After the huge popularity of Yojimbo (1961), director Akira Kurosawa revived the character of the seedy samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) for this 1962 follow-up, a film even more overtly comic than its predecessor. Unlike Yojimbo, whose setting was a chaotic village where up-for-grabs power had rendered everyone essentially corrupt, Sanjuro seems to be set in a more ordered society where traditional values are still honored. This time our swaggering hero is actually able to take a side, to protect a good man from unjust usurpation, with the now less-nihilistic humor arising from his role as leader and teacher of nine young and eagerly inept swordsmen.
But if the backdrop has lightened up a bit, Sanjuro himself seems, if possible, even scruffier this time around. He has an unkemptness that encourages an initial miscalculation on the part of would-be foes — somewhat like Columbo — but he’s also incredibly rude (a deeper sin, one would imagine, in medieval Japan than almost anywhere else). Scratching and glowering, he’s likely to greet a roomful of strangers with a vociferous yawn. He seems to respect no one and yet expends a lot of time and energy at the services of some concept of a greater good, giving the impression that much of his behavior is a shielding guise meant to hide his sensitivity to right and wrong. It’s like an early version of cool.
Although much of the comedy here comes from the interaction between the unbeatable Sanjuro and his haplessly jejune charges, the best running joke is the hostage who keeps coming out of the closet where he’s been stowed, to offer (often very good) advice to his captors before sheepishly retreating back to his makeshift prison. And though the film, like Yojimbo, is an enjoyably lightweight entry in the Kurosawa canon, it has one of the all-time great endings, a final showdown between Sanjuro and the bad guy wherein the director seems to overcompensate for the general lack of visible bloodletting in most of his sword fights. It’s a climax that’s incredibly over the top, being both cartoonish and horrific — something that has to be seen to be disbelieved.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].