Appellate Judge Dan Mancini isn't as tough as the hero of this Japanese classic, but he does lie around in a robe and scratch himself a lot.
Our reviews of Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (published September 28th, 1999), Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published March 23rd, 2010), and Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Two Films By Akira Kurosawa: Criterion Collection (published January 23rd, 2007) are also available.
"The story is so ideally interesting that it's surprising no one else ever thought of it."—Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was a huge box office hit in the mid-'50s. The Hidden Fortress surpassed it at the end of that decade. Yojimbo—a bizarre samurai flick about a flea-bitten rebel ronin who saves a town by brilliantly playing two yakuza bosses against one another—raked in more yen at the box office than either Seven Samurai or The Hidden Fortress. Its success initiated a jidai geki revival of sorts, refreshing a tired old genre by turning it subversive. Without Yojimbo, we might not have the biting, entertaining genre work of directors like Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri) or Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom). Considering Yojimbo's success, it comes as no surprise that Kurosawa made a sequel the following year: Sanjuro.
Facts of the Case
Impoverished itinerant ronin Sanjuro Tsubaki (Mifune) stops nine young, idealistic, and naïve samurai from backing their clan's corrupt superintendant, Kikui (Masao Shimizu, Godzilla Raids Again), in a powergrab against chamberlain Mutsuta (Yunosuke Ito, Samurai Assassin). How foolish are the gaggle of young samurai? Their leader, Iori (Yuzo Kayama, Red Beard), is the chamberlain's nephew but assumed his uncle's horse-faced ugliness must be a reflection of his moral character.
Kikui is particularly dangerous because of his aggressive, ambitious, and deadly retainer Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai, Ran), who deftly kidnaps the chamberlain and claims he's been arrested for conspiring to organize an insurrection. Hoping to discover where Mutsuta is being held prisoner, Sanjuro leads his nine disciples on a raid to rescue the chamberlain's wife (Takako Irie, The Most Beautiful) and daughter (Reiko Dan, Red Beard). When Sanjuro finally ferrets out the whereabouts of Mutsuta, he and the nine samurai hatch a clever plot to rescue old horseface. Unfortunately, an error in the plan puts Sanjuro's life in danger, and ultimately leads to a showdown between the rogue ronin and Muroto.
Sanjuro began as an adaptation of Shugoro Yamamoto's novel, Peaceful Days. In the novel, two down-on-their-luck ronin come to the aid of some young and stupid samurai who find themselves in the middle of a yakuza war. Kurosawa lifted the spine of Yamamoto's plot, but substituted his now enormously popular ronin, Sanjuro, for the duo in the book. What's more interesting, he replaced the yakuza gangs with government officials, making his film a critique of official authority rather than the criminal underworld and, therefore, more subversive than its source.
Sanjuro is inferior to its predecessor in nearly every way, but it's still a mightily entertaining popcorn flick with loads of wit and humor. Watch Sanjuro in tandem with any or all of the features included in Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set and you'll see just how prodigious Kurosawa's powers of cinematic storytelling were. As a piece of entertainment, Sanjuro is far more fun than any of the quartet of films in that box. There's a loose vitality to its expressive zeal and crackling pace, as though Kurosawa tossed it together on a lark.
In his essay included in this set, film critic Michael Sragow notes that Sanjuro feels more like a prequel to Yojimbo than a sequel, in large part because its world is civilized and refined. He's right. Sanjuro's civilized milieu is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it allows Kurosawa to critique chanbara from a new angle. The movie's nine hapless young samurai are just the sort of warriors who would be the heroes of a traditional Japanese swordfight flick. That they are so entirely clueless they need the unwanted intervention of Sanjuro in order to survive says loudly and clearly what Kurosawa thought of traditional movie samurai. On the other hand, while Yojimbo's plot feels fresh and unique (even though it's been copied many times in the four decades since the its release), Sanjuro occasionally comes off as a collection of lame clichés—not because Kurosawa slips into lazy storytelling, but because his critique of rote genre storytelling is sometimes too explicit. It's true, for example, that traditional chanbara are loaded with handsome good guys and ugly bad guys, but the way Kurosawa flips the convention around so that Sanjuro's young charges believe the virtuous chamberlain a villain because of his physical ugliness is too obvious (though funny, nonetheless).
Matters of style aside, Sanjuro is structurally sound and loads of fun. Kurosawa's greatest achievement in the picture is its balance of comedy and drama. Its theme of the hideousness of violence is similar to Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning Unforgiven. The infamously shocking and bloody finale to Sanjuro is even more powerful than that in Eastwood's film, though, because it isn't preceded by 90 minutes of reticent, somber navel-gazing. Instead, Kurosawa lulls us with light comedy, while slyly setting up the big payoff both with comic action sequences that frame death as cartoonish fun and philosophical conversations between Sanjuro and the chamberlain's proper and amusing wife, who disdains the warrior mentality. Throughout the movie, Kurosawa quietly stokes that part of all of us that is intoxicated by the comeuppance doled out to villains in conventional action flicks, only to wallop us in the end with the chilling ugliness of senseless violence. When finally faced with the dizzyingly quick and ghastly duel between Sanjuro and Muroto in the final minutes of the picture, we're intellectually prepared for the violence but caught off-guard by its visceral impact. Sanjuro is light-hearted action-comedy with one hell of a finale.
