Thursday, May 16, 2024

Kurosawa Watch: Sanjuro (1962)

Watched:  05/16/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Akira Kurosawa

Well, I watched Kurosawa's follow up to Yojimbo.  Sanjuro (1962).  

The movie sees the return of Toshiro Mifumbe as the nameless ronin - who takes on the name "Sanjuro" so folks aren't calling him "my guy".  

He's stumbled this time upon a group of nine samurai who have found corruption within the clan, but targeted the wrong guy as the source of the problem, ratting him out to the actual source of the problem.  They're about to get killed by said bad-guy when "Sanjuro" steps in, saves their skins, and joins their cause.

Look, Yojimbo was lightning in a bottle.  It felt like a western in its way, introduced the nameless ronin, and - structurally - lays the groundwork for a lot of what's to come.  Following up with a sequel by rejiggering a movie in pre-production to include the lead from the last movie was always going to be a little dodgy.  

So, it's not that Sanjuro isn't a good movie - it clearly is.  It's just not Yojimbo.  It's the difference between how an A+ feels versus a B+.  You don't get many A+'s.

In its way, it feels more like when you read a Wikipedia entry on mythology.  There's a very specific number of honorable samurai, how they outwit the villains reads like Aesop.  But it also feels completely modern with some of the characters, from Sanjuro to the Chamberlain's wife, and especially with Hanbei, the ronin on the other side of the equation (played by Tatsuya Nakadai who was also in Yojimbo as a different character - because that's how Toho rolls). 

Aesthetically, this movie just isn't as visually appealing as Yojimbo, and I'm not sure why that would be true.  Maybe the sets weren't built to suit in the same way, maybe there wasn't time.  Or a wind machine.  

What the movie does do is place Sanjuro into a situation where he's fighting the naivete of his allies as much as he's fighting the ruthless enemy.  Without him, from the first moments of the film, they would be dead.  And even as the movie ends, it's unclear if they understand what he has tried to impart as someone who can see all the angles.  Further, the movie pushes back a bit on seeing Sanjuro as terribly romantic - the wife of the Chamberlain rightfully points out "you don't get to live like other people" which is absolutely now a staple of anti-hero movies.

I mentioned in my Yojimbo post that samurai movies can feel like "action movies which are acceptable to film snobs".  And that's true by reputation of the Kurosawa films, but the why of that is a little curious.  Mostly I think folks aren't exposed to these movies until they're young adults or older, and they're not-American, which carries no small amount of weight in film snob circles.  Until recent years, we didn't tend to have access to films from Japan or elsewhere that weren't already pretty good.   Pair that with the notion that samurai movies aren't weighed down with the cultural baggage we can place on American action movies (or, especially Westerns) as less-than, often missing or dismissing some interesting stuff, while acknowledging it in international film, and the result is that these movies were seen as high-brow entertainment.*  Which is both dismissing the popular nature of something like Yojimbo, that has colorful characters and a good story along with the action, and does a disservice to the film snob who thinks, somehow, all action movies are alike.  Or even that all comic book IP movies are alike - which is demonstrably a lazy viewpoint.
I'll be moving on to Hidden Fortress, but I have another movie or two to slip in here.  But this has been a rewarding detour into samurai-land.

*look, not ALL action movies are good, obviously, but some are!  And if you actually watch Westerns, you know it's more of a setting than a dictator of plot

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