Kurosawa, a visionary filmmaker in any country, produced a wonderful story, which transcends time, cultures, languages and even the media. The story of Sanjuro makes a good companion piece to Seven Samurai(1954), where we meet Mifune for the first time in the guise of the untraditional hero. Yojimbo (The Bodyguard-1961) is the first of two movies featuring this particular unkempt Samurai. Sanjuro (1962) is technically the sequel.
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Where to start! I feel like I have been handed a BIG ice cream cone, and I have to start by isolating just one of the thirty two flavors! For this film, folks, is a treat! It is a treat to the senses, a balm for your heart,and a chance to appreciate one of the best actors ever to appear on film. Like every film of Kurosawa that I have ever seen, this one is art.
It's probably safe to say that this movie was intended as a comedy, with enough intrigue and drama to make it interesting. The story is a convoluted one, featuring the clever worldly and none too clean Samurai in his never ending battle against greed, and in his quest to protect the weak and helpless. And like Kurosawa's other Samurai films, there is enough introspection involved to make you realize that it isn't just a pretty face and fantastic photography that we are watching.
THE GENIUS OF AKIRA KUROSAWA
This movie is the sequel to Yojimbo,(1962). It is a little unique because the protagonist actually undergoes a transformation in this movie, with a recognizable character evolution. Along with the hero stuff (fierce fighting, clever outwitting of the bad guys, all that stuff) the character engages in introspection, all done without much expository dialog. There is no question that Sanjuro is evaluating his actions, and is touching our heart once again with his humanity. This sequel should never be thought just a sequel, for it stands alone as another magnificent tribute to the best within us. One must never forget Kurosawa’s contribution to the story and his full creative control of his films.
It has been often said that Kurosawa brought Western ideas into filmmaking. This, from his education, is historically correct. Filmmaking itself was not a tradition in Japan as it was in Hollywood, so in one sense, film itself is an influence brought from the West. But Kurosawa’s genius was not Western; it was pure Kurosawa, and universal. I would like to think that great artists transcend the culture and chronology of their birth. Kurosawa does.
The Use of the camera
As an artist, I delight in every frame of Kurosawa’s perfect camera work. I often freeze frames, randomly, and sketch the frame. Of course I have a sketchbook full of Japanese men in full feudal costume, but no matter. Hokusai is one my great inspirations in my artistic endeavors. The light and shadow, the content and the composition in every frame is as close to perfect as it is possible to be! In addition, every character is fully visible. You could follow the expressions of any of the actors, and construct a story based on each of their expressions.
I was delighted to know that Kurosawa's genius was not limited to black and white. His color work is, if anything, more magnificent. If you don’t believe this, let me direct you to Dersu Uzala (1976). You will be astounded at this guy’s ability to capture any moment perfectly; no matter what limitations a budget may impose!
As you watch this film you can also track each character, individually. This is characteristic Kurosawa. Any character in any scene will have an expression that will tell his angle on the story. That is one of the reasons you can watch this film over and over, and get something different every time.
The multi-plane camera is worth a look, too. There are always interesting angles, used for dramatic and comedic effect. In more than one scene, the camera angle is used to underscore the moment. Pay attention to the scene (s) where Sanjuro is tied up. Also watch any scene viewed looking into a window, or out of a window. This was pioneer filmmaking in 1962, and is as effective today as it was then. Bravo Kurosawa!
There is no question that every statement counts, and leads to important plot developments. If you can’t read subtitles, you may find this a drawback. However, I would not listen to dubbed English even if given the opportunity. The emotional inflections of the Japanese language make you listen with your heart. Don’t worry, the head will follow.
Some of the action scenes have such intricate choreography and comedy that they must have been inspiration for the later efforts of Jackie Chan. Sometimes the flying bodies, and retreating figures, felled by the legendary Samurai blade, are hilarious. The young Samurai seldom fight in this movie. Sanjuro takes most of the action.
Masaru Sato, a prolific Japanese composer, who would do scores for more than a hundred feature films, created the music. It is a palpable link to Yojimbo, and the protagonists’ theme recurs, in a sort of comforting way. Sato would work with Kurosawa until 1965, and then their paths separated, after Redbeard in 1965. The thematic music for the Samurai series is an interesting and often overlooked artistic element in Kurosawa’s films. The music plays as it has for centuries, as program music. You can be sure that it was exactly what Kurosawa had in mind.
This film differs from the original in another important way. In this particular film, the people who Sanjuro would lead to vanquish evil are young (and inept) Samurai, so he not only rescues, his purpose is also to teach. And he not only teaches the young acolytes, (who don’t always recognize the lesson) but he is also taught. Although there is plenty of action and sword swishing in this movie, I find the evolution of Sanjuro to be the most interesting feature of Sanjuro. I can’t think of a single western movie that mimics this film completely, but there are sure to be some Westerns that I have not seen, (although I find that hard to believe.)
