I really, really wish I had watched this movie before last week. It sat on my shelf for about three and a half years, the first movie I bought sight unseen based purely on the strength of its predecessor Yojimbo (they came together in a boxed set). I’m not sure what kept me from watching it all these years, but I am severely annoyed in principle at whatever it was. Ok, down to business.
In Sanjuro, Toshiro Mifune returns to his role as the nameless ronin from Yojimbo who once again sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong and becomes embroiled in a small town’s turmoil. This time Mifune’s reluctant hero finds himself fighting a more subversive threat in political corruption and conspiracy but, even with a less visible menace, it looks like he’s more than up to the challenge.
There’s something relentlessly cool in the way Mifune carries and conducts himself as the so-called “Tsubaki Sanjuro” (which translates to Camellia Thirty-Year-Old Man, a rather unique name in Japanese as far as I can tell), and there aren’t many things I find more enjoyable than watching him strut, swagger, slice, and dice his way through enemy hordes. Kurosawa manages to pack a healthy amount of clean (well, except for one shockingly gruesome showdown), brutal sword work into the film’s quick hour and a half runtime. Mifune, as he’s demonstrated time and time again, plays a very convincing samurai (and I know a lot about samurais, based on the movies I’ve seen), and his apparent comfort with swordplay has a large part in that. He’s worth the price of admission alone, if you find yourself having to pay to watch a fifty-two-year old movie.
But what I love about this movie is that it isn’t just flash (or at least what would be considered flash in 1960s Japan); it’s so smart. It’s a joy watching Sanjuro maneuver and manipulate his enemies (as well as his allies) but what’s almost as sweet is seeing how his intelligent enemies react, respond, and preempt. They pose a legitimate threat here and do a great job of keeping Sanjuro (and the audience) off-balance. A highlight here is Tatsuya Nakadai’s turn as Muroto, the closest thing Sanjuro has to an equal, essentially reprising and expanding upon his role as the gunfighter Unosuke in Yojimbo.
Even with high stakes for both sides in the conflict, we get just the right amount of simple and appropriate comic relief. This isn’t a movie that takes itself too seriously and that’s something I perhaps overvalue. I find there’s something incredibly real and satisfying in having a tense discussion or confrontation cut by some beautifully inane remark or gesture, and Kurosawa peppers those moments in masterfully. A surprisingly friendly and helpful captive enemy is definitely someone to keep an eye out for.
I mentioned the short runtime earlier and that was something else that stuck out to me. I love Yojimbo, but the one significant knock I have on it is that it suffered from some pacing issues. Sanjuro suffers from no such problems. This is a piece of tight, smart, and entertaining cinema, and given how small of a time commitment it is, I feel considerably less wary recommending it to people who don’t have much experience with or don’t like A. Japanese (or foreign) cinema and B. movies older than say… 10 years.
Yeah, so I’m strongly recommending Sanjuro.