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In the Kurosawa movie family tree, Sanjuro (1962) is the sassy kid brother to Yojimbo, and like many light-hearted younger siblings, it’s underrated. After Yojimbo achieved blockbuster status in 1961, Kurosawa took a story he’d already developed about a semi-strong but wily swordsman and turned it into another vehicle for Toshiro Mifune’s shrewd, grungy, and superbly-skilled warrior. In both movies, Mifune says that he’s called Sanjuro, which means “30 years old,” and quips, “going on 40.” He also tacks on a name inspired by whatever vegetation is nearest: In Yojimbo, he’s Sanjuro “Kuwabatake” (“mulberry field”); in Sanjuro, he’s Sanjuro “Tsubaki” (“camellia”).
Of course, Mifune writes his true signature in blood. Indeed, Sanjuro has a final spurt that tops anything in the original for gut-wrenching shock. Why, then, is this film so much sunnier? Partly because Sanjuro, a classical work, sees its antihero from the outside, as a one-of-a-kind figure combining contemporary disillusionment and mythic prowess, while Yojimbo (ultimately the more daring movie) takes us inside the sadomasochistic psychology of a man of action. And in one crucial way, Sanjuro plays like a frolicsome prequel. Here, feudalism isn’t dead and its followers have some virtues—unlike the gamblers, merchants, and ex-cons of Yojimbo. If Sanjuro lacks the savage intensity of Yojimbo—and if, to borrow MAD magazine’s old slogan, it doesn’t have quite the degree of “humor in a jugular vein”—it does possess compelling sweep, a gutteral charm, and an encompassing irony that transforms the swordsman’s bluster into a form of domestic comedy. In Yojimbo, he’s the perfect man to clean up a town filled with homicidal grotesques (by killing off just about everyone). In Sanjuro, he’s a Japanese bull in a china shop.
As with other second movies in escapist series—from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to From Russia with Love—Sanjuro has a pleasurable aplomb. Mifune enters the action—and a clan samurai meeting—abruptly and confidently, without knocking. He’s overheard the youthful samurai discuss a supposedly corrupt clan chamberlain and a supposedly sympathetic superintendent. Sanjuro can tell that the young blades are well-meaning fools—the superintendent is evil, the chamberlain righteous. But he aligns himself with these idealists and saves their lives.
From the first swordfight, when Sanjuro puts himself between the superintendent’s men and the samurai (he hides them under the floorboards), Kurosawa’s compositions make a widescreen transfer indispensable. Sanjuro cuts through massed enemies like a human sickle, but his attack loses its abstract, circular beauty on the usual homevideo prints, which hurl you into the center of the mayhem. Back in 1961, in a review of the 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress, Dwight Macdonald accused Kurosawa of “uncertainty” because in his movies, “behavior is either very stiff, formalized, ceremonious—or just the opposite. It corresponds to the modern history of Japan: a clash between a feudal and a modern style of life in which the elements have not been synthesized into the middle-class pattern that the West has evolved over centuries, but continue to exist side by side.” Macdonald was right about everything except the uncertain part. In Sanjuro, Kurosawa’s visual strategy is built on the contrast between the feudal ingenues and the modern profile of his freelance fighter. They seat themselves in geometric patterns or line themselves up in a straight row while Sanjuro slumps and scratches himself and dozes. (Mifune is magnificent—earthy and funny—not far removed from John Belushi’s parody of him on Saturday Night Live.) Non-letterboxed video prints muddle the director’s intentions as well as his compositions.
Kurosawa revives the first definition of irony: “the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning.” As a one-time foe observes, Sanjuro often insults when he means to praise. The cinematic wrinkle here is that Kurosawa achieves irony in both words and images. The samurai mistake the chamberlain for a villain because they think he’s ugly. Some of them mistrust Sanjuro himself because, unlike a proper samurai, he asks for food and money. The chamberlain’s wife seems soft and homiletic when she describes Sanjuro as an unsheathed sword, poised to strike at any time (even when it isn’t necessary); actually, she has his number. His final showdown demonstrates the horror of his business for all to comprehend. But Kurosawa’s eye makes the combat beautiful, just as his dramatic instinct makes it magnetic. Sanjuro is inspirational. That’s the crowning irony.
Michael Sragow has been writing about new movies for the Baltimore Sun since 2001 and old movies for the New Yorker since 1989. He is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, cowinner of the National Award for Arts Writing in 2008. This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 edition of Sanjuro.