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.