May we know your name?
“It’s Tsubaki (Camellia) Sanjuro. (30- year-old ) Going on 40.”
“Fool! If I wanted to run, why would I speak?” (Sanjuro to the young Samurai)
The opening scene finds us peering in the window at a group of young men, meeting in an abandoned temple to discuss their objections to the government of their village. This is a scene that had me immediately roaring in the quiet house, much to the confusion of my dogs. It sounds like a pep rally at a high school, as the chorus shouts their response as a group. The young man speaking is Iori Izaka, the nephew of the chamberlain. They say the superintendent has agreed to address their concerns, but the uncle is saying nothing. Out of the shadows comes our hero, Sanjuro, yawning and scratching. He has been eavesdropping.
He gives them another take on their situation as an unbiased outsider. He tells them that appearances can be deceptive, and tells them the chamberlain (the uncle) is probably the honest man. The Superintendent, he says, must be the corrupt one. Of course, he is right.
The young men begin to listen. Then the plot becomes even more ominous, because the plan to meet with the young rebels was going to trick, as we clearly see when we peer out the window at the men skulking in the trees.
“Leave it to me”. (Sanjuro to group)
Thinking quickly, Sanjuro is intrigued and amused. And of course stays to help the young hot heads.
He comes out of the temple-alone, and the young men hide. He feigns irritation at being disturbed and easily fights off any who would cross him, smacking several smartly on the rear and chasing them back. The leader, Muroto, offers him a job as a mercenary for the superintendent. The young men literally come out of the woodwork afterwards. They are absurdly thankful. The scroungy Samurai tries to leave, but we know he isn’t going to be able to. There is a battle to be fought, and these kids obviously don’t have a clue.
“We can’t move like this, like a centipede”
There follows another hilarious scene, where Sanjuro skulks in spying on the superintendent and his evil crew, and a line of young Samurai follow him in single file, aping his every move. They look for a place to hide, and discover a servant, who tells them that the chamberlain was taken away by a group of armed thugs, and the chamberlain’s wife and daughter have been abducted.
What to do but to rescue them?
There is quibbling and challenging of authority, which Sanjuro quells with rough words and disdain. This is in character. He serves them asking nothing, but reserves the right to insult them, and insult them he does.
They get the guards drunk and plan to keep one alive to figure out where the chamberlain was taken.
“I shouldn’t say this after you saved us, but killing people is a bad habit. “ (Mother Mutsuta to Sanjoro)
They rescue the women, and mother Mutsuta is a piece of work. She is quite reserved and unobtrusive, but quietly corrects the manners of the rough and unkempt Samurai, and doesn’t go anywhere until she is ready. And you get the feeling that Sanjuro doesn’t have much experience with women. He talks of killing the guard they took, but she stops him. His looks clearly tell the story. He is abashed and ashamed, his eyes speak volumes.
“You’re like a drawn sword..Sharp, naked, without a sheath” You cut well, but good swords are kept in their sheaths”.
When they run from their hiding place, they have to scale a wall, but old mamma refuses, saying she can’t do it.
“Use me as a footstool. Quicjk, before I am forced to kill again!"
In an act of unbelievable gallantry, Sanjuro allows them to climb over his back to scale the wall, another touching scene, breaking down the macho façade of our hero.
They plan the rescue of the chamberlain, realizing two important facts. First, they have to get him out of the clutches of the superintendent who will make him sign a false confession, then kill himself in shame, so time is a factor. Second, they are most woefully outnumbered.
They have chosen to hang out downstream from one of the superintendent’s follower's home, known as the “Camellia mansion” Beautiful flowers fall from the trees and float down the stream. It is a lovely garden, and birds sing. Little do they realize that the uncle is being kept next door!
“You disgust me. Stupidity is dangerous.” (Sanjuro to Samurai, as they realize how close they came to being tricked)
Meanwhile the bad guys are plotting too. They offer a meeting in a secluded location, and set up an ambush. The good guys escape the ambush in the nick of time.
“The superintendent is the bad one. Like attracts like. I’m bad too”. (Muroto to Sanjuro)
This turns out to be a statement that Sanjuro can relate to, because he realizes he and his enemy are much the same.
Another plot is hatched. Sanjuro take Muroto up on his offer, and joins the enemy camp, to see if he can figure out what to do. The young Samurai are divided and some decide he is not trustworthy and follow him. They are taken prisoner, vanquished by not trusting him. Of course, he never tells them his plan.
Sanjuro tricks the armed men into the open and kills them one by one, to free the three young Samurai who stupidly followed him.
He tells the young Samurai angrily “You forced me to kill again”, which now does not seem so casual as it once did, to Sanjuro. So he slaps them around a little.
