While it is indeed a sequel to Yojimbo, Sanjuro feels more like another story about the character of Sanjuro than a sequel; as if the ronin wandered all his life and helped those in need and this is simply another of his “adventures.” Consequently, there’s not an awful lot to say, I must admit, though I’ll see what I can do.
As I say that, don’t get me wrong. This is a great film, perhaps even more tight than its predecessor; we have instead of two warring gangs, the issue of corruption within a clan government. The truly corrupt have duped some well-meaning young men into believing that their chamberlain (as Criterion translates it, I wasn’t paying enough attention to single out the Japanese term)–uncle to one of them, no less–is the actual corrupt official. Sanjuro stumbles confidently in when they’ve reached this erroneous conclusion and logically points them to the truth of the matter. From then on it is a battle to regain the chamberlain himself, and for Sanjuro to teach something to these hot-headed, impulsive young fools. Repeatedly they ignore and contradict what he asks or tells them, usually to disastrous effect.
However, this time we have Sanjuro himself learning a little something from the wife of the chamberlain when they find her; she tells him that he glistens like an unsheathed sword, and he, for one of the few times in both films, does not seem to be on top of things. “Glisten? Unsheathed sword?”–he questions both of her statements, and she explains that the best sword is sheathed, and constantly encourages him not to kill (which we saw he had few qualms about in the prior film). She’s not entirely successful, but we see the idea begin to take root in Sanjuro’s approach to life and problems.
Returning as Sanjuro is–and who would doubt it?–Toshiro Mifune, once again brilliantly swaggering and self-confident as the wily ronin, constantly ahead of the game with everyone, immensely skilled as a swordsman and filled with those same amusingly bored affectations of rolling shoulders, chest-scratching and chin-rubbing. He faces off this time against the wit of…well, what do you know? Tatsuya Nakadai again, this time playing swordsman Muroto. Muroto is by no means a similar character to Unosuke in Yojimbo, this time a hollow-eyed and cold-blooded killer, with none of the energy or “charm” of his previous character. He’s a little less rounded, but the shorter running time allows for that, and this is not about characters overall anyway, but about an adventure, an amusing story and about Sanjuro, if anyone. Also re-appearing is Takashi Shimura, again in a sadly small role, again as a rather nervous and bumbling politician. Once again we see that, while they may make plans, it seems the heads of these groups inevitably fall behind their clever musclemen (Nakadai in both cases) as real threats, turning to them in any situation that contains some element of danger. Perhaps this is related to Kurosawa’s socialist beliefs…?
Some shots were worth noting on their own through the film; very early we see an extreme closeup on Mifune as he shifts from bored, justifiably arrogant truth-teller to sharp-minded samurai, and it brings to mind the work of Sergio Leoné, which is–as I hope my readers realize by now–thoroughly appropriate, since these two films were the eventual basis for A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. It wasn’t the long study of a face, but it held that same level of detail and sharpness, and the contrast with the generally wider shots that made up the rest of the film. The landscape shots were also fantastic, the stream that bore camellia flowers downstream was absolutely beautiful, as were the shots of those blossoms travelling cheerfully down said stream.
And one other shot worth mentioning–the final confrontation between Sanjuro and Muroto. Hooowee. That was quite a scene. You can tell that even the wildlife is captivated by this standoff–also recalling Leoné and his own extended faceoffs–as even the birds stop chirping to watch these two professional killers dare each other to draw.
A worthy follow up, and worth noting for being of the more purely entertaining of Kurosawa’s films.