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Our reviews of Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (published September 28th, 1999), Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (Remastered) (published January 23rd, 2007), and Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Two Films By Akira Kurosawa: Criterion Collection (published January 23rd, 2007) are also available.
"You tired of being stupid yet?"—Tsubaki Sanjuro
Criterion brings Toshiro Mifune's uncouth Ronin to Blu-Ray in Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro. How does it fare in high-definition?
Facts of the Case
Wandering Ronin, Tsubaki Sanjuro is back. Sanjuro finds himself working with an idealistic group of young Samurai as they attempt to weed out the evil influences in their clan. Sanjuro teaches the young buffoons that things aren't always as they seem, and one must judge on more than appearance. He must also single handedly keep the fools from getting themselves killed, while shattering their preconceived notions on Samurai culture.
It's easy to spot the Criterion logo and a name like Akira Kurosawa, and immediately put on the intellectual cap. Kurosawa has become something of a flagship for the Criterion line, and perhaps more so than any other director in the line, he's earned that place. Like all true cinematic greats however, his work is far more than just arthouse fare. He's made some truly fantastic action-adventure in his time, and for every iconic, moody drama he's got a sword-swinging Samurai or two. Many of his films would be more at home on a shelf next to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars than The Seventh Seal or Amarcord. I don't mean to begrudge or condescend with that statement, suffice it to say, the average movie-goer could find a lot to like in Kurosawa's body of work, and Sanjuro is one of the most accessible of the bunch.
It's impossible to talk about Sanjuro without bringing up Yojimbo. Kurosawa's 'Samurai Western' was a massive hit on release; outperforming his biggest flicks to that point, Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. The sequel came fast, a mere 8 months after Yojimbo first hit, born of an aborted attempt to write an adaptation of historical novel, Peaceful Days.
What's really amazing is that even with an incredibly rushed production, constant writing and re-writing, and Kurosawa's own radical on-set perfectionist approach; Sanjuro is actually a pretty great little film. At the center is Toshiro Mifune's (Red Beard) portrayal of the titular character. Tsubaki Sanjuro is a beast, all snarl and surly attitude. He's a pig of a man, a scratcher, drinker, layabout and generally unlikable rogue. There's no more atypical portrayal of Samurai culture out there, and Mifune plays it pitch perfect. Of course when the blades come out, he's also a consummate bad-ass, a master at killing. He's capable of holding his own, even when outnumbered 10 to 1. A little bit of Sanjuro appears in just about every "lone wolf" archetype to hit the screen in the years since. Kind of ironic when you consider Kurosawa's inspiration for the character came from classic American Westerns.
Kurosawa's direction is assured, his typical approach to action on full display. He's all about sudden bursts of violence that end just as quickly. Again, Mifune carries the load, and is a natural with sword in hand. Watching him take out a room of bodyguards never gets old, and the final duel is a shocker, with a messy ending that never fails to raise an eyebrow or two.
Above all else, Sanjuro is fun. It's a breezy flick that entertains without getting bogged down in pretension or drama, and it's not above a little bit of goofy fun with its cast. It's a fine popcorn action-adventure that sticks around just long enough, and leaves you entertained. On the flipside, beneath the humorous veil, like most of Kurosawa's Samurai stuff, there's the usual messages about social class and status and the ability to distinguish between just and unjust. It's a touch heavy handed, sure, but it suits the tone of the film pretty well.
Criterion's treatment of Sanjuro is typically top drawer. The booklet enclosed contains the usual smattering of essays, and there's a great commentary by Kurosawa scholar, Stephen Prince, which, while a little dry at times, is educational and worth a listen. A 35 minute documentary taken from the much longer series, Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful to Create covers the making of the film, and the set is rounded out with trailers of the film and a nice production stills gallery. It doesn't look like much on paper, but it's a great slate of extras that doesn't leave one wanting.
The 1080p transfer looks good, if not jaw-droppingly amazing. Fine details really shine, and the grainy image looks natural. There's a little bit of edging and shimmering here and there, but it certainly doesn't detract from the overall image, and contrast levels are perfect. While we're not looking at a restoration on the Casablanca level, it's difficult to imagine Sanjuro looking any better than it does here.
The audio, for Mono, is fantastic, with no hissing or distortion. The 3.0 perspecta faux stereo track sounds great as well. No issues here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sanjuro just is not as good as Yojimbo. There's really no easier way to say it. Sanjuro is the younger, less thoughtful, more reckless brother to Yojimbo. Even amongst fans of Kurosawa's classic jidai geki period, Sanjuro is often regarded as an afterthought or unjustly reduced to second-tier status. It's not a horrible or weak film by any means; it's merely an inferior sequel overshadowed by the runaway critical and commercial success of what had come before.
If you're coming off of Yojimbo, you're better off waiting before plowing straight into Sanjuro. I don't find the films make a great double feature, and with Yojimbo's awesomeness too fresh in your mind, you may feel a pang of disappointment with Sanjuro. Hell, I'd probably recommend watching Sanjuro first! It does occasionally have the feel of a prequel, but without Yojimbo as an introduction to Mifune's surly vagabond, his presence in Sanjuro may not feel as assured. It's a riddle you'll have to puzzle out for yourself. You could just ignore Sanjuro altogether I guess, but you'd definitely be missing out. Sanjuro was Kurosawa's last film in this particular milieu, and when he did return to Samurai years later, it was with a more dramatic, less adventurous frame of mind.
While it's fantastic that we're finally seeing these classic samurai films hit high definition, Criterion has essentially just ported their standard definition release with nothing new in terms of extras added to the pot. With prints this old, the worth of the HD upgrade is definitely called into some question. For me, owning only the original non-anamorphic releases of both Yojimbo and Sanjuro from 1999, the answer is simple. For those who shelled for the 2007 releases of each disc, or the 2-film boxed set, the waters are a little more muddied. It's true that Sanjuro has never looked better than it does on Blu-ray, but is the audio-visual jump really dramatic enough?
Sanjuro is a great film! It's the perfect blend of humor, drama, and action. While it may not stand up to Yojimbo on all fronts, its status as "second-tier" is definitely off base. Criterion has done a fine job with the Blu-ray presentation, but owners of the 2007 remastered release may be well served to stick with what they have, unless the slight visual bump appeals to you.
Not guilty and free to go! I'll draw swords with any man who says
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