The popular “rōnin with no name” from Akira Kurosawa’s internationally acclaimed samurai western “Yojimbo” returns in a tale of political double dealings and bumbling plans to rescue a clan leader from a treacherous official. Originally intended as a faithful adaptation of the novel “Peaceful Days” by Shûgorô Yamamoto, Kurosawa’s gruff anti-hero was so popular, he was persuaded to resurrect him and the story was reworked for this purpose.
Toshiro Mifune who calls himself Sanjuro Tsubaki, returns as the mysterious rōnin for hire , with his usual domineering charisma and cool, calm acting ability -a reminder that he remained one of Japan’s most revered thespians. Sanjuro’s interplay with Muroto played by Tatsuya Nabadaki provides extra gravitas to the film’s mix of comedy and political intrigue. Masao Shimizu is Inspector Kikui, the town’s superintendent with plans to replace the Lord Chamberlain Matsuta (Yundsuke Ito) through Machiavellian means.
Nine young Samurai believe their Lord Chamberlain Matusa to be involved in organised crime and report their suspicions to the superintendent, Inspector Kikui. Discussing the situation at a shrine, their conversation is overheard by rōnin Sanjuro who suspects that it is in fact the superintendent who is corrupt. After saving their lives from an assassination attempt Sanjuro agrees to help the group of naïve youngsters save Matusa and his family and stop Kikui from assuming power.
Far from being a replay of “Yojimbo”, Kurosawa has put together a film that is lighter in tone. It still features one or two high energy fast-paced sword fights with Mifune showing himself as adept as ever with a Katana. Sanjuro’s ability to slice and dice dozens of men in a matter of seconds (the film’s entire body count is due to him) are just as thrilling. Mifune’s agility is shown in the scene where he races down a courtyard, kills three men and runs back before he’s noticed. The film also features many comical moments that are highly entertaining yet take nothing of the edge away from the film’s sinister political undertones and double dealings. The film’s plot moves along at a balanced, steady pace; from the energetic sword battles to Kikui’s evil plotting behind closed doors never losing flow.
The film has a little fun in reversing the master-student relationship, with the cat-napping, Sake guzzling slob who has no time for traditional heirs and graces acting as mentor to the more conventional clean-cut young warriors. There are some over the top running gags throughout such as the Lord Chamberlain’s wife being constantly concerned about good manners rather saving her own life and the captured soldier who keeps jumping out of a cupboard.
Mifune displays great comic timing particularly in the scene where Sanjuro receives reports from his young charges, then simply grunts and goes back to sleep. This lighter feel and Mifune’s humorous performance do however take on a darker tone. The graphic violence that suddenly appears in the climax, absent from the film thus far, comes as a shock as does the outcome, leaving one’s jaw well and truly dropped.
“Sanjuro” is another testament to the Mifune/Kurosawa collaboration that contributed a truly impressive body of work. As well as the action, comedy and superb cinematography, there are some unobtrusive statements made about the Samurai genre such as the dangers of conformity and the importance of honour. These are conveyed through some rambunctious comedy and excitingly paced action. Yet it’s the sombre ending with Sanjuro’s change of character more akin to that in “Yojimbo” that tops off this entertaining and profound piece of cinema.
- The slap Toshiro Mifune gives the three young Samurai after killing a dozen men was real as were the actors’ reactions.
- Music played in the film’s opening credit is the theme from “Yojimbo”.