Sanjuro was my first foreign film, my first samurai film, and my first Kurosawa film. When I watched in it on PBS in the early 1970s, I’m not sure if I even knew who Akira Kurosawa was (but suspect I soon learned). I found Sanjuro charming, intriguing, and mesmerizing. Each time I watch it again, I’m reminded of that unique blend of qualities. Although I admire the more critically-acclaimed Kurosawa films such as The Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress, none of them has toppled Sanjuro as my favorite.
The plot bares a passing resemblance to The Seven Samurai, in which a village hires down-on-their-luck samurai to protect them from marauding outlaws. In Sanjuro, a group of young men are joined by a wandering samurai in their quest to oust a corrupt official from power. Sanjuro Tsubaki (Mifune) is a reluctant hero, though. After eavesdropping on the young men discussing their village’s problems, he emerges only to offer advice (“They say outsiders can be good judges”). However, after learning that the youngsters can’t take care of themselves, he agrees to help.
Mifune has a field day in the title role. A film critic once pointed out that John Belushi’s “Saturday Night Live” samurai character was obviously patterned after Mifune’s performance in Sanjuro. He may be right; it’s hard to watch one and not think of the other. It also highlights that Mifune was a fine comedian as well as an action hero.