The Criterion Collection first brought Sanjuro to DVD way back in August of 1999 (the title carries spine number 53). While Criterion is renowned for their meticulous digital restorations, they were late adopters of anamorphic enhancement. As a result, the original releases of Kurosawa's chanbara classic was simply letterboxed. Beyond the issue of widescreen enhancement (which itself raised the ire of many a DVD geek), the 1999 release cropped the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio to about 2.0:1, making the disc (along with the release of its predecessor, Yojimbo) perhaps the most controversial and vilified entry in Criterion's catalog. For the sake of fair play, it should be noted that Toho was wary of western production houses monkeying with their catalog back in the day, and kept a tight grip on the titles in their vaults—especially prestige titles like Kurosawa's oeuvre. It's pretty clear watching the original disc that Criterion didn't create the transfer from sources carefully archived by the studio that produced the film. Criterion's official line in response to whinging home theater techno-nerds was that the image on the 1999 release, cropped as it is, represents 100% of the image on the source materials at their disposal when the transfer was created. Based on their mostly exemplary track record, there's no reason to doubt them.
So, the real question is how much of an improvement over the original is this remastered edition of Sanjuro? The answer: The new transfer looks so good it ought to silence the whingers once and for all. According to the liner notes, the movie was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive produced directly from the original camera negative. Age-related defects were then digitally swabbed. Detail is crisp. The black-and-white image offers a subtle and varied grayscale, with deep blacks. Whites are occasionally overblown, but this appears to be rooted in Kurosawa's use of anamorphic telephoto lenses, which required setups with copious amounts of light in order to maintain sharp focus. From time to time, the face of an actor standing in the background appears washed out and pallid, but as the actor moves one can see subtle shifts in lighting that indicate he is occupying a hot spot. It's a fairly minor technical glitch Kurosawa was apparently willing to suffer in order to achieve the overall visual effect he desired. That these isolated fluctuations in contrast are the biggest problem with the transfer ought to give you some notion of the excellent work Criterion has done in remastering the film.
Fans of the film are probably most curious (and worried) about the framing issue. I have good news on that front, too. The remastered edition is correctly framed at 2.35:1. Here's a screen capture of a scene from the 1999 release of Sanjuro in which our hero chides eight and a half naïve samurai:
In the remastered version, he lectures nine samurai, and has a little more space behind his back, too:
Audio has been similarly spruced up. When shooting the picture, Kurosawa utilized the Perspecta Stereophonic sound system, which spreads various frequencies of a mono track across three separate channels, creating more depth and allowing the sound to be mixed with side-to-side pans. Criterion decoded the picture's soundtrack with Perspecta equipment, digitally restored the output, and translated it into a Dolby 3-channel mix that spreads the sound across the entire front soundstage of 5.1 systems. The results are stunning. Not only is the crackle and hiss on the 1999 release gone, but the remastered track is punchy and full-bodied. Masaru Sato's score benefits the most. None of the shrill distortion that marred his playful, bombastic themes on the original DVD remains. Despite the new 3-channel mix, the default audio setting is a single-channel presentation of the mono track. The restored tracks are cleaner, brighter, and louder than that on the original release.
On the supplements front, Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa) provides an audio commentary. Prince's casual delivery of a wealth of production information, as well as his enthusiasm for Kurosawa, has made him my favorite commentator on director's pictures. (Criterion must share my affinity for Prince considering that, in addition to Sanjuro, he's recorded a track for its predecessor, Yojimbo. Plus, he previously recorded tracks for their releases of Stray Dog, Kagemusha, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, and Ran, as well as participating in the roundtable commentary on Seven Samurai.)
The disc contains an episode of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, the documentary series produced by Toho for their Japanese DVD releases. The Sanjuro episode runs approximately 35 minutes. Kurosawa's assistant Teruyo Nogami, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, and others involved in the production contribute to the two documentary.
The only other supplements on the disc are a teaser and a theatrical trailer for the film.
Sanjuro also comes with a 22-page insert booklet that contains a variety of supplements. The book opens with a paragraph-long statement by Kurosawa about the film, reprinted from Donald Richie's seminal book on the director, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow provides a little context for Sanjuro in his essay, "Return of the Ronin." The booklet also contains a trio of essays written by Kurosawa's collaborators on the film.
All in all, you won't exactly feel buried in supplements, but the disc offers plenty of substance for what is essentially an action-adventure popcorn flick.
The Criterion Collection's upgrade of Sanjuro is beautiful to behold. "Double-dip" is normally a bad word among DVD geeks, but this disc is worth the investment. It's a tasty morsel that'll wipe away the bad taste of the 1999 release.
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• Commentary by Stephen Prince
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