A Cut Above
Rama Gottumukkala | Thursday, April 5, 2007
Howling winds roar with gusto in Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film “Yojimbo.” Like the torrential rains that soak the battlefields of “Seven Samurai,” the elements are never mere backdrops in Kurosawa’s creations. They loom over the proceedings like a secondary character.
Out of this maelstrom of swirling sands and dust comes one of the most iconic stars in the entire samurai canon – Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro. Arms tucked into his scruffy kimono, he walks purposefully on long, powerful strides. It’s a worthy arrival for a swordsman who would become Kurosawa’s most revered mythic hero, as timeless today as it was 45 years ago. And before this tale is done, he would leave a deep and indelible cut on world cinema, inspiring the work of countless admirers like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone.
A masterless samurai in 19th-century feudal Japan, Sanjuro is a wanderer in search of a purpose – or, at the very least, amusement. His travels take him to a town so wicked it makes Sodom and Gomorrah look tame. Teeming with vile gangsters and dishonorable samurai, the redeemable characters can be counted on one hand.
Using his camera to sweep across the landscape, Kurosawa lets us in on this open secret in the first 10 minutes. The streets are deserted but strewn with limbs and corpses, bloody reminders of how high the body count goes.
Momentarily startled by all this carnage, the wily Sanjuro wastes little time before going to work. He sells his services to both of the town’s rival crime lords, pitting them against each other. All the while, he uses his peerless swordplay to steadily thin the town’s herd of miscreants, one handful after another.
“Yojimbo” marked the 13th collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune. Their mutual admiration ran deep. In his autobiography, Kurosawa wrote of Mifune, “The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three feet.”
Already highly regarded for his work on 1950’s “Rashomon” and 1954’s “Seven Samurai” – both Kurosawa masterpieces – Mifune delivers a spellbinding turn as the arcane yet altruistic Sanjuro. The role made him the international face of Japanese cinema, and it’s not hard to see why.
Mifune’s impish performance is superbly understated, one of the all-time greats. He reveals as much with a scratch of his beard or wiggle of his shoulders as a lesser actor would with a minute-long monologue.
Eminently cool, he’s Clint Eastwood before there was a Man with No Name, which is unsurprising. It’s no secret that Mifune’s Sanjuro inspired Eastwood’s taciturn hero, and Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” was an unapologetic remake of “Yojimbo.”
Kurosawa christened Sanjuro – his most famous hero – a “samurai of the imagination.” He’s a force of nature dreamed up for a single purpose: ridding this small destitute town of its affliction. Once he does, Mifune disappears back into the swirling winds that delivered him.
Kurosawa loved bookends, and Sanjuro’s mythic exit, like his arrival, cemented his place among the cinema’s ageless warriors.
In describing what would become the most famous scene in “Sanjuro,” Akira Kurosawa and co-writer Ryuzo Kikushima left much to the imagination.
“The duel cannot be described in words. After a long, frightening pause, the outcome is decided with a single flash of a sword,” the screenplay read.
Tantalizingly vague, the description baffled even longtime Kurosawa collaborators. Just a year earlier, Kurosawa had delivered an instant masterpiece with “Yojimbo,” as epic, haunting and beautiful a samurai film as had ever been done. What could the master unveil this time, the film’s cast and crew wondered? Like the rest of the film world, they were hoping for a spectacle and a worthy sequel. Which is exactly what they got.
At its heart, “Sanjuro” is about a lone wolf who herds a flock of dim-witted but well-intentioned warriors in their quest to rescue an honorable kidnapped chamberlain from his corrupt rival.
The incomparable Toshiro Mifune once again plays Sanjuro, the lone wolf in this tale. He is the commanding presence that anchors the movie. Hidden beneath Sanjuro’s disheveled veneer lies the same proud, noble and shrewd swordsman that we remember. He’s a crafty warrior who fells injustice with his keen mind as well as his sharp sword. And although it would have been tempting to do so, Kurosawa and Mifune never retread any steps from the vaunted “Yojimbo.”
The most pronounced difference between the two movies is in their tone. Even though the titular character has changed little from the last time we saw him, the atmosphere in “Sanjuro” is lighter and more warm-hearted, far removed from the morbid town that Mifune haunted in “Yojimbo.” Kurosawa lets the film breathe by allowing the actors, especially Mifune, have some fun along the way.
As the narrative progresses, Sanjuro grows quite fond of his brood of brave but foolish young wards. As the samurai stalk through the forests in search of leads, they follow in single file behind Sanjuro, who stops to scold them – as he frequently does – for their incompetence.
“We can’t move like this, like a centipede,” he hisses while impatiently scratching his knee. Mifune’s facial expressions in these comic exchanges are priceless. They are the work of an accomplished actor who has sunk so far into the role that every action comes across with a relaxed, commanding ease.
These scenes of gentle comedy add a great deal of depth to “Sanjuro,” but Kurosawa never forgets to give us what we came to see: unparalleled swordplay. Needless to say, the final warrior’s duel between Sanjuro and his nemesis lived up to its billing. It astounded all who saw it when the film debuted in 1962 and has lost none of its edge to this day. The slow-burning buildup seems to last forever before the conclusive burst of violence.
This powerful technique would later inspire the iconic graveyard gunfight that ends Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” For his own iconic, tension-grinding conclusion, Leone studied Kurosawa’s methods and paid homage to the master, like so many devotees to come.
Criterion Collection DVD
For a pair of films that left behind such a rich legacy, the 1999 DVD releases of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” were shamefully ordinary. They were two of the earliest DVD releases for the Criterion Collection. As such, they lacked the depth and polish of later releases as DVD technology aged. The only special features included were the two original trailers.
Fortunately, Criterion – a company unparalleled in its restorations and releases of classic films on DVD – has rewarded “Yojimbo,” along with its equally notable sequel “Sanjuro,” with a second life on DVD. Using archived film prints, Criterion created entirely new digital transfers while sweeping away all the dirt, scratches and imperfections that pile on when a film nears its 50s. The new transfers look gorgeous, and the sound has been similarly cleaned up. The films never show their true age, a testament to Criterion’s painstaking restoration.
For bonus features, each DVD includes a 20-page commemorative booklet with scholarly essays, a 40-minute Japanese documentary on each film’s production, trailers and behind-the-scenes images. The most notable addition, though, are a pair of commentaries by Stephen Prince, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Kurosawa’s oeuvre.
The topics of his commentary are deep, varied and vast, including the John Ford westerns that inspired Kurosawa, the historically accurate swordplay and the masterful usage of the widescreen frame. These are two of the finest commentaries Criterion has ever recorded. Listening to Prince here feels like spending a week with a Kurosawa guru at a top film school.
Thanks to Criterion’s diligent archival efforts, “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” have been given a worthy resting place on history’s shelf. In the “Yojimbo” commentary, Prince acknowledges Kurosawa’s place among the inner circle of cinema’s sages, calling him “one of the world’s great epic poets of screen violence.”
Time and again, Kurosawa proved capable of composing some of the most lyrical and balletic swordplay feats ever filmed. But as the quiet moments in these two samurai epics attest, it is great humanity, not violence, which lies at the core of his pictures.