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In Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Sanjuro,’ the Cuts Feel More Painful

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Akira Kurosawa Sanjuro Review

A small band of nine samurai convenes in an isolated shrine in the woods to discuss a most pressing matter: the corruption that has reportedly seeped its way into the workings of their clan’s highest-ranking officials. Unbeknownst to them a ronin, Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) has been eavesdropping on their deliberations and, in his usual gruff manner, offers his help to eventually expose and squash the ne’re do wells. The nine warriors are initially suspicious of  Sanjuro’s unorthodox approach but quickly realize he is a powerful asset in their quest to right wrongs once the ronin dispatches a series of foes with forcefulness and efficiency before their very eyes. Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that Sanjuro’s violent act of self-defense convinces the clan’s top enforcer, Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai), to offer him a job. Raw politicking kidnapped maidens, ambitious young hopefuls and mischievous villains are all in a day’s work for the incomparable Sanjuro Tsubaki (camellias).

Sanjuro, released only a year after the international sensation Yojimbo, is director Akira Kurosawa’s only foray into the business of making sequels. In fact, had the previous 1961 samurai adventure film not been the runaway success it was, Kurosawa’s 1962 effort would have been a straightforward adaptation of a short story from writer Shugoro Yamamoto titled Peaceful Days. Recognizing they had a very special character on their hands, the script was re-arranged to include Mifune’s scruffy and ever-efficient wandering swordsman. The forsaking of one potential project gave birth to a continuation of Sanjuro’s crazy adventures and few would claim the decision ill-advised. The sequel sees the titular rascal not only facing off against a vastly different collection of foes but compelled to take on the role of leader and guide for a group of soldiers praiseworthy for their courage if ill-equipped in matters of strategy.

For these reasons, Sanjuro feels different all the while paying tribute to what made its predecessor successful. Mifune’s samurai is still grumpy most of the time, bemoaning what he sees as the stupidity of the younger soldier’s decision making faculties, demonstrating little patience towards two women (Takado  Irie and Reiko Dan) who require assistance climbing over a brick wall to ensure their escape from captivity and, most importantly, is still as brazen as ever in his audacious attempts to infiltrate his enemy’s camp. In other words, the basic ingredients exist to satisfy those coming back for more of the same. It feels safe to argue that Akira Kurosawa was no slouch as a director and therefore expecting nothing but more of the same is of course out of the question. What deviations the sequel takes are almost exclusively to its benefit, providing viewers with another side to their favourite master-less samurai.

Sanjuro deftly exposes a different side to the very gruff titular anti-hero

For starters, Sanjuro talks a lot more in this film than he ever did in the first. In Yojimbo, the hero opened up a bit more towards the second half but his cold, quiet approach to surveying the playing field prior to making his moves was just as potent in building character. In the second picture, the protagonist is compelled to start elaborating a plan of attack right off bat given that he has been listening to the nine samurai and their naïve attempt strategizing. He believes in their cause, in its nobility, its altruism, and is immediately accepting towards the offer to assist them, this despite that there may be much less money to make this time around. The band hits the ground running, beginning its adventure by rescuing the lord chamberlain’s wife and daughter. From this point onward Sanjuro is a leader, offering keen insight as to how to go about their important mission and proven right at nearly every turn. True enough, the character never speaks kindly to his team members, barking orders and assaulting them with insults at every turn but the fact remains that he is helping them to stay alive against a genuine threat. Even the words of the chamberlain’s wife, played with delightful sweetness by Takado Irie, eventually has Sanjuro pause to think about the consequences of his own violent ways. Mifune, a consummate professional and spectacular chameleon, strikes the perfect balancing, preserving Sanjuro’s rough exterior while demonstrating the faintest signs that he means well for altruism’s sake.

On the other side of the spectrum are the villains, a cast of vice-ridden misfits who squeal in terror at the first sign of a threat to their machinations. The long years at the top of the food chain have not only ensured a degree of shelter from legal prosecution, hence their willingness to misuse the power bestowed upon them, but also made them soft.  They cower easily, expose signs of paranoia whenever their ace in the hole Hanbei announces news hinting at the off-chance of trouble. They are arguably the worst lot; people who crave more power yet cannot even show the boldness required to attain it. Enter Hanbei, a shark of a henchman. Imposing both physically and by his stern personality, he commands the field troops with an iron fist. Nakadai, who also played the most memorable of the antagonists in Yojimbo,  isn’t top dog in terms of military rank yet overshadows all the operations the villains perform. The power of his qualities as an actor when playing the antagonist is all the more apparent here than it was in the previous picture. In Yojimbo, his character had the privilege of wielding a pistol to intimidate. Hanbei, a force not to be reckoned with, needs no such help.

Sanjuro sports about as many action scenes as did the first adventure starring the ronin. While the film chooses to not augment the action as far as quantity is concerned, it does make the effort to improve its quality, if only slightly. Having already worked on one film where he had to swing a blade and look believable doing so, Mifune was certainly more confident this time around, an aspect that encourages Kurosawa to shoot the hacking and slashing with a tad more grace this time around. The camera allows for that much more exposure for the action choreography. Yojimbo had all-around solid action scenes although the cinematography went in a bit too close at times as if to cover up how fake the kills were. In Sanjuro the cuts feel more painful, more real, as of Mifune is legitimately going at it with a samurai sword.  Without giving too much away, the film’s final death is shocking for how unexpected it is and for its spectacular style.

A few words need to be said about score composer Masaru Sato who worked on both films concerning Sanjuro. Sato is one of the unsung stars of both films, producing sweeping, exciting music that works extraordinarily well in setting the overall tone. Both movies are at their heart entertaining adventure films, filled with suspense, action, easily lovable characters, and a considerable dose of humour. They’re supposed to be fun, no more and no less. Sato’s score, as much here as in Yojimbo, features a number of hummable pieces as well as more scene-specific bits that highlight the potent sense of discovery and danger.

A director of Kurasawa’s skill was probably best served by exploring different stories and themes throughout his career. As such, it seems perfectly understandable that he never went back to the Sanjuro well. Thinking back to the towering films he went on to direct, who would argue that he really should have produced another entry? Even so, one can be forgiven for asking ‘what if?’ Certainly, the possibility existed and with the level of talent that worked on the first two, it is easy to imagine a terrific trilogy capper. Alas, said concluding chapter can only be the fabric of the cinephile’s fervent imagination. Knowing Sanjuro never got a proper third film, a bittersweet feeling is conjured when the character utters his final line: ‘See ya around.’

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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