I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) responsible for more cinematic masterpieces than anyone else. He remains best known for historical films from the 1950s such as “The Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” “Throne of Blood,” and for the color-film masterpieces “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985) that were the culmination of this line of work. There is some dark comedy in “Kagemusha” and in his adaptation of “King Lear” (Ran), the Fool plays a part, but those are epics of annihilation.
Kurosawa’s black humor samurai movies of the early 1960s also have high corpse counts, but do not leave the viewer with the taste of ashes that “Kagemusha” and “Ran” do. Both “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Tsubaki Sanjuro” (1962) star the great Mifune Toshirô (1920-1997) as a very savvy ronin. A ronin is a masterless (that is, unemployed) samurai. (And samurais were the hereditary warrior class in Japan, serving nobles and looking down on merchants, however wealthy they might become.) Mifune’s characters in both movies are masterful, but masterless. They choose which side to help —and/or offer to help—in local conflicts. (In “Yojimbo,” it is more a “pox on both sides” stance.)
At the start of “Sanjuro,” Kurosawa threw the viewer into a secret meeting of nine earnest, youngish, and idealist samurai. They are outraged at corruption and it soon becomes obvious, they have sought the aid of the most corrupt of the local officials, the superintendent, to rectify the situation. He asked them to assemble so that he could talk to them. In contrast to these naive youngsters with their shaved foreheads, an older, bearded samurai with an unshaved forehead appears seemingly out of nowhere. The name he gives (as also in “Yojimbo”) is “Sanjuro,” which means “30.” In both, he adds “going on 40.” (It has long puzzled me that the samurais Mifune played never had shaved foreheads…) Although a stranger to the parts, this man has a much better understanding of the situation, and has noticed that the building is surrounded.
Sanjuro begins the attempt to teach the honorable young samurai not to be fooled by appearances. They are abashed to realize that they were influenced in part by the ugliness of the chamberlain to assume that he was the corrupt one, not the more conventionally handsome superintendent. Soon, they find out that the superintendent has kidnapped the chamberlain. Sanjuro and the nine mental dwarfs manage to rescue the chamberlain’s wife and daughter. They are even more oblivious to dangers and unpleasant realities than the young samurais. The wife almost fails to escape because she is too polite to use Sanjuro’s back as a stepping stone to get over the wall. Later (after the two women rest in a position that makes my muscles ache even to look at!), the wife tells Sanjuro that swords should be kept in scabbards and that he should endeavor to minimize violence and use his sword only as a last resort. “Killing people is a bad habit,” she tells him.
He seeks to do this, but the young samurai’s actions force him to kill many people. Having been likened to a “naked sword,” the need to slay people to protect those he has undertaken to protect irritates Sanjuro. He is a very grumpy leader who has taken on the difficult task of saving the young samurais from their foolishness and the women from their total unworldliness.
It is polite questioning form the chamberlain’s wife that leads to the grizzled samurai taking “Tsubaki” as a name, as he looks out into the garden at abundantly blooming camellias (tsubaki in Japanese). The camellias play a major part in the plot, and a stream full of them is the image I most remembered from earlier viewings of the movie.
The plot is fairly complicated and I would not want to reveal Sanjuro’s tactics to those who have yet to enjoy the movie. I do, however, want to mention his one worthy opponent, the captain of the samurais of the superintendent’s house. In “Yojimbo,” Nakadai Tatsua played a swaggering gunslinger among the swordsman, a 1950s “hood” in the midst of a swordplay anti-epic. In “Sanjuro” Nakadai (with a shaved forehead, though, like Mifune, he usually managed to avoid this in playing samurai roles) is serving the villains, but does not have the individualist swagger of his “Yojimbo” role. In another adaptation of the same novel by Yamamoto (Shugoto who also wrote the novel on which Kurosawa’s 1965 “Red Beard” was based), “Kiru” (“Kill!”) Nakadai plays the Mifune part and is more explicit in criticizing loyalty to masters not worthy of respect than Mifune is in “Sanjuro.” In “Sanjuro” the problem is more that the young samurai are naive and guileless than that a code of honor leads to blindly taking orders from dishonorable elders (parallels to the imperial disasters of the Great Pacific War were surely not accidental…)
Nakadai is intense (as usual). Mifune did irritability about as well as anyone ever has. As in “Samurai Rebellion,” Mifune’s character does not want the final confrontation with Nakadai (yes, they were the worthy opponents again in that). But try as he mightily does to limit bloodletting in “Sanjuro,” he cannot, and fight again he must. (BTW, in Kurosawa’s next film, the modern-day “High and Low,” Mifune and Nakadai were finally on the same side, and the extreme acting out was assigned to neither of them.)
Although “Sanjuro” was made quickly, following the success of “Yojimbo” and presented as a sort of a sequel, Kurosawa felt that the two films were very different. He said that Japanese audiences also considered them very different. (I hope that I have already contrasted Mifune’s characters trying to limit violence and save one faction in “Sanjuro” with his fomenting attacks so that both sides kill each other off in “Yojimbo.”) Kurosawa told Donald Richie (who did so much to introduce Japanese cinema in the Anglophone world) that “the youngsters loved ‘Yojimbo,’ but it was the adults who liked ‘Sanjuro.’ I think that they liked it because it is the funnier and really the more attractive of the two.” Not to mention, that the young appear very foolish in “Sanjuro” (though many of the elders in “Sanjuro” are nearly as easily fooled and considerably greedier than the youngsters thrashing about).
That things are not what they seem—and that people’s characters in particular are not—is a leitmotif in Kurosawa’s films, most famously in the multiple perspectives of “Rashomon,” and on through the moving forest (Burnham Woods) of his adaptation of “Macbeth” in “Throne of Blood,” though the intern in “High and Low,” and on to Nakadai’s thief impersonating a great warrior in “Kagemusha” and misjudging his sons (Lear’s daughters reconfigured) in “Ran.”
Seeing “Kill!” prompted me want to watch “Sanjuro” again, though “Sanjuro” has given me great pleasure the four or five times I have watched it. It is my favorite Kurosawa film, though I would not contend that it is the best (that would be “Ran” or “Seven Samurai”).
The Criterion DVD provides a good print of the film, with many marvelous widescreen compositions. Like the Criterion set of four samurai films (including “Kill!”), the earlier set of four Kurosawa samurai films is short on extras. There is nothing but a trailer for “Sanjuro” on the “Sanjuro” disc (though an interesting trailer it is, with footage of Kurosawa rehearsing Mifune and a funny line that is not included in the movie). I’d have liked some comments from Donald Richie and an interview of Tatsuya Nakadai, both of whom were still active (Nakadai still is, though Richie has died since the DVD was issued) and have provided insights in the documentary “Kurosawa” and in bonus features on other discs. The only extra is a brief (2.5 page) essay by Michael Sragow that suggests “Sanjuro” is a sort of prequel to “Yojimbo” in that the feudal order was still functioning in “Sanjuro” (if none too well and with Sanjuro a post-feudal realist) and stressing that “Sanjuro” (and other Kurosawa films) are visually composed in ways that are disastrously jettisoned by any pan-and-scan print, since he filled the screen from one side to the other.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray