Review:
Sanjuro (1962)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4.5/5)
Published:
January 16, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

One of my personal favorites, Sanjuro is the second installment in the series revolving around the exploits of the roguish ronin known as Tsubaki Sanjuro. Set in the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the lone wanderer this time volunteers to save the clan chamberlain from the wicked superintendent. The subtleties of the plot, the humor, and the action make for a knockout samurai flick, and the music oozes with the charm of Masaru Sato. Perhaps one of the only true flaws of the movie is a mild lack of development on a few of the main characters, but nevertheless, Sanjuro is still a brilliant masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa. Though sometimes unfairly overshadowed by its predecessor Yojimbo (1961), it truly has enough strength to stand on its own legs.

In the midst of growing corruption in the clan during the lord's leave in Edo, Superintendent Kikui became entangled in illicit activities. Chamberlain Mutsuta, well aware of this fact, was prepared to bide his time and gather enough evidence to use against the traitors. The old chamberlain's failure to act quickly against corruption irked his worried nephew: Iori Izaka, and his several samurai allies. On a more shallow level, his unattractive features were a hindrance to his cause. Unaware of the superintendent's involvement, Izaka reported to Kikui his desire for swift action and mentioned his uncle's peculiar behavior. Little did Izaka realize that, as his uncle warned, "The worst one is beyond your imagination".

Sanjuro, overhearing the conversation between Izaka and the other samurai in a wooded shrine, chimed in with his impartial observation of the situation... and quickly came to the conclusion that it was in fact the superintendent who was up to no good. These fears were only confirmed when the superintendent's men attacked the shrine, but Sanjuro took it upon himself to take command, hide the samurai, and repel the warriors. Hanbei Muroto, the leader of the attack, noted the skill of Sanjuro; and, when realizing his quarry was not present at the shrine in question, graciously offered the ronin a job in Kikui's camp if he ever became interested.

Sanjuro, understanding how delicate the situation had become due to the rash actions of the younger samurai, volunteered to aid them in their mission, which was to now rescue Chamberlain Mutsuta. It was clear he would be in grave danger, for Izaka's actions gave Mutsuta's cause away to Kikui. Sanjuro led the men to the house of the chamberlain, infiltrated the premises, and rescued the chamberlain's daughter and wife. In the process, a guard was taken prisoner and, becaus of the peaceful pleas of Mutsuta's wife, Sanjuro spared his life. Alas, it was discovered that the chamberlain was already captured. Rushing to the house of one of the samurai to regroup, they knew they would have to keep low, for Kurofuji, one of the traitors, lived just next door. Fortunately, it was the perfect hiding spot, as it would be unlikely for the superintendents' underlings to check their neighbors' homes.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Kikui and his minions were unaware of the size of the resistance. They would have to act tactfully, thus, they posted a notice proclaiming the chamberlain's guilt, and prepared to lead the traitors out into the open. Using decoy palanquins, the samurai (though at Sanjuro's objection), were almost led into peril, had it not been for a group of clan-loyal warriors on horseback who became entangled in the confusion of the trap. When it was realized that the men on horseback were not among the chamberlain's men, they were easily cajoled into joining the superintendent's forces.

Sanjuro, well aware of how extraordinarily complex the situation was becoming, bid his farewell and declared he would accept Muroto's job offer. The samurai flew into intense debate, trying to decide whether or not it was part of his plan, or the beginning of their end. Two men on each side of the argument were sent to scope out the situation, but they complicated the events even further when Sanjuro was forced to capture them in Muroto's presence. Tricking Muroto into believing a wide number of rebels were infiltrating the premises, Sanjuro bought himself enough time to kill the guards and free his allies. However, this blunder was much to Sanjuro's disdain, for Mutsuta's wife's warnings against excessive violence was sinking into the very depths of his personal code. When Muroto returned, he discovered a bound Sanjuro, believing he was defeated by dozens and dozens of warriors. Unable to recommend him to his superiors, Muroto dismissed the samurai.

