With the success of 'Yojimbo' in 1961 Toho called for Akira Kurosawa to create a sequel to the tale starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune. One year later, 'Sanjuro' was born, named after the protagonist in the first film. But this sequel of sorts wasn't originally a sequel at all, as Kurosawa recycled one of his existing screenplays (entitled 'Peaceful Days'), changed a few themes and dynamics to fit the characters, and combined two weak teacher ronin characters into the title protagonist.
In a sense, this quick and dirty fix is possibly the main reason that 'Sanjuro' doesn't soar to the same heights as its brother, no matter how utterly likable and immersive the story may be.
'Sanjuro' begins with nine young samurai discussing the state of their clan, which is full of corruption up top. As they debate who is to be trusted, a mysterious man (Mifune) enters the room, having overheard their plight from where he was sleeping. It's obvious these youths need help, and can't do the job themselves (after all, they didn't even check out the temple to make sure no one could hear them!). After saving the nine from a raid with his quick wits and immense physical talents, the man acts as a sensei of sorts to these brash and irresponsible idealists.
The chamberlain, Mutsuta (Yunosuke Ito), is being held by his captors, hoping to force him into hara-kiri. His nephew Izaka (Yuzo Kayama) is one of the nine untrained youths trying to free him and save the clan from Hanbei Muroto (the great Tatsuya Nakadai, who also played the villain in 'Yojimbo') and his small army. If the nine are to succeed, it's in their best interest to not act on their own and fall for the numerous traps laid out for them, and instead listen to the man selflessly helping their cause for what seems to be no reason other than entertainment. His name? He says it's Sanjuro Tsubaki (30-year-old camellia), though his real identity may never be known.
The funny thing about Kurosawa films is that even his lesser works are quite solid pieces of cinema history, and still have great appeal to this day. But any Kurosawa-Mifune will be enthralling, as this classic tandem (much like Scorcese and DeNiro, Depp and Burton, or Allen and Farrow) have a great history together, loaded with gems. Perhaps the reason these collaborations are such a success is the fact that the two truly understood how the other worked, and trusted each other (which can be attested to by other crew members in interviews).
The character of Sanjuro is quite different this time around. His introduction is somewhat lazy, but this is fitting, in a sense, as he isn't just the man playing both sides of the coin. He isn't the catalyst for change, or cleaning up the area. He's the instrument and the mentor. His plans are always thought out many moves in advance, like an expert chess player, though they frequently unravel due to the interference of the headstrong youths he is instructing. But that creates a conundrum: why is it the master samurai cannot garner the trust and respect in his newfound pupils? In the original script, the ronin saving the nine were not proficient warriors, but anyone who has seen 'Yojimbo' knows that Sanjuro Whatever-his-last-name-is-this-time is a coiled viper, waiting to strike, and can take down armies, physically and mentally. The perfect warrior, in a sense, not even letting pride get the better of him. His constant saving of the nine, plus his physical displays should show them to adhere to his knowledge, but they constantly stray. Is it their impatience and inexperience, or is the cause of this light rift due to Sanjuro's inability to instill his methods into others?
Nakadai isn't given as slimy a role as before, strangely. His character in 'Yojimbo' was still power hungry, but in a different sense, as his lust for power brought him to seek out new advanced weapons and war tactics. Here, years later (as Sanjuro has aged slightly), the firearms are nowhere to be found, and Muroto instead seeks power through usurping it, through manipulation and force. He doesn't get time to leer, or cast an ominous shadow. Skilled as he may be with a sword, we don't get to see it all that much.
Until the time comes. 'Sanjuro' is memorable enough with the teachings of patience and selflessness throughout the film, but the finale stands apart from the rest of the film. The showdown between the two greatest warriors in the region, Muroto and Sanjuro, is epic. It draws the viewer in, and teases them, by building tension in a cat-and-mouse battle of the wits before the blades will be unsheathed. It's a moment that feels ten times longer than it actually is, in a good way.
