Sanjuro Review

One of the biggest hits in Akira Kurosawa's film career was 1961's Yojimbo, the genre smasher with Toshiro Mifune's instantly legendary performance as Sanjuro, that shambling and bedraggled ronin who roams the countryside looking for food, shelter, and cash for anyone who will pay him to kill. So successful was Yojimbo that Kurosawa's studio prevailed upon him to rework a script he had been working on, turning it into a Mifune vehicle with Mifune reprising his role as Sanjuro. And within a few months it was written, shot, and in the theaters. The result of this rush job by Kurosawa was Sanjuro -- a quieter, gentler Yojimbo.

The tale involves nine straight-laced, by-the-book, narrow-mined, and lunkheaded young samurai, who want to barrel in and rescue the chamberlain of their clan, being held prisoner by the clan superintendent Kukui (Masao Shimizu). Meeting at a temple to discuss their plans, the samurai are interrupted by loud yawns from the back room. Emerging from his slumber is Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune), and he greets the group scratching and yawning. Admonishing the group, he grumpily tells the innocents, "People aren't what they seem. Be careful. You'll never suspect who the worst are. Be careful." As if on cue, Kukui's army sneaks up on the temple, commanded by canny samurai mercenary Hanbei Muroto (Tetsuya Nakadei). Hiding the nine samurai in the temple floorboards, Sanjuro beats back Moroto's men and grumpily offers to help the boys: "I can't stand by and watch you blunder your way to your deaths." The rest of the film consists of Sanjuro maneuvering Muroto away from his armies so that Sanjuro can wipe out the bad guys in dazzling displays of swordplay, but Moroto returns to the scene.

Sanjuro is very much the refashioned film that seeks to become the first sequel among many by softening and sweetening the atmosphere and characters of Yojimbo into formula. The mood is certainly different in Sanjuro. Wherein Yojimbo the tone is dark, bleak, and apocalyptic with howling winds and raging dusk, in Sanjuro, the film takes place in the blinding sunlight with a jokey, lighthearted tone and the sounds of babbling brooks and chirping nightingales replacing Yojimbo's raging end-of-the-world ambience. But Kurosawa is too smart and radical of a director to jump into the formula ocean over his head, and he plays off audience expectations. Kurosawa has Sanjuro continually sneer at the group of proper samurai and their bushid? code of honor and builds up to a big battle scene at the end only to have the swords come out to hack down camellias in a garden.

Stylistically, Sanjuro is a textbook on widescreen composition. Each shot is composed with an eye to character relationships and visual storytelling. Sanjuro is always creatively grouped in the compositions horizontally or vertically opposed to the nine samurai. (The film's biggest laugh comes when Sanjuro sneaks around to the right side of the frame and the nine samurai follow in a line obediently behind him trailing to frame left and Sanjuro cracks, "We can't move like a centipede!") And in one terrific shot, Sanjuro comes calling on Moroto, and the widescreen lens follows Sanjuro back and then tracks down to ground level as Mikune backs up into the camera as a parade of samurai pass by -- but all that is seen in the frame is the tops of their swords and a large, imposing fortress gate.

Kurosawa saves the best for last. A final confrontation that results in a power hose spray of blood that gushes through the easygoing mood of Sanjuro and brings the film down to the grimy, troubling air of reality. A cold bath for us all.

Aka Tsubaki Sanjûrô.

Swords, knees on the floor.


Facts and Figures

Run time: 96 mins

In Theaters: Tuesday 7th May 1963

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Production compaines: Toho Company

Reviews 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 21

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew


Starring: as Sanjûrô Tsubaki / The ronin, as Hanbei Muroto, Keiju Kobayashi as The Spy, as Iori Izaka, as Chidori, Mutsuta's daughter, as Kurofuji, as Takebayashi, Takako Irie as Mutsuta's wife, Masao Shimizu as Kikui, Yûnosuke Itô as Mutsuta, the Chamberlain, Akira Kubo as Samurai, as Samurai, as Samurai, as Samurai, as Samurai, Sachio Sakai as Samurai