"A truly good movie is really enjoyable, too. There's nothing complicated about it. A truly good movie is interesting and easy to understand."
-- Akira Kurosawa
After the widespread popular response to Yojimbo, Toho Studios commissioned Kurosawa for a sequel, so the master director re-worked a previously disgarded screenplay for Peaceful Days to change the protagonist into the skilled swordsman and humorous Mifune character of the 1961 blockbuster hit. Eschewing much of the darker wit and social commentary of its predecessor, the result was the much lighter and funnier samurai film, Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjûrô). For escapist fare, this ranks highly. Despite fewer sword fights that its predecessor, Sanjuro turns into a whirling dervish of a killing machine, felling 29 warriors during its 96 minute run time.
Toshiro Mifune reprises his homeless ronin character once more—a kinder, gentler, slightly less cynical and more playful samurai this time around. He also varies his name from "Kuwabatake Sanjuro" (30 year old mulberry field) to "Tsubaki Sanjuro" (30 year old camellia) after gazing out the window at the white and red flowers; he then quips that he's actually going on 40 now. He's softened a bit by the Chamberlain's wife (Irie Takao), a pacifist who gently encourages him to tone down his violence: "Killing people is a bad habit . . . You're like a drawn sword . . . but good swords are kept in their sheaths."
Sanjuro most directly contrasts with the 9 youthful samurai, earnest yet foolish "9 headed centipede" (so called because of their collective behavior that visually resembles the movement of the anthropod). We are thrust immediately into their midst as the film starts; they discuss widespread corruption within their clan and decide to enlist the help of the local superintendent to expose their chamberlain. Yawning and stretching, Sanjuro strolls into the room and counters what he has overheard. He predicts that they have it all ass-backwards, and that the superintendent is the guy they shouldn't be trusting; in fact, he tells them that he suspects that they have set themselves up for a trap.
It turns out that Sanjuro is correct, and the superintendent's men have surrounded the samurai shrine. Sanjuro instructs the impetuous 9 samurai to hide beneath the flooring while he handles the enemy. He dispatches waves of attackers so skillfully that the enemy head thug Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai) offers Sanjuro employment as a bodyguard. The 9 inexperienced samurai offer heartfelt gratitude, but Sanjuro dispassionately states that money would be better—and he agrees to continue protect them in exchange for rice, sake, and a place to sleep. Sanjuro certainly doesn't strike his "adopted" charges as prototypical: he's like an animalistic Stanley Kowalski of the samurai world. He slouches, grouses, scratches, and naps continually between bouts. Despite his slovenly behavior, almost nothing gets past him when it comes to battle strategy, and he constantly saves the impetuous young idealists from disaster.
The only time that Sanjuro's plan fails is due to his own bluster. Only one of the 9 fully trusts him, so they fail to recognize a ploy and think he is deserting them. This requires some creative thinking on Sanjuro's part as well as more body slicing.
Of course, we all expect a final showdown with Sanjuro's equal, and are rewarded with one of Kurosawa's most intense encounters near the end. Most striking for its economy and quietude, the scene literally erupts with an unexpected gush of blood (caused by a fortunate technical glitch with a compressor pump). Given the tone of the film, this forms a virtually perfect denouement, capped off with our hero twitching his shoulder one last time as he heads down the road for his next adventure.
Beautifully photographed for the widescreen, Sanjuro has received an upgraded Criterion DVD treatment that includes a 35-minute background documentary and insightful commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince. The background film describes the painstaking details that Kurosawa demanded to get just the right effect for the camelias—requiring 15,000 blossoms to be hand painted and both flowers and leaves be individually glued for each day's shooting. The humorous tone of the film automatically makes most viewers (and critics) assume that the primary mission is pure entertainment—not that there's anything wrong with that. Going by Kurosawa's definition, that makes Sanjuro a "truly good movie," and considering how Sergio Leone borrows so heavily from this film and from Yojimbo to create a new kind of western anti-hero —it makes both of these films indespensible.