He has them tie him up as they escape, so not to blow his cover. Because he couldn’t “fight off” the rescuers, (who didn’t exist) the offer of a job is withdrawn and he shrugs off, a swagger in his step.
“You ruined my plan…... At this rate by the time you find the chamberlain I will be 70 years old!”
Meanwhile Chamberlain Mutsuta is managing to hold out, and not writing a confession. Things are getting tense. Something has to be done, and a final plan develops.
Sanjuro will go to his old buddy Muroto and tell him he knows where the rebels are hiding out, directing them to a distant temple. This will draw them away, so Uncle Mutsuta can be rescued. He says he saw them from the second floor where he was sleeping. He will signal with Camellias down the stream when the coast is clear.
“I can’t fight on an empty stomach”.
Too late, they realize the temple doesn’t have a second floor. Apparently the bad guys aren’t any smarter, and most of them rush to vanquish the rebel group. Sanjuro stays back, with the familiar excuse that he hasn’t eaten in days. Then it dawns on the superintendent that there isn’t a second story, and Sanjuro is tied up, apparently defeated, while Muroto goes to get the army back.
And this is where I’ll have to stop or you will surely have heard too much. Here are some hints: The rest of the story involves the petty bad guy leaders, and lots of beautiful Camellias floating in a clear stream, murder, vindication, a showdown and lots of other interesting little side scenes, full of black humor with a little sad truth thrown in for the final act.
The funniest scene is close to the end, when the rebels think their ruse has succeeded and they see the superintendent’s army leaving en force. The young Samurai are dancing in celebration, in time to the musical score.. along with the spy in the closet. Doesn’t sound funny? Well you gotta be there! One more reason to rent this flick!
Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro Tsubaki. I don’t know what there is about this guy, but I believe he is my favorite actor of all time, and it’s lucky for him that I discovered this infatuation so late in life. (What would he have done with a groupie from America?) He is the penultimate reluctant hero. He scratches, he doesn’t shave, and he swaggers and has a characteristic shoulder hitch. He has a toothpick stuck in the corner of his mouth. He is all gruff talk, but his softer side is also evident, when he thinks no one is looking. He is in a word, magnificent. He is the ultimate master of comedy, making us laugh, and laughing at himself. He is a man with honor, although at times the honor is hidden behind tough talk. He is human, and I have yet to see an actor who has the skill and grace to perform as he has.
Tatsuya Nakadai as Hanbei Muroto, the most clearly identifiable foe in this film. He is henchman numero uno for the bad guys, and is competent, clever and fierce. He is to Sanjuro, himself, and a respected foe. It is only with great reluctance that Sanjuro will fight with him, in the last dramatic scene. He seems to be a little round-eyed, or that could be my imagination. Tall and good looking, he is a worthy foe.
Keiju Kobayashi as “The Spy”. This guy is a hoot. He adds an element of comedy that is pure fun. Our little band of heroes captures him, but the elder lady prevails and he is not executed. She later releases him, and he stays, out of sense of honor, to her. He keeps popping out of the closet, and offering advice, and then just as quickly retreating to the closet.
Takako Irie as Mutsuta’s wife, the older “lady” of the story. What an absolute delight! She plays refined, and also powerful in getting her way, but she does it in the tradition of all civilized women (not me) by never raising her voice. A particularly wonderful scene occurs when they are escaping and she refuses to climb the fence, before resting. I don’t know about the teeth painted black.
Reiko Dan as Mutsuta’s daughter. She is a little flat, but portrayed as a stereotype. She flirts openly with a young Samurai and tells her mother she “fell asleep” in the hay with him, and her mother pretends she doesn’t understand. It is a great scene, but the only one worth watching for this particular actress.
Yunosuke Ito as Mutsuta, the chamberlain. Another delightful, even if very brief appearance. Of course, we were told in the opening scene what he would be like, and it is only at the end of the film that we discover that we were correct. A homely man, his face is a caricature, created at least in part by his performance.
Yuzo Kayama as Iori Izaka the nephew to the chamberlain, and the closest to a serious character as will be found here. He is the provisional leader of the young band of dissenter before Sanjuro shows up, and appears to have somewhat of a proprietary interest in the boss’ daughter as well. He also has some brave as well as loyal qualities. It is not a big role, but is the biggest one possible playing against Mifune.
There are several repeat players, who I recognize from other Kurosawa efforts, but I cannot for the life of me, tell you their names.
I cannot imagine a single reason why you would avoid this film. It is a treat in every sense of the word, and also reveals a little known secret. Kurosawa had the ability to laugh at himself. This movie proves it. If you don't believe me, watch the final scene of the movie over when you're through. In the words of Sanjuro, "'Bye!
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