Appellate Judge Dan Mancini didn't want to spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching a couple Kurosawa flicks he's already seen a million times. He did it for you, the loyal DVD Verdict reader. (That's what he told his wife, anyway, when she asked him to clean up the garage.)
Our reviews of Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (published September 28th, 1999), Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray) (published March 23rd, 2010), Sanjuro: Criterion Collection (Remastered) (published January 23rd, 2007), Yojimbo: Criterion Collection (published October 22nd, 1999), Yojimbo: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) (published March 23rd, 2010), and Yojimbo: Criterion Collection (Remastered) (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
The Criterion Collection calls do-over on their 1999 releases of Akira Kurosawa's samurai duology Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Let's take a look.
Facts of the Case
In 1860s Japan, an impoverished itinerant ronin named Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood) wanders into a dusty town consumed by gambling and gang conflict. There, he meets a restaurant owner named Gonji (Eijiro Tono, The Lower Depths) who fills him in on the town's sorry state. The mayor, a silk broker named Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara, The Hidden Fortress), is supported by yakuza boss and brothel owner Seibei (Seizaburo Kawazu, Chushingura). But a one-time retainer of Seibei's named Ushitora (Kyu Sazanka, The Bad Sleep Well) is making a play for his former boss' power. He and his oafish brother Inokichi (Daisuke Kato, Rashomon) have assembled a gang of ruffians and are backing sake dealer Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura, Ikiru) as the town's new mayor. The rest of the town is caught in the crossfire—especially a poor sap named Kohei (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Seven Samurai), whose wife has been indentured as the concubine of Tokuemon. Business is bad for everyone but the coffin-maker (Atsushi Watanabe, One Wonderful Sunday).
Gonji urges Sanjuro to leave the town as quickly as possible—the presence of a samurai skilled in combat can only bring more trouble. But Sanjuro decides to stick around and watch the deadlocked struggle between the yakuza bosses. Amused by their treachery and cowardice, Sanjuro hires his skills first to one side, then the other. Whether the ronin is a heartless mercenary or a hero isn't immediately clear, but his involvement in the town's conflict is complicated by the arrival of Ushitora's steely-eyed, revolver-bearing brother Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha).
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.
Influenced as it is by Hollywood westerns and films noir, it's difficult for westerners to fully understand how radical a picture Yojimbo was when it was released in Japan in 1961. A character like Sanjuro would've been unthinkable in Japanese cinema before World War II; a movie like Yojimbo would never have been made. Prior to the war, jidai geki (movies set in Japan's feudal past) and chanbara (sword-fight action movies) celebrated the ideal of the samurai code of honor called bushido. They were program pictures whose often predictable plots centered on the nobility of the warrior, rococo codes of conduct, and carefully rehearsed rituals of social propriety. Consider, for example, the tale of the loyal 47 ronin, a famous Japanese folk tale adapted several times into motion pictures (most notably by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1941's The 47 Ronin and Hiroshi Inagaki in 1962's Chushingura). The story is about a young lord forced to commit seppuku because of a minor ceremonial gaffe during a visit by the Shogun. Forty-seven of his retainers then wait two years before exacting revenge on the older lord who'd goaded their master into his deadly error. Having honored the spirit of bushido by carrying out justice on behalf of their master, they themselves commit seppuku for having broken the letter of the Shogun's law, thereby honoring bushido once again. It's a great story, but one in which the characters are subordinate to the ideas of honor, loyalty, and justice.
If Kurosawa turned jidai geki conventions on their heads when he humanized the heroes of his 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai, he annihilates those conventions in Yojimbo. Sanjuro is everything a samurai isn't in the eyes of Japanese traditionalists: poor, threadbare, sarcastic, self-serving (or so it seems), and willing to hire his sword to just about anyone in exchange for money or food. Plus, he eats like a slob. But in some ways, he is also the epitome of the warrior class: cunning, just, stoic, and frighteningly skilled with a sword. Kurosawa doesn't just strip away the obsession with propriety that characterizes old school samurai flicks, he goes out of his way to sully it. Sanjuro lacks all of the outward trappings of the samurai, all the stuff Kurosawa considered rigid, dehumanizing, and phony. But he has the important characteristics in spades—bravery, skill, a sense of personal honor, and a realist's view of the world around him. He'd have been deeply offensive to Japanese in the 1930s, but was tailor-made for a '60s Japanese generation that had come of age in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humiliating surrender, and nearly a decade of occupation by the American military.
Sanjuro is both an emulation of and reaction to Americanism. He's the seminal lone wolf samurai (an oxymoron before the war). Beaten down by life but resilient, he's cut from the same cloth as Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. His struggle against chaos in the cruddy little town he stumbles upon by chance at the film's beginning reflects the ennui and distrust of authority among Japanese after the war. By the '60s, the Japanese intelligentsia and youth culture were angry at the empire that had led them down a path to slaughter and defeat, at the centuries of feudalism under samurai rule that had made them passive and compliant, and at the Americans who had bombed their cities, defeated them in war, and forced foreign customs on them. It's no surprise then that the story of a ragged samurai facing off against corrupt authority figures whose violent and corrosive self-interest has destroyed the lives of the people they are supposed to protect would resonate with Japanese in the 1960s. In the upside down (and all too true) world of Yojimbo, figures of official authority are corrupt and vile. Virtue belongs solely to the oppressed—and a single vagabond ronin offended by the abuse of power he witnesses.
