Thursday, April 22, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro: Floating Flowers and a Slicing Sword

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.

The young men and the villain’s henchmen quickly learn that the disheveled, yawning, perpetually-scratching Sanjuro is a force to be reckoned with. Although a master swordsman capable of single-handedly defeating a horde of bad guys, Tsubaki’s greatest strength lies in his shrewdness. He uncovers that the “good” superintendent and the “bad” chamberlain are just the opposite—it’s the superintendent who has been taking graft and plotting a takeover.

Unlike many bloody samurai films, Sanjuro balances the swordplay with humor and charm. An old lady chastises the veteran warrior Tsubaki, warning him that “killing is a bad habit.” The cynical Tsubaki, who admits allegiance to no one, develops a fondness for the young men he’s helping.

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.

Kurosawa’s direction is seamless, flowing effortlessly from kinetic (as in the swordfights) to poetic (camelia blossoms flowing down a creek). The final showdown between Tsubaki and another samurai (whom he respects) is stunning in its efficiency and shock value.

I find it interesting that many of Kurosawa’s films have been adapted for American and European audiences. The Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven (and other films); Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars; George Lucas even says that Star Wars was inspired by The Hidden Fortress. But no one has remade Sanjuro—perhaps indicating that it truly is a one-of-kind samurai picture.


  1. Akira Kurosawa was a wonderful director. This film is one of his best. I prefer movies like SANJURO over more epic Kurosawa pieces such as RAN. My favorite film from the Japanese auteur is YOJIMBO, which, in addition to FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, was remade as Walter Hill's LAST MAN STANDING (1997), with Bruce Willis. And I think HIDDEN FORTRESS was a little more than "inspiration" for George Lucas' STAR WARS. It's basically an uncredited remake. As Rick pointed out, SANJURO hasn't been remade, and I think it's because it thrives on the rather charming titular character, and a character is much more difficult to recreate than a plot. This was a most excellent write-up, Rick, and I applaud you for focusing on something other than a U.S. film. It's nice to discuss a movie from another country because there are more than a few of those.

  2. Rick, your opening words made me smile. It sounds like you won the Trifecta! I,too, am quite fond of stories with reluctant heroes. Toshiro Mifune has such an unforgettable, expressive face. He is mesmerizing on screen.

    Kurosawa's direction is impeccable. Your skillful words: "flowing effortlessly from kinetic to poetic" describe this work perfectly. The river filled with camelias is an image that remains with the viewer.

    You have painted a wonderful portrait of a masterful film. Bravo!

  3. I like everything Kurosawa. My favorite Kurosawa samurai films are 7 Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and Throne of Blood. I also enjoy watching his more static dramas like Ikiru, the Bad Sleep Well, and High and Low. He and Ozu are my favorite Japanese directors. Rick, you covered just about every reason why I like Yojimbo. Kurosawa and Mifune just end up making great films. Mifune was a beast when it came to making movies--so many over his nearly 50 year film career I've lost count. Thanks for the great review. As you know, I have a fondness for foreign films and it's nice to see one in a blog from time to time. You picked a Japanese gem.

  4. How lovely to read that this lesser-known Kurosawa classic has other admirers! Criterion put out an exquisite Kurosawa boxed set with SANJURO, YOJIMBO, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and THE SEVEN SAMURAI. I suspect THE SEVEN SAMURAI is one of the all-time most frequently remade films. One of the more interesting versions is Roger Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS with Richard Thomas, Sybil Danning, Robert Vaughn, Sam Jaffe, and John Saxon. Now, that's a cast!!

  5. Rick , how could you forget '"Space Cowboy" George Peppard in Battle Beyond The Stars? I'm shocked.

  6. Paul, that's what I get for commenting at the end of a tiring day! But hey, I did mention Robert Vaughn, who was also in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Sark, your point is well-taken...SANJURO is indeed very character-driven and unlike, say, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, it's dominated by one character. Kim, my favorite later Kurosawa film is RAN, which did for KING LEAR what THRONE OF BLOOD did for MACBETH.

  7. I have become a Kirosawa fan recently thanks to TCM's marathons recently of his work. I haven't seen this one yet, so thanks for piquing my interest. I found Stray Dog to be fascinating as well as Rashomon.

  8. It is "charming, intriguing, and mesmerizing"
    It is also enigmatic and very modern
    Sanjuro is not a film about sword play and not is a samurai drama (all of this is surface structure).
    It is a film about the fatal danger democratic societies face today: the danger of being overthrown by the right wing political powers.
    In "SANJURO" Kurosawa provides penetrating psychological analysis of right wing-conservative politicians using many Western analogies.
    Kurosawa dedicates special attention to the analysis of the psychological condition of young people who unfortunately can be easy target of conservative propaganda.
    From Sanjuro, the main character of the film we can learn a lot about the values alternative to the dominant orientation on power, wealth and war.
    See analysis of 22 shots from "SANJURO" and an article: "Homeless Guru as a Role Model" at: