, I realize my hubris, and really should have known better.

The action scenes in Sanjuro did not give me the same sense of epic scale.  It felt more to me like a skilled puppeteer getting to play with a larger backdrop than he normally does.  The sense of scale that you alluded to we have already seen.  The Hidden Fortress and, yes, even The Most Beautiful have a greater sense of the large-scale drama unfolding behind them.  Even in that slaughterhouse of a scene later it still feels like one superheroic ronin versus many unskilled samurai.  The stakes are never at that epic level because they don't escape from the comedic combat at play.

Disagreements on scope aside, this is a wonderful film.  It's one of the few Kurosawa's I can watch with a big smile on my face and not with any sense of schadenfreude involved.  Looking ahead, we're not going to see this kind of playfulness until the twilight of of Kurosawa's career, so it's lovely to see him enter the next phase on such a great note.

Next week: the procedural returns in High and Low.

Posted by Andrew

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