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 and unlikely samurai flick at the time of its release—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). Ironically, it also rejuvenated the western in America and Europe, acting as a guiding light for directors like Sergio Leone (whose A Fistful of Dollars is a direct remake) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch).
Considering Yojimbo's enormous success, it comes as no surprise that Kurosawa made a sequel the following year. 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 Yojimbo and Sanjuro to DVD way back in August of 1999 (the titles carry spine numbers 52 and 53, respectively). 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 duology were simply letterboxed. Beyond the issue of widescreen enhancement (which itself raised the ire of many a DVD geek), the 1999 releases crop the films' 2.35:1 aspect ratio to about 2.0:1, making the discs perhaps the most controversial and vilified entries 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 discs that Criterion didn't create the transfers from sources carefully archived by the studio that produced the films. Criterion's official line in response to whinging home theater techno-nerds was that the images on the 1999 releases, cropped as they are, represent 100% of the image on the source materials at their disposal when the transfers were created. Based on their mostly exemplary track record, there's no reason to doubt them. The fact that Yojimbo opens with an English-language title card is proof enough that it was created from an inferior (and no doubt old) duplicate created for a theatrical release of the picture in the west.
So, the real question is how much of an improvement over the originals are these remastered editions of Yojimbo and Sanjuro? The answer: The new transfers look so good they ought to silence the whingers once and for all. According to the liner notes, the movies were transferred from 35mm fine-grain master positives produced directly from the original camera negatives. Age-related defects were then digitally swabbed (this is particularly important in the case of Yojimbo, considering the 1999 release sports some horrific source damage). As with the original releases, Sanjuro looks slightly better than Yojimbo (which basically means the former is just this side of perfect). Yojimbo displays some minor flicker, as well as the sort of tiny print flaws that can only be removed if you want the final image to look like Kurosawa shot the movie on digital video. Detail is crisp in both transfers. The black-and-white images offer 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 transfers ought to give you some notion of the excellent work Criterion has done in remastering the two films.
By way of example, here's a screen capture of that ugly English-language title card from the 1999 release of Yojimbo:
Here's the Japanese-language title card from the new release:
Now, isn't that better?
Fans of the films are probably most curious (and worried) about the framing issue. I have good news on that front, too. The remastered editions are correctly framed at 2.35:1. Here's a screen capture from the original release of a key shot from Yojimbo in which Kurosawa blocks combatants at the edges of the frame in order to demonstrate their cowardice:
Here's the same shot from the new release:
Note that the cropping on the left side of the old transfer is relatively minor, but it does throw off the composition because of the way Kurosawa uses the extreme edges of the frame. (While you're studying the screen captures, note the remaster's superior contrast and detail.)
The reframing of Sanjuro is even more impressive. In this shot from the 1999 release, Sanjuro 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 pictures, 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 pictures' soundtracks 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 releases gone, but the remastered tracks are punchy and full-bodied. Masaru Sato's scores for the two pictures benefit the most. None of the shrill distortion that marred his playful, bombastic themes in the original DVD releases remains. Despite the new 3-channel mix, the default audio setting for each disc is a single-channel presentation of the mono track. The restored tracks are cleaner, brighter, and louder than those on the original releases.
On the supplements front, Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa) provides an audio commentary for each film. 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 the two films discussed here, he's 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.)
Each disc contains an episode of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, the documentary series produced by Toho for their Japanese DVD releases. The Yojimbo episode runs approximately 45 minutes, while the Sanjuro episode is slightly shorter at 35. Kurosawa's assistant Teruyo Nogami, actor Tatsuya Nakadai, and others involved in the productions contribute to the two documentaries.
The only other supplements on the discs themselves are a teaser and a theatrical trailer for each film.
Each disc also comes with a 22-page insert booklet that contains a variety of supplements. The books open with a paragraph-long statement by Kurosawa about each film, reprinted from Donald Richie's seminal book on the director, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Alexander Sesonke provides context for Yojimbo in his essay, "West Meets East." Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow does the same for Sanjuro in his essay, "Return of the Ronin." Each booklet also contains a trio of essays written by Kurosawa's collaborators on the two films, the most interesting of which is the piece by Yojimbo's cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who had worked with Kurosawa on Rashomon.
All in all, you won't exactly feel buried in supplements, but the discs offer plenty of substance for what is essentially a pair of action-adventure popcorn flicks.
The Criterion Collection's upgrade of these two Kurosawa classics is beautiful to behold. "Double-dip" is normally a bad word among DVD geeks, but this set is worth the investment. It's a tasty morsel that'll wipe away the bad taste of the 1999 releases.
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Distinguishing Marks, Yojimbo
• Commentary by Stephen Prince
Scales of Justice, Sanjuro
Perp Profile, Sanjuro
Distinguishing Marks, Sanjuro
• Commentary by Stephen Prince
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