#20 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
After the large success of Yojimbo, Toho asked Akira Kurosawa to create a follow-up using Toshiro Mifune’s main character in a new adventure. Taking a previous script that adapted the novel Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto and inserting the character of Sanjuro, Kurosawa made a solid follow up that entertains, but I’m pretty sure the first film was a fair bit better.
Sanjuro (Mifune), is asleep in a remote shrine where nine young samurai have gathered in earnest to discuss the corruption in their clan. Led by Iori (Yuzo Kayama), they are awaiting the arrival of Superintendent Kikui (Masao Shimizu) after Iori had gone to him as well as his uncle, Chamberlain Mutsuta (Yunosuke Ito), with protestations of the corruption of the clan. After his meetings, Iori is convinced that Kikui is honest and his uncle is corrupt, but Sanjuro, announcing his presence with a laugh and a yawn, tells them that they have it all backwards despite not even having seen either of the two men. It’s obvious to him that Mutsuta is clever and honest while Kikui is devious, and his suspicions are confirmed when he sees a large contingent of Kikui’s men surrounding the isolated temple. Hiding the nine, he brushes off Kikui’s men, led by Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai), and convinces them that he’s alone. Alone with the nine once more, Sanjuro decides that he will help them uncover the corruption, free the chamberlain, and bring the superintendent to justice.
What follows is an intricate chess match between Sanjuro and his overeager young samurai on the one side and Kikui and Muroto on the other. The first set of events that must come to pass is the rescue of Mutsuta’s wife (Takako Irie) and daughter Chidori (Reiko Dan). The sequence is tense and quiet, and it introduces what ends up being the central idea of the film. After their rescue, with the two women having witnessed Sanjuro’s skill as well as his goodness when he offered up his own back as a footstool for the women to help them get over a wall, Mutsuta’s wife calls him an unsheathed sword, brilliant and deadly, but the best swords remain in their sheaths. She insists more than once that Sanjuro must limit his violence, the best moment being when he blithely announces that he’ll signal to the nine that they are clear for an attack by burning a house down, but she insists on something more subtle and Chidori decides that camellias thrown into the small stream that connects two properties is a much more elegant and subtle solution.
The chess match between the two sides is ever-evolving and never boring. The two opposition parties are always trying to bring the other out into the open for attacks, like when Kikui sends palanquins that are supposed to be filled with the conspirators to a remote temple with a minimal guard. The young nine feel that it’s an opportunity too good to pass up, and Sanjuro becomes increasingly detached and dismissive of them as they ignore his warnings, their efforts only saved by the sudden arrival of a mount of cavalry that wishes to act as protection to the palanquins which ends up revealing the whole subterfuge.
Sanjuro, being known to Muroto only as a skilled and hungry ronin, goes to Muroto to enter his service and figure out what he can on the inside, but the nine are split about whether to trust him, so they send four to follow. They end up getting discovered and captured, requiring Sanjuro to kill more than a dozen of them in an effort to free the four and invent a story that will explain his own survival as well as instill fear in Muroto and Kikui that the forces they are up against are much larger than they estimate. The action is quick, but one against fourteen is almost never all that convincing visually. That doesn’t change here, but at least it’s over quickly. It was better in Yojimbo when he was only up against six and surprised them.
The final confrontation involves lying about where the imaginary forces of the resistance are collected, getting the details of the temple wrong, and an attempt to manipulate the remaining bureaucrats left behind to send the signal to attack themselves. The nine, by this point, have learned to obey Sanjuro’s commands and won’t attack without that signal, no matter how much they believe the path is clear for them, so Sanjuro has to enter into a mind game with his captors by insisting that sending white camellias down the stream will signal abort on the mission while red camellias would signal attack when any color will do for the attack.
The film is an entertaining one, but it feels lighter than Yojimbo, which was light but forcefully entertaining. I think it’s the nature of the two conflicts where I find my difference in opinion on how the two end up working. The first is Sanjuro in the middle of a fight between two awful sides, providing him with enough narrative space to be entertaining in a dismissive and sarcastic way while also finding space to grow and reveal himself as a character. He’s the main character, driving everything out of a whim. In Sanjuro, he’s really a side player. That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it means that the actual conflict does involve emotional stakes, most typified around Iori, and he ends up as a side character in what feels like his own story. In addition, the fight itself is less exploitative, operating on more familiar and traditional jidaigeki grounds about samurai fighting for honor and goodness that seems to be asking for a particular kind of emotional investment that the actual execution of the film, focusing so much on the exploits of Sanjuro himself, feels uninterested in even trying to deliver.
Still, with Kurosawa’s expert eye, Mifune’s loose and entertaining performance, and a tight 90-minute runtime, Sanjuro does consistently entertain. I get more out of the previous film, but there’s still a lot to like in the quickly cobbled together sequel.