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Kurosawa Akira’s Sanjuro (1962) ends with what must surely be the briefest, and most breathtaking, duel in all cinema. Two samurai swordsmen face up to each other, motionless, gazing into each other’s eyes, for all of 20 seconds. Then… they draw; and from the chest of one of them there spouts a huge gout of blood. It’s all over in barely a second.
What makes this dramatic lightning-bolt all the more startling is that it represents an abrupt shift of mood from everything that’s preceded it. This moment apart, Sanjuro is the most lighthearted of all Kurosawa’s excursions into the jidai-geki (period film) genre. It was a movie that he thoroughly enjoyed making, and completed more rapidly than any of his other mature films.
It was also a film made in response to popular demand. The previous year Kurosawa had scored a huge critical and commercial hit for his own production company with Yojimbo, which introduced the character calling himself Sanjuro (which means simply ‘30 years old’), the scruffy, mercenary, cynical ronin (masterless samurai) played by Mifune Toshirō.
The public had taken this maverick figure to their hearts and were eager for a sequel. Kurosawa had a story ready – one he’d prepared some time previously from a novel, Peaceful Days, by Yamamoto Shūgorō (whose stories would also provide the source material for Red Beard, 1965, and Dodes’ka-den, 1970). The plot just needed tweaking to include the Sanjuro figure. Originally Kurosawa planned to assign the script to another director, his assistant Horikawa Hiromichi, to make, but then decided to take it on himself.
Strictly speaking, Sanjuro can’t be called a ‘sequel’ to Yojimbo, since it seems to take place in a slightly earlier period of Japanese history. Yojimbo is exactly placed in the 1860s, the final years of the Tokugawa era, when the rigid social structure of shogunate Japan was breaking down. The period of Sanjuro isn’t specified but appears to be set during a more socially stable period, maybe a few decades earlier.
It’s altogether lighter in tone than its predecessor, a comedy of manners that spoofs many of the conventions of the jidai-geki. The original Japanese trailer kicks off with a jaunty, indeed almost farcical, tune. Much of the humour derives from the contrast between Sanjuro’s practical, down-to-earth behaviour and the naivety of the group of nine clean-cut and callow young samurai to whom he reluctantly becomes guardian and mentor – a humorous treatment of the master-pupil theme that so often recurs in Kurosawa’s films. With Mifune at his most feline, it’s often like watching a lazy but potentially lethal tiger beset by a bunch of yapping puppies. Sanjuro yawns, scratches and tries to get a little sleep, only to be disturbed by the excitable youngsters as they dash about concocting hare-brained schemes.
Further comedy comes from the interplay between Sanjuro and the refined pair of court ladies he has to rescue from being kidnapped. Their well-bred surprise at his unconventional ways is matched by his barely concealed exasperation at their twittering gentility and insistence on following formal codes of politeness at all times, no matter what danger they’re in. And there’s a diverting running gag involving a captured warrior who finds his loyalty shifting to the side of his captors.
Tongue in cheek though it is, Sanjuro is made with all the fluid elegance of Kurosawa at the height of his powers, his scurrying swordsmen forming intricate visual patterns across the ’scope screen. And even at his most playful, Kurosawa has serious points to make about Japanese society and its overwhelming urge towards social conformity. No matter how often Sanjuro tells his eager young acolytes to think for themselves and not judge by appearances and outward adherence to convention, they persist in acting mindlessly as a group, always looking for an assertive leader from whom they can take orders.
Being a samurai movie, Sanjuro naturally doesn’t lack swordplay, but most of the violence appears almost bloodless – at least until that very last scene, when Kurosawa stages his startling switch of mood. Sanjuro, departing, finds himself confronted by the one man he respects: Muroto, chief swordsman for the villains (played by Nakadai Tatsuya, his nemesis in Yojimbo). Nothing Sanjuro can say will dissuade Muroto, who insists on fighting. And he dies, spectacularly.
Sanjuro rounds on the admiring youngsters. “What was so great about that?” he snaps. “Don’t try to follow me or I’ll kill you.” And off he strides to Satō Masaru’s pulsing score, ending Kurosawa’s lightest jidai-geki on a grim downbeat.
Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
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