Two Samurai Films by Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune
Studio: Toho/The Criterion Collection (2 discs)
Video: 2.35:1 Letterboxed for 16:9 display, B&W (some extras color)
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 mono & 3.0-channel Perspecta with simulated stereo effects, Japanese
Extras: Audio commentaries by film historian and Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince; Documentaries on the making of Yojimbo and Sanjuro, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: “It is Wonderful to Create”; Theatrical trailers and teasers; Stills galleries;New and Improved English subtitles; Printed booklets featuring essays by Alexander Sesonske and Michael Sragow and notes and statements from Kurosawa and his cast and crew, plus photos.
Length (features only): 110 minutes; 96 minutes
After revisiting Criterion’s lavish package on Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai recently
I had to encore my Kurosawa-san-appreciation by viewing these two more normal-length films, which I had never seen before. The magnificent Mifune as the masterless samurai Sanjuro was such a big hit with Japanese audiences in the first of these films that a sequel the next year was a no-brainer. It is not your typical sequel, and as a matter of fact Kurosawa’s approach in all three of these films was a very creative and imaginative opposition to most of the clichés of the standard samurai film. One of the other DVD sites has these two films listed under the categories Drama, Action, Crime & Thriller. Well, I suppose it fits all of those, but the special concerns of Kurosawa’s samurai films are not so easily categorized. I found the commentaries by Stephen Prince much more interesting and useful than most continuous commentary options on DVDs. The excellent subtitles made it easy to follow the film with the commentary, although one then misses the music by Masaru Sato as well as the clever use of sound effects.
Yojimbo means bodyguard, and the basic situation isn’t that different from a Hollywood Western, which Kurosawa loved. (Sergio Leone later copied Yojimbo nearly shot for shot in his first spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars.) Mifune plays a rag-tag wandering samurai coming into a country village in 19th century Japan. (The details of constructing the studio set for the village is a fascinating feature in the extras.) His patented frequent shoulder-shrugging (quite different from French shoulder-shrugging!) was designed to reveal that his character had fleas, and the movements show his itchiness. At the inn in the town he finds that the place is divided between two warring gangster gangs, and he cleverly plays them off against one other. Each wants to hire him for their side due to his demonstrated fearless swordsmanship. One of them – Unosuke – leaves the town and returns with a revolver, which complicates the balance of power. There is a wonderful scene with Sanjuro sitting high on an elevated tower looking down and laughing as he watches the two gangster bands daring one another on the main street.
Sanjuro saves an abducted wife held by one of the bands and reunites her with her husband and son. He is then captured and horribly beaten by Unosuke. Sanjuro escapes and later massacres most of the group. However, Unosuke escapes and abducts the innkeeper where Sanjuro has been staying. So the finale is a very Western-like confrontation between Sanjuro and Unosuke. As expected, the pistol offers the baddie no advantage at all.
Sanjuro seems to take place after Yojimbo, but there are differences in the character played by Mifune. He is still scruffy and jaded about all the accepted samurai rules and lifestyle, but he seems to be realizing that violence and killing may not always be the best solution. While complaining, he still tries to follow the advice of an aristocratic wife and her daughter who are suffering from the actions of the corrupt Superintendent of the castle town. She advocates cleverness instead of killing. Sanjuro has become the unintended leader of a band of idealistic young samurai who strive to clean up the town’s corruption. Sanjuro’s world-weariness is a befuddling contrast to the strict, uptight noble warrior concept of the young men. One shot of the group shows this visually: all the young men are sitting stiffly and looking concerned, while Sanjuro is stretched out and relaxed, leaning on one arm with his back to us.
Sanjuro the film is lighter and more humorous than Yojimbo, although there is plenty of swordplay and the final confrontation with the leader of the superintendent’s army results in an absurd fountain-like blood gusher (really chocolate syrup). (The scene started a trend in violent movies, but Kurosawa didn’t use it again.) With the step option on the remote, one sees that Sanjuro’s sword actually never touches the body of his adversary, but slices the air to the left of him. Film critic Michael Sragow sums up the differences between the two films: “In Yojimbo he’s the perfect man to clean up a town filled with homicidal grotesques…in Sanjuro, he’s a Japanese bull in a china shop.”
Criterion’s hi-def transfer is superb, as usual. There is never any noticeable dirt or scratches and the beautiful black & white cinematography has a fine depth – except when Kurosawa deliberately foreshortens it using long telephoto lenses for effect (such as a band of samurai in full regalia rushing toward the viewer but looking like they’re running in place, due to the telephoto). I was surprised to see several unintended lens flares during Sanjuro, but until this Criterion restoration they would probably not have even been noticed in previous DVD releases. The restored Perspecta stereo three-channel track was an interesting alternative; the restorers used a vintage Perspecta decoder before re-encoding for Dolby Digital. It was superior to the Dolby mono, which defaults to the center channel speaker only, and my AV preamp refuses to allow me to feed the two mono channels to my larger and better-sounding left and right-channel speakers.
– John Sunier