#22 - Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa)

note: article contains spoilers for both "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro"

The Naked Sword

After watching the wonderful “Yojimbo” yesterday, my excitement for “Sanjuro” was quite palpable. And while there was a slight apprehension that it might trod the same ground I am relieved to say that, while the character of Mifune is the same nameless samurai, “Sanjuro” is very much its own film even on cinematic terms.

The cinematic language of “Yojimbo” is still in use in this film as well but it is certainly less exuberant making “Sanjuro” a stylistically more restrained peace. And because “Sanjuro” does seem the more violent film, at least when the bodycount is concerned, this puzzled me quite a bit. Until I finished watching the film that is. And then it all made sense with the final scene, which after so much restraint felt like a slap in the face. I was staring at the screen with my mouth wide open, gasping for air.

In “Sanjuro” the nameless samurai joins nine young men, who are intent to rescue a chamberlain that is kept imprisoned by the corrupt men he was trying to weed out. The opposition forces are lead by Muroto, played by Tatsuya Nakadai. And the scenes between Mifune and Nakadai are the best ones of the film, in part because the two men are great opposites. Mifune is loose, scuffled and projects an undeniable coolness while Nakadai is precise, methodical and quite regal in comparison. But their relationship is never truly antagonistic; actually there is unquestionable camaraderie even-though Mifune’s character is playing Muroto during the entire film.

All this of course leads to that scene at the end, which indeed is the duel between Mifune and Nakadai. And although “Yojimo” kind of missed the opportunity (even-though it really didn’t) to exploit the full potentials of this clash, “Sanjuro” makes a point of it. It relishes in the build-up throughout the film while artfully keeping it in the background of the main plot of the film. And a lesser filmmaker would put it front and center but Kurosawa wisely decides to leave it on the side and with that creates desire in the audience instead of mere anticipation. With this he makes the central plot much more enjoyable as well, because you’re not waiting for that inevitable final clash. And when it does finally arrive it’s a pure moment of excitement and tension and final catharsis.

Throughout the film the very nature of Mifune’s samurai is questioned. He is compared to an unsheathed sword. And while the nameless samurai is a complete agent of the grand designer (the director in this case) as he was in “Yojimbo” and as he is in any other fiction that uses a character of this type, he is also given some context beyond solely being the enforcer and catalyst for drama. In “Yojimbo” we questioned his morality, and he was slightly more palpable as a character because he wasn’t so absolute. But in “Sanjuro” we question his very agency. And Kurosawa makes a clear point of it in that the character is almost omnipotent, untouchable and two steps ahead of everyone and in fact he is the only character that actually kills in the entire film. Who other than the great designer has the power over life and death?

“Sanjuro” is a great follow-up to “Yojimbo”. It brings the best features of that film, the central character and the style, and gives them a brand new shine and effect. If anything I am humbled by these films and by the craft that Kurosawa effortlessly displays in them. They are truly remarkable films.

Original title: Tsubaki Sanjûrô


Toshiro Mifune - Sanjuro
Tatsuya Nakadai - Hanbei Muroto
Yuzo Kayama - Iori
Reiko Dan - Chidori
Takashi Shimura - Kurofuji

Original language: Japanese

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