So good, and, as old faithful Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto insists, not simply a sequel to Yojimbo! Rather, a totally different film in tone and style; different in kind and not just in degree – sorry, Stephen Prince. And David Desser, dang it, this is so not a “remake” of Shane! Am thoroughly inclined to take Yoshimoto’s word for it (not that he doesn’t supply evidence) that Sanjuro adheres to genre conventions of the samurai film in a way unlike any of Kurosawa’s other works. This isn’t a “Western” like Yojimbo arguably is. As if to signify that at the get-go, Sanjuro’s first scene is staged at a shrine. Spiritual elements were more or less totally absent from Yojimbo, and though they aren’t prominent in Sanjuro either, this is an interesting early appearance.
These thoughts will try to avoid simply contrasting Sanjuro with Yojimbo, but some of the differences are noteworthy. Consider the first shots of Yojimbo: a mountainous landscape, arid and unpopulated, is quickly overcome with the fierce outline of Toshiro Mifune’s shoulders. The music kicks in immediately as Sanjuro walks to a fork in the road, then throws a stick into the air to see which way it will direct him to go when it lands. In Sanjuro, on the other hand, the first shot looks indoors. The first part of the sequence observes eight samurai (but certainly less than “seven”) in the shrine waiting for the provincial superintendent to arrive as they discuss the crisis of corruption in the region. Eventually, out comes Sanjuro from the shadows of an inner room. He grunts and groans, then crawls like a snarling beast coming out of the cage that was foolishly left open. The character may be the same, but in Sanjuro the viewer already knows who he is. Instead of the film introducing him to us, we watch the film introduce him to new characters.
Also worthy of note in this film is the role of women. Kurosawa has been accused of misogyny, in so many words. This has been leveled against him by those who observe that only one of his films features a woman as the front-and-center main character. True enough, Kazuo Hara in No Regrets for Our Youth is the only main female protagonist in Kurosawa’s films. Sanjuro is a nice example, though, of a film that gives women a voice that the male protagonist heeds. After Sanjuro helps the other samurai rescue the kidnapped chamberlain’s wife and daughter, he sits nearby in the barn and listens bemusedly to the women talk about how comfortable it is to lie down in the hay. A short time later, the group is escaping over a rock wall and the chamberlain’s wife refuses to climb over on account of the breach in propriety that it would constitute. Sanjuro eventually gets down on all fours and orders her to use him as a step to climb over the wall. She gives in and submits, apologizing while stepping on the ronin’s back. Later still, Sanjuro and the samurai are trying to find a way to signal one another to invade the superintendent’s house. Sanjuro says dismissively that he will set it on fire. The chamberlain’s wife and daughter come up with an alternative plan that isn’t so destructive: sending camellias down the stream from one property into another. Sanjuro again acquiesces to the demands of the women.
Aside from the content of the women’s words, however, is their composure and attitude during the crises. They’re quick to forget about the dire situation and talk about lying down in hay, allow decorum to inform their actions rather than survival, and design an aesthetically pleasing strategy for action that avoids unnecessary violence. All the while, the chamberlain’s wife describes Sanjuro as an “unsheathed sword.” She says that a good sword remains in its sheath, but he is too hasty to unsheathe himself and kill others. (Think back to Yojimbo and one must concede some truth to this accusation. In that film, Sanjuro played the townspeople as pawns in a game for his own enjoyment, despite the begging of the bartender not to let more people die.)
Yoshimoto points out the significance of Sanjuro’s answer to the women when they ask Sanjuro his age. In Yojimbo he had answered that question with “Thirty year-old mulberry field” (Kuwabatake Sanjuro). In this film, he replies, “Thirty year-old camellia” (Tsubaki Sanjuro), but, he says, he’s really almost forty years old. The women, then, work together to draw out a sort of confession from Sanjuro: he’s not quite acting his age. Yoshimoto also draws attention to a phrase used twice in the film, once uttered by Sanjuro and once later to him: “Yes, you listen to me well – a good boy.” Despite Sanjuro’s leadership over the incompetent samurai, it’s Sanjuro who needs to emerge from his own lingering youth. The women here are the voice of reason and maturity. They’re not trigger-happy or overly worried about death. They will endure their circumstances with dignity and not sacrificing their scruples, but they will remain strategically savvy at the same time.
The film’s last scene is the most infamous, of course. Sanjuro and Hanbei face off in a duel at Hanbei’s insistence. Sanjuro has attempted to leave the town for good without even confronting the chamberlain whose freedom he restored. Not only is Sanjuro a wandering ronin, but presumably at this point he has plenty of food for thought and is considering the prospect of wizening up. Still, Hanbei feels insulted and demands a duel. After arguing for awhile, Sanjuro finally gives in and kills Hanbei with a geyser blast of blood spraying out of him. Apparently this effect was initially accidental thanks to one of the production crew kinking the blood hose. Kurosawa’s decision to keep the scene in the film, however, sends the message twice as powerfully that violence is an undesirable avenue to reconcile disputes. Sanjuro attempts to remain in his sheathe before this bloody end. His decision to fight creates an ambiguous conclusion to the film. Has Sanjuro learned? Will he go on living as an unsheathed youth or will he grow up?