Upon returning to their home base, Mutsuta's daughter Chidori noticed shreds of parchment in the stream flowing from Kurofuji's home, a place nicknamed the Camellia Mansion. The parchment was that which Izaka had given his uncle just before his disappearance; so it was a crystal clear fact that Mutsuta was next door! A plan was concocted, for if Sanjuro claimed he saw the rebels from the second story at Komyo Temple, Kikui's men would surely follow in pursuit. Sanjuro, meanwhile, would drop a load of camellias in the stream leading from Kurofuji's home next door... and that would be the signal for the samurai to attack the unguarded manor.

The plan started to go off without a hitch, but unfortunately, the captured guard whom the samurai had brought along suddenly remembered that Komyo Temple had no second story! Even still, Kikui and his men left for the temple, having yet to realize the factual error. Unfortunately, Muroto caught Sanjuro plucking camellias from the tree in the courtyard, and the villain Takebayashi finally realized the error. Muroto rushed after Kikui, as Sanjuro was left tied to a boulder for future questioning. The ronin tactfully tricked Kurofuji and Takebayashi into dumping camellias into the stream, informing them that the white ones would signal the rebels not to attack. Little did they realize that the color did not matter. In minutes, the Camellia Mansion was raided and the chamberlain freed. The superintendent failed, and he committed seppuku.

With the chamberlain saved, a celebration of honor was set for Sanjuro. He was nowhere to be found, for it was clear that the wanderer had wandered off yet again. Meeting the defeated Muroto on the road, Sanjuro insisted they not do battle. Muroto was bent on satisfaction, and ultimately, met his demise. The samurai were in awe, but Sanjuro, realizing how similar he was to his foe, was deeply disturbed by the duel. Forbidding the samurai from leading him back to the chamberlain, or following him for that matter, he gave a brief farewell and continued on into the distance.

The unfolding plot is an excellent adventure story, but the adventure is only one aspect of the story. The film easily warrants multiple viewings and brings enjoyment simply because of the style. It is very light-hearted, often a rarity with Akira Kurosawa. The humor used in the film is wonderful in its subtlety. Often, it is simply Sanjuro's comical reactions to interruptions or strange dialogue that brings a snicker from the audience. More specifically, other humorous moments include the silent celebration of the samurai, the captured guard humbly returning to his closet, or Takebayashi's sudden realization that he had been duped. The close of the film, devoid of the death of any of the protagonists, is satisfying in the respect that you've just seen a spectacular movie and weren't brought to tears at all.

The acting is yet anther feat of Sanjuro. Toshiro Mifune stars in one of his most likeable roles. His portrayal of Sanjuro, complete with beard strokes, neck rubs, and the slow, deliberate movements gives this roguish character a great deal of charm. Tatsuya Nakadai, with his cold, wide-eyed expressions (common in his antagonistic performances)… lends his character a deeply disturbing and unnerving nature. Yuzo Kayama, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Kenzo Matsui, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kunie Tanaka, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Tatsuhiko Hari, bring dignity and emotion to their respective performances, although few stand out among the others. Reiko Dan and Takako Irie also have a slow, deliberate motion to their acting style. Unlike Mifune's performance, the huge difference here is that these women give a graceful elegance to there respective roles. Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Masao Shimizu bring to their respective roles a hesitant coldness which easily defines the villainy of their characters. Finally, Yonosuke Ito, though given only a brief cameo, brings dignity to his character, and an indellible charm in his expression and tone.

