Director : Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay : Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni (based on the novel Peaceful Days by Shugoro Yamamoto)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Toshirô Mifune (Sanjûrô Tsubaki), Tatsuya Nakadai (Hanbei Muroto), Keiju Kobayashi (The Spy), Yuzo Kayama (Iori Izaka), Reiko Dan (Chidori), Akihiko Hirata (Samurai), Takashi Shimura (Kurofuji), Kamatari Fujiwara (Takebayashi), Takako Irie (Mutsuta’s wife), Masao Shimizu (Kikui), Yûnosuke Itô (Mutsuta)
Sanjuro is a rare film for Akira Kurosawa: a sequel. Following the blockbuster success of Yojimbo (1961), a darkly comic jidai-geki (a period film about samurai) that introduced the world to Toshiro Mifune’s gruff, wily samurai, Kurosawa dusted off an older script and tailored it to Mifune’s character.
However, although the two films were released only a year apart, Mifune’s character Sanjuro seems to have undergone a radical transformation from amoral dog to altruistic wise man. The disconnect would seem severe, perhaps completely disorienting, if it were not for the pitch-perfect performance by Mifune in both films, which finds connective tissue between the two moral poles. Making the most of his physical prowess and comic sensibilities, Mifune bridges the character gap by making his shaggy demeanor work to both ends--he is simultaneously a lout and a savior.
In Yojimbo he exploited a gang war that was tearing apart a small village to his own advantage; in Sanjuro he helps a group of young, idealistic samurai ferret out corruption in their clan. In both instances, Sanjuro is a perennial outsider, and each film ends with an iconic shot of him walking away from the camera into an unknown future. Whether working for the good of himself or others, he maintains his mythic status.
The difference in the two films is neatly summarized in how Sanjuro is introduced. In Yojimbo we first seem him in tight close-ups, following along behind him as he walks down a road, the camera making him appear towering--larger than life. In Sanjuro he emerges sleepily from the shadows of a temple after overhearing the other samurai talking. He seems more like a vagrant than a warrior, and his natty hair and ragged clothes look especially impoverished against the more refined polish of the other samurai. Yet, looks can be and are deceiving, and Sanjuro’s unkempt appearance is just one of the many tricks he uses to disguise his true nature.
Sanjuro includes a number of memorable action sequences, including an early scene in which Sanjuro takes on an entire army of enemy samurai without ever actually drawing his blade (one of the film’s thematic underpinnings is the idea, first uttered by an old woman, that the best swords never need to be removed from their sheaths). The final showdown in Sanjuro, in which Mifune must face off with his chief rival (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who also played his nemesis in Yojimbo) is legendary for Kurosawa’s over-the-top display of arterial spray, something that had never been seen in a film of this type, but was soon to become a staple of all samurai and kung fu movies (the literal geyser of blood that ends Sanjuro is one of the founding moments of modern cinematic violence).
In addition to being a rousing action movie, Sanjuro is also a biting satire of other samurai movies. By centering the film on such a rough central character, one who constantly undercuts samurai nobility by asking for food and money and having no overt allegiance to anyone, Kurosawa chips away at the foundation of samurai movie lore, one he helped create in his epic masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954). The younger samurai, filled with ideals and honor, are nonetheless silly and misguided, always ready to rush to their own deaths.
Sanjuro, his roughness a sign of his experience, is wise to the ways of the world and the way people think and act; he is brilliant at forecasting others’ actions and designing his own in response. The fact that he supports the young samurai is testament to the fact that he is, at heart, an honorable man; the fact that he grumbles hilarious lines like “Do you ever get tired of being stupid?” is testament to the fact that honor comes in many shapes and sizes.
|Sanjuro Criterion Collection DVD|
|Sanjuro is available both separately and in a two-disc box set with Yojimbo (SRP: $69.95).|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||January 23, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Sanjuro’s less-than-stellar, nonanamorphic, heavily cropped 1999 DVD transfer has been needing rehabilitation for some time, and this new DVD release, which includes a brand-new, anamorphic, high-definition transfer, is a welcome replacement. The digitally restored transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original camera negative. The resulting image (which is slightly windowboxed) is very good--sharp and packed with detail. While the original DVD’s transfer was too gray, this transfer emphasizes the contrast in the image, with solid blacks and nuanced grays. Even more importantly, this transfer corrects the original’s heavily cropped image, which lost significant information on all four sides. In terms of sound, the disc offers two options: a monaural soundtrack or a three-channel surround mix that beautifully replicates the film’s original aural presentation via Perspecta Stereophonic sound.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary is by film scholar Stephen Prince, author of Warrior’s Cinema, one of the preeminent scholarly works on Kurosawa. As he has on several other Criterion commentaries, including Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1964) and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Prince provides a lively and deeply informative commentary (few scholars on commentary tracks sound as excited to talk about the film as Prince does). In addition to illuminating Kurosawa’s aesthetics, Prince gives a great deal of background on Japanese culture and history that puts the film into a better context for Western viewers. In addition to the commentary, Criterion has also included an episode from the Toho Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” on the production of Yojimbo. This 35-minute documentary features interviews with Kurosawa and a number of members of the cast and crew, each of whom has an interesting anecdote to tell about making the film. Also on the disc is a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and two theatrical trailers, both in anamorphic widescreen.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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