'Sanjuro' has held my heart as one of the first Kurosawa films I had the honor and privilege to view, though I must admit, regardless of emotional attachment, that its predecessor is superior in almost every way. Creating a sequel to a film that would become a classic theme in cinema was an impossible task, but the legendary director pulled it off, flawed as it may be. 'Sanjuro' works quite well as a standalone feature, or a sequel, and from this classic tale of good versus evil, right versus wrong, one can easily and immediately grow infatuated with the sneering, snarling, brave and clever warrior that Mifune becomes with what seems like little effort. Few men have ever been capable of truly becoming their characters, and Mifune has done so on many occasions, as Musashi Miyamoto, Kikuchiyo, Rokurota Makabe, or the legendary Sanjuro, whose last name is solely dependent on his surroundings.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Sanjuro' is housed on a Region A locked BD50 Dual Layer Disc, from the Criterion Collection. The film is given the spine number 53. It is available for purchase by itself, or in a two spine box set with the companion film 'Yojimbo.' The menu is static, with a light flicker, and the disc has no pre-menu trailers.
'Sanjuro' arrives on Blu-ray with an AVC MPEG-4 encode at 1080p in the 2.35:1 window. While less visually stunning than 'Yojimbo,' both in scenery and the transfer, this sequel still gets the nod.
To paraphrase the booklet included in this release: thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed, while small dirt and grain, along with noise reduction, were cleaned up using a DVNR system. This is the Criterion way, to clean up a classic to the best of their ability (often with startling results), and considering 'Sanjuro' still had plenty of small dirt blips popping up, one must be appreciative that there wasn't a full on invasion of grime on this release. To be blunt, this is why Criterion titles are priced the way they are. Studio Canal Collection, take note.
'Sanjuro' has great strengths visually here, but a few weaknesses that were more apparent than in 'Yojimbo.' Detail in this black and white classic is solid, sometimes amazingly striking and bold. The wooden panels found in the huts in the film always register cleanly, with the grain leaping right off the planks. Top knots are hit or miss due to such, as some transition nicely and naturally, while others feel cheap, with the poor makeup effects and cap line showing clear as day. There is no bleeding, no banding, and no aliasing. Edges are beautiful, with Sanjuro's frayed hairs popping quite well, mirroring his wild and uncontrollable nature. Grain is still present, though there were a few moments that made the light DNR application look annoying. Shadow detail is solid, with nary a moment of crush.
In addition to the occasional light dirt blip, there is the odd vertical line here and there, as well as some very soft brightness flickering. Some facial details can appear washed out, possibly from harsh lighting, though they aren't the majority. There are also a few softer shots mixed in, though they're fairly short in length. The nitpicking aside, this is a quality transfer for a film rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary.
Criterion has given 'Sanjuro' two audio options, much like 'Yojimbo:' a Linear PCM (uncompressed) Mono track, or a DTS-HD Master Audio Perspecta 3.0 track (both in the original Japanese). The disc itself defaults to the mono version, with subtitles (that are removable) on. The tracks show their age, but are still quite solid, with dialogue that is clear with each and every line, with nice little accents and pops along the way (and a slight bit of crackle on the high end/louder dialogue). Score elements sport great brass and tenor, with solid highs and resonance, but no real bass or low end, just like the rest of the film. There is some light static (and occasionally a faint whir) in the background, giving scenes a classical/aged feeling, though it can be distracting at times. 'Sanjuro' sounds superb for its age, but it won't even come close to the majority of titles on the market in terms of sonic prowess.
'Sanjuro' is a powerful, thrilling film, but it often pales in comparison to the original. The writing feels sloppy, and there are many plodding, repetitive moments until the amazing finale that leaves a lasting impression. Criterion brings the goods on Blu-ray, with solid audio and video qualities, and a nice pile of extras. This film is recommended for any serious film collection, but not without its partner. Buy the two-pack, save money, and get two great films from the legendary Akira Kurosawa.