While the acting may be a plus, there is just a little trouble in the area of development. Besides Iori Izaka, we know very little about the main samurai of the film. Their personalities just blend into each other, and it is difficult to discern who is on whose side when they become argumentitive. It becomes clear that using eight samurai besides Izaka was probably unnecessary. But, that alone is the only flaw that I feel keeps this movie from a perfect score. Iori Izaka, on the other hand, is given ample development. We learn of his rash decisions, his impatience, and his guilt that goes hand in hand with his inability to rationally and without bias judge a situation. His uncle the chamberlain, on the other hand, is characterized as good natured and patient. He has a firm sense of justice and a will to do what is right, but also a shrewd demeanor that leads him to utterly infuriate his captors. His wisdom also shines through, as does his humor near the end. The wife of the chamberlain is also similar in this regard, a good-natured woman with a warm heart. Showing compassion for others, she becomes the first woman to truly tame Sanjuro. Her lines, such as “killing is a bad habit”, sink into the main character, and he gradually learns and grows an understanding that he is, indeed, a sword that needs to be sheathed. Chidori is developed to an extent where it is clear she has grace and kindness. However, it is her clever aid in the end, where she suggests the camellia signal, that shows multiple dimensions to what appeared to originally be a one-dimensional role. Although, like her mother, her natural demeanor is often portrayed as a little airy. The villains, the cold, calculating Kikui, the worrisome Takebayashi, and the unnervingly calm Kurofuji, manage to make for antagonists who aren't over-the-top, but instead realistic in the excecution of their crooked, though often clumsy, schemes. Hanbei Muroto is the cold, deadly Nakadai-villain which is not uncommon in samurai films. This time, it is clear that he is just a little more dispicable. Thirsting for power, he sees potential in Sanjuro to complete his schemes for his own will to take over. Self-aware, he clearly understands he is on the side of evil. Finally, there is the title character of this film: Sanjuro. The often lazy, sometimes vulgar, always roguish, skillfully-trained, wise character, created in the previous movie, begins to grow and shape into a maturing character this time around. His character traits, caring though verbally abusive, are noted by the other samurai. Mutsuta's wife sees him as an unsheathed sword, and leads him down a path where he begins to realize that excessive violence is not always the key. It is nice to see the main character grow, another reason that this film deserves acclaim.

For the time period, Sanjuro actually boasts some interestering visuals. The cinematography is tight, the camera movement is very natural, the sets and environments are vivid, and the lighting matches the mood brilliantly. The fight choreography however, deserves the most applause. While it is the old “hack-‘em-till-they're-dead” style, the flow of the movements shows some progression. The swordplay is more widely used as well, making for a blend of action and human drama that is sure not to become boring. The climactic battle between Mifune and Nakadai's character is perhaps a little quick, but the gore is totally unexpected. I don't recall the blood-spray style used in any Kurosawa that I've seen up to this time period (1962). It is almost repulsive compared to the rest of the movie, but in the scheme of the plot, it makes sense. Nakadai's death was supposed to be disturbing; a petty waste of a character too much like Sanjuro himself. My complaint here is that the blood, in black and white, doesn't appear to look like very bloodlike. It looks like root-bear is spraying out of the character, and it is so abruptly odd in this regard that it hard to grasp what has just happened.

The music of Sanjuro is similar to Yojimbo (1961) in that it has that certain blend of tradition and big band pizzazz (often synonymous with Masaru Sato); however, this soundtrack is less distracting than that in the movie's predecessor. The main themes for Sanjuro can be described as a large amount of lighter toned percussion mixed with a vivid and almost celebratory use of brass. The less prominent themes feature sometimes playful, or coy accompaniment to a particular scene (often during lighter moments of the movie, i.e., the samurai peeking their heads above the floorboards). In fact, one of the excellent aspects of the soundtrack is just how well each theme fits the specific situation it compliments. In this regard, the music tends to blend in more with the action, creating a fantastic synergy.

When it's all sewn together, Sanjuro is a fine tapestry... the best characteristics of the character born in Yojimbo (1961) mixed with an Eastern flare. There is a lot to like about this film; a multidimensional main character, sharp cinematography and tight choreography, a subtle sense of humor, a light atmosphere, and an all-around enjoyable experience. It is definitely made for multiple viewings, a fine dish for the eyes and the ears. It does have perhaps a flaw or two, but the movie definitely makes up for these problems in other ways. To get to the point, Sanjuro is a great movie, perhaps unfairly diminutive in exposure and critical acclaim compared to its predecessor, but simply excellent in its cinematic potency nevertheless. See it if you've yet to do so.