Kurosawa Centenary: Sanjuro

[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]

It’s a testament to Akira Kurosawa’s skills as a filmmaker that probably the most commercially focused and lightest film he ever made still holds it’s own against his most well respected classics such as Seven Samurai and Ran. Sanjuro was a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo and was produced one can only assume to cash in on the worldwide success of it’s predecessor. Kurosawa originally wasn’t going to make it, he was going to pass the script onto Hiromichi Horikawa to direct, but somewhere along the way he decided to take up the reigns and follow up the adventures of that most famous of ronin.

And he did an incredible job of it.

I must admit that I’ve only seen five of Kurosawa’s thirty or so films, so I’m not an expert on the director’s work, but Sanjuro has always stood out for me as being his most enjoyable film (which is saying a lot from the man that brought us Rashomon and Yojimbo). It fires along at a blistering pace, throwing the audience straight into the story from the first shot as a group of nine fledgling samurai band together to fight corruption in their province. Our dirty, unshaven hero who calls himself Sanjuro (translating to ‘thirty years old’ and played by the incomparable Toshirô Mifune) soon makes an appearance and, spotting their incompetence a mile away, he reluctantly becomes their sage leader. To give too much more of the plot away would spoil the fun as this comedy of manners unfolds. Basically the audience sits back and basks in the joy of watching Mifune run circles around the stuck up and foolish inhabitants of the town.

As I touched upon earlier, Sanjuro is a lighter entry to Kurosawa’s canon. The majority of the film is played for laughs, with much of the humour stemming from the unkempt and blunt Sanjuro’s clashes with the uptight gentry and their insistence on obsessively following strict codes of politeness. This is typified in a scene featuring a lady of the court who refuses to use Sanjuro as a step-up to escape her captors. There is also a lot of fun to be had in the spoofing of period samurai-film clichés as well as a hilarious running gag involving a prisoner of the samurai who is kept in a cupboard and keeps trying to get involved in their discussions, gradually siding with them and celebrating their victories.

The film shifts tone completely for the final scene though, featuring a shockingly brutal yet brief showdown between Sanjuro and his only equal in the film, Muroto (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). The stand-off is played out in one simple static shot but is incredibly intense and comes as a total surprise after an hour and a half of farce, yet somehow doesn’t feel out of place or unnecessary, instead burning an indelible image in your memory. This being a samurai film there are a handful of other action set-pieces in there too and as ever Kurosawa directs these with vigour and verve, yet it’s this short sharp moment of violence that will stay with you.

Toshirô Mifune is magnificent as always, clearly having a lot of fun with the role. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch him use his character’s wit to shape the opinions of his clueless followers and look on bemused at the actions of the two overly polite ladies they save from captivity. Kurosawa seems to have enjoyed himself too, showing a lightness of touch that results in a film which has the pace and excitement of the westerns he so loved as well as a sense of humour generally missing from a lot of ‘important’ world cinema classics. He doesn’t skimp on the finer things either, the film looks beautiful, making the most of his ‘Tohoscope’ frame. All in all Sanjuro clearly demonstrates one of Kurosawa’s strongest qualities and that is the ability to make finely crafted cinema that is also exciting and actually a lot of fun to sit through.

Clearly now it’s time for me to get some more of his films watched.

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See the analysis of 22 shots from SANJURO at :
Learn from Sanjuro how to save Democracy from the right-wing plotters.


[…] My review of Sanjuro can be found here. […]