Sanjuro: The Criterion Collection
When Toshiro Mifune's rough-and-tumble ronin, Kuwabatake Sanjuro (an assumed name meaning "Thirty-Year-Old Mulberry Field"), promised to "See ya around" at the conclusion of Yojimbo (1961), it was hardly intended by director Akira Kurosawa to signal the beginning of a series. After all, by the 1960s the filmmaker was working at the very height of his powers and was recognized the world over as a master of the medium (the great craftsman John Sturges had just paid him the ultimate Hollywood tribute in 1960 by remaking The Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven); repeating oneself offered, at best, a nominal upside while the downside being perceived as artistically bankrupt was steep indeed. But Yojimbo simply made too much money for Kurosawa's home studio, Toho, so when they came clamoring for a sequel, the director compliantly transformed a preexisting screenplay entitled Peaceful Days into a companion piece to his box-office smash and (according to Kurosawa biographer Donald Richie) and happily traipsed back into production with Mifune and company. The resulting picture, Sanjuro (1962), is undoubtedly the most frivolous of Kurosawa's career, which has led most critics to view it as insubstantial or dismiss it outright. Given that Kurosawa often erred when delving too thoroughly into the grimmer aspects of human nature, this is a foolish position. Though not in the same technical class as the filmmaker's masterpieces (The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo), it's an absolute delight to see Kurosawa submitting to the comedic part of his nature and, at the same time, a bit of a downer, too, since one is left wondering what he might've accomplished had he allowed himself to play more often.
Enjoyable as it is, Sanjuro certainly doesn't earn any points for narrative invention in the early going, as Kurosawa launches Mifune's unkempt swordsman right into the middle of a talky exposition that finds nine idealistic samurai meeting in secret to plan the unmasking of corruption in their local government. Mifune's old warrior, this time known as Tsubaki Sanjuro (i.e. "Thirty-Year-Old Camellia"), enters laughing at the youngsters' naiveté, as he's overheard their deliberations and instantly surmises that they've incorrectly identified the chamberlain as the hub of civic malfeasance. The man they should fear is the man to whom they've entrusted their concerns, Kikui (Masao Shimizu), and, unfortunately for them, he knows precisely where they're currently congregating. The samurai doubt Sanjuro at first, but soon realize their folly as Kikui's bodyguard, Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai), comes tearing through the surrounding forest with a mob of steel-flashing cronies. Ever the sentimentalist, Sanjuro hides the foolish lads in the floorboards of the dwelling and faces down the small army by himself, making quick but, and this is important, not fatal work of Muroto's men. The much-impressed Muroto immediately offers Sanjuro a place in his security detail, which he refuses, thus establishing a vastly different dynamic than that which powers the deeply cynical Yojimbo. Rather than amorally play both ends against the middle for financial gain, Sanjuro throws in with the pitifully earnest samurai in order to help them free the imprisoned chamberlain and expose the venal Kikui.
* * *
This doesn't mean Mifune's reduced to playing a complete softy in Sanjuro; though the samurai is compelled to examine his violent nature by the maxim-spouting wife of the chamberlain (whom he churlishly refers to as "the old lady," much to the chagrin of the nine naïfs), Sanjuro is quick to action whenever the situation calls for it and, in the early going, it's called for quite a bit. Kurosawa and co-scenarists Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni frontload Sanjuro with swordplay to the extent that they almost seem to be covering for a general absence of narrative purpose. But things settle down a little in the second act once Sanjuro and as they were referred to during production "the nine stupid samurai" set up their headquarters right next door to their enemies at the sly old warrior's insistence. What's interesting about Sanjuro's plan is how he keeps having to improvise due to his nine charges' imbecility; even though the ronin's hunches are continually proven correct, the youngsters are loathe to trust him. It's an obvious, but well-structured bit, and it keeps paying off thanks to Kurosawa's deft storytelling and staging. If they aren't trailing Sanjuro in a single-file line like a caterpillar, or turning up outside Muroto's dwelling at the precise moment Sanjuro is feigning allegiance in order to strike at Kikui from within, they're generally just rushing about formulating one idiotic plan after another. Their most winningly futile gesture is the taking of a prisoner who turns into a willing captive after being pampered by the chamberlain's wife; though confined to a closet, he periodically inserts himself into arguments and, in the film's most sublime comedic moment, finds himself infectiously caught up in one of their victory celebrations. And just when it seems that Kurosawa is about to let the viewer walk away grinning, he drops a devastatingly brutal denouement that places all that's transpired in dour perspective. For Kurosawa, frivolity carries a steep price. Maybe that's why he so infrequently indulged.
The Criterion Collection presents their second edition of Sanjuro on DVD in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that does luminous justice to the underrated contributions of cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi and Takao Saito (it's not their fault that the great Kazuo Miyagawa did the best work of his career on Yojimbo). Though the audio is monaural (and fine), there is an optional Dolby Digital 3.0 track that features the film's original Perspecta stereo effects. Extras include a well-worth-watching episode of Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create centered on the making of Sanjuro (35 min.), a commentary from film historian Stephen Prince that's just this side of engaging, a stills gallery, and two trailers. Finally, there's a 20-page booklet featuring an appreciation from critic Michael Sragow and notes from Kurosawa and his collaborators. Keep-case.