My difficulty getting into Japanese film is no big secret, but I’m chipping away at it, film by film. I enjoyed Yojimbo a couple of years ago (even though I was in a too-tired frame of mind and really need to rewatch it), so I had hopes that Sanjuro would follow in its footsteps.
I won’t deny that the opening had me fearful – it drops us right into the middle of a somewhat heated discussion, with one man telling a bunch of other men that his uncle wouldn’t agree to help them take down some corruption, which is seen as a great betrayal, but that the superintendent would. It’s all a bit abrupt and you’re left wondering exactly who the uncle is, how this government is formed, what place a “superintendent” has in it, what the power relationship between the uncle and superintendent is, who exactly the men think is corrupt and why, how that corruption is affecting them, who they owe their allegiance to, what their status is (are they samurai, or just regular guys who happen to carry swords around – other reviewers are calling them noblemen, which makes sense), etc. Most of this is never really answered, so either it’s just a total McGuffin, or it’s assumed that the viewer has a knowledge of Japanese social and government structure that I lack. You do learn that the uncle is a chamberlain, which is presumably a higher position than superintendent, but with the chamberlain and the superintendent the only officials really mentioned, it’s unclear where the noblemen originally thought the corruption was coming from.
The good news is, Sanjuro (an apparently assumed name, played to perfection by Toshiro Mifune) pops out of the next room pretty quickly and takes the situation in hand. He’s a ronin, which I DO know what is – a Samurai who has lost his master, so he’s roaming around without clear allegiance. It’s not really an honorable position to be in, but it does leave Sanjuro free to do whatever the hell he wants, which, thankfully for our hapless noblemen, is help them out of their predicament. He immediately clues into the fact that it’s probably the superintendent that’s corrupt rather than the chamberlain, and he carries out a series of plans (most of which are screwed up by the impatient and highly unstrategic noblemen) to catch out the superintendent and rescue the uncle, whom the superintendent has had arrested and framed for corruption.
It sounds quite confusing, and in some ways it is, but once Mifune takes center stage, he guides the narrative along cleanly. He’s also HILARIOUS. His bemused tolerance of everyone else’s antics is really winning, as he often just can’t quite believe that they’re as stupid as they are, and yet he continues trucking on, saving them over and over via his fighting skill, quick thinking, and fast talking. There are moments where this dips almost into farce, but it retains a deeply moving quality as we remember that within Japanese society, Sanjuro is basically an outcast, yet his sense of honor is strong enough to continue to fight corruption, even when it means dealing with these bozos. The rest of the film is pretty funny as well, with the noblemen running everywhere like silent slapstick comedians, and even the enemies flapping about in comic terror as a bound Sanjuro still has control over the situation.
Kurosawa uses deep staging extremely well a number of times, often to emphasize Sanjuro’s calm and thoughtfulness in the face of blithering incompetence. In one scene, he’s lounging in the foreground, seeming not to pay any attention to the noblemen squabbling beyond him, but the juxtaposition tells us volumes about all the characters and their relationship. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Sanjuro to be lounging, sleeping, or very relaxed while the noblemen fritter about, accomplishing nothing – he’s nearly always presented in the frame as separate from them, the de facto leader, but ultimately a loner. Later, when the enemies have captured him, he’s tied to a rock in the foreground while his captors worry in the background – even when he’s tied up and they have swords drawn on him, he seems to be in control of the situation. Kurosawa is a master of composition, and even in this fairly light entertainment, every shot is carefully composed, whether using deep focus like the shots described above, or the more flat plane of focus that he often employs when Sanjuro is dealing with captain of the guard Muroto, a much more equal relationship.
Muroto sees Sanjuro fighting on behalf of the clansmen, but offers him a job if he ever wants to switch sides – he clearly values Sanjuro’s skill and I suppose doesn’t think well enough of the noblemen to think Sanjuro has much reason to be loyal to them. There’s a mutual respect between the two men that plays out all the way to the end (which also features the most shocking display of violence in the film, which is otherwise pretty tame despite all the fighting). It sort of reminded me of the relationship between the two noblemen in Grand Illusion, Erich von Stroheim’s German prison commander and the French nobleman he holds prisoner but feels a kinship with – this bond between soldiers who relate to each other because of birth or blood or skill despite being on opposite sides fascinates me in many WWI narratives, and I can definitely see a parallel to that in the samurai films I’ve seen.
I’m not sure what to make of it, but I did find it interesting that Sanjuro seems to have issues with women – not necessarily misogynist, but every time the women were in the room, he was visibly uncomfotable. It was the only time he seemed out of his element and not in charge of everything. Is that just a character trait of his, or does it speak to deeper themes in the film or in Japanese society? I will save that question for a rewatch, but feel free to weigh in if you have thoughts. I will say that even though the women seem a bit flighty in the film, they do inspire a major portion of the plan that leads to victory.
As I’d hoped, Sanjuro was an easy film to love after I got over my initial confusion and just focused on Mifune, which he makes very easy to do. The real test of my ability to enjoy Japanese cinema will come when I make another attempt at Tokyo Story later this year.
My Souvenir: Near the end of the film Sanjuro lays a trap for the superintendent and his men, telling them he knows where to find the clansmen holed up. When the superintendent and his soldiers all ride out, the clansmen watch them go and then yell and do a happy dance. They’re supposed to be laying low, though, so one of them shushes the rest. Then they do a silent happy dance, and it’s unexpected and HILARIOUS. These men aren’t smart, but they have been pretty single-mindedly serious about their goals, and it’s awesome to see them so delighted that they can’t help but dance around like fools.