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September 07, 2010: Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”

September 7, 2010

I am slowly working my way through all the Kurosawa films that I have missed seeing over the years as well as revisiting some old favorites. Last week I saw “Sanjuro” from 1961. Sanjuro is a story of a conflict between a samurai clan’s chamberlain and superintendent. It seems that when the clan’s leader is out of town, these two are in charge and there has been corruption to the point that nine retainers take it into their own hand to find out who, and deal with the culprit. The nine young men meet clandestinely to discuss their plans. Unknown to them, is a ronin (a masterless samurai who is Sanjuro, played by Toshiro Mifune) who is sleeping in another room and who overhears their plans. The retainers have already picked the superintendent as the innocent one (mostly on the basis of his good looks) and are prepared to go against the chamberlain. Out steps Sanjuro, unkempt, scratching, and moody (as they have woken him up) to tell them that they are all wrong and why. This starts a pattern that runs throughout the film: the young men, making spontaneous decisions and running pell-mell into trouble with Sanjuro pulling them back and saving their lives over and over. Of course, the young retainers initially  stand up to Sanjuro, but as he almost immediately saves their lives, they quickly trust him and he becomes their ad hoc leader. The group cannot rescue the chamberlain from the superintendent’s retainers, but they can save his wife and daughter. These two add a much-needed yin to an (up to this point) yang energy. The mother chastises Sanjuro for being “too sharp, like a sword” after he has killed several men in their rescue and reminds him that “good swords are kept in their scabbards.” They also coax Sanjuro’s name out of him. Up to this point of the film the ronin is the quintessential “man with no name” prevalent in many of Kurosawa’s films as well as many of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Looking out into a courtyard, he sees a camilla tree and proclaims his name to be “Tsubaki Sajuro” (“Camilla 30-year-old”.)

“Sanjuro” has a good story, fine acting, good fight scenes, but I was most surprised (and pleased) by the understated humor: Sanjuro’s lackadaisical, unkempt manner is fun to watch Mifune perform. His constant attempts to catch a nap, while receiving constant “reports” from the retainers is a riot, but the most amusing was the captured guard from the superintendent’s side who would act as a mini Greek chorus, except he is constantly banished (or is banishing himself) to the closet.

Two small criticisms of “Sanjuro”: One is that, as a non-Japanese speaker, I rely on the subtitles to relay accurate meaning. When a character is subtitled as saying “No, No” when even my unpracticed ear hears “Yes, Yes” it throws the whole trust in the translators away. Also, I thought it odd that Sanjuro could put away a room full of men with absolutely no blood on him, his sword or the men! I had no idea that Kurosawa was saving all the blood for the final showdown with the superintendent’s chief henchman. Then it comes across as cartoonish, a Monty Python-like caricature. Other than these two faults, Sanjuro is a good period piece, well worth a rental.

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